Speed Records on the Appalachian Trail

Speed records on the Appalachian Trail are often a controversial subject.  Some people love a speed hike and others think it’s against everything the trail is about.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy doesn’t recognize speed hiking records.  There is no agency that will even authenticate a speed record and it’s based on the honor system.  That being said, with the advent of the internet and social media, news of speed records and record attempts are easier to track and follow.  While I was on my Benton MacKaye Trail thru hike back in May, we learned about Scott Jurek and his attempt to break the speed record for a supported thru hike, set by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011, by running the entire trail in less than 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.   This blog post will resonate with some, but maybe not so much with others.  This is my opinion about Appalachian Trail speed records.

Anyone who has asked me why I hiked the Appalachian Trail will get the same answer – I had decided I wanted to attempt it before I turned 30, but when I met Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011 I was totally inspired to tackle it.  She was well-spoken and honest about the hardships and the triumphs that come with a thru hike.  At the time she held the women’s supported speed record and that summer was training to take on the overall speed record.  I was awestruck.  This was also the first time I’d ever heard of a speed record attempt.  The idea to me was inspiring and insane all at the same time.  I knew that hiking the AT in less than 50 days would never be something I could do, but it blew my mind that ANYONE could.  When I got home from this encounter, I started Googling about speed records and learned of all the people through the years who had done these speed hikes.  I learned names like Andrew Thompson (2005 – men’s supported in 47 days), David Horton (1991 – supported, 52 days), and Jenny Jardine (wife of Ray Jardine, unsupported, 87 days).

I also began to learn the differences between supported and unsupported thru hikes, which also really have no clear definition.  A supported thru hike is exactly what it sounds like – you have a crew of people in vehicles driving to trailheads to meet you, cooking and prepping your meals, setting up your gear, tending to your needs.  An unsupported thru hike is a little more murky.  When you’re unsupported you don’t have these things, but exactly how much help you’ll accept is where the hikes differ.  Some people, like Matt Kirk on his record-setting 2013 unsupported thru hike, don’t even get into a single car.  They resupply on their own by walking to towns.  Some unsupported hikers will hitch into town.  Some will accept trail magic and some won’t.  Either way, they still count as unsupported hikes.

This brings me to the controversial part of speed hiking – some people REALLY hate it.  I mean, people get downright hostile about it.  When I would mention that meeting Davis is what set me off on my journey from Georgia to Maine the reactions would go from “that’s amazing” to “she’s an idiot!”  Some people feel that the Appalachian Trail isn’t about the miles, it’s about the smiles and the only reason you’re going to smile is if you’re hiking slower and taking the more traditional 5-6 months to finish the trail.  In my opinion, you can smile regardless of how fast you go.  When I began my thru hike I was in excellent shape – hiking 20 mile days before I left Georgia was normal.  I made it to Fontana in 11 days and got through the Smokies in 3.5.  I was often told “slow down, you’re not even enjoying yourself!”  The truth is, I was enjoying myself!  When I was hiking fast, I was seeing more wildlife and flowers than most people who hike in groups. Hiking fast and alone often meant animals weren’t reacting as quickly and I surprised a bear and a boar in those early days.  Jennifer Pharr Davis even recounted in her book that she saw more bears on her 2011 speed hike than she had on her previous hikes.  So, to the people who didn’t like how I was hiking the Appalachian Trail I often found myself repeating the most popular trail mantra to them – Hike Your Own Hike!

Anyone who hikes the entire Appalachian Trail gets respect from me.  When I was working in a hostel in Maine in 2013 I met section hikers finishing their 20-year treks, thru hikers who started in January, flip floppers, northbounders, southbounders, and yellow blazers galore.  I met Matt Kirk and went total fan girl on him at the bus station because I HAD to know if he was going for a speed record (he was, and he set it!).  To me, every single person who hikes the Appalachian Trail has a story and a reason for hiking and every single reason and story are important.  The Appalachian Trail is difficult – it will break your heart, it will take your breath away, and will present new challenges every day.  Anyone who takes the time to do the whole trail, in whatever method they chose, is worthy of respect.

How do you feel about Appalachian Trail speed records?  Leave me a comment below or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter and get the conversation started! Also, if you’re interested in Scott Jurek’s 2015 speed attempt, you can follow him on Twitter here.

