Author Archives: Bruce "RTK" Matson

My Appalachian Trail Hike – the 5 Most Common Questions

Now that my plans to try to backpack the entire length of the Appalachian Trail have become more widely known, I get a lot of questions. Some ask if the trail is “mostly flat.” Some wonder about telecommunications. It’s fun to respond to any inquiries, but there clearly are a number of very common questions on my friends’ and colleagues’ minds.

Here are the 5 most popular:

  1. “Are you going alone?”

Yes. I’m going alone – in the sense that I do not have a friend who plans to start with me and hike the trail with me to Katahdin. I usually ask people inquiring to speculate with me about who might be going with me by asking, “how many of my friends have five months off and if they did, who would pick to walk with a heavy pack on their back up and down hills, sleeping on the ground and going without a shower for 4 or 5 days?

But I do not expect to be alone. Even though I’m leaving a little earlier than most, I anticipate that somewhere around 20 people will start the same day as I do – so I will not be alone. I expect to make friends and hiking companions every day. Some I may hike with for a couple of days or even a couple of months – whatever feels right in terms of hiking speed and compatibility. Moreover, I plan to spend most nights in established shelter areas where there will likely be 10 to 20 (if not 30) hikers each night in the early weeks – most of who will gather and socialize around the shelter/picnic table/fire ring. I wont be lonely (but I will seek solitude, often).

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  1. “Are you taking a gun?”

No, I am not taking a gun. They are too heavy, I’m not experienced in using one and they are not needed. Some disagree about the need. Few would dispute the “weight penalty,” but all hikers typically have one or two items that are “too heavy” – everyone needs to “hike their own hike.” I am likely taking an item or two that are “too heavy,” but I think they will be important for my enjoyment and potentially my ability to succeed.

So am I wrong? Are there dangers that might justify the need for a gun. The usual response is – bears! While they need respect, if you follow some simple principles bears are harmless – “they are just big raccoons.” More about bears in another post. If there’s any real need for a gun on the trail it is to deal with a different animal – humans – actually, unsavory individuals. While there have been a few murders and other bad behavior on the AT, the common truism is that you are much more likely to be killed driving to the trailhead than on the Trail.

For me, keeping a spider sense for those few troublesome individuals and avoiding the situation is the best protection. Keeping in mind that one has everything they need on their back, I can just walk away from any questionable circumstance and plant my tent a few miles down the Trail and just avoid any potentially difficult situations.

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  1. “Where are you going to sleep?”

In a tent, on the ground. There are almost 300 shelters or “huts” (or “lean-tos”) along the Appalachian Trail, which are maintained by volunteer trail maintenance clubs in conjunction with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the beneficiary of my fundraising efforts related to my hike). Typically they are basic (rustic) with a wooden floor and three sides with one side open to the elements. They can be crowded. They can be dirty. And, they are typically overrun by mice.

I do not plan on staying in many shelters, but I do plan to tent nearby many of these shelters because typically there is a water source, a privy, people and a place to socialize (a picnic table and/or fire ring). I will be required likely to use the shelters while hiking through the Great Smokey National Park (park regulation). And on some particularly nasty weather days, when there’s reasonable room, I may stay in a shelter.

When I reach a town for resupply I will likely stay overnight at a hostel, bed & breakfast or motel, which will permit me to get a shower, do laundry, etc. And, if my experience is like most thru-hikers, a few times there will be a “trail angel” or two that actually takes me back to their home for a meal, a shower and some R & R.

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  1. “What will you eat? How will you get food?”

Mostly squirrels and mice. OK, I thought that would be funny (and I have responded that way to some people just to get a reaction). I will take as much dehydrated food as possible (obviously for the weight savings). This will consist of oatmeal and grits and dehydrated meals (like Trailtopia, the sponsor of my podcast. A general rule of thumb is to keep each day’s food to no more 2 pounds in total. So a 5-day resupply would add 10 pounds to my pack, without adding water. A typical day would be something like the following:

  • Breakfast: coffee/hot chocolate; granola bar; and two packages of oatmeal.
  • Lunch: graze most of the day on peanuts and raisins, energy bars, but stop for a tortilla rollup of protein (tuna or peanut butter or salami/cheese) and some M&Ms or Snickers
  • Dinner: Trailtopia’s “Chicken Cashew Curry” or “Chili Mac with Beef” (“serves 2” but only one on the AT) with coffee and a cookie/bar for dessert.

