A Guide to Thru-Hiking the Long Trail
You’ve been thinking about hiking Vermont’s Long Trail? Maybe you’ve completed the AT and figure “well I already started the Long Trail, so it wouldn’t be too hard to finish it”; or maybe you’ve been thinking about the AT but would like to try a shorter trail on for size first, and what better than the trail that inspired the AT. Whatever your reasoning may be, and no matter how I may have felt about it while I was hiking it, I strongly encourage you to do it.
The Long Trail, built between 1910 and 1930, is approximately 272 miles and runs south to north from the VT/MA border all the way up to the Canadian border, near the small town of North Troy, VT, along the Green Mountain Range. The Southern Terminus has 2 ways to approach: via the AT from Rt 2 in North Adams (3.8 miles), or the Pine Cobble Trail from Pine Cobble Rd in Williamstown (3.3miles). There’s only one approach for the Northern Terminus: the Journey’s End Trail (1.3 miles). It is challenging, muddy, well worn, and absolutely beautiful. You will love to hate it and hate to love it, and grow fond of its quirks. Those badass individuals who can get passed the mud and terrain, and finish the entire length of Trail are called “end-to-enders”.
When to Hike?
The best time to hike the Long Trail is between June and October. Many of the higher peaks are closed between April and Memorial Day because of snow melt and the mud caused by it. This pretty much makes it impossible to have a straightforward thru hike during that time. In June you do run the risk of running into a ton of Black Flies (vicious, evil little buggers), but you will be rewarded with cooler temps, and less hikers; my hike was between May 28th and June 16th– I never had a full shelter, and never had temps above 80 (though we did hit a cold snap just as I got on the LT). In late September/early October more people will be hiking because the temps will be cooler and the leaves will be changing (ah New England in the Autumn at its finest); so you’ll be dealing with more people, but no black flies. The mud, as I understand, is a constant factor – it only “dries up” when it’s frozen under the snow pack. July and August, you’ll have people, heat (though my definition and yours may be completely different), and mud.
NOBO vs. SOBO
The popular way, and truthfully the easier way, to hike the Long Trail is Northbound. Southern Vermont has easier trail and brings you slowly into the tougher stuff. The Southbound way, as with the AT, is less popular but plenty of people still do it, choosing to get the harder trail out of the way first. There are many pros and cons to both directions, and should always be a hiker to hiker decision. When I first decided I was going to hike the Long Trail, I had planned on going SOBO, and “walk home” by continuing on the AT down to Connecticut, so that I would only have to worry about getting up to the Northern Terminus. In the end I decided to go the opposite direction – as many people have pointed it out, I guess I’m a NOBO for life – and I’m glad I did. I got my trail legs back under me and was able to get some 20+ mile days in before I was knocked down by the harder trail. It also meant I had to tell my ride (my parent’s) well in advance when I planned on finishing, so I had to learn how to cope with keeping a timeline; something I hated while I was on the AT.
Guidebooks / Maps
The GMC has a Guide Book for the Long Trail, last updated in 2011. It’s a good resource for distances, explanations of the section, and side trails. This guide is designed for end-to-enders, section hikers AND day hikers, so there is a lot of information in there that end-to-enders don’t really need. I trimmed mine down about 60 pages before even hitting the trail, then realized I still didn’t need half of what I left in there. The elevation profile in the guide book is also pretty much a joke. I found out along the way that, in order to have a full picture of the trail, and towns around the trail, you need 3 items. The GMC also offers a Waterproof Map and the End-to-Ender’s Guide. The waterproof map has a much better elevation profile and the E2E guide has town info, such as hostels, resupply, shuttles, etc. If you’re a tech savvy hiker that doesn’t mind using your phone battery and data, Guthook has an LT app out for Android, which I’ve heard, is pretty good. Maybe we can get AWOL to do an LT Guide? (wink-wink)
You may have heard of the nickname the hiking community has given Vermont – Vermud. If you’ve hiked the AT, you’ll know firsthand what I’m talking about here, and realize that there is no way to get around it. Even if you go later in the summer or early autumn, you will run into mud. When my parents came up to finish the trail with me, the first words out of my mom’s mouth when they got into the shelter we were meeting at were: “I have no idea how you did this, I would’ve given up at the first mucky mud puddle”. And my mom is no sissy – but I also had assumed she remembered about the mud and didn’t caution her against the crocs she has gotten used to hiking in. There will be bog boards where you don’t need them more often than where you really really, really, need them. Your shoes will be constantly covered in mud, and rarely will your feet be dry. You may be thinking to yourself “ha, well then I’ll just make sure I have waterproof shoes”. I strongly caution you against this mentality, for all trails. But that is really a discussion for another time and maybe I’ll get into that in another post. Your feet will be grateful if you follow my advice and do not go with any sort of “waterproof” shoe.
