The Loner’s Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail
There are a lot of great reasons to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Life is hard, but simple, the nature is varied and gorgeous, it’s a physical and mental challenge with tremendous payoff, you go by a funny new name, you get to eat as many Oreos as you want, and the bragging rights are pretty great. These are all perks that the AT shares with most other long-trails in the world, but there is one major factor that elevates it above even the PCT and CDT — for some at least — while making introverts shudder.
Where the AT distinguishes itself (besides the brutal climbs, rocky tread, and hideous humidity, of course) is with its legendary social scene. Pack a rowdy crowd of weirdos onto a narrow ribbon of dirt, give them a shelter every eight miles, a liquor store every three, and an enthusiastic entourage of trail angels at every road crossing, and it’s a wonder that Burning Man exists at all. Who needs to pay a premium to be dehydrated in the Nevada desert when all it takes is a Jansport and neon short-shorts to join the thru-hiker party on its slow ooze north from Springer?
Obviously, this shameless hyperbole is just that — slightly exaggerated. Or is it? Granted, NOBO life on the AT isn’t a guaranteed festival of unshowered hedonism. There’s plenty of middle-ground when it comes to socializing with fellow hikers, and many lifelong friendships are forged in the crucible of southern Appalachia while observing a sober and downright mundane 9pm bedtime. Start your hike during the peak spring rush and you are bound to meet a lot of very cool people. You might develop an extended trail family dozens deep, or maybe you’ll become an equal partner in a dynamic duo.
Crowds On The AT: Perk or Deterrant?
While some might view the extroverted nature of the AT as a perk, or a feature, others want nothing to do with it. I fall into this category. As an introvert who values solitude and a peaceful environment where I can question the meaning of life and count my farts, the social nature of the AT was actually one of its greatest deterrents.
Aside from a few deep, though short-lived friendships on the PCT, I’ve only formed three lasting relationships in almost a decade of hiking long trails. Sure, one is the love of my life, but I’m lucky that she was persistent, and without her Rooster and Crunchberry would be minor, though important sidenotes lost in the piled others. I’m not out there to make friends. At least that’s what I tell myself. Maybe I’m afraid to try. Maybe I’m too selfish to make compromises. That’s for my therapist to tell me, right?
And I know that I’m not the only one. If you’re a loner like me, then fear not. There are ways to thru-hike the AT that avoid the crush. I happened upon one by accident and tweaked it to perfection. And no, it’s not as simple as hiking SOBO. That poor bunch has the unenviable responsibility of nodding and smiling at thousands of unsolicited-advice-offering, self-aggrandizing, rag-wearing NOBOs. Nope, introverted SOBOs have it rough. Instead, I will always be amazed that I met fewer hikers during my AT NOBO than on any other trail, even a SOBO CDT. Now that’s remarkable, and here’s how to make it happen.
When I checked in at Amacolola on February 17 to start my hike north, I was registered as hiker #252. While that number was surprisingly high considering the season, that really wasn’t a lot of hikers in the scheme of things. And more importantly, I was just one of a dozen or so to start that week (check to see how many hikers are starting each day here).
After pushing hard out of the gate, by the time I made it to Hot Springs, NC (NOBO mile 275) I was pretty much alone. I enjoyed quiet stays as the only hostel guest multiple times, and the trail was virtually devoid of fellow thru-hikers. By Harpers Ferry, I was NOBO #11. By Katahdin, I was #7.
Proximity to the densely populated East keeps the AT well-used year-round. I met plenty of day and section hikers along the way, but I only once found a shelter full (darn you, spring break college trip!). Flip-floppers also kept me on my toes every time I thought I was the only thru-hiker around. Eventually, early SOBOs drove home just how ragged I’d become, but that wasn’t until the 100-mile Wilderness.
In addition to a quieter trail, an early start also gifted me better views through the leafless trees, almost no bugs, cooler temps, and minimal humidity. I also encountered almost zero trail magic, which was perfect. Talking to strangers and taking a break when I have miles to hike causes me huge anxiety. Pair that with the awkwardness of explaining my pesky vegan diet, and that underripe banana ain’t worth the trouble.
READ NEXT —
- 10 Ways to Deal with the Cold if You Start the AT in February
- Is a Winter AT Thru-Hike Right for You?
Similar to the above, a flip-flop thru-hike allows one to avoid the masses. My early start from Springer served its purpose, but I contended with months of frigid temps to make it work as I surfed the frosty edge of Spring northward. My true transition out of winter, I remember it well, came the day I walked into Harpers Ferry. Green leaves, green grass, warm sunshine — so much green!
So what does this mean? If you want to stay clear of the bubble while also avoiding the worst of the cold weather that comes with an early start, then consider beginning your thru-hike somewhere in the middle. Harpers Ferry is a great spot.
This isn’t a revolutionary idea, plenty of hikers already do this and the ATC even recommends it, and it’s a smart way to spread out human impacts on the AT corridor. Hike north, staying ahead of the main NOBO wave, then flip back to Harpers and fall in with the remaining SOBOs after reaching Katahdin. With this specific itinerary, you might be trading icy cold for steamy humidity in the southeast, but that’s better than following a conga line of steaming NOBOs.
And don’t let me or the ATC limit your flip-flopping. Feel free to make your hike your own. This hiker tracker heatmap is a great resource for estimating the location of the NOBO bubble.
The shelter system on the AT is a true wonder. It is also an introvert’s nightmare. What could be more intimidating after a rough day on trail than approaching a group of strangers and asking them for a thin strip of buckled floorboards to fluff your quilt before sitting shoulder to shoulder at a picnic bench while cooking up your ramen?
