7 Ways to Have Fun (and not die) on Vermont’s Long Trail
The Long Trail is North America’s oldest established long-distance hiking trail. It’s a beauty to behold with many a beaver pond and serene lake, ski slopes with gorgeous views, flowing cold rivers, and several bald, rocky summits where you can see the Adirondacks to the west and the White Mountains to the east. It’s also known in the hiking world as one of the most rugged trails to conquer. This past summer my hiking bestie Click! and I decided to hike the whole trail northbound from the top of Massachusetts all the way to the Canadian border. Following are some of the things we would have done differently on our trip as well as things that we were so glad we did. While these suggestions aren’t totally specific to the Long Trail, they would definitely have made this trail a much more enjoyable experience.
1) Allow enough time for rest days
Unless you are an ultramarathoner and you crush miles like you crush a box of Girl Scout cookies, you are going to want to take some rest while tackling this beast of a trail. Early on in our planning we figured a solid 18 days would probably be enough time for us to complete the trail—a 15-mile average per day. It ended up taking us 20 without any rest days (because we had a deadline) and boy did we feel every mile of it. If you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail and you remember the rugged terrain of southern Maine and New Hampshire, then prepare for about 200 miles of that.
Not only is resting important for your brain, feet, and muscles, half of the fun of thru-hiking is being able to eat yourself silly in towns and be a total pile of lazy trash on your nearo or zero days. Also, Vermont is chock-full of super cute little towns with that quaint New England feel. There are a bunch of neat breweries, little cafes, and even the Ben and Jerry’s factory to satisfy your taste buds. We highly recommend checking out some of the great hostels and bed and breakfasts available to hikers and meet the wonderful trail angels that exist in this state. If you want to really get a good taste of what Vermont has to offer, then plan enough days to get the most out of the experience and your feet will also thank you.
2) Trekking poles are a must
Between the rocks, the roots, the vermud, and the 90-degree ups and downs over all of the obstacles just mentioned, you might be crazy if you don’t bring trekking poles. Grabbing onto tree branches to help you up and down is great, but with the amount of slick surfaces you have to navigate on this trail, your knees will be happier if you bring the poles.
Having extra giraffe limbs will save you from many falls or slides and help you to hop, skip, and jump over mud puddles the size of backyard fish ponds. They will also give you leverage when you step on what looks like a stable rock in the middle of said mud pond only to realize it’s a deceptively gray colored patch of quickmud that you have now sunk over a foot into. I literally pole vaulted my way up and down this trail more so than I have ever done on any other long-distance trail.
3) Hike with a buddy
As many of you know, the first 100 miles of the LT coincide with the AT and if you hike this during peak hiker season there are plenty of people that you will run into, or more likely, who will whiz past you on their forward march to Katahdin. The terrain of this section is also some of the easiest of the LT because most of the vertical rock climbs don’t start until you hit the middle and northern sections. Once you are only on the Long Trail though the hiker trash population drops significantly and you’ll be happy to see a handful of people every day. This portion of trail isn’t as well defined and at times you might pause and wonder if you are still actually on it with the amount of overgrown weeds blocking the path.
It’s when the trail turns into super rugged rock climbing that you will wish you had a buddy. Even if you don’t hike together during the day, it’s nice to know that somebody has your back and is watching out for you in case you should take a tumble down one of the vertical descents. No one wants to think about it, but the possibility of breaking a limb or hitting your head is really high with such risky terrain and we have all heard the tragic stories of hikers who just happened to step wrong. It could be any of us and that’s why we always need to look out for each other. Let’s be honest, it’s also just really nice to have someone to laugh with at the end of the day and commiserate with about all the tough shit.
4) Prepare to be wet, muddy, and cold
Unless you have the time to just hole up in a shelter when it rains (which sounds lovely) you’ll need good rain gear on this trail. Between the unpredictable weather of Vermont and the miles of mud, you’re definitely going to get wet or at least have muddy wet feet. On one hellacious day of crazy weather (spitting side rain and winds all day) Click! and I were decked out in every inch of our rain gear—pack covers, lightweight rain jackets, and a fly little rain skirt.
