Category Archives: Best Long Trails Series

Thru-hiking Lingo for the Appalachian Trail

The plaque at Springer Mountain.

Thinking of hiking the Appalachian Trail? (That’s “AT” to those in the know). It’s not enough to walk the walk; you gotta talk the talk, too.

Here’s some lingo you’re going to be hearing for the next, oh, five or six months.

(The following list is mostly directly related to the Appalachian Trail; I didn’t include “regular” hiking terms. If you’ve got some to add, please put them in the comments section below this post!)

On the Trail

  • Lean-to: (Also called a shelter): A primitive three-sided structure for sheltering hikers. First come first served, and the ethos is to squeeze as many in as possible, especially in bad weather.
  • Stealth camping: Camping in such a way that you can’t (easily) be seen. It doesn’t necessarily mean camping illegally — but it sometimes does.
  • Water bars: Stone bars that help channel; water off the trail.
  • Double blazes: indicate a change of direction.
  • Relo: A change in the route of the trail: Can be temporary or permanent.
  • PUDs. Pointless ups and downs. Many blue blazers (see below) try to avoid PUDs.

Trail Folk: Who We Are

  • SoBo and NoBo: Southbounder and northbounder; indicates a hiker’s direction of travel.
  • White blazer: A hiker who assiduously follows the exact, official  marked (white-blazed) route of the Appalachian Trail.
  • Blue blazer: A hiker who takes alternate routes, such as old AT routes that have since been relocated (often marked in blue); often blueblazers are blueblazing to avoid PUDs..
  • Yellow blazer: A hiker who “cheats” by hitchhiking (following the yellow marks on a highway).
  • Purist: A hiker who white blazes. often expresses a critical attitude about people who blue blaze, and let’s not even talk about yellow blazing.
  • Triple Crowner: A hiker who has completed the Appalachian, Pacific crest, and Continental Divide national scenic trails.
  • Hiker trash: What we all affectionately call each other when we’re covered with grime and headed for the nearest bar.
  • Thru-hiker: Yup, we spell it wrong. We’re into the lightweight thing; we get rid of stuff (like letters) we don’t need.
  • Section-hiker: Hikers who hike the entire Appalachian Trail over a stretch of several or many years.
  • 2000-milers: Anyone who has hiked the entire AT.
  • End-to-Ender: Same as above.

Thru-Hiking Gear and Stuff

  • Ultralight: A style of hiking where gear is chosen according to weight; the goal is the lightest pack possible.
  • FSO: From-the-skin-out: A measure used by weight-obsessed ultralight hikers to account for every ounce they carry, right down to their underwear.
  • Hiker box: A box maintained in some hostels or other trail service providers where hikers can donate food and equipment they no longer need to those coming after them.
  • Flyer: A box of  supplies you mail to yorself, to a location farther up the trail.
  • Mail drops: Boxes you prepackage when still at home and bribe a friend or family member to send to you at various post offices and hostels along the way.
  • Resupply: Going into town to get more food, pick up your mail drops, or  stock up or repair gear.
  • Vitamin I : Ibuprofen: What you need to carry all that stuff.

Trail Culture

  • Trail Daze: Hiker variation of Trail Days, the annual town festival in Damascus, Virginia, which brings hundreds of current and former thru-hikers into town.
  • Ruck: A ruck is technically an informal gathering, but in recent years, informal gatherings have become scheduled events at various places along the trail.
  • Register: A notebook left in a lean-to, trail head, or hostel, where hikers record pretty much whatever they want to. it’s the hub of the  non-digital hiker communication system.
  • Taking a zero: (zero-mile day): Taking a full day off in town or on the trail, where you do no hiking at all. (A “Nero” is a “nearly zero” day.)
  • Getting off: The polite way to say someone is quitting their thru-hike, the implication being he may get back on.
  • Flip-flopping: Continuing to hike the trail, but driving to another location and resuming hiking in a different direction. (“He was going NoBo, but he’s going SoBo because he realized he’d never make it to Katahdin in time, so he flip-flopped.”)
  • Slackpacking: It used to mean hiking at a leisurely pace, but on the AT the term has gotten commandeered to mean hiking without a pack (by getting someone to deliver it ahead for you).
  • Yogiing: Good naturedly trying to get day-users to give you food or drinks without actually asking.
  • Yoyoing: Doing back-to-back thru-hikes of the A.T., one in each drirection.
  • Trail name: It’s like a truck driver’s “handle.” You can try to name yourself — or you can “acquire” a name on the trail. (Do that at your own risk!)