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  1. “How long will it take? How far will you walk each day?” 

I think it will take approximately five (5) months or about 150 days. I have one plan that get me to the top of Katahdin on my birthday – July 15, which would be a trip length of about 4 and ½ months. But it might take six months. I plan to start slow: 10 to 12 miles a day for two or three weeks. I think I can pick up the pace when I get to Virginia and have a number of 20-mile days. I plan to take one “zero day” (a day with no hiking; so a “rest” day) every ten days. If I need more to rest or recovery, I’ll probably do that. I think I can do 15 to 20 miles a day through most of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont with some exceptions such southern NY and dealing with the rocks in PA. When I get to the White Mountains of New Hampshire I will likely be very happy with 10-mile days as I will be in a number of parts of Maine. 

 

MORE QUESTIONS ???

 

If you have other questions about my hike or the Appalachian Trail, please leave them below or email me at rtkchallenge@gmail.com

 

And, please do not forget our podcast:

Returning To Katahdin: An Appalachian Trail Dream

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The AT and the Decision “To Go”

In the summer of 1974 I participated in “Boys State” in Connecticut; a week-long “camp” where we studied U.S. government and political science. While there one evening I attended a presentation by a man who had recently backpacked from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. (In fact, at the time he had just set a new record for completing the hike in the fewest number of days. I now realize – that gentleman was Warren Doyle, who has walked the entire AT more than any individual. By Doyle’s count, he has traversed the Trail seventeen times, consisting of nine “thru-hikes” and eight “section hikes” or approximately 36,000 miles!)

Having done some hiking and backpacking at the time, I was completely captivated by the presentation. I fell in love with both the romantic notion and the audacious idea of doing the same – walking over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. In fact, that night I said to myself, “I’m going to do that someday.”

During the summers of 1977 & 1978 I guided canoe trips in the North Maine Woods. Encouraged by many of my fellow guides, I considered a career in “outdoor education,” which allowed me to dream more about grand wilderness adventures. Some of our canoe trips in Maine those summers would include guiding our crew up to the summit of Mt. Katahdin as a “side trip” at the end of an expedition. Also, on our days off from lake paddling and whitewater navigation, we sometimes would climb Katahdin.

Law school won out over outdoor education. Work and family won out over long distance hiking and backpacking. Thirty years after my summers in Maine, I again climbed Katahdin (see photo above) – this time with my then 18 year-old daughter along with my old college roommate (and former, fellow Maine guide) and his daughter. (A month after our successful climb, the girls started college at our alma mater, where they roomed together for three years.)

Not only did this Connecticut Yankee go to school in the South, but I have only been a visitor to New England for almost 40 years, having met my wife at William & Mary and having then settled in Virginia after graduation.

I’m sure I didn’t think it would take more than 40 years to complete that promise I made to myself, but – God willing – I will begin my attempt to return to Mt. Katahdin on February 25, 2018. This time I’ll be traveling from the south back to New England and the “greatest mountain” by way of a foot trail known as the Appalachian Trail, or simply, the AT.

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(Our father-daughter trip – the Cathedral Trail to Baxter Peak. Return by way of the Knife’s Edge.)

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TRAIL NAMES – Who is “RTK”?

