When I first announced my decision to attempt a “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail, my friends and acquaintances often responded with a series of questions, most of which I had no answers for. This lack of knowledge put me on a quest to get some answers and once I began digging, found no lack of stats to chew on.
EDITOR’S NOTE – SEE THE INSPIRATION BEHIND KEVIN’S DECISION BELOW:
The current Appalachian Trail (as of 2019) is 2,190 miles long (and now that I see that in writing, makes my dyslexic self, do a double-take). If you travel northbound, it begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia and ends at the summit of Mount Katahdin, Maine. Although parts of it crosses highways, bridges, and through small towns, a majority of it is a literal footpath, rarely more than 18” wide along most of the route and travels through 14 states: GA, NC, TN, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH, ME. One-quarter of the entire AT (550 miles) is in Virginia alone. It is marked by approximately 165,000 “White Blazes” (2” x 6” white stripes, painted on trees and rocks) to help keep you on the right path.
The elevation gain and loss (just shy of a half million feet) is the equivalent of climbing Mt Everest 16 times. I could not find a count of how many mountain peaks one summits on an AT thru-hike, but Wikipedia suggest approximately 90+. The tallest mountain is Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee, at 6,643 feet. The most dangerous mountain on the AT is considered Mount Washington in New Hampshire, at 6,288 feet, where in 1934, it set the record for the highest wind speed ever recorded in the US (not associated with a tornado), at 231 mph.
There are approximately 262 shelters along the trail, spaced out about every five to eight miles in most areas. The shelters vary in design by state, but most are three-sided with a floor and a roof with privies or outhouses located nearby. There are plenty of small towns and a few small cities located within one to ten miles of the trail along most of the route, offering plenty of resupply options for hikers. The longest stretch with no supply option is “The 100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine nearing the end of the trail for northbounders. Hikers are warned to carry a ten-day supply of food and water when entering, though most make it through in five to six days.
Most hikers travel northbound (approx. 87%), while some go southbound and some do what’s called a “flip-flop” (traveling half the trail north, then the other half south, ending both hikes in the middle, at or near Harper’s Ferry, WV).
The demographics of the hiker community are about 75% male, 25% female, with the ages breaking down in the neighborhood of 45% under age 30; 26% age 30-49; and 29% being 50 and older. The younger age bracket is comprised largely of those who claim to have just graduated college and are taking a break before entering the workforce, and the older age bracket often identifies as recently retired.
It’s also estimated that one typically burns about 5,500 calories per day hiking the AT, leading to what’s called “Hiker Hunger.” The average number of pounds lost on a thru-hike is 30, but some have lost well over 100 lbs and others have claimed to have lost nothing at all.
The number of days it takes to complete a thru-hike of the AT varies from 120 to 200+ depending on age and speed traveled, but the current average is about 165 days. The number of miles one hikes per day (based on 2,190 miles / 165 days) is about 13 miles per day, but that’s deceiving, because most hikers average about 20 “zero days” (days when no miles are recorded, giving their bodies a rest), so the real “miles per HIKING day” average is closer to 15. Most will record days of having hiked 20-30 miles, and days when only 5-8 miles were spent moving forward. Hiking the entire AT has been estimated at taking approximately five million steps. It’s also estimated that one typically burns about 5,500 calories per day hiking the AT, leading to what’s called “Hiker Hunger.” The average number of pounds lost on a thru-hike is 30, but some have lost well over 100 lbs and others have claimed to have lost nothing at all. Obviously, it’s dependent on how much weight one has to lose, to begin with, and how well you maintain good nutrition on the trail. “Good nutrition” is typically laughed at by most, as they seek to replenish their bodies of those 5k calories in the lightest way possible (Twinkies and candy bars are a staple on the trail).
“Trail Runners” are a special kind of tennis shoe designed specifically for hikers and are favored over traditional hiking boots by most long-distance hikers. These shoes usually last about 500 miles, so it’ll take at least 4-5 pair to complete the hike. Many hikers have reported their feet growing from one-half to one full size, likely a result of widening or flattening of the feet, as well as the foot getting more muscular along the way.
The gear one carries has changed dramatically over the years, as a cottage industry has popped up offering light and ultra-light options in packs, tents, hammocks, sleeping bags or quilts, and cook systems. In the days of yore, a hiker might’ve carried a 50 lb pack the entire trek. Today, one can complete the trip carrying half that weight and still have most everything carried by hikers of yesteryear. To outfit one’s self for a thru-hike, you can spend as much or as little as you’d like, but if you’re buying all new gear and you’re looking carry the least amount of weight, you should be prepared to spend approximately $2,500-$3,000. Hikers often talk about “base weight,” which is often calculated to include all non-consumables (pack, tent or hammock, sleeping pad, sleeping bag or quilt, cook system, clothing, and a water-filtration system). A goal of a lightweight hiker is to get their base weight down to 10 pounds or less. Add four days of consumables (toiletries, food, fuel for your stove, and a day’s worth of water), and you’re likely at 25-27 pounds.
People often ask about the dangers on the AT, such as bears or bad people. Bears are fairly common in some areas, not so common in others. Some hikers have reported seeing dozens of bears on their hike, a few have reported never seeing a single one (it’s highly likely that they were looking down and walked right past them without realizing it). But the Black Bears on the AT have no real interest in humans and are known to be very shy (unlike their Grizzly cousins out west), so an attack is extremely rare. They WILL, however, sniff out your food bag and go after it at night, so hanging your food high in a tree is required throughout most of the AT. Bad people are unavoidable, but also uncommon within the AT hiking community, so the “crime rate” on the AT is minuscule compared to towns of similar size.
The biggest danger one faces on the AT is Giardia, a water-borne illness that causes an intestinal infection resulting in diarrhea or dehydration. Approximately 5% will succumb to Giardia on the AT, requiring a week or two of rest to recover. 90% of hikers use some method of filtering water from natural sources, reducing their risk.
The next biggest danger is Lyme Disease from infected ticks. Approximately 3-4% will contract Lyme Disease, and the severity of it leads to recovery ranges from a few weeks to a few years. Steps taken by hikers to prevent Lyme includes treating your clothing and gear, and nightly body checks when hiking through areas known to have tick populations.
In recent years, the popularity of the Appalachian Trail has grown tremendously. It’s estimated that approximately 3,500-4,000 hikers attempt a thru-hike each year and about 20-25% of them are successful. I’ve set my own personal goal of becoming one of the successful ones in 2020. If doing one’s homework and thorough planning and training is a plus, then I think I’ll have padded my chances better than most. Only time will tell.