Why I’m Attempting a Winter SOBO Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

You may just remember me from previous posts on Appalachian Trials such as “My Gear List” (which will be getting a winter update soon) and “Hiking the Colorado Trail with the Red Guy“…

I’ve had a pretty exciting year.

As of this writing, I’ve made my way through 23 states since the beginning of 2015. I’ve hiked roughly 3,500 miles, and more states and miles are on the way soon. I was getting ready to head to North Carolina earlier this month to celebrate a Marine buddy’s nuptials and visit old friends, when an idea forced its way to the front of my brain: A winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

At first I was all, “That sounds crazy,” and that’s because it is a little bit crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to get excited. Like, really excited.

I started hiking at the end of February this year, and I’ve been off the long-distance hiking trail since the end of September. I’ve been on the Florida Trail, Arizona Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Sierra High Route, Wonderland Trail, and Colorado Trail.

I figured having some down time would be great for my body and give me time to spend with friends and family. But after a little over a month, I’ve found myself desiring to be back out there. Deep down there’s a drive in most thru hikers that renders them hopeless against the call for adventure and challenge. Even though a winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was never on my radar until a few weeks ago, it certainly is now. I told myself that I would take the weekend in North Carolina to think it over. By Monday, I already knew what I knew before I left: I am ready to get back out there.

Weather tested, mother approved.

You may be wondering if I have any legitimate winter hiking experience. I don’t, not to this magnitude anyways. I’ve been in the South San Juans in spring after a late snow dump on my thru hike of the Continental Divide Trail last year. While it did require an ice axe, micro spikes, snowshoes, etc, it was not in the dead of winter. There were some sketchy moments at +13,000 feet with storms rolling in, but I know winter condtions can get a lot colder and gnarlier.

Having the right gear and the ability to understand your limits can be the difference between life and death. I recognize the risks and I don’t take them lightly. I have been taking a lot of advice and gear tips from Trauma (who completed his SOBO winter PCT thru hike earlier this year) and Swami (who has logged more miles of hiking world-wide than anybody I know).

snowfall

The goal is simple: be safe, have fun, and experience the AT in a new way. I could sit here and tell you that the goal is to complete the entire AT, and while that is a goal, I don’t want to set any unrealistic expectations for myself. This will be a new experience for me and I will be learning on the fly.

I am used to ultralight backpacking and reeling off large chunks of miles at a time. I have no idea what to expect on this hike. The weather will dictate so much. My pack will be much heavier. I am attempting some new footwear (boots). There will only be 11 hours or less of daylight. I will be completely alone. It will be lonely. It will be cold. It will be really freaking cold. It will be wet and snowy. It will be muddy. It will be difficult. And at times, it will be dangerous.

However, all of that invigorates and excites me. If you set out to do something that you won’t have a problem completing, it can be fun and successful, but will it fill you up as much? Will it mean as much to you? I have been taking on challenges throughout my life, and the ones that push my boundaries are the most rewarding.

After arriving back at my parents from North Carolina, I began to research and get my gear list together. On Thursday, I took a break from the logistics and went out with friends to throw back a few beers before going to see the documentary “Meru“. This was an immensely inspiring film about a group of climbers who set out to complete a first ascent of Meru, a beast of a mountain in the Indian Himalayas. I watched the film with my winter expedition in mind the entire time. I came away excited by the expedition and challenges that lay before me. These climbers defied all odds in so many ways. They did so knowing certain risks. The reward was worth it to them.

I walked into my parents house and poured out what I had just watched. I was not met with the same enthusiasm from my father. I am a 32-year-old man, but he is still my father. He immediately began expressing serious concern about the mission. He knows how dangerous Maine and the White Mountains can be in winter. He cited the number of those who have died on Mt. Washington, that it sees temperatures down to -50 degrees, that it’s home to the strongest gust of wind ever recorded at 231mph, and that it’s regarded as having “the worst weather on the planet.”

I replied in a bit of a backlashing tone, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt so strongly about what I was intending to accomplish that I didn’t take it into consideration that other people might be concerned or worried. I walked away from the conversation having made it clear that I have full confidence in myself, and full confidence in my ability to know what is safe and unsafe. If it means I have to sit in town for a couple days due to inclimate weather, so be it. I can’t blame my parents for being concerned, but I think they now have a better understanding for my desire to challenge myself.

