The Truth Behind 9 Common Appalachian Trail Myths

Whether you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail, are in the planning stages, or simply dreaming, chances are you’ve heard a lot of “facts” about the AT that may or may not be true. Here are nine common AT myths, along with verdicts on how true they are, according to the following Pop-Tart™-o-Meter:

AT Myth #1: With the right gear, you can stay dry

Pure despair. Photo: Maggie Slepian

Unless it’s an unusual year, the AT is one wet trail from top to bottom.

The average monthly precipitation for three southern cities on or near the trail (Blairsville, GA; Franklin, NC; and Hot Springs, NC) from March-May is 4.3 inches, with an average of 10.77 days of rain per month. From Northern Virginia through Pennsylvania, the average monthly rainfall for March-May is a drop under 4 inches, with 9.67 days of rain per month. On Mount Washington, NH, you can expect an average of 7.7 inches and 16 days of rain per month from July-September. In Maine, count on 3.85 inches and about 12 days of rain per month from July-September. (You can find these stats at WeatherBase.com.)

If your rain gear keeps you dry beyond 20 or 30 minutes in a downpour, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll be wet, and not just because of the rain, but also your body. Virtually everyone sweats profusely slogging up and down the AT’s notoriously steep climbs while wearing rain gear. Doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a $600 jacket, the equation is the same: Rain outside + sweat inside = soaked through. Some models and materials will vent better than others, but you will end up wetting out.

So, what to do? In colder weather, many hikers wear materials that insulate even when wet, such as merino wool, and use “rain” gear to shield against wind. In warmer weather, many hikers don’t even bother with suiting up. They walk through the rain and dry out when the storm passes.

Verdict: Somewhat bogus

 

 

AT Myth #2: Bears are a major danger

Two Bears in a tree

Hikers must always be bear-smart, but bear dangers are often exaggerated. Photo: appalachianbearrescue.org

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are active in all 14 states traversed by the trail.

As much for the bears’ protection as the hikers’—bears habituated to humans are often killed—the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends that hikers carry food in a bear-resistant container approved by the International Grizzly Bear Committee.

Most hikers don’t find that necessary. Many places along the trail feature lines, poles, or bear boxes to protect food. Smart hikers cook away from sleeping areas, secure their food, and leash their dogs. One study of black-bear attacks on humans found that more than half involved an off-leash dog.

Bear attacks on AT hikers remarkably rare. Four fatal attacks have occurred in AT states since 2000, but all were more than ten miles from the actual trail. And in 2018, according to the ATC, there were no serious bear attacks on humans on the trail. I won’t count the bruin who collapsed a tent with a person inside; no injuries, and the bear was after chow, not the hiker. However, there were seven incidents of bears snatching poorly secured food bags, and four shelters were closed in Virginia and Tennessee due to bear activity.

Verdict: Old hiker’s tale (but still, be smarter than the average bear)

 

 

AT Myth #3: Virginia is flat

james river valley appalachian trail clay bonnyman evans

Looking back on the James River Valley, VA. Does this look flat to you? Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans

AT hikers who feel gut-punched by the difficulty of the trail in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee often take comfort in this oddly persistent myth. Finally, many think, my legs are going to get a break.

Ah, sorry, but no.

One statistically minded hiker over at WhiteBlaze.net decided to calculate the average elevation gain per mile, both NOBO and SOBO, from Georgia to Maine. This was 2011—the numbers have changed since then, but not by much. Here’s what he found:

Average NOBO elevation gain per mile, Georgia-Tennessee: 274.6 feet

Average NOBO elevation gain per mile, Virginia: 248.8 feet

Over a 15-mile day, that’s a mere 325 feet less climbing in VA than in GA-TN… or 21 feet per mile. And Virginia offers many famously un-flat slogs, such as the Priest and Mount Rogers, and lots of SPUDs (Seemingly Pointless Ups and Downs).

Yes, many hikers rack up bigger miles in Virginia, especially up north where overall elevation drops. But calling it flat is a flat-out lie.

Verdict: Mythguided nonsense

Zero Pop-Tarts™

AT Myth #4: Pennsylvania is rocky

Bid farewell to your outsoles. Photo: Becky Booroojian

Many a NOBO, brimming with confidence after bashing out big miles across Northern Virginia and Maryland, reaches Duncannon, PA, only to declare that all the oogie-boogie tales they’ve heard about Rocksylvania are clearly hiker hyperbole.

And why not? Southern Pennsylvania features lovely meanders through farm fields and gentle forest terrain, with fewer rocks than the ridges of Maryland.

Many SOBOs, having endured the crazy roots, rocks, and boulders of New England and Maine—not to mention New Jersey and New York—want to dismiss Pennsylvania’s rocks as child’s play. But they’re wrong; or maybe they’re just trying to be badasses.

