Hiking in the Rain is An Existential Part of Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking Challenge
I just saw a post of a friend from Amicalola Falls, where the approach trail to the Appalachian Trail begins.
“Starting in the rain,” he wrote.
“Hey,” I wrote back, “we fair-weathered hikers time our entry onto the trail.”
I was being half-droll and half-serious. To be sure, given how early it still is in the hiking season, I would wait until good weather was forecast for a few days before beginning. As tough as those first few days can be, why make it even more difficult? Rain increases the chances of not just equipment malfunction, but injuries as well. But having said that, at the end of the day, rain is existential to the challenge of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), much more than rain is a factor, for example, on the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Ours was a really wet year,” veteran thru-hikers routinely exclaim. The class of 2003 is especially renowned for having marched through rain at one stretch on 23 out of 24 days. “Rain changes everything,” I wrote in my AT narrtive, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. And for a really ‘green’ hiker like I was, it proved to be especially problematic. In north Georgia during one especially grueling stretch, I got caught in a rainstorm the likes of which I had never endured for such a prolonged period of time; I ended up having to abandon my backpack to make it to a road and hitchhike into Helen, Georgia. Others find the rain so discouraging that they end up quitting; indeed, the first two states, Georgia and North Carolina are where thru-hikers are likely to deal with the worst weather, and also claim a disproportionate share of dropout victims. For this reason, I always recommend that thru-hikers not begin until early April. This will leave an average hiker plenty of time to make it to Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia in mid-May and still be on track to arrive in northern Maine by late September. A person beginning before April should be well aware that they will almost certainly face a few days of fierce weather in the southern Appalachians. In fact, the forest will be dormant as if it was the dead of winter.
But the news is not all bad. I’m enough of a Calvinist that I feel like struggle has some inherent worth. Better yet, the AT thru-hiker–despite beginning in the spring and ending in the fall–will face what are effectively four seasons due to the winter-like conditions in the forest. This brought me a greater identification with the outdoors that is, quite simply, priceless. So the rain you pass through should be respected; but ultimately it enhances the journey.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.