[This post is rated “I” for intermediate, meaning it is neither basic information, nor little known.]**

During the last three years I have been more than fascinated with the AT and the prospects for me to attempt my own challenge of the iconic footpath. I have read blogs (by people like Robo), watched YouTube videos (by Caboose, Highlander, and Spielberg) followed people on Trail Journals (by Signage, Bigfoot and Two Peas), and looked at just about anything I could put my hands on about the Appalachian Trail (including memoirs of thru-hikes by Rethinker, Mighty Blue, Odyssa, Badger, Mountain Slayer, K-One, Faithful, Wingo, Cowabunga, Paddler, Fozzie, Draggin’ Fly, and many others, although Paul was “Paul” and Brad was “Brad” in their books). I watched the “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods,” and, I even read AWOL’s Guide even though I wasn’t hiking anywhere, which is a bit like reading the road atlas for excitement.

Each of those last three years I would select a couple of people to “follow” on Trail Journals and when they’d get to Virginia I’d meet them at a trail head, drive them around town for resupply and buy them dinner. I got to live vicariously through their hike and I could discuss gear and other hike details over dinner. Among my dinner guests over those last three years were Rowdy, Silverback and Rabbit.

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“RTK” on the Overland Track in Tasmania

There are many traditions now associated with thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. One of the oldest is that hikers typically use a “trail name” while venturing along the AT. This tradition is now assuredly part of the Trail, but was all but non-existent as recently as the 1970’s. Essentially, thru-hikers are given or give themselves what are essentially “nicknames,” yet these trail names are typically descriptive of the person or of his or her unique behaviors.

“Caboose” was the name one hiker got after she consistently was last in a group to get into camp each day. “Orange Crush” was dressed prominently in an orange shirt and to those naming him he was hiking long distances every day by “crushing out the miles.” Some trail names are unflattering such as Sir Packs-A-Lot or Lumberjack or Cat Hole.

Trail Names add anonymity among a new set of adventurers (“comrades thrown together by chance”). For many trail names symbolize the transition from the old life to the new life, a tangible break from what was to what is or might be. A chance for a “do-over.” A way to make “regret” a more distance memory.

Interestingly, likes some posts on the home page of many blogs, Trail Names appear to be “sticky” – they last. After a thru-hike is over, at least within the Trail community, Steve is still Mighty Blue, Craig is still Spielberg, and Dave is still Rowdy. Some speculate that after returning to the “real” or “regular” world, this continued identification by use of a Trail Name represents an otherwise unspoken longing to return to the freedom of trail life.

Moreover, a small contingent every year swim against the tide and cling tightly to their actual names such that they remain Bob or Jim throughout their thru-hike. A brief, but good article on the topic – “Why I Don’t Want a Trail Name” – is found in Blue Ridge Outdoors (August 2011). As the author concludes, “. . . my humble ‘Johnny’ works just fine. And for me, the best part about hiking the A.T. is not enhancing my identity but losing it in the wild wonder of the woods.” Far enough – hike your own hike, but what about me? Perhaps not as dramatic or urgent as the end of an episode of 24, but I’ll discuss my own thoughts and plans for a Trail Name next week.

Please follow this planned adventure as I use the year prior to starting the trip to discuss planning for my thru-hike as well as the history, personalities, and events about the Trail. (If you have not already, you can sign up at the right to receive an email whenever a new post is made).

Please feel free to pose whatever questions you may have about this planned journey in the “Comments” section below any post.

Finally, please share this site with others who might be interested in the Appalachian Trail or with my plan to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

__________

** Rating System. Due to the difference experience level people have with the AT, I will “warn” people at the beginning of a post as to whether I consider the information “Basic” or “Beginner” level – for those essentially new to all things Appalachian Trail. I like to think of Beginners as “Day Hikers.” (Follow along and by the end of my hike you will be completely literate about the AT and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.) The other “ratings” will be “I” for “Intermediate.” and “E” for “Expert.” I like to think of those with Intermediate knowledge as “Section Hikers” and those with Expert knowledge as “Thru-Hikers.” [For instance, until this post, a Beginner will not yet know to what Section Hiker or Thru-Hiker refers. More about Section Hikers and Thru-Hikers in a future post.]

 

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Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Should I FlipFlop?

[This post is rated “B” for “Beginner,” meaning it is basic information to the Appalachian Trail community.]**

In my early posts I have used a few terms that are common on the AT, but should probably be defined before we go any further.  This post will be an introduction to unique terminology necessary for “navigating” the Appalachian Trail.

