Northbound is the Most Rewarding Way to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail
“Why go northbound?” many potential thru-hikers ask me. Good question. Approximately 15% of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers do choose to go southbound. But the rest walk from Springer Mountain in north Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. Why? Some say it is because the first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, established the tradition of the northbound thru-hike in 1951.
But surely there are more profound reasons that that. Personally, I like the way a northbound thru-hike develops. The average person requires approximately five to six months to walk the entire 2,181 mile wilderness trail. The toughest two states–most would agree–are the last two, New Hampshire and Maine. The good news for northbound thru-hikers is that they should have what are known in hiker parlance as ‘trail legs’ by the time they get to the White Mountains and Mahoosuc Range in northern New England. An added bonus for northbounders is that for the average person (it took me 171 days), you will arrive in these two states in the early autumn as the foliage becomes breathtaking.
It must be noted, however, that if the last two states are the most difficult of the fourteen states on the AT, the next two toughest are the first two, Georgia and North Carolina. So while you cannot expect to have the trail legs you will later on in New England, a thru-hiker should arrive with his ‘game face’ on. And you can expect some cold, wet–possibly dangerously wet–conditions in the early going. Tales of hypothermia abound. Those of you who have read my narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, will remember me abandoning my backpack on the fourth day on the trail in a horrific storm. And fans of A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson will recall he and Katz being grounded for days by snow drifts. A thru-hiker’s ace-in-the-hole in such weather is the three-sided shelters which dot the length of the AT, every nine miles on average. In horrific weather, all but the most season outdoorspeople, should try to hunker down in there. They may not be comfortable, but they can save your life. But on really rainy days, you may have to cut your miles back to ensure getting a spot in the shelter.
But let’s not get away from the glory of the Appalachian Trial. A northbounder beginning in the spring can expect to embark along with legions of colorful characters–with even more colorful trail names–Serial Killer, Nurse Ratchet, Snot Rag–on the journey of their lifetimes. Whether by divine intervention or skilled trail maintainers, the AT unfolds brilliantly over the course of its fourteen states.
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).