Rebecca Barry Hill gets the inside word on America's longest walk
It's the world's longest hiking trail, and arguably its most romantic, drawing thousands from around the world each year, and featuring in recent films A Walk in the Woods and Wild . At a whopping 3500km, it's no wonder only 20 per cent of people actually finish the Appalachian Trail, taking an average of six months to pound the wildlife-filled terrain down America's eastern side. To put it in perspective, New Zealand's Routeburn Track is 32km. And yet for Kiwis, the Appalachian Trail is still relatively uncharted territory, with just 30 attempting it since the 1980s. Quentin Fullerton-Smith is one of them. He shares his top 10 pieces of advice for aspiring AT hikers.
1. Just do it
If you're thinking about challenging yourself, the Appalachian Trail should be on your list. It's a great way to get among nature, reset your brain and experience parts of America that most Kiwis don't get to see. You can choose to hike northbound (Nobo) or southbound (Sobo). I was glad I chose Nobo, finishing the more challenging climbs at my peak fitness. I didn't train for this, but you need to be confident in your ability.
2. Equipment and gear
I was lucky to get great advice on what gear to get. Wearing merino wool paid off. Hikers smell bad enough — you don't need to put polyester into the mix. If I had to redo it I would buy all my equipment, including my pack, in the United States. American companies have great customer service, return policies and very fast delivery (compared with New Zealand). My base weight was 9kg without food or water, which I maintained throughout the hike. I took US$1000 per month plus another $1000 for unexpected stuff. This worked out well.
3. Getting there
You can fly from Auckland to Houston, then on to Atlanta, Georgia. From the airport, train north and then take a shuttle to get to Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Centre. This is where you register and receive your hiker tag and number for that year. You also receive guidance on trail etiquette and best practice for looking after the trail and yourself. The visitor centre also marks the start of the 13km Approach Trail that leads to the beginning of the AT, Springer Mountain. It's a really scenic trail and well worth it. Once you reach Springer Mountain you will see your first "white blaze" painted on a tree. These blazes (there are more than 100,000 of them) will guide you up the country to the AT terminus on the top of Mt Katahdin, Maine, 3500km away.
4 Solo or with a group?
I figured I'd have a higher chance of completion going solo. I could choose my own pace and not worry about keeping up or waiting for someone else. In saying that it didn't take me long before I was hiking with people of similar ability. This year there were more than 4000 people attempting a through-hike on the AT. As you all share a common goal it doesn't take long to make friends. Everyone is given a trail name from fellow hikers. I ended up with the name "New Zealand" but most trail names were far more creative. There was a female hiker called "Edward Shitterhands" — don't ask. The majority of hikers were Americans from all parts of the States, and the rest came from all over the world. I didn't know it starting off, but I would make friends for life on this trail. My buddy "Last Spot" and I hiked together for the last six weeks — we were within 20m of each other that whole time, so you get to know each other pretty well.
You only need to carry about 4-5 days of food at a time before you can resupply at a trail town. Be careful when your hiker hunger comes in — I doubled my food intake for a few weeks. The good thing about walking 30km a day is you can eat whatever you want. I turned to sugar and would talk in great detail about the next McDonald's order and I would dream of sodas. One genius thing about America is free soda refills in restaurants and diners. Even though I was eating a lot I struggled to keep weight on, losing 20kg in six weeks. Okay, I started a little bit overweight, but it was a bit much. They say on trail, "Your legs eat your arms" and I had to do the odd push-up to be able to carry my pack.
Squirrels, chipmunks, black bears, otters, marmots, raccoons, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, porcupines, coyotes, the odd bald eagle — you'll see loads of wildlife so have some kind of camera at the ready. There's a lot of information around on what to do if you encounter a bear, like "Don't play dead — fight back." I probably saw about 15 bears and the majority of these were easy to scare off. You'll want to protect your food, not only from bears but also from the rodents who will happily eat through your tent and pack to get to it. I hung my food bag every night as the smell of cooking food does attract the wildlife.
7 The Trail will provide
This was an expression I heard regularly. There were countless coincidences that reinforced this blind faith — I quickly learned never to be fazed when something went awry as the outcome would always be better. There was also a lot of trail magic. This saved me a few times, e.g. during a heatwave reliable water sources completely dried up but litres of water had been left by people thinking of hikers' needs. One time I came across a Kiwi family in the small town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. They had hired a house for a weekend near the trail specifically to do trail magic. Their sons were through-hiking and they wanted to give back to the AT. I really did feel magic after home-cooked bacon, eggs, pancakes, soda, beer, chocolate, icecream and real coffee. This and the many other acts of kindness lift your spirits and put a smile on your face no matter how exhausted you are. You also meet Trail Angels. They're known to all through-hikers and they become legendary. They generally travel in classic vintage vans heavily stickered with hiker paraphernalia. Trail Angels can assist with supplies and will "slackpack" you — this is where you hike a day without your full pack to let your body recover from injury.
8 Trail Towns
There are lots of interesting small towns along the way and access is easy with a quick hitch from obliging locals. Trail towns are set up for hikers; they have shuttle services and reasonably priced accommodation, like hostels. Hostels are relatively cheap, you can still tent there (my preference), do your washing, resupply, charge your phone, etc. Hostels will have a "hiker box" where hikers leave equipment or food they no longer require. There was always something in the hiker box I needed. Most hostels provide "town clothes" so you can go out and about while your clothes are being laundered. There were a few times, however, where we found ourselves sitting in our underwear at a laundromat eating pizza. Most towns will have a microbrewery and fast-food chains, so you'll be able to hit your daily requirement of 5000+ calories. I overdid it a couple of times and I won't be visiting an all-you-can-eat Chinese any time soon. There is a noticeable difference from the small trail towns in the south to the ones in the north, but one thing for sure is the people are interested and just downright lovely. They will go out of their way to help you, or just pull over to give words of encouragement. These towns are full of history — you can learn along the way about the early settlers, Native Americans, you even hike through Civil War areas.
9 Have fun
The trail isn't a death march. There are a few fun challenges you can partake in along the way. I did the Half-gallon (1.9 litres) Icecream Challenge near the halfway mark. I finished with the help of about 10 hikers chanting "New Zealand! New Zealand!" (I managed to keep it down). Then there's the 4 State Challenge, whereby you cross the borders of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, in 24 hours. It is 69km in total. Unfortunately, I slept through my 3am alarm. And then there's the 24 Challenge, 24 beers in 24 miles (40km) in 24 hours — I'm still trying to figure out the logistics on that one. There are also events especially for hikers like the three-day festival in Damascus, Virginia, called Trail Days.
10 Hike your own hike
Don't listen to anyone's advice — in fact, ignore everything I have said. Your experience will be unique to you. Your definition of hard or tired or heavy isn't the same as anyone else's. Don't listen to Bill Bryson — he didn't even get halfway. The AT is a life-changing experience — make it yours!