Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Appalachian Trail walk - part 2

Each year about 1500 people start hiking the Appalachian Trail in northern Georgia with the intention of walking the entire 2,175 miles of it. Generally, something over 300 finish it that year.
Most quit in the first week or so, deciding that life on the trail is not for them. Injuries or illness forces another large percentage off the walk, and that can happen at any point along the trail. Some of the rest do finish, just not in the year they start the hike.

The two most common groups of people who attempt and finish the hike are those recently out of school and recent retirees—the footloose and fancy-free. More than a few people quit their jobs to hike the trail and more than a few take advantage of being laid off from work to hike the trail.
Most begin the hike on their own, without a hiking partner. Often, this is because the logistics of two acquaintances having the time and means in the same year to make the hike is challenging. Still a sizeable minority do plan a hike and finish with a partner. Parent-child combinations are more common than you might expect, though friend-friend, both of the same and opposite sex, are the most common.

Typically, people who start the hike at about the same time continue to see each other throughout their long walk and often become friends, joining up to hike with each other for a day or a week, off and on throughout the hike. Through hikers sign trail registers along the way, and this is how they know where and when a compatriot passed the register. Cell phones are common, of course, but coverage can be spotty in the mountains. The trail register is used as much as the modern technology.

Shelters abound along the trail, notorious for their mice. Even people who hike together will likely not always walk together. Sometimes “together” simply means agreeing to camp at the same spot each night. Differences in partner height can make walking together uncomfortable. A tall person takes a lot fewer steps per mile than a short one. Trying to adjust your own pace to someone else’s slower or faster one is a lot more tiring than walking at the pace that’s comfortable for you.

It takes 4-5 months, on average, to hike the entire trail. Hikers typically cover 12-16 miles a day, once they get their trail legs underneath them. You will not be surprised to learn that the distance hikers cover at the beginning of the hike is much shorter at the start of the trail than by its end. For the first 2-3 weeks, hiking distances are often in the 8-10 mile range. The best way to train for the long hike is to walk long distances with the same pack you will carry during your walk, and virtually no one has the time to do that properly.

If a hiker makes it to the halfway point, as the two I met on Sunday already had, they will almost certainly finish the hike. After 1000 miles or so, the body is well-used to the daily physical stress of the walk, and a hiker has already proved they have the mental attitude they need to finish.

I rather envied the two I met--healthy and strong, able to put aside work or family life, unwilling to sit idly by while life races past--all to pursue a dream that called to them.  It's easy to stay in the  main stream of life, to follow the kind of life that "everyone" lives.  It takes a different sort of person to step away and do something different.  I take my hat off to you.  Good luck to both and safe travels.


Scott said...

Two of my friends were recent successful through hikers. I would never have bet that one of them would have finished; it seemed like she decided to do the trail on a lark, but she did finish. The experience changed the life of my other friend; he now is the lead farmer at a CSA farm in New Jersey. He was seriously physically ill for about 6 months after he finished the hike, though.

Good post, Carolyn.

robin andrea said...

Your post reminds me, many years ago in the early 1970s my cousin and her husband bought 108 acres of land in Virginia. They wanted this particular piece of land because the Appalachian trail was close enough that they could easily run into hikers. It's such spectacular country to hike through. We have a trail here on the west coast, the Pacific Crest, that I have fantasized about walking along, but never thought about doing the full distance. It's a daunting task: The Pacific Crest Trail is 2,663 miles long and ranges in elevation from just above sea level at the Oregon-Washington border to 13,153 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada. The route passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks.

Carolyn H said...

Scott: i think most folks who do a long-distance hike would say it changed them. I think any reasonably healthy person is physically capable of finishing the hike, but I think people who don't finish often find the mental challenge was more than they bargained for.

Carolyn H said...

Robin: the Pacific Crest Trail is tougher than the AT, often because of the long distances between resupplies, which means a hiker has to carry more food and water. That stuff weighs a lot, so pack weights are heavier. The altitude change and difference is also a factor, so while people can walk themselves fit on the AT, it's a lot tougher to do that on the PCT.