Summertime Hiking on the Appalachian Trail
“The weather forecast was invariably the same–always hot and humid with a chance of thunderstorms,” I wrote in Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. That referred to my thru-hike in 2005. However the same could be said about any summer up and down the Appalachian Mountain Range (weather patterns are very different in the West). Summertime thunderstorms, along with the gut-wrenching fear of getting struck by lightning, are part of the drill on the AT. But there is some good news.
First, the number of people struck by lightning is very small (although not unheard of. One hiker had the trail name, Lightning Rod, from a previous indirect strike). Secondly, at least you could get warm and dry afterwards. Sometimes you were so hot it even felt good! But most importantly, you could get dry afterwards. This compared to the cold, rainy days in the southern Appalachians in the early spring, when we all had that miserable, sodden feel for the rest of the evening after getting wet. That was not only unpleasant, but debilitating because it required so much energy to stay warm for the night. So like most hikers, my attitude about thunderstorms was–while not exactly ho, hum–that it was just part of trail life. The irony was that we everyday we hoped it would not rain, yet you had to have it to keep the streams flowing. In fact, when we hit a horrific drought in southern New England, that is when trail life became the most unpleasant.
But enough about rain. It’s just one of the many factors of trail life in the summer. Summertime hiking is actually a thru-hiker’s ace-in-the-hole. The first two (Georgia and N.C.) and last two (N.H. and Maine) are the most difficult states. And the days aren’t as long while traversing them. For that reason one can’t expect to make as many miles. For an average person, a rule of thumb is 10-15 miles per days. But when hikers arrive in the mid-Atlantic states (Virginia–Connecticut), the days are the longest and the terrain is generally more hospitable. This is the chance for an average person like myself to bang out some 20 mile days. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not easy to walk twenty miles in one day with a fully-loaded backpack. However, it is doable if a person is disciplined. What it requires is giving yourself plenty of time. You should be out of camp and walking by 8:00 when the weather is coolest. You don’t want to shortchange yourself on breaks. However, you should keep them within reason. A few fifteen minute breaks, some more 3 or 4 minute stops, along with a lunch layover of at least an hour is reasonable. Since it is not dark until after 9:00, a thru-hiker should plan his or her day to not arrive at their destination not before 7:00, if not later. Most people walk at full speed around 2.5–3.0 miles per hour. Thus they need to be actually walking for about 7 or 7 1/2 hours to make twenty miles. Yes, that is somewhat demanding; but it is plenty doable.
I had never even spent the night outdoors before undertaking my thru-hike in my mid-forties. I simply did not know if I was capable of making it from Georgia to Maine before wintertime. But a disciplined approach during high summer in these mid-Atlantic states allowed me to make the necessary paces, giving me enough time to slow down when I hit the extraordinarily difficult northern New England states. A thru-hike is greater than the sum of its parts. A person gets to see all four seasons, given that the spring forest in the mountains is completely dormant. It is a great goal to pursue. But for the average person, it is a tremendous challenge. The summer months is your chance to make big miles and complete this great national scenic trail.
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. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.