I can’t deny that I have wanted to get back on the Appalachian Trail ever since I first thru hiked it back in 2013. This trail is what started it all for me. Had I never hiked the AT, I would never have started down this path in life. I would still be working a 9-5 somewhere. And I can tell you that that does not complete me inside. So after getting out in the wilderness areas of our nation, in places like New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, I have found that I can really appreciate the joys and challenges of hiking alone and feeling like you have it all to yourself. That is one of the many things that excites me about this trek. After being on the Pacific Crest Trail this year, I found myself back in the crowds of the thru-hiker bubble. I’m as social as the next person and I love meeting new people—that is a big part of why people enjoy the Triple Crown trails. But having just come from the Arizona Trail directly before starting the PCT, I went from running into only a handful of hikers for 800 miles to seeing loads of them on a much regular basis. I didn’t dislike it, but it made the hike different. Being able to experience a world-class trail like the AT with almost no one on it sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I might be slapping this hike together in only two weeks from inception to kickoff, but I know I can do it. Now I just gotta put what I know I can do into action.

I plan to get back into blogging since I will have plenty of dark and cold evenings in my sleeping bag. Going to work on keeping a journal and trying to upload it to my blog every week or whenever I get into town. I have been making calls to various people and hostels in the New England region to make sure I have some support here and there. I know those moments in town are going to be huge for reacharging my mental and physical batteries. I’ll be sharing a lot of my journey here on Appalachian Trials so that I can better help to inspire future winter long distance backpackers and to outline what does or doesn’t work along my journey. There will be many trials and tribulations for me on this one but I know that the juice will be worth the squeeze and I can’t wait to share it all with you.

I plan to hit the trail on December 1st, I hope you’ll join me.  You can follow my updates here as well as on my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Gear nerds: check out my winter thru-hike gear list.

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Comments 15

  • Bob Rogers : Nov 24th

    I have 4 questions:
    1) Are we related? I haven’t thru hiked the A.T. yet but I was just thinking about a winter thru hike today (before you posted).

    2) What are you doing about ice (on the trail)? I have enough winter camping experience that if you put it in a thimble, there would still be room for a swimming pool. That said, I’m fine with snow. But snow, … well, that is a different beast and I don’t like walking on it. The cheapy crampons are the only ones I’ve ever seen and they just won’t cut the mustard.

    3) What are you doing about ice (coating the tent)? I dislike putting away a tent when it’s raining because of the leaf clutter, mold, etc. but if you try to fold a frozen tent, bad things will happen. I get all kinds of condensation in my 3 season tent. I hope 4 season tents are better.

    4) And finally the most important question of them all, what the hell is it you do for a living?!? I want in on it. You’re ALWAYS hiking (I’ve read your other blog) so maybe you don’t have to pay rent but food still isn’t free. I don’t think the rangers would take kindly to taking pot shots at the squirrels.

    Reply
    • The Real Hiking Viking : Nov 25th

      I have 4 answers:

      1) f you have a beard with blonde or red hair in it, we might be!

      2) I have true crampons, ice axe, snow shoes, and microspikes at my disposal. All of it will be coming up to Maine with me and I will bring with me whatever the conditions are calling for. If I feel I won’t need a particular piece for a town or two down the road, I will just bounce it forward. I have done my fair share using all of the above items on the Continental Divide Trail when there was considerable snow at 13,000ft during some exceptionally exposed and sketchy traverses.

      3) I am going to use the shelters as often as possible of course. Condensation and ice will just be something I have to live with when I am forced to set up my shelter.

      4) No taking shots at squirrels, I don’t have that kind of time. I’ve saved well over the years Bob and I make it work. Hopefully someday soon I will be able to monetize what I do beyond having just support for gear.