 Trail Communities

Katahdin, the northern terminus.
  • Trail towns: Towns that are very close to the trail and are popular re-supply and rest stops because they have what hikers need and/or are especially friendly to hikers.
  • Ridge runner: Usually a paid summer position in crowded sections of the trail: Think of them as A.T. rangers.
  • Maintainer: Volunteers who keep the trail cleared of blowdowns (downed trees), cut down widow makers (hanging branches) and build puncheons (bog bridges).
  • Trail magic:  The serendipity of meeting someone on the trail who offers hospitality or help, usually when you need it most.
  • Trail angels: Purveyors of trail magic.
  • Hike your own hike: What we tell each other to let people make their own decisions about whiteblazing, flip-flopping, and other crucial issues of the thru-hiking world.

Annapurna Circuit: Best Long Hikes in the World Series

I’m going to jump around the world in this series. Keep things interesting. Nepal is about as far away from where I live as you can get on this earth, and the Annapurna Circuit is one of that country’s iconic treks.

It’s a  three-week trip that circles around the Annapurna Massif, which are among the world’s highest mountains. Annapurna I is one of the world’s classic 8,000-meter climbs.

Logistically, this is an easy trek to arrange. From Kathmandu, you take a bus to Besishahar. From there, it’s a two-hour drive on a rutted, pitted, washed out jeep track to Syanje, where the trail actually starts. (You can also walk it; plan for a full day). Negotiating passage on a truck or four-wheel drive vehicle is generally possible because trekkers are a big part of the economy here. The details, while not exactly controllable (ours involved a drunk driver and a vehicle that had a slight problem keeping the engine running), do seem to fall into place, at least in hindsight. It didn’t seem that way when we were stuck in a creek without the proverbial paddle, and all of the trekkers were trying to push the stalled vehicle through the boulder strewn river-bed.

The general contour of the trek is to circle the massif counterclockwise by going upriver, trekking across a plateau, and then going downriver. (That summary is kind of like saying the Empire State Building is a building somewhere in New York.) The route begins with an ascent of the Marshyangdi River valley, with  views of  Manashlu and Himal Chuli. The trek rises from rice fields and forests to scruffier subalpine vegetation, following the same pedestrian routes of travel used by villagers. There are no roads.

The trek then veers west, to the Manang Valley, a windswept, sandy, rocky, avalanche strewn landscape inhabited by Tibetan Buddists. This is part of the Tibetan plateau, and indeed, Tibet is just over the mountain range to the north. The trail then crosses the Thorong La (“La” means Pass), which at 17,800 feet is the highest point on the trail. After Thorong La, trekkers descend to the pilgrimage site of Muktinath, then continue down the Kali Ghandaki Valley, the world’s deepest gorge, with jaw-dropping views of the fierce-looking Dhaulagiri. This part of the trek can be done as a smaller subsection by flying into Jomson then trekking down-valley: With many guesthouses and restaurants, it’s come to be known as the Apple Pie Trek.

Buying last minute equipment en route.

Traditionally, trekkers stay in the small villages along the route. If you’ve booked a commercial guided expedition, you’ll probably be staying in tents pitched for you by your porters. If you’re on a private independent trek, you can carry (or hire porters to carry) tents, or you can stay in tea-houses along the way. The majority of trekkers hire porters to carry their gear. This makes the trekking easier, and porters hired independently (as opposed to pre-paid commercial expeditions) cost only about $15 – $20 US a day, depending on the trek. A guide might cost $20 – $30 a day, and he can help negotiate transport and stays at tea houses, give you cultural insights, and help with route finding and logistics on the more remote routes.

If you do book porters and guides independently, check their high altitude equipment: Many do not have adequate equipment (sunglasses, boots, warm jackets, hats), and won’t let you know until you are dependent on them, in a remote village, where some equipment may be available for sale from enterprising locals at a high prices (which you, as the employer, will be expected to pay). Also be aware that they will expect tips. Going on strike in Nepal is a time-honored porter tradition: A commercial expedition costs far more than an independently arranged one, but makes this hassle someone else’s problem.

