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The Appalachian Trail is one of the top three long-distance hikes in the United States. This trail starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia and spans over 2,200 miles and 14 states before ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Every year, hundreds of hikers set out on this trail with various goals in mind. There are short, recreational hiking options that last anywhere from one day to two weeks, or the option that the trail is known for, which is through hiking the entire trail over the span of 5 to 7 months. We asked our friend and hiking extraordinaire, Dave, to share his experience and tips for your first time hiking or first time camping on the Appalachian Trail (or the AT as the cool kids call it). If you are interested in doing a little, or a lot, of hiking on the AT, keep reading!
Q: Give the quick and dirty on your experience hiking the AT. Which section did you hike? How many miles? How long?
Dave: I hiked the southern section of the AT from Springer Mountain, GA to Harpers Ferry, WV, which is considered the halfway point for the trail. This wound up being 1,017.6 miles (not that I was counting) in 3 months from April 1 – July 1, 2012.
Q: All of the serious hikers on the AT have an alias. What is yours and how did you get it?
Dave: My alias was “Footloose” – I got it in the Virgin Islands while I was interning with the Park Service. I would hike after work on the Cinnamon Bay trail above Cinnamon Bay on St. John and I met an old AT hiker named Jerr Bear from Dayton, Ohio. He made me a denatured alcohol stove out of two coke cans that I used during the first part of my hike. He also christened me “Footloose” because when he met me on the trail I was wearing Vibram Five Finger shoes.
Q: If you only had a weekend, which part of the trail would you choose to hike?
Dave: With one weekend I would hike the Grayson Highlands in southern central Virginia. This was by far the best part of the trail that I experienced and a great option for your first time hiking the AT.
Q: What was the most critical gear item you had with you on the hike?
Dave: The most critical gear item I had was my pair of trekking poles. They may look goofy, but they provided substantial stress reduction, improved stability, arm extension to fend of bears and snakes, and were the poles for my tap tent.
Q: Which item(s) do you wish you left at home?
Dave: I would have left behind the denatured alcohol stove. It took forever to prepare food and the amount of fuel I had to carry negated any weight saving the stove incurs. Once I bought a Jetboil, I was much happier.
Q: What did you learn from your time on the trail?
Dave: I learned from my hike how to be alone. It’s a skill that I never developed and was difficult to cultivate until I was about a month into the excursion. I also learned that despite whatever other hikers were going through, whatever they had been through, where ever they were from, we were all out there together on the same journey with the same destination in mind. The trail is a great equalizer.
Q: What is the craziest thing that happened to you?
Dave: From almost getting into a fight with locals in Georgia, to almost getting bit by a timber rattler in Virginia, the entire trail was a crazy experience. Two moments stick out particularly in my mind: After hiking 18 miles in central Virginia, I had one mile left until the shelter where I wanted to camp for the night. Unbeknownst to me that last mile was over a series of bald (treeless) hill summits. Thunderheads had been building all day and were finally breaking into a massive storm as I was about halfway over the bald highland on my way to that shelter. It was the scariest moment of my life because thunder and lighting was all around and I had a half mile in each direction to cover. I hunkered over almost double, tucked my trekking poles up under my arms behind me like a skier, and I ran the fastest half mile I have ever accomplished. I made it to the shelter and it wound up being the nicest and most enjoyable one I encountered on my journey. Most shelters are three sided Adirondack buildings, but this one was a completely enclosed building with a door, so the night wound up being decent despite the harrowing 19 mile hike.