      Reply
  • Tip Toe : Nov 24th

    You definitely have brass balls my friend! Good for you, I think this is an awesome goal and will be a remarkable journey for you. I’m not sure if you have made your arrangements with Baxter yet but it is a process and it has to be done by mail or in person at the park so you may want to get on that if you haven’t yet (I am in the process of planning a winter trip there for this winter, it’s an exercise in patience). Also, please feel free to reach out to me anytime while in southern Maine or the Whites. My boyfriend and I live 5 minutes from the trail in Gorham, 10 minutes from Pinkham Notch. We both have extensive experience hiking these mountains in winter and would be happy to help you whether it be for advice or for a hot shower and a place to recharge. Best of luck and happy trails! 🙂

    Reply
    • The Real Hiking Viking : Nov 25th

      Tip Toe,

      Thank you for your offer and the information!! I have been in contact with Baxter a few times and have been speaking to a ranger about the arrangements for winter camping and road/mountain access for Katahdin. I am surely figuring this out on the fly but that’s half the fun in the adventure. I would be more than grateful for any and all help/advice when I get down to the Whites. If you wouldn’t mind heading over to my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/therealhikingviking or emailing me [email protected] so we can connect personally I would really appreciate that!! Thanks!! Have a great day and talk soon.

      Jabba

      Reply
  • David : Nov 24th

    Plans for starting at Katahdin? Have you secured a shuttle across the Kennebec?

    Might want to befriend Tip Toe (above). The Whites in January with no hut love? Whew boy!

    Reply
    • The Real Hiking Viking : Nov 25th

      Plans are all happening on the fly David. I am working with a ranger to determine best course of action for a summit of Katahdin. Gonna be a cold one!

      Reply
      • David : Nov 27th

        I hope things pan out for you. Your solo time will be short lived, I feel, as you will be passing early nobos by VA, at least.

        Reply
  • tsommers : Nov 25th

    Fuck yea…Get it. Im looking forward to following your journey.

    Reply
  • Greg : Nov 28th

    I have always been afraid of trying to follow a white blazed trail in a predominantly white environment!! Good Luck and be careful!!

    Reply
  • Alix : Nov 29th

    Good Luck! Excited to read about it as it happens!

    Reply
  • Loy chandler : Dec 22nd

    [email protected]

    Reply
  • Loy chandler : Dec 22nd

    Go in peace. There is security in knowledge but sometimes that could not be enough. Be easy on your father. I don’t even know you and I feel concern. I can’t imagine what your parents feel. Obviously you have had some good preparation which should be paramount. One a lighter note, I share your adventurous spirit and relate with you. I have been very close to death several time because of it. I have been called an adrenaline junky. Keep us posted. Somehow we feel we are sharing this with you even if in a small way.

    Reply
  • Paul Boulay : Aug 12th

    There is a practical issue with the plan: The AT thru-hike is longer than winter. Therefore you will need to decide WHERE you want to be hiking WHEN it is winter. I did it inadvertently THROUGH the winter SOBO in 78-79 – which took me 10 months total, end to end. I started in Aug ’78, intending to race winter south to Springer. I lost that race, finished June ’79. Granted I was slow, started with 86# pack (August!). The point is, decide WHERE you want to be WHEN you are on snow shoes. For me it was southern PA unit south of the Priest, Tye River, VA. I am confident that you will not want to be snowshoeing up and across the North Presidentials or the Franconias. I fortunately scampered across the Whites and made it to Hanover on 10/04/78. The Presis were already iced over by then.
    I agree that the off season on the AT is a quite different experience. There was one period while snowshoeing through Shenandoah NP when I did not see another soul for 10 days. Also don’t worry about stepping on snakes in MD, no mosquitoes, plenty of water(snow), and 1 lb of hot dogs lasts 10 days @ 1 dog/day in your mac & cheese. But boots must by thawed every morning by walking it in, and I probably have neuropathy from that.
    Best of luck.

    Reply
    • Thomas Gathman : Aug 12th

      Paul thanks for the comment. That’s pretty awesome doing it back in the late 70s. My hats off to you for sure. Fact of the matter is, that I finished on Springer this past April on the 25th. With a start date of December 4th from Baxter State Park, I hit the Presidential Range on about the 7th of January. It was a wild experience and one I won’t soon forget!

      Reply

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