Another concern for all trekkers in Nepal is hygiene and health. Arriving in Nepal after having spent several months in East Africa, after having spent another several months on America’s Continental Divide Trail, I thought my resistance was up to snuff. Not so: I was flattened by severe stomach trouble within a day of my arrival. Living and hygiene conditions can be, quite simply, life-threatening in Nepal, which has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Use every food caution you’ve ever heard of and then some, from opening your own soda bottles to using your own utensils and never eating anything raw.  Our pampered western immune systems simply aren’t tough enough for the bugs they’ll encounter here.

In the Annapurna Sanctuary

The final issue is altitude sickness. The typical schedules offered by the guidebooks and the itineraries followed by the trekking companies give plenty of time to acclimate to the high elevations. If you’re trekking on your own, don’t try to rush this part: The elevations are frankly dangerous, and to be safe, you’ve got to follow the rules.

A final alternative is to extend the 19 – 21 day circuit with another week of trekking into the Annapurna Sanctuary itself. This takes you to the all-white world of the mountaineer, and you can stay overnight at Annapurna Base Camp. If you’re coming all this way, it is absolutely worth the additional time.

Nepal is not an easy destination: The entirely different culture, the hygienic problems, the sometimes limited food choices, the Sanskrit alphabet, the unfamiliar religious customs which foreigners should respect but may not understand…. all of this leads to a feeling of what the French call depayse: being out of one’s element. But the dramatic beauty of the highest mountains of earth is worth every possible traveler’s travail. Among the highlights were the views of 7,000 and 8,000 meter peaks, the climb to nearly 18,000 feet, the stark whiteness to the Annapurna Sanctuary, the emerald green of the rice fields, the rhododendron forests in bloom, the sky-piercing point of Machapuchare, and the sheer power of the raging rivers that drain the snowmelt and the remnants of avalanches. All of which, added together, put this trek securely among the top hikes in the world.

 

Hiking Colorado’s Continental Divide

Rocky Mountain High.

If you want to see a sea of mountains for as far as the horizon goes, there’s no better place than Colorado’s Continental Divide National Scenic Trail — all 800 miles of it, which run approximately 800 miles from the New Mexico border to the Wyoming border. It’s part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, but as a summer-long hike, it stands alone. At an average elevation of more than 11,000 feet, it also rises far above the rest of the C.D.T.

The C.D.T. is one of 11 long-distance trails in America’s National Scenic Trails System, and one of the three so-called “Triple Crown Trails” (The other two are the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail Continental Divide). The Colorado C.D.T. contains the Continental Divide’s highest peaks, along with some of its most remote wildernesses and most spectacular mountain scenery.

Primarily a hiking and horseback riding trail, the Colorado C.D.T. also offers recreational opportunities to llama trekkers, cross country skiers and snow-shoers (in winter, of course), dayhikers, and campers. In some multiple use areas, hikers also share the trail (or dirt roads the trail occasionally follows) with mountain bikes, and, less often, with ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Regardless of the type of recreation, the Colorado Continental Divide poses challenges. Its elevations occasionally soar above 13,000 feet, and the entire trail averages more than 11,000 feet in elevation, making it the longest high trail in the United States. It is also remote: In some wilderness areas, such as the Weminuche in the San Juan Mountains, or the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness in northern Colorado, the trail doesn’t even cross a road for days at a time. Hikers, riders, and other users must therefore be competent outdoorspeople, with the judgment and experience to deal with high country obstacles such as ice and snow (even in summer), bad weather, and route-finding difficulties.

Routefinding Tips for the Colorado Continental Divide

Bring a guidebook. Two are available. Colorado’s s Continental Divide Trail: The Official Guide by Tom Lorang Jones (Westcliffe Publishers) is on heavy paper and contains beautiful photos, but it hasn’t been updated in 10 years. The less glamorous Colorado C.D.T. Guidebooks (two volumes) by Jim Wolf, from the Continental Divide Trail Society, are meticulously researched and contain recent supplements and updates. And, at less than half the weight of the Westcliffe book, they fit better in a backpack.

In addition, bring a GPS and maps. Topographic maps from the U.S.G.S show the most detail. In wilderness areas, where the trail is well-marked and follows existing and maintained pathways, the Forest Service maps are often adequate. Map packs are available from the Continental Divide Trail Society.

Safety Concerns on Colorado’s Continental Divide Trail

Weather is the main safety concern on the Colorado Continental Divide. Colorado afternoons are famous for their thunderstorms, and treeline is sometimes a thousand or more feet below the trail. Be flexible in planning, and try to stay off of exposed ridges by mid-afternoon. The safest place is low down, in a protected group of trees. Caves, rock outcroppings, and solitary trees do not offer protection; to the contrary, they are more likely to attract lightning.

