Starting an Appalachian Trail NOBO Thru-Hike in February

Day hiking recently on Georgia’s Blood Mountain, I spotted a SOBO (southbound) thru hiker. Not surprisingly, he didn’t have much to say with the southern terminus fewer than forty miles away. The peak foliage has come and gone in most places along the Appalachian Mountains. Hiking season, for some, seems like it is over, but it will continue for those who brave the cold. Meanwhile, 2016’s NOBO hikers are planning and dreaming. My purpose in writing this particular blog post is to offer my observations concerning the advantages and challenges of a February start for a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail.

March 15 to April 15 generally features the highest volume of NOBO hikers starting out at Springer with dreams of reaching Katahdin almost 2,200 trail miles away. If you have been following the buzz in the AT community recently, you may have noticed some observers cautioning 2016 NOBO hikers to expect problematically high hiker volume in the wake of the film version of Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods. March start dates increase in frequency year after year anyway, some of it a reflection of economics and demographics– the great recession and the retirement of the Baby Boomers have swollen numbers in recent years. Starting in mid to late February may be one way to alleviate the stress March crowds put on the trail. It also gives a slower (often older) person more time to get to Maine.

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It is probably foolish to plan a February start (though I’ve done it twice) because winter weather is always unpredictable, but if you can be flexible and work around the weather, you can pull it off. North Georgia in February can be warm and sunny– or a cold, hard land. Hiking NOBO in 2011, my first eleven days were sunny or without precipitation. I was hiking for over a week in the winter sun thinking, “Gee, this isn’t so bad.” Then the elevation picked up in North Carolina, and the wet stuff happened. Snow, if it is high, makes the trail impassible for most hikers who lack snow shoes. Ice (which is an every day hazard hiking in the winter) can easily slip up a hiker. Cold rain and high winter wind is a recipe for death by hypothermia. A hiker should always be prepared, but a February NOBO start requires extra precaution in deference to the cold.

There really are only two things to do hiking in cold weather: one is to hike; the other is to warm up in your sleeping bag. Winter hiking provides an extended meditation on the mammalian body. You are constantly aware of your body burning its own flesh to stay warm. Moving the body burns more calories, obviously, which provides more heat, so the warmest a hiker can be in cold weather is hiking and capturing that body heat in appropriate clothing. The problem most February starters discover immediately is the lack of sunlight for hiking. Night hiking on frozen trail is not advisable. Short days and long nights means extended time in the sleeping bag. Some people are not mentally prepared to be imprisoned for twelve hours in a sleeping bag.

One trick I learned about sleeping in the cold is to eat a chunk of cheese (or any fatty food) before sleep, so that the slow burning fat will provide fuel for your body all through the night. A sugar bomb at bedtime will burn up quickly and you may wake chilled and hungry. Many foods that melt or go bad in summer, keep better in the winter pack. Winter hiking is all about living in a refrigerator, so you might as well stock it accordingly. Nutella may freeze solid, but hard boiled eggs and cheese make great trail food. Fatty food is also psychologically comforting. Winter hiking is so often uncomfortable, it becomes necessary to maximize the comforts one has at hand.

Speaking of comfort, there is the “problem” of towns. Emerging from a frozen wilderness with windburn and a ravenous, bearlike hunger, it is only inevitable that a hiker will spend more time (and money) in town when the weather gets cold or snowy. A warm bed next to a hot motel heater with a large pizza for one person makes for the memories of a lifetime. Don’t take my word for it. Go freeze your ass off for days, see God of the Grim Reaper’s face on a snow dusted mountainside in a fit of religious delirium, then get warm and eat a pizza in motel bed. Don’t overestimate your fiscal discipline. If you start in the cold weather, you’ll piss your money away on town comforts. Plan and save accordingly.

If hiking the AT in winter is dangerous, uncomfortable and expensive, then why do it? I mentioned the obvious advantage of getting an early start, but a later start will yield higher initial mileage thanks to longer days, so it isn’t much of an advantage. So there must be something else to it, and there is: the woods in winter are simply lovely. Almost every mountain has a great view with the canopy off the ridges. Hoarfrost and icicles, haunting fog and ghostly winter mists, green glowing lichen on black trees; the caw caw of crows, like messages from the land of the dead– the winter forest is a good place for a middle aged person to contemplate and internalize the reality that nothing last for ever and warmth is a function of transitory life. It is good to move the body and to be warm. All of your life you’ve been looking for the big answer, and here you have it. Eat cheese and fill your bag with farts. Merrily, merrily, merrily

A quick rundown of my most important winter gear:

– an Army surplus bivy sack that I use to cover a fifteen degree bag

sleeping bag liner

– athletic tights

– one pair heavy wool socks to be stored in a zip lock and kept completely dry for sleeping only

dry sack for sleeping bag and extra clothes (these double as a pillow)

– I do not carry a fleece jacket.

– chocolate and cheese (which is also the title of a Ween album)

 

Remember that not every year is a good year for a February start. Read everything you can about hypothermia and prevent yourself from being killed by it. Plan ahead but prepare to be flexible with the weather. Keep yourself safe. Don’t be the reason a volunteer rescue crew has to do the work of extracting your frozen corpse; or your broken-leg-assed self. Do have fun. I’m serious. Starting NOBO in February, you’ll have your solitude, but you may bond tightly with the people you’ll meet. You may all end up spooning in a shelter to stay warm. And laugh about it eating pizza in bed later.

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Comments 7

  • Avatar
    Kestrel chick : Nov 11th

    thank you very much for the post! My son and I are planning a Spring 2017 thru-hike and we have been discussing a mid-Feb. start time for the reason of missing the huge crowd start out and allowing us to see the woods in winter time. Your post has given us a lot to think about – thanks!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    kent : Aug 3rd

    Thanks for the post. My greatest problem during cold weather hiking is keeping my hands and feet warm (really my hands, but would like suggestions regarding feet too). Any suggestions?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kristina Williams : Jan 12th

    What’s wrong with fleece?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris : Feb 7th

    Heading to Gainsville, GA. Two day prep (mental and last minute gear/good check), and ill begun NOBO in early Feb. 🙂 thanks for your info; very excited for the potential to spoon with any gender hahaha. Take care.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris : Feb 7th

    Also Chris I’d rather walk to start trail of the AT at Springer, rather than pay some shuttle 50 dollars to take me there; but do city buses or the like go that way? Could always hitch too I suppose; but 40/50 for a shuttle or even more for a taxi; is that amount of money LESS for needed re supply of grub while thru hiking. Cheers –

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Danny Eberhardt : Nov 15th

    Thanks for the info. I’m planning on starting my hike mid Feb. 2018. However depending on how much snow is on the ground I’m going to give myself a two week window.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Danny : Nov 28th

    Awesome info. I’m planning my NOBO hike Mid Feb 2018. However I am going to give myself a two week buffer incase there is too much snow. If you have any other helpful tips feel free to email me.

    Reply

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