First, and fundamental to this trip, is the concept of a “thru-hike,” a term I have used often in the early posts.

thru-hike – hiking the entire AT in one season (within a 12-month period of time). A thru-hiker, of course, is an individual who is working on a thru-hike.”Thru-hike” is also understand in relation to a “section-hike.”

section-hike – a series of shorter hikes (“sections”) of the AT that over time (usually over many years ) combine to cover the entire AT; section-hiker is an individual who is working on a section-hike.

As I have indicated, I will be attempting a thru-hike next year.  Sometimes “thru-hikers” is confused with “2,000 Milers.”

2,000 Miler – a hiker that has walked the entire length of the AT, whether in a single season or over a lifetime.

2,000 Miler is the “official” designation used by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  Here’s a brief quote from the ATC about thru-hiking:  “Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) but only about one in four make it all the way. . . .  To qualify as a 2,000 Miler, hikers must walk the entire estimated 2,180 miles of the A.T.”

Above I pose the question – should I FlipFlop? It does not refer to any second guessing I might be doing about whether to undertake the audacious task of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.  Rather, the term is a unique, AT term that refers to the direction one hikes to complete a thru-hike.  I have decided to hike north from the southern terminus (Springer Mountain) and “return” to Mt. Katahdin (the northern terminus of the Trail).  Hikers heading north are “NOBO,” – NorthBound.  But should I consider a “FlipFlop?”

SOBO a southbound thru-hike; a thru-hike that begins at Mt. Katahdin and finishes at Springer Mountain.  While only about 10% of thru-hikers pursue a SOBO, its popularity is rising.  It is the preferred direction for someone seeking more solitude along the Trail.  Probably the best book about a SOBO is The Barefoot Sisters Southbound.

NOBO – a northbound thru-hike; a thru-hike that begins at  Springer Mountain and finishes at Mt. Katahdin.  Traditionally, many more thru-hikers (over 85%) attempt a NOBO.  The concept is that you can “walk with spring” as you head north.  Earl Shaffer, the very first sucessful thru-hiker, started this tradition by completing a NOBO and writing a memoir of the trip entitled Walking with Spring.

Flip-Flop (or “FLFL”) – hiking one direction then driving to a different location to hike back in the opposite direction (e.g., a person hikes from Georgia to Virginia but then skip ahead to Maine and hike back to where they got off the trail in Virginia)
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Due to the increase in traffic on the AT, especially of those starting early, there is a much greater need to spread hikers along the Trail.  Consequently, flip-flopping is more popular.  It is being encouraged by the ATC, which hosts a “Flip Flop Festival” – being held April 22 – 23 this year.

There does not appear to be a “settled” acronym for a Flip-Flop hike, but consistency would suggest, as I do here, that such a hike (like a NOBO or SOBO) be referred to as a “FLFL” or maybe “FLFP.”

In summary – I plan to attempt a NOBO thru-hike

Please follow this planned adventure as I use the year prior to starting the trip to discuss planning for my thru-hike as well as the history, personalities, and events about the Trail. (If you have not already, you can sign up at the right to receive an email whenever a new post is made).

Please feel free to pose whatever questions you may have about this planned journey in the “Comments” section below any post.

Finally, please share this site with others who might be interested in the Appalachian Trail or with my plan to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

__________

** Rating System. Due to the difference experience level people have with the AT, I will “warn” people at the beginning of a post as to whether I consider the information “Basic” or “Beginner” level – for those essentially new to all things Appalachian Trail. I like to think of Beginners as “Day Hikers.” (Follow along and by the end of my hike you will be completely literate about the AT and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.) The other “ratings” will be “I” for “Intermediate.” and “E” for “Expert.” I like to think of those with Intermediate knowledge as “Section Hikers” and those with Expert knowledge as “Thru-Hikers.” [For instance, until this post, a Beginner will not yet know to what Section Hiker or Thru-Hiker refers. More about Section Hikers and Thru-Hikers in a future post.]

