Is a Winter AT Thru-Hike Right for You?
Are you planning an AT thru-hike for next year and wondering if you should start early? I started my successful thru-hike on February 3rd, 2018. A winter start is hard, cold, and not right for everyone. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and allows you to hike NOBO and still miss the crowds. Here’s what I learned on my winter start.
Snow. So much snow.
Let’s start with the bad first. If you start a thru-hike in winter, you need to expect winter weather. I had three straight weeks in March where I saw snow every single day. Snow is beautiful, but it adds a whole other component to an already-difficult adventure. If you start early and hike fast, you are also likely to encounter snow further up the trail. Postholing through the high sections of Vermont and New Hampshire is much less fun than hiking through fluffy powder in the south.
Hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot are all potential problems that are normally non-issues on the AT. Drying gear is impossible when it instantly freezes. Breaking trail through a foot of powder can really slow down your mileage, and white blazes blend in with snow, making navigation a challenge. However, I can’t emphasize enough just how beautiful the AT is in the snow. I was really worried about the Virginia blues and being bored on the southern AT. The snow added enough of a challenge that this turned into one of my favorite sections.
You need winter gear.
A twenty-degree sleeping bag just isn’t going to cut it when temperatures dip into the teens. Winter gear is heavier and more expensive, which can really burn a hole in your budget. I hiked with a five-degree sleeping bag, down booties, and Kahtoola microspikes, none of which is standard AT thru-hike gear.
Town time adds up.
Many people who start early find themselves spending more time in town to wait out storms. If you start with appropriate gear, you can avoid this to some extent. The south is also much cheaper for town stops, so it is fairly easy to balance this by spending less time in hostels in the north. However, budgeting for extra time in town at the beginning of your hike is wise.
Experience is helpful.
I found I had a fairly easy time dealing with the cold because this was not my first thru-hike. I knew I could hammer out a marathon day to get into town before a snowstorm started, and I was not worried about navigation issues. Fitness and more advanced skills definitely made my hike a lot easier, but many people who started at the same time as me and completed their hikes had never thru-hiked before.
This is the point that made an early start 100% worth it for me. The AT is known for being overcrowded at the beginning of the NOBO season. I had no interest in being part of the bubble. The ATC recommends a flip-flop hike to reduce impact on the trail, but Katahdin is a spectacular place to finish a thru-hike, and waiting until April to start didn’t fit with my schedule. By starting early, I never struggled to find space in a shelter, sometimes had hostels to myself, and had an amazing experience. There were always a few other thru-hikers around, and plenty of section hikers, so I was never lonely, but I could always find the solitude that I wanted.
You can have an eight-month thru-hike.
Are you worried about finishing your thru-hike in time? If you’re not a fast hiker and don’t want to have to flip, starting early gives you plenty of time to reach Katahdin before it snows. Many other early starters knew that they would have to get off trail for a while in the summer for family celebrations or jobs. Starting early gave them enough time to do a large part of the trail, leave and return, and then still finish before October.
No leaves means more views.
When you’re chasing spring up the trail, views aren’t limited just to overlooks. I didn’t experience the green tunnel until Vermont. The AT is a beautiful trail and I really enjoyed getting to see more of it.
No one should hike just to receive trail magic, but plenty of people warned me not to expect any. True, I didn’t come across any people handing out burgers and beers in parking lots, but the trail magic I did receive was much more personal and specific to me. Strangers invited me into their homes to wait out snowstorms or helped me slackpack through challenging sections. I chatted with a man at breakfast, and he tracked me down at lunch with a bag of fast food. I’ve never felt more like a rock star than when someone came up to me in town with food because “you’re the first thru-hiker I’ve seen this year!” You won’t get coolers filled with food on the side of the trail (which are bad Leave No Trace anyway), but if you start early, you will absolutely still receive trail magic.
Tips for Success
Succeeding at an early-season thru-hike is as simple as being prepared. Starting with winter gear will mean that you don’t drop several hundred dollars replacing your sleeping bag when you find out it isn’t warm enough. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to bail to town if the weather is worse than you’re comfortable with. Slackpacking can be a useful tool to make miles and still warm up at night, but costs can add up if you spend a lot of time in town.
Learning some basics of winter camping will help if you find yourself in winter weather. Learn how to keep your water from freezing, either by keeping it close to you, or insulating it. Figure out what foods are inedible if they are frozen. Put your Clif bars in an inside pocket an hour before you want to eat them so you don’t break your teeth. Sleep with your electronics, and keep your phone warm if you use it for navigation (but also be prepared with a map, since cold kills phones). Unless you’re extremely unlucky and hike in a high snow year, it’s unlikely that you’ll have more than a few weeks of snow. However, being prepared could make the difference between finishing your thru-hike or not.
Starting an AT thru-hike in the winter certainly is not for everyone. But if you’re willing to deal with poor weather at the beginning of your hike, it can help you avoid the bubble and find solitude on an often busy trail.
Featured image: graphic design by Sophie Gerry.
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