Vermont also has a different definition of “trail maintaining”, there are many sections of the trail that are so well worn it’s nearing the point of dangerous.
There are, however, many ladders (including “Ladder Ravine”) and a few rungs to help you in places – between Mt Ellen and Appalachian Gap, please note the snowshoe trail signs and have a laugh for me. They don’t have many waterbars in place to help with the run off, so you can be walking on the Long Trail River at any time.
I always take that as an opportunity to clean off my shoes and legs. The trail was also built in a time where there was no such thing as a “switch back”, so many times you are going straight up that mountain. Pair that with the mud and lack of proper waterbars, and yeah it can be tough. I’m sure they are working on figuring out how to fix those sections that are in need of help, but between Rt 4 (the Killington/Rutland area) and the Northern Terminus, you will rarely be able to go more than 2 miles an hour.
Along the LT, just as with the AT, you have shelters, but the LT also has what the GMC refers to as Lodges and Camps. These are all unique – as well as many of the shelters – four-sided shelters, or cabins, that have doors and sometimes porches. None are high class with electricity, sadly. Water sources range from pumps and springs to brooks and ponds. Several shelters and lodges along the Trail also have caretakers, which means they require a small fee. Most of those shelters are at or around really popular sites, like Little Rock Pond, Stratton Pond, Mt Mansfield, Mt Abraham, etc. I suppose it would be relatively easy to figure out mileages to not stay at these shelters, but I suggest that you spend the night at at least one. They are all in some beautiful areas, are better maintained shelters, and the small (currently $5) fee helps the trail. I will give you a bit of advice though: even though the GMC states that the caretakers will be there throughout the hiking season (which to me is Memorial Day-Columbus day), I didn’t run into any caretaker’s in VT while I was on the AT in late June in 2014, and I didn’t run into any along the whole LT in 2015.
The Long Trail runs over 3 summits with alpine vegetation, Mt Abraham, Camel’s Hump and Mt Mansfield. These are 3 mountains I encourage you to go over on good days. They have some of the best views on the trail and can be very difficult to hike up/down when wet. I unfortunately had to skip Camel’s Hump because of heavy rain and possible thunderstorms during my hike, and I’ll have to go back in order to get those miles in. From what I’ve learned from other hiker’s, it’s near impossible and not at all safe or fun to do in the rain. That and I want to see the view! Thankfully I hit both Abe and Mansfield on beautiful days, and didn’t have to worry about slipping down the side of those mountains.
The highest elevation on the Trail is Mt Mansfield, at 4393ft, and the lowest is in Jonesville while crossing the Winooski River, at 326ft. There are only 4 peaks that are over 4k, if you don’t count Killington – the trail does not go to the summit, a spur does. Because of how the trail has been laid, you will be going up and down so many mountains, that it’ll feel like there are more.
The Long Trail, while not physically going through many towns, is close enough to several that I was able to only carry 2-3 days’ worth of food at a time. And a lighter pack, means a happier hiker. Because I didn’t know the E2E guide existed until midhike (my prepping skills are wonderful), I had simply googled grocers near specific roads crossings and marked them in my guide. The E2E guide gives you a much better picture of what’s available in towns. I also was only planning on spending one night in a town and figured it be either Manchester Center or Rutland, and I knew what was available in both places already, so I wasn’t worried about finding hostels or hotels.
The trail can be done in 20 days or less, with some stress and no zeros (rest days). I personally did it in 20 with 1 nero (under 8-10 miles), and a bum ankle (I twisted it early on in the hike). Taking no zero’s made that last week and a half of my hike very slow and meant I was popping Vitamin I (Ibuprofen) often. It also meant I wasn’t my happiest trailself.
Your best plan of attack would be 22 days or more, take some time to enjoy the state and the trail. Take a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s in Waterbury, or get a ride into Burlington and check it out.
After finishing your hike, you can let the GMC know you’ve completed the trail by sending in a Certification Application and 10-pages of your Trail Journal. Yes, the GMC requires you to keep a journal, unfortunately, only keeping track of dates, mileages and shelters is not sufficient in their eyes, so make sure you also at least jot down weather and/or wildlife/feelings/people you met. Once the GMC approves your application you will get a certificate, 2 patches, and if you aren’t already a GMC member they’ll throw in a complimentary 1 year membership. Kind of awesome right?
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