Ice and snow can also be hazards on the Continental Divide, particularly for travelers making their way into the mountains early in the season, when the winter’s snow has not yet melted. Bringing an ice ax and crampons (or, at least, in-step crampons) can help hikers get safely around late-lingering icefields. In a heavy snow year, horseback riders will have to take lower alternate routes, or ride later in the season. Generally, the high country is clear by late June or early July, but snowfall can vary widely.

Typical mountain clothing rules apply: Be prepared for four season’s worth of weather in any one day (although it usually won’t snow in July, it can drop into the 30s, with hail and wind.) Bring several layers of wicking clothing, insulating clothing, a hat, and rain gear. Avoid cotton.

Finally, don’t count on cell-phone reception: Much of the Colorado Continental Divide Trail is too remote for reception, or the signals are blocked by mountains. Give someone at home an itinerary, and sign in at trailheads where registration boxes or permit stations are in place. The information can help rangers locate a hiker in case of an emergency.

The Colorado Continental Divide Trail offers an unparalleled opportunity to stay at high elevations for days at a time. But, as with any alpine hiking or adventure activity, attention to weather, route-finding, and ice and snow hazards will help ensure a safe trip and a memorable mountain experience.

Crossing the French and Spanish Pyrenees

The Pyrenees Mountains of northern Spain and southwestern France offer an unparalleled summer mountain hiking experience. Virtually every day features jaw-dropping views (along with muscle-straining climbs.)  And the towns and villages of the Pyrenees are picturesque rest-stops with food that well rewards the effort. (Don’t forget to try Basque chicken and cassoulet, the latter a hearty bean dish suitable for a hiker’s appetite.)

For their entire length, the Pyrenees follow the border between France and Spain, running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Although lower in elevation than the Alps, the Pyrenees are extremely steep and dramatically serrated. As a result hiking trails in the Pyrenees are both challenging and scenic.

Three major trails traverse the French and Spanish Pyrenees: The Grand Randonnee 10 (GR-10), the Grand Randonnee 11 (GR-11) and the Haute Route Pyrennean (HRP). There’s a lot of scenery compressed into these approximately 50-day hikes. (Figure around 600 miles of up-and-down-and-around-the-mountain hiking, although no one seems to know exactly.)

Hiking Routes in the Pyrenees Mountains

A campsite in the Haute Pyrenees
  • The GR-10 (Grande Randonnee 10) is the most popular route across the Pyrenees. It runs on the French side of the border. Of the three main trans-Pyrenees routes, the GR-10 is the best-blazed and the easiest to follow. However, while easiest logistically, it is physically difficult because the trail on the French side of the Pyrenees gets much more rain than the Spanish side, so the weather is more challenging. Also, the GR-10 is more demanding than the two others because of the long and steep descents and ascents into and out of the many precipitous north-south running valleys on the French side of the mountains. However, the GR-10 does offer the possibility of sleeping in a town or a refuge every night, reducing or eliminating the need to carry camping gear.
  • The GR-11 (Grande Randonnee 11) follows the French system of blazing and numbering, but it runs through the Spanish Pyrenees, on the south side of the border. The route is not thoroughly blazed, and can sometimes be difficult to follow, but it is extremely beautiful. Although very few people hike the entire GR-11 from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the trail can be crowded with day-hikers and weekenders, especially in the popular Spanish national parks.
  • HRP (Haute Route Pyrenean) is the High Adventure Route, which stays in the highest, most remote country as much as possible. It is usually blazed in yellow, although it sometimes follows the red-and-white blazed GR-10 or the GR-11. It goes through the middle of Andorra, the tiny country that occupies a small part of the Franc-Spanish border. When hiking in the remote central part of the Pyrenees on the HRP, hikers must carry all their camping gear, because towns and refuges are too far apart. Route finding is the major challenge, as the blazing is sporadic.

In all three cases, trail quality varies. The routes include paved roads, farm-roads, footpaths, and cross-country travel (mostly on the HRP). The Pyrenees are precipitous, and many of the trails are very steep, which reduces the number of miles it is possible to hike in a day.