Nothing, that’s what. Ooooh, the conversations you’ll be dragged into. How do you like your shoes? What’s your preferred method of applying sunscreen? How could you have missed a night at that “must-see” hostel, or skipped the “hands-down, best burger on the trail?” (Spoiler: All burgers are the best burger according to hikers.)
If you hike ahead of the bubble, you will likely find your fair share of empty shelters along the way, especially for a mid-day lunch break. However, I still learned to camp away from shelters and established campsites on days that I truly needed solitude. Shelters and their fire pits are natural gathering places, so if you want to avoid gatherings then avoid shelters. Bonus: You’ll also avoid hearing an endless stream of Wagon Wheel covers.
Serious note: If you avoid camping in high-use areas, please be respectful and follow Leave No Trace principles. Pitch your tent out of sight from the trail, only camp on durable surfaces, pack out everything that you pack in, and leave your site as you found it.
Like shelters, the abundance of towns and resupply options on the AT is remarkable and has the potential to precipitate more superficial interactions than the solitude-seeker has energy to pull off tactfully. Even the most social hiker might eventually find the fast-paced chaos of town existence dizzying after enough time on the trail. However, for them, the nausea is worth it for the movie marathons, motel room pizza parties, and brewery soirées. But if you just want time alone, then there’s no better place than trail.
While trips to the grocery store are required, it is possible to limit the frequency of town visits by leap-frogging unnecessary stops. Sure, this means carrying extra food, but hiking longer sections of trail continuously is the best way to avoid the jarring sensory overloads and crowds of the modern world.
The frequency of resupply options along most of the AT is again unique and enabling in this endeavor. Two three-day sections can be combined into a single five-day push. Supplementing rations at on-trail gas stations can extend the time between visits to full-service supermarkets.
Additionally, planning longer stretches between stops results in fewer headaches caused by arranging shuttle rides, or the inevitable rejection that comes with hitchhiking. Ultimately, visits to town are hectic and draining for the hiker who just wants to be alone. Simpler logistics, simpler mind.
READ NEXT — Appalachian Trail Resupply Points
Avoid Known Vortexes
Not all places to take a break from trail are created equal. Many are notorious hot spots for their social atmosphere, whether that be endless smokeouts, community yoga, or intensely present communal meals. These tend to be some of the most famous establishments along the AT. They are legendary for one reason or another, and hard to miss for someone trying to fully ‘experience’ the AT.
These hostels, as they usually are, might be treasures of the trail, but that doesn’t mean that you’re broken if you don’t jive with their vibe. If you’re not looking for a party, then consider skipping Standing Bear Hostel on the north side of the Smokies. If you are looking for a quiet room and extensive library, then aim for Elmer’s Sunnybank in Hot Springs. Trust your instincts and do what feels right. Forcing yourself to attend a hiker trash rager to check it off your list can easily feel more isolating than spending a quiet night alone, recharging in your own motel room.
Get Up Early, Hike Late, or Both
It’s probably no surprise to read that the quietest times to be hiking are early and late in the day. These are the tender hours, before the mist burns off in the sunshine or when the shadows gather under a deepening ombré of dusty pastels. Even the wildlife knows this, moving quietly in the morning before the first annoying jay cracks open the day with a loud squawk.
Humans like their rest, waking up with the sun, and winding down with the diminishing heat of the day. This leaves hours of prime, quiet trail time available for those willing to hike before breakfast or after dinner. While the AT sees plenty of mile-crushing diehards pushing 10 by 10 every day, the trail is noticeably devoid of day and section hikers outside of the standard 9-5.
If you want peace and quiet during your thru-hike, at least some of the time, then perhaps consider starting your days early or ending them late. Perhaps do both. When most others are still cozy in their quilts or slurping down their hot dinner slop, it’s entirely possible to feel alone on one of the most popular trails in the world.
But For Real, Hikers Are Awesome
Despite how this article may read, I do love hikers. The demography of a long trail, while a little light in diversity, includes a turbid mix of kind, compassionate, interesting, funny, talented, strong, courageous, selfless, and freedom-loving human beings. It is truly an honor to include myself in the ranks of the thru-hiking community, and I am consistently humbled in my interactions with fellow trail enthusiasts.
The connections that we forge during a few days of hiking with someone else might seem fleeting to the outside observer, but we know how profound it is to share a break in the dirt, covered in dirt, eating dirt. A pair can cover a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, during a full day, or just a few hours, and conversations have a tendency to blow through the superficialities and go deep.
In this way, thru-hiking is an introvert’s dream. While hiking, correspondence is limited to just a few people within speaking distance, and a shared passion for the outdoors helps to weave instant common ground and lasting bonds. It’s usually when the walking stops that the party begins and things can get overwhelming.
I don’t need to hate people to covet quiet days and nights in nature. That solitude is what draws me to wild places in the first place so I guard it selfishly. If you’re hopping on the AT looking for a super social experience, then you’ll get it, no problemo. If that’s not your jam, then you might just need to work with intention to carve out your sacred space. But you’ll find it.
The AT Is For Everyone
For some, the hiking culture on the AT is what elevates the experience to lofty heights. To them, it might seem silly to hike from Georgia to Maine without making friends or forming a trail family. However, we all hike for different reasons, and what makes the AT a must-hike for one might be exactly the characteristic that keeps another away.
The narrow stretch of wilderness that runs between Katahdin and Springer is, in short, amazing. There is limitless value to be discovered by testing one’s limits and stretching comfort zones, and ultimately, it is up to each individual to hike their own hike.
If that old cliché includes drinking deep from the goblet of thru-hiker party punch or hours of discussing philosophy around a crackling shelter campfire, then more power to you. If you would prefer to read a book or braid grasses by yourself instead, then don’t sweat the crowds. The AT is for everyone and there is plenty of peace to go around if you know how to find it.
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