Appalachian Trail Prep I: Logistics

The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is known as the granddaddy of long distance hiking. With approximately 2,185 miles separating Springer Mountain, Georgia with Mt Katahdin, Maine it is not something to be undertaken lightly. As the time to put our money where our mouth is and start walking  draws near, Lindsay and I have been asked a multitude of questions relating to our preparations. The next four AT posts will hopefully answer some of those!

Thru-hike map of the Appalachian Trail
Thru-hike map of the Appalachian Trail

Before we could tackle things like food, gear and training we first had to take a look at the basic logistics of spending close to six months hiking in the woods with Hunter. Due to the population density of the Eastern US, hiking the AT is not a “wilderness experience” like you would find hiking 2,185mi across Alaska. It runs through some of the most popular National Parks, dozens of state parks, merges with the sidewalk in some towns and goes within a dozen miles of major cities. Because of this, the AT allows for some alternative options when it comes to logistics; a hiker could literally catch a flight to Atlanta and start walking with almost no preparation. The same hiker could spend weeks preparing food, schedules, checklists and boxes to mail, full of supplies and food. One of the major drawbacks to being the “fly by the seat of your pants” hiker is that it is undoubtedly more expensive to buy both gear/supplies and food in small quantities near the trail. As we are trying to be budget conscious (not really working for 16+ months will do that) Lindsay and I have gone with the latter option.

Planning! First we started with buying the tried and true guide books from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and diving into them on our flights back from New Zealand. These books provided us an estimated time and mileage/day between major way points along the trail, accounting for changing trail conditions and altitude gains and losses. We know that our walk begins on April 23rd and Baxter State Park closes on October 15th but want to finish on September 30th with a 15 day buffer on the back side for “just in-case” . That gives us 160 days to make it the 2,185mi . 180 days is a very comfortable thru-hike, based on previous experience hiking we are normally a bit faster than the norm so 160 days should be more than adequate. From charts in the guide books we broke up our walk into eight sections that are roughly three weeks long. This gives us (and you) waypoints to track our progress and know if we are ahead or behind our September 30th goal.

Lindsay studying the mileage books and plotting mail drops
Lindsay studying the mileage books and plotting mail drops

Having some waypoints hammered down demystified and simplified this massive undertaking and turned it into “a bunch of day hikes put together”. This allowed us to look at how many days we would spend between waypoints and how we could attack the food and supplies problem. Nothing will replace going into town every couple of days to resupply, but we will supplement “town food” with mail drops approximately two weeks apart. Because of Lindsay’s dietary considerations (no gluten, pigs or cows), our dog needing high calorie food and the enormous expense of buying everything in town, we are sending about twelve boxes to ourselves during the hike. These boxes will let us send food like Powerbars that you get a massive discount when buying in bulk, buffalo jerky so Lindsay can have another trail-stable protein, homemade granola and trail mix; saving about $500 from general store prices over the course of a summer. These mail drops also allow us to send supplies that we know we’ll need…

There is a reason we used a dry-erase marker in our planning...
There is a reason we used a dry-erase marker in our planning…

Ahh, supplies. What type of supplies could we possibly need? Hand Sanitizer? Baby Wipes? Socks? Foot Powder? Clean Toothbrushes? Summer clothes for Virgina to Vermont? Winter clothes for Vermont to Katahdin? Water filter cartridges? Shampoo? Toothpaste? Just to name a few. Think about the supplies you use in the course of a month and imagine trying to plan that out over an entire 160 days. Throw in the fact that you don’t really knowing what you are going to need or where you are going to need it and just trying to guess. That’s what we’ve been doing. The supplies that we are pre-buying can all be bought in town; but at what price? What weight? Can you afford the costs of socks at retail from an outfitter when you can buy them online for half the cost? Can you afford to carry the weight of a new bottle of soap when you can mail yourself pre-portioned quantities? Remember, ounces make pounds.

Our 'working copy' of a 6 month resupply plan.
Our ‘working copy’ of a 6 month schedule and resupply plan.

We’ll hit more on food and gear specifics in the next week or so in two separate posts. We just need to finish figuring it out first!

What about Hunter?! Well, our red-haired squirrel chaser made for additional planning considerations. First off, where can he go and where can’t he? The only place on the AT that causes real problems is Smokey Mountain National Park (SMNP). This is because the National Park Service hates dogs, apple pie, women’s suffrage and freedom (okay, maybe I exaggerated because I think it’s a stupid rule). Fortunately, SMNP is from days 7 to 21 and since my parents are retired and won’t let their grandpuppy spend two weeks in a boarding kennel they rescheduled their spring road trip to meet up with us at the eastern border of SMNP. This prevents us from having to fly Hunter down to Atlanta, board him somewhere and we will still be able to do about four full months of hiking with him! The only thing that could derail that plan is the heat; if summer in the Mid-Atlantic states get too hot for our Alaskan mutt we are going to have to send him back to Maine until it cools off and we get into New England.

Hunter will also be carrying his own pack with about 10% of his body weight. This should let him carry five days of food plus his own supplies like a bowl, paw ointment, medications and Yummy Chummies. The pack doubles him in width and I’m sure he is going to run into more than a couple trees out there since he hits the door frame every time he leaves the house for a walk!

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