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The AT and the Origin of the Idea

[This post is rated “E” for expert, meaning it is far from basic information – it is not likely known by most.]**

Many who know me well know that I’m a history buff and I particularly enjoy the interesting (and sometimes extraordinary) origins of words, phrases, events, traditions and other things. Naturally I’d wonder who thought up the idea for the Appalachian Trail.  I found that the answer is pretty clear and well-established.

In October 1921 the Journal of the American Institute of Architects published an article written by forester and conversationalist (and sometimes philosopher), Benton MacKaye. [More about MacKaye in a future post.] That article, An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning, called for the construction of “a great trail” through the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to Maine. MacKaye’s vision was actually different and more ambitious than the footpath we have today. He envisioned not just a hiking trail but a series or system of recreational and farming camps that would create “an utopian refuge” from urban life.

 

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Benton MacKaye

 

Inevitable, MacKaye was inspired in part by the Green Mountain Club and its 273-mile lone “Long Trail,” in Vermont, which existed at the time, having been conceived by James P. Taylor as early as 1910 as the country’s first hiking trail of any significant (multi-day) length. History now records that Benton MacKaye had his “epiphany” about the AT on the same mountaintop – Stratton Mountain in Vermont – where Taylor first conceived of the idea for the Long Trail.

 

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Stratton Mountain, Vermont

 

In may respects, the creation of these long distance hiking trails in the first part of the 20th century was a response to the urbanization and industrialization of the United States in the last quarter of the prior century. Intellectually or philosophically, MacKaye’s “utopian dream” is a direct outgrowth of the romantic (and its related “transcendental”) movement, which arose during the second half of the 19th century.

 

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Please follow this planned adventure as I use the year prior to starting the trip to discuss planning for my thru-hike as well as the history, personalities, and events about the Trail. (If you have not already, you can sign up at the right to receive an email whenever a new post is made).

Please feel free to pose whatever questions you may have about this planned journey in the “Comments” section below any post.

Finally, please share this site with others who might be interested in the Appalachian Trail or with my plan to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

__________

** Rating System.  Due to the difference experience level people have with the AT, I will “warn” people at the beginning of a post as to whether I consider the information “Basic” or “Beginner” level – for those essentially new to all things Appalachian Trail.  I like to think of Beginners as “Day Hikers.”  (Follow along and by the end of my hike you will be completely literate about the AT and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.)  The other “ratings” will be “I” for “Intermediate.” and “E” for “Expert.”  I like to think of those with Intermediate knowledge as “Section Hikers” and those with Expert knowledge as “Thru-Hikers.”  [For instance, a Beginner will not yet know to what Section Hiker or Thru-Hiker refers.  More about Section Hikers and Thru-Hikers in a future post.]

 

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The Appalachian Trail – By the Numbers!

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The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine through the Appalachian Mountain range in the eastern United States – considered “the oldest mountain range” on Earth.  It is the longest “hiking-only” footpath in the world. One way to begin to better understand the AT is to consider some of its attributes “by the numbers,” some of which are as follows:

  • 2,200 = approx. length in miles of the Appalachian Trail. In 2016 the Trail was 2,189.1 miles.
  • 165,000 = approx. number of white blazes marking the way from GA to ME.
  • 99 = percent of the entire trail has been either relocated or rebuilt since its completion.
  • 15,000 = approx. number of people who have completed a thru-hike.
  • 464, 464 = approx. amount of elevation gained/lost in feet (approx. 90 miles) during a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
  • 16 = estimated number of times you’d climb mountain Mt. Everest due to elevation gained/lost during a thru-hike.

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  • 14 = number of states traveled through on AT from GA to ME.