Because beyond Duncannon, the trail is a rocky mess. Day in, day out, all the way to Delaware Water Gap. On top of that, it’s mostly one long, green tunnel, and if you pass through in high summer, the heat and humidity can be brutal: the average dew point in nearby Harrisburg in July is 63 (“becoming oppressive,” per the National Weather Service) and the average high temperature is more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, there are ticks: Read this Lyme disease incidence map and weep. All of which adds up to make PA rocks even more insufferable.

In truth, SOBOs are right: Most of the trail north of PA is pretty rocky. But Penns(hell)vania rocks slow even the fastest hikers, blow out shoes, and grind up lots of feet. There’s a reason why more than 60 percent of respondents to The Trek’s 2018 AT hiker survey judged that Northern Pennsylvania is the most difficult part of the AT outside of Maine and New Hampshire.

Verdict: Believe it

 

 

AT Myth #5: Cattle are scary, especially bulls

Trail legends abound of hikers being chased by cattle while traipsing across otherwise bucolic pastures. It’s true that cattle cause around 20 deaths each year in the United States, but those are almost always farmworkers.

Many people assume bulls are aggressive, but they are generally quite lazy and ignore people. Exception: If you ever see two bulls fighting, get away… fast. The victor usually drives the loser away, and both 1,800-pound beasts will be blind to where they’re charging.

In reality, the most dangerous place to be when it comes to cattle is between a mother and her newborn calf. Cows are often stressed after giving birth, and won’t hesitate to run right over any threat to a wobbly new baby. Cattle are by and large timid creatures. If a group approaches you, they’re just curious. If they make you nervous, stop, face them, and holler like a cowboy in an old TV show — Fffft-yah! — or just blow ‘em a big ol’ raspberry. They’ll turn tail, guaranteed.

Above information courtesy of the author’s seven years working as a cowboy in the West.

Verdict: Old hiker’s tale (but never come between a cow and her newborn calf or fighting bulls!)

 

 

AT Myth #6: Women shouldn’t hike alone

ana christina de la torre appalachian trail

Strong women on the AT—it’s a thing. Here, Kaleidoscope catches a view in New Hampshire. Photo: Ana Cristina de la Torre.

Just about every woman who has decided to hike the trail must endure advice from family, friends, and perfect strangers who can’t believe that such a delicate li’l flower would walk the trail alone or—the horror—without a man by her side.

As thousands of women who have hiked the AT can attest, that’s just ignorance of the trail and foolish sexism.

Exhibit A: Unless you’re hiking in the offseason, there will be plenty of people around, the majority friendly and supportive. In-season, hiking alone is a rarity.

Exhibit B: Most hikers end up joining trail families, often made up of both male and female hikers. Of the respondents to The Trek’s 2018 AT survey, 54 percent of hikers identified as men, 44 percent as women, and 1.6 percent identified as non-binary. About 75 percent started solo, but just 25 percent finished alone. About 8 percent started hiking with a significant other (good news for couples: almost all finished together!); of the 12 percent who started with an “old friend,” only a third finished together.

Exhibit C: According to the ATC, a third of AT thru-hikers in 2018 were women, compared to just 15 percent “over the trail’s first several decades.” But anecdotally, many hikers—including many men—report the percentage of women who finish the AT is about double the percentage that begin, from roughly 20-25 percent to 40-50 percent.

Women continually prove themselves every bit as capable as men on the AT. Some of us even think they are intuitively smarter, better long-haul hikers, on average, than men.

Verdict: Mythguided nonsense

Zero Pop-Tarts™

AT Myth #7: New Hampshire and Maine are harder than the rest of the AT put together

mount madison clay bonnyman evans

Yes, New Hampshire and Maine are considerably more challenging than the rest of the AT. Here, the author stands on Mount Madison, with Mount Washington in the background. Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans

According to Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce, author of the first comprehensive AT guide, when NOBOs reach Hanover, NH, they’ve done 80 percent of the miles, but only 50 percent of the effort.

A little math: 50 percent effort/80 percent miles, 50/80=.675 (GA>VT effort per mile); 50 percent effort/20 percent miles, 50/20=2.5 (NH>ME effort per mile). Taking Wingfoot’s formula literally, the last two states should be 3.7 times harder (2.5/.675=3.7+) than the rest of the trail combined. Call it the Wingfoot Ratio.

Can that be true? Let’s take a look.

The total elevation gain along the 2,190-mile AT is about 520,000 feet. About 120,000 feet comes over the final 440 miles of New Hampshire and Maine, for an average of about 275 feet per mile, while 400,000 is spread out over about 1,750 miles of trail, for 228 feet per mile. Steeper, to be sure, but “only” by 20 percent.

