Thinking of Hiking the AT? Read this First!
Looking to quit your job to spend half a year testing your physical and mental limits by walking vast distances along one of the most beautiful corridors in the world? Well, what if I told you that the best way to do that was not on the Appalachian Trail, as some would have you think. In fact, the AT has some pretty serious downsides. Though it is the accomplishment of a lifetime to walk from Georgia to Maine, there are other thru-hikes that have prettier views, better weather, a much lower negative impact on local ecosystems, and more of an opportunity to reconnect with nature.
Ever heard of the “green tunnel?” Due to the low elevation and high average rainfall, much of the AT cuts through nearly indistinguishable miles of forest. Many of the summits are covered. If you’re lucky, sometimes you’ll get a tiny gap between the trees, so you can see some gently rolling hills.
Not to say that the AT doesn’t have beautiful sections. Mcafee Knob, the White Mountains, Dragon’s Tooth, and Katahdin are among the trail’s many highlights. But between those are long, difficult sections without any panoramic views. In fact, Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the whole AT, is a covered summit— you have to go up to the manmade observatory to see the views.
Not only can beautiful views be hard to come by on the AT, but the trail is also hard— like really really hard. Imagine steep, treacherous rocky climbs, rewarded with only a covered peak and an equally treacherous descent. Other trails often have more gradual climbs, rewarded by actual views.
As anyone who’s been to the American Southeast in the summer knows, the weather isn’t anything to call home about. The AT is notoriously hot, humid, and rainy. Of course, you get sweaty on any hike, but on the AT you will get sweaty and never dry. Or you things will get soaked in the rain and then never dry. Also, because of the high humidity, many parts of the AT don’t cool down at night. That’s right, you can’t avoid hiking in 100º degree sticky damp heat by night-hiking, because at night it’ll only be 85º (these numbers are exaggerated; Damascus, VA averages around 85º during the day in July).
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people have been getting outside. On the one hand, everyone should have the opportunity to access outdoor recreation: on an individual level it can improve mental and physical health, and on a systemic level more people caring about the outdoors can increase awareness about the need for conservation and environmentalism. On the other hand, when all those people are going to the same spots, it can really take a toll on local ecosystems.
The AT, as the best-known long-distance backpacking trail, bears the brunt of this environmental impact.
In 2019, over 3,000 hikers attempted a NOBO thru-hike of the AT. Assuming most of them started between March 1 and April 15, that’s a lot of people grouped around Springer Mountain at the same time. According to Appalachian Trail Histories, “The increase of use of the trail by humans leads to unavoidable damage such as…erosion…pollution, littering, and plastics.”
In fairness, the PCT’s numbers are comparable— in 2019, there were 4,748 NOBO long-distance permits issued. The difference is that the PCT has a hard cap of 50 hikers starting per day from February through May, so the impact is less concentrated. Also, some of the people with permits may not necessarily be thru-hikers. Finally, with the permit system, there is a hard cap on the number of PCT hikers, while the number of AT hikers can continue growing exponentially.
If you’re hiking the AT NOBO starting in March or April, expect overcrowding until at least the end of Georgia. Not only will shelters and campsites be full, but it may be difficult to get in a hiking rhythm on such a narrow trail with so many people around. This overcrowding may inhibit the kinds of serene encounters with nature that some may be looking for in a thru-hike. So many hikers at the same time also have negative impacts on conservation efforts, and overcrowding has the potential to spread diseases such as norovirus.
Of course, having other people around can be helpful for people who are new to long-distance backpacking, or backpacking in general. You can learn a lot of tips and tricks from those more experienced. Also, having more people around can make hiking less lonely. In some ways, it also makes the trail safer, because there’s more people to step in and help out if things go wrong. On the other hand, much of the actual danger on trail comes from people, not from the trail itself, so this point is debatable.
Some AT Alternatives to Explore
Sometimes people gravitate towards the AT because of the hiking culture, but if more hikers were to hike a wider variety of trails, there could be trail community anywhere without the damage to local ecosystems that come with such a large number of hikers.
The Triple Crown
These trails are around the same length as the AT, but much prettier.
Pacific Crest Trail: For hikers who want more gradual climbs, more scenic views, a wide variety of ecosystems, and a vibrant hiking culture. Best weather of the Triple Crown, by a long shot.
Continental Divide Trail: For hikers looking for a bit more solitude, a wide variety of ecosystems, and some bucket-list highlights. Also good for hikers looking for a navigation challenge, or interested in a choose-your-own-adventure type route.
Other US-Based Trails
Look, most people don’t finish the AT anyway. Wouldn’t it be nicer to finish a prettier trail with fewer environmental impacts and better weather than to drop out halfway through an AT NOBO attempt?
Arizona Trail: 800 miles traversing “deserts, mountains, forests, canyons” while walking across the USA’s 6th largest state. In fact, Arizona is larger than Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, West Virginia, and Maine combined.
Pacific Northwest Trail: If you want forests, try this rugged 1,200-mile path from Montana to the Pacific along the Canadian border. It also crosses some of the country’s most spectacular mountain ranges including the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Olympics.
The Long Trail: This 272-mile trail through Vermont actually shares 100 miles with one of the most beautiful parts of the AT. It’s a nice taste of Northern New England hiking.
Colorado Trail: Graded for horses, this 485 trail will have much more gradual climbs than you will find on the AT. It also provides epic panorama views of the Rockies.
John Muir Trail: 211-mile trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, mostly along the (arguably) best part of the PCT.
Thru-hiking is not limited to the U.S! Trails are a great way to explore culture, climate, and scenery around the world.
Camino de Santiago: A network of different trails across Spain, France, and Portugal, all leading to the tomb of St. James in northwestern Spain. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, a 500-mile route across the northern Iberian peninsula.
Jordan Trail: A 420-mile route across Jordan from Umm Qais in the north near Lebanon to Aqaba on the Red Sea.
Te Araroa: New Zealand’s premier 1,864-mile thru-hike. Its route is designed to showcase both backcountry nature, and local Kiwi culture.
I’m not trying to persuade anyone off-trail. I’m all for more people taking more time to do long-distance backpacking trips. If, after all your research, you decide that the AT is the best fit for you, then go for it. But the only way we’re going to get more trail culture on other trails is for hikers to actually hike other trails. And it may turn out that another, prettier, easier trail, with better weather, could scratch the same itch as the AT.
Featured image via Max Kiel.
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