Southbound Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike is More Difficult
“I would never do the Appalachian Trail any way but northbound,” I have told many people. “I just love the way the hike develops with a crescendo effect in the final two states of New Hampshire and Maine.”
Well, I have now broken that pledge. A friend asked me to accompany her (only to have to cancel at the last minute!) for the first part of her southbound thru-hike. Like many southbounders, she was beginning in the north because of her school schedule. It is simply too late for the average hiker to go northbound starting in June. That leaves the great state of Maine for newbie hikers to grapple with right away.
I have been in the 100 Mile Wilderness the last nine days and have this to say–it was one helluva’ struggle. Of course you begin with the granite monstrosity of Mount Katahdin which is the toughest climb on the whole trail, usually traversed the last day, but now scaled the very first day. My utterance was probably very similar to so many who have attempted Katahdin a second time–“I forgot just how hard it is.” Indeed Katahdin almost seems like a gigantic jungle jim.
And then you’re off to the 100 Mile Wilderness and Maine’s famous black flies and early summer mosquitoes. And yes they lived up to their reputation, especially given all the moisture this year, especially in the low-lying boggy areas. This is bound to humble the proudest hiker.
Resupply is another concern. I am here at Shaws Boarding House where I have heard one tale after another of hikers almost running out of food. Indeed it is difficult enough for a 2,000 miler to calibrate their exact food needs in the 100 Mile Wilderness. And for newcomers it is one giant wild card. Throw in some bad weather (which we have had plenty of the last week) and you have a recipe for hiker desperation. Indeed I watched hikers attempt all kinds of segues and diversions to get out of the Wilderness, the purity of their thru-hikes ruined.
One final problem with going southbound is that the southbounder simply has a smaller window in which to complete the trail. If they hope to make it to north Georgia before Thanksgiving they have little over five months (It too me 171 days in 2005).
However I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush. Certainly many southbound journeys have merit. Some prefer the solitude of hiking alone, which is more elusive for northbounders starting in the spring. But perhaps the most glorious part of the journey will be racing through the autumn colors in the South trying to beat winter.
It’s all a delicate dance that only the aspiring thru-hiker can decide.
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, The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago, and Getting High–The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.