Some Thoughts on Thruhiking
A recent trip to the Smokies has me reminiscing about and imaging the future of thruhiking the Appalachian Trail.
It's been eight years since I graduated from college and set out from Amicalola Falls State Park for my 2009 thruhike of the Appalachian trail, an experience that I think about daily. Spending six months hiking from Georgia to Maine has a way of creating a reference point along your mental timeline, making it hard not to think in terms of "pre-thruhike" and "post-thruhike." And always in the back of my mind is the thought of setting out for another trek. For now, I live vicariously through each year's crop of thruhike hopefuls.
My recent trip down to the Smokies put me smack dab in the middle of this year's batch of northbounders, and I couldn't help but think back to my time hiking the green tunnel, and what has and hasn't changed since then.
What Has Not Changed
Thruhikers, in general, are still some of the nicest people you'll meet. We passed dozens of hikers during our trip (we were hiking southbound), and camped with many others. While with any group of people, on or off trail, there's bound to be some outliers, the vast majority of thruhikers are friendly and considerate.
Some thruhikers still inexplicably choose some unconventional gear. Even with the abundance of information about thruhiking and backpacking best practices, there are still those who choose the unconventional, whether by choice or ignorance. My biggest head shake resulted from the guy carrying the bow saw and bear spray, two (in my opinion) totally unnecessary pieces of equipment for the A.T. There were also hikers in jeans, hikers with two packs, and hikers with chairs. I firmly believe you should bring the gear that you want, advice be damned, but some choices of gear always surprises me.
What Has Changed
Much of what has changed from the time of my thruhike to now involves the ever changing landscape of backpacking gear. The most notably and sweeping change is to water treatment methods. Nearly every thruhiker I met was using the Sawyer Mini, a system that didn't exist for my '09 hike. Back then, many hikers treated water chemically, with some choosing to carry bulky pump filters instead.
The changes to gear over the years can also be seen in the abundance and popularity of ultralight gear brands. Hyperlight, ULA, and ZPack backpacks were common sights, equally represented beside the bigger pack brands. Tents have continued to shed ounces, as well as sleeping bags and pads.
There appears to have been a huge increase in people using electronics on the trail. I bought my first smartphone just before my '09 trip, an iPhone 3G. It rarely came out during the day, being used mainly for journal entries at night, and checking email while in town. Now, almost everyone has a smartphone accessible at all times. Thruhikers are using them as their cameras, journals, maps, GPS units, music players, and guidebooks. Cell coverage along the trail has improved (depending on your carrier), and many people check in daily with loved ones back home or use their phone to plan out where their next resupply should be.
As a result, electricity to power those devices is also more prevalent. No, they haven't run extension cords up into the Smokies (yet), but hikers with solar panels and backup batteries were more common. There's even a solar powered device charging station now installed beside the Fontana Dam "Hilton" shelter.
But the biggest change in the last eight years is the popularity of the trail. I was shocked by the number of thruhikers we saw over the course of our trip. Understanding that we were still pretty far south, and many may not go on to finish the whole trail, there was still an exponentially greater number of hikers then when I thruhiked in 2009. The biggest indicator of this for me was the large number of thruhikers tenting (out of necessity) near shelters in the Smokies and at Fontana dam, something that I never saw even once on my thruhike.
The Future of Thruhiking
Every year brings fresh reports of increased overcrowding along the Appalachian Trail. Having witnessed it first hand last month, I am starting to truly understand the struggle that maintenance groups and parks are dealing with. For the past few years the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been operating a voluntary registration system online, allowing hikers to get a better gauge on how crowded the trail will be for their planned start, and collect better data on thruhikers. That's an excellent start, but ultimately a more robust permit system similar to the Pacific Crest Trail will probably be necessary.
It will be important to balance the needs and limits of the trail with the desire of hikers. While it feels against the spirit of the trail to put anything in place to discourage people from attempting a thruhike, I hope more can be done to encourage hikers to start from alternative locations and hike what's known as a "flip-flop" thruhike.
I would also encourage anyone contemplating a thruhike to think deeply on what you want to achieve beyond simply getting to Katahdin. The unstoppable march of technological progress will give hikers lighter gear and more connectivity to the rest of the world. But thruhiking is no easy feat, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It also affords someone the opportunity to reflect inwardly in a relatively isolated experience.
When selecting gear for such an experience, don't simply focus on cutting ounces. I often see pairs of thruhikers hiking with matching gear, often the lightest, or trendiest, or most favorably reviewed. That makes no sense to me. I've outfitted many people with gear, and everyone's needs are different. We all have our own body types, habits, and preferences. Blindly selecting this year's new ultralight gadgets off a forum thread is no way to find gear you'll be happy with over 2,200 miles. If you're unsure of what you need or want, find a competent outfitter and talk to some experts. Try things out. Imagine yourself alone, using your gear in a horrendous downpour, miles from the nearest sign of civilization. That small annoyance you're giving a pass to can grow into a huge pain in the ass.
As for that smartphone in your pocket, I'll be blunt. My opinions are obviously my own, but I would say leave it off most of the time and bring a book instead of headphones. Looking back, my biggest regrets are not spending enough time going slow, or allowing myself to just sit on a log and listen to the sounds of the woods. If I needed a different escape, I always tried to have a paperback or two stashed in my pack, leaving them behind in shelters after finishing them, ready for the next hiker. When I thruhike again, I won't be prioritizing additional battery life for my phone, but room for a sketchpad or wood carving tools. Find comfort in being disconnected, as there are fewer and fewer places where that is truly possible.
On a final note, however, there's a popular saying that supersedes all; hike your own hike. A thruhike is an experience unlike any other, and the decisions you make should reflect you and your desires alone. Research is important, but don't allow anyone's opinions, especially mine, inhibit what feels right for you.