Seasonal Information for Hiking in the Pyrenees

Crossing a snowfield in August

cause of the high elevations, thru-hiking the trail is a July-August venture. Part of the trails near both coasts have a longer hiking season – June to September, and indeed, may be more pleasant in late spring and early fall because they won’t be as hot. In the Basque country near the Atlantic Ocean, weather can be hot and humid. Near the Mediterranean, the climate is hot and dry. In between, in the higher mountains, the weather is extremely variable, with potentially violent electrical storms. At the higher elevations, there may be patches of snow, but ice axes and crampons are not usually necessary in summer.

Most thru-hikers hike from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, although the trail can certainly be hiked in both directions. A complete traverse takes about 50 days.

 

GR-5 Across Europe from Rotterdam to Nice

The windmills of Holland, the WW II battlefields of Belgium, the vineyards of France, and the highest peaks of western Europe: These are just a few of the attractions of the GR-5, which runs from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.  “GR,” or “Grande Randonee” means “Great Hike” in French, an apt description for a trail that traverses Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, with short detours into Switzerland and Italy. 

The Low Countries: Hiking the GR-5 in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg 

The Dutch section of the trail is, in a word, flat. Much of the route is through settled suburbs and farmland, with pleasant, easy hiking across beaches and parkland, making this a better choice for walkers more interested in culture and towns than in wilderness. Although many urban Dutch people are fluent in English, rural residents are less likely to speak English, and a phrasebook comes in handy.

GR 5 in Belgium

Belgium is divided into Flanders, which is the Dutch (or Flemish) speaking side, and Wallonie, the French-speaking side. Many Belgians speak English as a second language. The terrain in Flanders is hillier than in the Netherlands, and has a more rural feel. The route passes a number of World War I and II battlefields, including some bunkers. Every village has a war memorial listing the names of the dead. History buffs should explore some of the local museums. The route becomes even more rural in Wallonie, where the hills get bigger, and more of the trail winds through forests and fields.

Luxembourg is a compressed country with an astonishing variety of landscapes, from World War II battlefields, medieval castles, sunny vineyards, and bucolic farms. There is a section of limestone cliffs and ravines that have earned the name Little Switzerland. Tails are well-maintained and marked. In the trailside towns, hikers will find interesting side trips to museums and monuments, and a cuisine that combines French style with German heft.

Hiking the GR-5 in France, Switzerland, and Italy

In France, walkers follow the GR-5 through Lorraine, Alsace, the High Alps, and the Maritime Alps. It occasionally darts into Switzerland and Italy.

In Lorraine, the GR-5 alternates between forests and heavily settled areas with a gritty working class feel. This was, after all, the heavily industrialized region of France coveted by Hitler, and the trail actually passes the fortifications of the historic Maginot Line. Residents are friendly to Americans, especially the elderly, who are happy to share family stories of World War II.

The GR 5 in the French Vosges Mountains

Next door, Alsace is more attractive to tourists with its riverside vineyards, pretty villages, and the Vosges Mountains. This region has a long history of merged France-Germanic culture; a side visit to Strasbourg is a must, as is a much more sobering visit to the Stuthof Nazi concentration camp, which is right along the trail.

After traversing the Vosges, the trail follows the the Swiss-French border near Lake Geneva. Hikers cross the lake by ferry and ascend into Switzerland for a few days. The trail then returns to France and skirts Mt. Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe. In the high Alps, hikers enjoy generally mild weather (although it can snow, even in summer) and a system of high country refuges that provides lodging and family-style meals. Walking south along the Italian border into the drier, starker Maritime Alps, hikers see scenery that combines Alpine drama with Mediterranean vegetation. Best of all, the crowds are thinner here than in the High Alps to the North.

The GR-5 can be hiked in its entirety in three to four months, depending on your hiking speed and your interest in exploring the small towns along the route. Or it can be broken into shorter journeys. It is well-blazed for its entire length, and described and mapped in a series of topoguides, some of which are available in English.

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking: A Primer

This overview is the first in a series of posts about how to plan, prepare, and pack for long-distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Every spring, some 2,000 people converge at Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail’s in northwest Georgia. A couple of hundred more start later in the season, going southbound from Mt. Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus in Maine.

Historically, the drop-out rate has been enormous, with some 90 percent of those who start failing to finish. More recently, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the completion rate has been higher – as much as 25 or 30 percent – perhaps due to the amount of information now available.

