HIKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL
About the writer
Louis was raised in London but has used every opportunity to get to the mountains. He currently works as a mountain guide in the Swiss Alps and is always planning his next adventure. His favourite outdoor pursuits are running, trekking, cycling and climbing, but generally enjoys simply finding an excuse to get out and spend time in the mountains. Twitter - @marathonandmore
We picked up the Appalachian Trail, or AT, in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, with the plan to hike 161 miles over the course of a week. That made for a punishing regime of 23 miles per day, with a daily vertical ascent of between one and two kilometers to add to the pain. The need for such a brutal schedule? Shenandoah National Park. With a limited time frame, to be able to walk the entire length of the park such a heavy mileage was essential; otherwise we would have had to miss out some of the park.
The AT runs for 101 miles directly through Shenandoah. On our first two days hiking the AT before we reached the park boundary, we were told dramatic tales of bears mauling deer fawns next to the trail, shelters better equipped than some alpine huts (and free to use!), and vistas looking out for tens of miles over unspoilt forest. It’s fair to say that we had high expectations when we reached the entrance marker to the park.
Day 1: The psyche is high with these two
Nine times out of ten when you stop to look because you hear a sound in the forest, it’s either a squirrel or a chipmunk. This time, however, on our first day in Shenandoah, it was neither. I looked all around me, but couldn’t pinpoint where the sound came from. More rustling. I looked farther off in the distance. Still nothing. Then, out of the corner of my eye, up above me, a big black blob. It took me a while to be certain what it was. No more than five metres above me, in a tree directly beside the path, was an adult black bear, picking acorns.
Like every hiker on the AT, I had diligently read up on what to do if you encounter a bear, so felt prepared for this moment: “Don’t run. Stand your ground. Let them know you’re there.” So now, heart racing, I was relieved when I made eye contact with it. It knew I was there and didn’t see me as a threat. If anything, I was surprised at how completely nonplussed it seemed at my presence; it just continued going about its cheery business of picking and eating acorns. Ten minutes went by in a flash, most of which involved me standing mesmerised, striking a fine balance between trying to stand close enough to the tree to get a good snap of the bear, but far away enough so that I could make a run for it if it charged at me. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t charge me and I now live to tell the tale.
I spy with my little eye a 600lb adult black bear looking at me
Hanging your food from a branch each night is part and parcel of life on the AT… bears love an easy meal
Pit stop: 1,500 calories and three coffees later...
There are about 600 black bears that roam Shenandoah National Park, and attacks on humans are very rare. But every now and then you hear a grim tale. For example, in 2014 Darsh Patel was mauled to death by a 300-pound black bear, after he and his group turned and ran upon seeing the bear coming towards them. Run away from a black bear and it sees you as prey. So, despite his attempts to climb a nearby tree to escape, Darsh was later found dead at the scene. However, when treated wisely and with respect, black bears are gentle giants that are more concerned with ant nests and acorns than famished hikers.
Less than an hour into day one of our hike, we encounter our first ‘trail magic’: a bag of Clif bars left by a kind-spirited local hanging from a tree. The note attached read, “A little magic for those on the Appalachian Trail.” ‘Trail magic’ is whenever someone gives you something for free on the trail, and this happens pleasantly often on the AT. Mostly it’s just goodies hanging from a tree, but occasionally you’ll bump into someone with coolers full of beer and soda at a road junction; their purpose simply being to bring a smile to your face and provide some home comforts to weary hikers. It’s one of the things that sets the AT apart from any routes in the UK or Europe; could you imagine someone turning up on the Pennine Way and handing out free bottles of ale? In the US, however, and particularly on the AT, encountering ‘trail magic’ is a very common occurrence- I got lucky five times in 13 days, with treats ranging from ice-cold beer to fresh fruit, and even a handmade necklace.
Trail Magic is delivered to hungry hikers on the AT
Taking a well earned break and enjoying the view
And then there’s the shelters, or “lean-tos” if you want to sound genuinely American. In the Alps you might be used to the luxury of proper beds and cold beers, but boy do you have to pay for it. On the AT the shelters are free, and beautiful, so long as you are well attuned to a more primitive way of living. Whilst every shelter is different, there are some similarities that all shelters share: rain protection in the form of a wooden roof, a floor space to sleep on, a privy (primitive toilet), and most importantly, a water source. Shelters are so abundant on the AT that you hit one on average every eight miles. Now, you obviously don’t have to stay at one every night; there are lots of fine wild camp spots en route too, but there is definitely a big appeal to rocking up at a wooden hut in the forest, knowing that you’ll have company for dinner, good chat, and a dry night’s sleep. While Scotland has bothies, which are also free to use, the scale of the shelter network on the AT is unrivalled in its offering of over 250 temporary abodes.
The Appalachian Trail is home to a host of well signposted lean-to huts
Thanks to the combination of the wildlife, trail community and shelters, 161 miles later we were in Waynesboro, having successfully averaged over 20 miles of hiking per day. Do I wish I had done the whole thing, or “thru-hiked” it? Sure, I can see the appeal of it, and with around 4000 people having already started it in 2017 (as of June 2017), the companions and friends you’d make along the way must be rock solid. But if you’re busy, with work, relationship and family commitments, I don’t think the four to six months needed to do the whole thing in one go is realistic. Hiking a section is far more achievable, and you’ll still be able to experience many of the same things thru-hikers do, all the while being able to hold down your job and keep your relationship intact!
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