Thanks once again to a dedicated geek at WhiteBlaze.net, we also have some nifty figures for the 25 steepest mile-long segments and 75 steepest half-mile segments of the AT, circa 2006:

  • Of the top 25 steepest miles, 13 are in New Hampshire and ten are in Maine, for 92 percent of the total. The ratio 92/8=11.5 — more than three times the Wingfoot Ratio.
  • Yet of the top 75 steepest half-miles, 26 are in Maine and 22 are in New Hampshire, 64 percent of the total. The ratio 64/36=1.78, about half the Wingfoot Ratio.

But steep isn’t the whole story. The trail up north is frequently little more than scrambling up crazy-steep mountains over boulders, mile after mile of exposed, gnarly roots, and plenty of mud. More than 80 percent of respondents to The Trek’s 2018 AT hiker survey rate the White Mountains and Southern Maine as “most difficult,” and three quarters give the same rating to Baxter State Park (i.e., Katahdin).

Purely by the numbers, the Wingfoot Ratio is hyperbole. That said, those last two states really are in a whole different league from the rest of the trail.

Verdict: Kinda-sorta true (but not literally)

 

 

AT Myth #8: The 100-Mile Wilderness is terrifyingly remote

lake onawa maine clay bonnyman evans

The 100-Mile Wilderness is remote … but not THAT remote. This is Lake Onawa. Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans

In his love-it-or-hate-it bestseller, A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson makes the infamous 100-Mile Wilderness seem like that forest from The Wizard of Oz, full of nightmare-inducing flying monkeys and trees with ghastly faces leering out of the gloom.

It’s “99.7 miles of boreal forest trail without a store, house, telephone or paved road,” he writes. “If something goes wrong in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, you are on your own. You could die of an infected blood blister out there.”

Sure, there are no paved roads … but you can literally have a resupply delivered to you via several dirt roads by several outfits, including the Appalachian Trail Lodge and Shaw’s Hiker Hostel. It’s intermittent, as on the rest of the AT, but you can find phone service from high points, often several times a day. There are shelters (with privies!) and water is abundant.

Heck, some of the best trail magic of my entire 2016 hike came courtesy of two AT alumni who drove right into the middle of Bryson’s “inaccessible” wilderness, and Miss Janet, trail angel extraordinaire, has literally flown in with a pilot friend and landed on a lake… to deliver pizza to hikers.

Feel free to ignore Bryson’s hyperventilating over the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Verdict: Old hiker’s tale

 

 

AT Myth #9: Katahdin closes Oct. 15

katahdin table lands clay bonnyman evans

Baxter Peak, Katahdin, looking back across the Tablelands. Photo: Clay Bonnyman Evans

The mountain is part of, and managed by, Baxter State Park, an unusual public-private entity that hosts some 15 miles of the AT, including the spectacular ascent of Katahdin.

Contrary to a surprisingly common belief among hikers, the mountain does not “close” on Oct. 15. However, camping in the park is restricted after that date, which means hikers must either hike a 20-mile day (ten miles in from Abol Bridge, five miles up Katahdin, five miles down) then exit the park, or shuttle in, hike Katahdin, and shuttle out, in a single day.

Here’s the relevant regulation: “Camping is permitted by reservation only and only in authorized campgrounds and campsites May 15 through October 15, and December 1 through March 31. However, “Hiking or mountain climbing may be restricted at the discretion of the (park) Director” for any reason, including weather.

In other words, the later in the year you get, the more likely the mountain is to be closed on a given day. But provided you have the proper permit, you can climb the mountain any time it is open.

And about that name? Katahdin means “the greatest mountain” in the Penobscot Indian language. So, if you say, “Mount Katahdin,” you’re saying, “Mount the Greatest Mountain” … In other words, no “Mount” required.

Verdict: Somewhat bogus

 

 

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Comments 3

  • FM : Jun 28th

    The author of this article was careful to point out that though Virginia is not flat and has some steep sections, you will rack up some high miles in Virginia. More specifically, I would add, if you were averaging 14 miles a day through GA, NC and TN, you can start to see some easier 20 mile days a couple of days before reaching VA and all the way to Pearisburg (NOBO, SOBO you have a punishing hike up to Angel’s Rest after Pearisburg). But it gets tougher, as he said, in the mid section. The trail starts to ease up in the Shenandoah National Park. I’ve seen some serious old guys with ultralight gear using their time wisely hiking 28 miles a day there. I think the myth VA is flat evolved from the contrasted easing of the trail in VA compared to the first 420 miles.

    Reply
  • FM : Jun 28th

    My memory of PA is, 501 Shelter marked my beginning of sorrows, with lots and lots of close pointy rocks sticking up out of the trail. I blew out a pair of well rubbered boots that I picked up in Roanoke, for wider fit, by the time I got to Delaware Water Gap. Chewed them up and spat them out, those rocks did. A rock plate, insole and good protection around the toes for kicking rocks through the uprights is well advised here. NJ sees better days, but the rocks still come in waves.

    Reply

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