First Things First

Get some hiking experience! Sounds obvious? Unbelievably, some people show up at the trail having never backpacked before. Perhaps they were inspired by a slide show or a book, but it takes more than a dream to hike 2,200 miles

Long-distance backpacking involves aches and pains, smelly socks, smellier tent mates, foul weather (including mud, rain, snow, heat, and humidity), insects, rodents, roots, rocks, and sheer exhaustion. There are plenty of wonderful rewards — but not everyone is cut out to be a long-distance hiker. It’s better to find out first, before quitting a job and taking six months off!

  •  Preparation.  Read about it. Couples, old men, young women, a blind hiker, a family: it seems that everyone has penned his or her story of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. What’s especially interesting is that these books and Internet accounts have so much in common. Everyone, it seems, starts with a too-heavy pack.
  • Fitness. It’s certainly true that the only way to truly get ready to put on a pack and walk up a mountain is to put on a pack and walk up a mountain. But hikers who are fit at the start are going to be a whole lot happier than hikers who aren’t. Anything aerobic will help.
  • Equipment: One rule is constant. Packs should be as light as possible. Most experienced long-distance backpackers use the lightest gear available. Or modify gear to cut weight. You’ll find specific gear suggestions under our “Equipment” category.
  • Foot preparation: Be sure shoes fit properly, are broken in and are comfortable going uphill and down — BEFORE you start your hike. Thru-hikers use either trekking shoe or hiking boots; the decision depends on pack-weight, ankle strength, and fitness.
  • Resupply Planning: Most hikers pre-pack food and supplies that they have bought in advance. Then someone at home mails the boxes to general delivery at post offices along the Appalachian Trail. Zip codes can be found in the Thru-Hikers Companion or the Data Book (see the section below, on resources). It is possible to buy supplies en route, although small towns may have only a tiny convenience store with limited supplies. Most hikers send boxes to the smaller towns, and do a combination of mail drops and en-route shopping in larger towns.

Appalachian Trail Planning Resources for Itineraries and Resupply

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a long list of books, guides, maps, and resources on every aspect of the Appalachian Trail. Contacting them and looking through the resources available at their website and Trail Store should be your first stop.

  • The A.T Data Book is a pocket-sized book containing information about trail mileages between water sources, campsites, mountain summits, road crossings, towns, and other features.
  • Guidebooks and maps are available for each region of the trail from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Each pack contains a series of trail maps, profile maps (showing elevation change along with major landmarks), and a guidebook for that section.
  • The Thru-Hiker’s Companion, published by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, contains information about major trail landmarks , but is most useful for its information about towns where hikers can resupply, do laundry, find cheap accommodations, and get meals.

Five million steps, one after the other. All it takes is thorough planning, a positive attitude, and a sense of adventure!

Karen Berger has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Lessons From A Walk in the Woods, at Night

This is a story in which nothing happens. but much could have… and that’s what I want to share.

A couple of weeks ago, you would have found me hiking up the Jug End on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail at 8:30 in the evening, in the quickly falling dark. I carried a stick I had found on the forest floor to which I had jerry-rigged a battery-operated musician’s light. (Reason: I hadn’t been able to quickly find a headlamp, and I needed to be quick). I was not carrying raingear (it wasn’t going to rain) and I wasn’t carrying warm clothes (it wasn’t cold — yet, although that would change as the night wore on). I did have an orange and a pint of water in a shoulder pack slung across my back. I had not left a note on my car, and I had left no word at home where I was going. And, if you know the Jug End hike: It’s steep and rocky, and here in Massachusetts in August, it’s getting dark earlier every day.
So right about now, you are (I hope) wondering: What did she think she was doing, and why the heck am I taking advice on hiking from THIS woman?

The Phone Call:

Here’s what happened: At about 8 p.m., I got a call from an AT thru-hiker who had been planning to stay the night at my house. I had been expecting to pick her up at the trail, oh, about two hours earlier, so I was concerned, and very relieved to hear from her. But then she told me she was feeling ill, and she was still up high on the Taconic Ridge. The trail up there is one of those boulder-strewn ups-and-downs that makes for slow going, even for a fit thru-hiker 1,500 or so miles into the hike.  She was calling from her cell; she didn’t know exactly where she was or when she would be down and dusk was falling. I, on the other hand, knew what lay between the top and the bottom on that section of trail: A couple of miles of steep rocky scramble. And I was worried.