I also had my handy trekking umbrella attached to my pack… which I cannot express enough gratitude for. I highly recommend one, as I stayed super toasty and dry underneath it. Even in the summertime, Vermont is like Colorado in that temperatures will drop in the higher elevations and you’ll wonder if you accidentally entered a time warp and got transported into early winter. Always bring your puffy. It’s just plain stupid to leave home without it on this trail.
5) Bring more food than you think you’ll need
I have never brought more food per day out on a thru hike before. I am so happy that I did. Our food bags for every four-day stretch ended up being about 8 pounds and we ate every salty, sweet, and savory bit of it. The terrain of this trail is such that you are going to burn some serious calories even if you only do ten miles a day. Also, the mental aspect of this trail (considering the need for precise placement of every footstep) requires even more fuel for your fire.
Never before have I attributed a bag of mustard pretzel nuggets to saving my life but I’m pretty sure the 1,700 calories of palm oil goodness I chowed down in one day provided the caloric warmth I needed on the scariest hiking day ever (described next). On one resupply we accidentally packed two extra ramen and ended up consuming them for lunch on a wet and cold day to get ourselves warm. Packing just a few extra snacks is always worth it, so don’t skimp on food.
6) Only take side trails if you know the terrain
Learn from our mistake and never take a side trail you aren’t familiar with in bad weather. On our hurricane-like day of 50 degrees, rain, and high wind, we just happened to be scheduled to summit the top of Mt. Mansfield, the highest point in Vermont. Having heard from a few SOBOs how exposed, rocky and crazy this section of trail was, we opted to do the smart thing (or so we thought) and take one of the two side trails that skirt the actual summit. We thought that the one-mile Cliff Trail on the eastern side sounded fine, imagining a trail that meandered just above and around the edge and spit us right back where we needed to be for easy access to the next shelter.
In hypothermic weather, we strapped our 20-pound packs to our backs and pushed forward onto the trail that ended up not being a hiking path at all, but consisted of full-body rock climbing over giant slick boulders on the side of a cliff with only the foggy abyss below. No photos from the actual Cliff Trail because survival trumped everything.
We really wish the Green Mountain Club had included on that trail sign “Not acceptable as a bad weather bypass,” or at least something to dissuade us more than their brief mention in the Long Trail Guide (which we had decided not to take on the actual hike with us). That one-mile “trail” took us over two hours. We fought back tears of fear and thoughts of falling, becoming hypothermic, or dying and cracked stupid jokes to keep ourselves sane. We just knew we had to get through it. If I hadn’t eaten an entire bag of fatty mustard nuggets the day before who knows how cold I could’ve gotten only going .5 miles per hour while wet and shivering. Click! and I have done a lot of hiking, but trust us…. never take a side trail in hypothermic weather unless you know what you are getting yourself into.
7) Go into it fearless
You are going to trip and look like a flailing idiot at least a few times on this trail. You’ll slip on a tree root and land in a mud puddle and say goodbye to your clean shorts fresh from laundry in town. You might even bang yourself up when you are climbing up some crazy path and have to sit and grit your teeth while the adrenaline rushes through your body.
You’ll probably end up with some epic battle wounds that you kinda like, because they make you look like a badass. You are a badass. It’s also the unpredictable nature of thru hiking that draws us there in the first place. This is all to say that you can’t be afraid of what lies ahead – the mentality I suggest you adopt is fearlessness. Only you can get you through the ruggedness of this trail and if you are down for the thrill and the challenge that the Long Trail offers then enjoy every bit of it. Own your badassness on this gorgeous and crazy hiking trail. And remember… ski slopes don’t have to be for just skiing, they can make an awesome camp spot too!
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