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Comments 12

  • Butch Landreneau : Jun 7th

    Not a fan of speed hiking. I think of it as watching your favorite movie on fast-forward..or sitting down to read a good book and read the last chapter first…but hey, if people want to do it, more power to them…good luck and dont run me over!

  • zrdavis : Jun 11th

    Well said, Sprinkles! Although I think HYOH can be overused and abused, this is a perfect application of the phrase. Judging how someone else should hike a trail is a waste of energy. In my opinion, whether you’re the tortoise or the hare, the only thing that matters is that you’re on the trail.

    Looking forward to reading more of your trail adventures!

  • David Howie : Jun 23rd

    I can’t think of a good reason to bitch about how fast anyone else hikes the AT or any other trail. I’m reminded of the late George Carlin’s take on this aspect of human behavior. It goes something like this: Ever notice when you’re driving, that no matter what speed you’re doing, anybody who’s going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone who’s going faster than you is a maniac? Humans.

    • Sprinkles : Jul 14th

      I love this comment David! Thank you so much for sharing it!

      • David Howie : Jul 14th

        Cheers, Sprinkles.

  • Grayson Cobb : Jul 28th

    I attempted the unsupported record this summer and actually dealt with much less flak than I expected! There were a few curmudgeons but for the most part people were very supportive and encouraging. Unfortunately I was unable to finish but I’m right there with you, anyone who completes a thru-hike gets my respect, regardless of how they hiked it or what their reason for doing so was! I did a write up on the ~730 miles that I was able to complete-I hope you’ll check it out! https://graysoncobb.com/day-1-at-record-attempt/

  • Paul Boulay : Aug 22nd

    I am not a running, bicycling or triathalon enthusiast, but I know people who are and rabidly so. I get it. I did an unsupported 4 season SOBO thru-hike 8/5/78 – 6-7-79. I just can’t relate to the running faction.

    However, HYOH is completely valid, because the ATC recognizes no qualifications to its 2000-Miler award beyond:
    1) the entire Trail and
    2) in your lifetime.
    They do not recognize any qualification as or definition of “thru-hike”, or “unsupported”.

    That is not their mission. The mission of the ATC is to nurture the organization, which nurtures the ASSET of the AT, to preserve the OPPORTUNITY for the collective US to use the AT without stated qualification. That requires the collective us to share the Trail with the runners. Unless they are unsupported, they are not hikers, but share anyway.

    Personally I would wish for an organization that recognizes an unsupported thru-hike through the winter, but that is just me. that plus $0.50 may or may not get me a cup of coffee.

  • Beatrice : Sep 18th

    How fast are the speed hikers going? 4-6mph? (Until the whites of course) That is hardly flying by things so fast that you miss out. They aren’t running Usain Bolt speeds.

  • Phillip Brown : Sep 18th

    I am not a supporter of the speed hike. Therefore I do not attempt a speed hike.
    The trail is a personal experience. enjoy it.

  • The Captain : Sep 18th

    There’s a saying, it goes like this “hike your own hike”, isn’t that what the AT is about? If you want to go fast, then go fast, if you want to go slow, go slow. I’m getting tired of some of the down right hostility that a lot of hikers are putting on people bace someone elses style of hiking offends them…Seriously, someone doing a speed attempt doesn’t change my hike one bit. As long as they don’t knock me over along the trail we are all good.

    • Steve : Sep 19th

      If a thru-hike is defined as completing the entire trail in less than a year, what’s wrong with someone tackling a section at a time but in record time, resting for a week or more or waiting for ideal weather or even hiking for optimal conditions and flip flopping all over the place. Then continuing to rinse and repeat. Seems like the current records could be shattered this way. Just wait for optimal weather and only count the time you’re actually on the trail.

      You’d have a tough to beat record while completing a ‘thru-hike’, counting time on trail given there are no standards for what constitutes a record other than the commonly accepted definition of a thru-hike.

  • Chicken : Jul 24th

    I came to the AT hoping to speed-hike SOBO. The smiles got me NOBO and I had such a ball I just decided to have fun. It’s a personal preference. Some like to go extreme, some enjoy the slow pace of taking it all in.
    It’s down to the individual how they hike, just the same as why they hike. You can’t change it, so accept it.


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