First of all, she was hiking alone. And second, she was “slackpacking” and didn’t  have much (or really, anything) in the way of gear. I had met her earlier that morning at the trailhead and I’d taken her pack to my house so she could hike unencumbered for a day. She had a rain jacket, but no flashlight. And she certainly didn’t have what she needed  to spend the night. With dark falling so quickly, she might not have enough light to get out.

When you’re exhausted and it’s dark, the descent off Jug End is about the last place on the entire Massachusetts AT you want to be. So I told her I’d drive over to the trail (It’s about five minutes from my house) and start hiking up to meet her.

Well, my hiking stuff was in total disarray at the moment: I knew where my boots were, and that was about it. I’m not the most organized of people at the best of times, but my hiking stuff had been displaced by a home renovation project; in the current disarray, no way was I going to be able to find a headlamp quickly (let alone a working one with the right sized batteries). And as luck would have it, our house emergency flashlights — the ones we keep around for power outages — all seemed to have come down with some type of flashlight illness… dead batteries, rusty contact points, etc. So I grabbed the one light I did have handy: a four-LED-bulb musician’s light — the kind orchestra players use to light their music stands. And I headed out.

Driving to the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly night was falling, and how very dark the woods looked. I parked at the trail head, and as soon as I started into the woods, I immediately realized that heading onto a dark trail in the fast-falling night was with no gear and a tiny music light was not an ideal situation. I especially missed my walking sticks, which I’d simply forgotten — they live right by the front door, so there’s no excuse for that. But trail magic is pretty reliable, and an obliging hiker had left a perfect stick right on the trail.  I clipped the base of the musician’s light to the stick.

But I didn’t turn it on: There was a full moon, and I’ve found with night-hiking that your eyes can often adjust. Until you really need artificial light, you can be better off without it. Although it was dark, I could pretty much feel the trail underfoot; every once in a while I caught a glimpse of white blazes, which seemed to briefly catch the moonlight through the pines. I made sure I always noted where the blazes were, because it’s easy to wander off on an animal trail. However, luck was with me again, as this part of the trail is frequently marked. Plus it’s on a pretty steep ridge: There isn’t really anywhere else to go.

Night-Hiking

It was actually a nice walk: Perfect temperature, clear night, no bugs, quiet and peaceful. I settled into a moderate rest step, and climbed about half an hour before it got too dark to pick out the blazes anymore. All the while I was wondering just what exactly I thought I was doing: If the hiker had been injured, I wasn’t carrying anything useful except for water and an orange. The most I’d be able to do would be go back down for help. Or, I could get myself into trouble in the dark and become a second problem for someone else to solve. I walked carefully, and slowed down on the rocky bits.  I had deliberately not left a note at home because I didn’t want to worry my partner. That was (very) arguably a dumb move, but my partner isn’t a hiker, and I didn’t want him freaking out and calling the  volunteer fire brigade just because it was dark. It seemed like a good reason at the time, but as I continued uphill, it started sounding dumber and dumber, even in my own mind.

Finally, after I’d been walking close to a half an hour, It was fully dark. When I could no longer see any hint of a blaze, I turned the light on, and shone it up the mountain, hoping it could be seen from above. Sure enough, I heard a yell, from quite a ways up. I resisted the temptation to call out “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” and continued the climb.

When we met, my friend was relieved; she’d been thinking of simply sitting down and waiting for me, but she didn’t know how far she still had to go, or how long it would take me to get to her, or how cold it would be by then. We walked back down together, me carrying the light above both of us like a camera man’s lighting assistant. We looked ridiculous.

And that was that: No drama, no real problems. It may have been another 20 minutes till we got back to the truck. We drove home, ate a lot of food, and slept.

Lessons From a Non-Event

But I thought this little story of a non-disaster worth sharing because it has an alternate ending. Rain, which would have made the descent frankly dangerous. A fall. One, or both of us, getting lost off trail. It did get cold later that night, cold enough that the tree frogs stopped yammering. Cold enough that a stranded hiker might have become hypothermic.

Bad luck can happen, even to a thru-hiker with thousands of miles of experience. I wasn’t exactly being Ms. Brilliant Outdoors Educator by choosing to head up the mountain quickly, rather than stopping to try to find some gear. It seemed like the right thing to do — to try and get myself and my light up the mountain as far and fast as possible. It turned out to be the right choice… but it might not have been.

It takes smarts to learn from your own experiences. It takes real brilliance to learn from other people’s disasters. But it takes something else — perhaps imagination — to learn from what could have happened to someone else — and didn’t. Not to say “Well, everything worked out and was great” but “What can I learn from what didn’t happen.”