 

  • 262 = number of shelters or lean-tos on the AT (approx. one every 8 miles).
  • 1 = number of off-Broadway shows dedicated to the AT (“North to Maine”).
  • 25 – approx. percentage of women of those on AT attempting thru-hike.
  • 87 – approx. percentage of thru-hikers going from Georgia to Maine.
  • 31 = number of “Maintaining Clubs” that, in the words of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, serve the Appalachian Trail handling “most of the day-to-day work of keeping the A.T. open. In addition to Trail maintenance, club volunteers [of these Maintaining Clubs] build and repair shelters and other structures, monitor and protect the Trail corridor, monitor and manage rare plants and invasive species, develop management plans for their sections, and much, much more.”
  • 250,000 = approx. number of volunteer hours that go into maintaining the Appalachian Trail each year.

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What is the Appalachian Trail?

[This post is rated “B” for Beginner]**

In my last post I reported on my decision to attempt to walk the entire Appalachian Trail (or, the “AT”) in 2018. A beginner or “Day Hiker” (see “Rating System” below) though is likely to ask, “what is the Appalachian Trail?”

images-1Many, especially those in the eastern United States, are generally familiar with the AT.  Yet, although twenty-five percent of the entire AT lies in the Commonwealth of Virginia (where I reside), many people I run across have scant knowledge of the Appalachian Trail.  So, again, it seems appropriate to ask, what is the Appalachian Trail?

Sometimes called “America’s Trail” or “America’s Footpath,” the Appalachian Trail is, in fact, a national park consisting of a narrow swath of land twisting its way down the east coast – from Maine to Georgia.  Responsible for managing the Trail, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the “ATC”)* describes the AT in its Appalachian Trail Management Principles as follows:

The Appalachian Trail is a way, continuous from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, for travel on foot through the wild, scenic, wooded, pastoral, and culturally significant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. It is a means of sojourning among these lands, such that the visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.

In practice, the Trail is usually a simple footpath, purposeful in direction and concept, favoring the heights of land, and located for minimum reliance on construction for protecting the resource. The body of the Trail is provided by the lands it traverses, and its soul is the living stewardship of the volunteers and workers of the Appalachian Trail community. 

While those “intermediate” or “expert” hikers have certainly heard of the AT, many will not be aware that the Trail is formally known as the “Appalachian National Scenic Trail,” as a result of the National Trails System Act, signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1968.  Not only did that legislation identify the AT as a “National Scenic Trail,” but it established the Appalachian Trail as a linear national park and authorized funds to surround the entire route with public lands and to protect it from incompatible uses.

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The Appalachian Trail runs approximately 2,200 miles in length from Georgia to Maine, passing through fourteen states, six national parks, eight national forests, and numerous state parks. Its precise distance changes almost every year due to re-measurements and trail relocations. In 2014, for instance, 3.9 miles were added to the official length, extending the AT’s distance for that year to 2,185.3. (In 2016 and 2017 the official measurement was 2,189.1.)

Hopefully, the ATC will find a few shortcuts for me in 2018 and the official distance will be less than it has been the last two years.  🙂

Please follow this planned adventure as I use the year prior to starting the trip to discuss planning for my thru-hike as well as the history, personalities, and events about the Trail. (If you have not already, you can sign up at the right to receive an email whenever a new post is made).

Please feel free to pose whatever questions you may have about this planned journey in the “Comments” section below any post.

Finally, please share this site with others who might be interested in the Appalachian Trail or with my plan to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

__________

*The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the “ATC”) is a non-profit membership organization entrusted with protecting and maintaining the Appalachian Trail. I will use my thru-hike to try to help raise funds for the ATC.  See Support.

** Rating System.  Due to the difference experience level people have with the AT, I will “warn” people at the beginning of a post as to whether I consider the information “Basic” or “Beginner” level – for those essentially new to all things Appalachian Trail.  I like to think of Beginners as “Day Hikers.”  (Follow along and by the end of my hike you will be completely literate about the AT and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.)  The other “ratings” will be “I” for “Intermediate.” and “E” for “Expert.”  I like to think of those with Intermediate knowledge as “Section Hikers” and those with Expert knowledge as “Thru-Hikers.”  [For instance, a Beginner will not yet know to what Section Hiker or Thru-Hiker refers.  More about Section Hikers and Thru-Hikers in a future post.]

appalachian_trail_map

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