Please imagine.

As for us: I’m pretty sure next time my friend slackpacks, there’s going to be a headlamp in her daypack. For my part, it wouldn’t hurt to have a first aid kit and a little daypack containing the ten essentials on hand. Plus fresh batteries.

As it turned out, we had a power outage in the house that night …. and the piano light, still tied to the make-shift walking stick, was pressed into service again.

America’s Triple Crown Trails

The “Triple Crown.” Just saying it inspires thoughts of grandeur. For horse folks, of course, it’s three great races. For hikers, three great trails: The Appalachian , the Pacific Crest, and the Continental Divide: the first three trails to be entered into what is now America’s national scenic trails system.

And what a system it is!

The national scenic trails are designated by the United States Congress because of their outstanding scenic beauty and recreational opportunities. There are currently 11 long trails in the system (three were added to the system in 2009). The Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails are the oldest and best established, and the most popular with long-distance backpackers trying to complete a whole long trail. Together, these three trails have come to be known as “the Triple Crown.”

To thru-hike any of the three “Triple Crown” trails in a single season takes an average long-distance backpacker approximately 5 to 5 1/2 months. Additionally, many hikers attempt to hike one or more of these trails over several years, hiking a few weeks at a time and stringing the completed sections together like pearls on a string.

In total, as of 2011, fewer than 100 people have been awarded the Triple Crown Award, given out by ALDHA-West (the American Long Distance Hiking Association, Western States) to hikers who report completing all three hiking trails, either as single-season through-hikes or multiple-year section hikes.

Each of the thee trails runs a north-south direction through one of the U.S.’s main mountain ranges (or, in the case of the Pacific Crest Trail, through a series of consecutive mountain ranges). But beyond being mountain trails, the three are as different as siblings. Thinking about tackling one? Here is a preliminary overview to help you get started in making a choice. Search this site for more articles on the three trails.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Trail’s End (or Start): Katahdin in Maine

The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is the oldest and best known of the three trails. The A.T. runs through 14 eastern states, beginning atop Springer mountain in northwest Georgia, and continuing northeast through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and finally to Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine.

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail has been an iconic backpacking goal for decades. The number of people reporting having hiked the entire trail is has passed the 10,000 mark, in part because of the trail’s location in the populated East, and in part because guidebooks and maps of the Appalachian Trail are good and thorough; there are trailside shelters to sleep in, and there is even a thru-hiker culture complete with festivals and traditions. The A.T. receives plenty of publicity. After Bill Bryson’s best-selling A Walk in the Woods was published in 1998, interest in backpacking the A.T. exploded. The 2015 movie is expected to have an even greater effect.

The Appalachian Trail is currently just under 2,200 miles long (mileage of all three trails changes annually due to relocations, trail work, trail damage from floods and fires, and land purchase decisions). It is sometimes called the “long green tunnel,” because mountains in the East rarely rise above treeline. Nonetheless, despite much lower elevations than the western trails, the A.T. boasts some of the most rugged and difficult straight-up-the-mountain-and-straight-back-down-again hiking of any of the three.

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail

High Sierra, California

The Pacific Crest Trail begins about 50 miles east of San Diego, near the hamlet of Campo at the Mexican border. It runs the entire length of California (about 1,600 trail miles), as well as Oregon and Washington, for a grand total of 2,650 miles.

Much of the route goes through National Forests and National Parks, with large tracts of wilderness, including the famous Ansel Adams and John Muir Wildernesses, as well as Yosemite, Sequoia, and King’s Canyon National Parks. The P.C.T. is marked in its entirety, though not as assiduously as the Appalachian Trail. Difficulties for long distance hikers include early season snow, desert hiking (hot and waterless) in southern California, and a lack of some of the trail amenities enjoyed by Appalachian Trail hikers.

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

South San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The “wild child” of the three trails is the Continental Divide, the last of the three to be designated, the longest, and the least complete. The Continental Divide splits America’s watersheds, sending eastern slope waters to the Atlantic Ocean and western slope waters to the Pacific. C.D.T. managers hope to situate the trail as close to the actual Continental Divide as is safe and practicable; however, the ruggedness of the topography and the difficulty of working with private landowners frequently dictate that the trail parallels the Divide on one side or the other.

The C.D.T. traverses New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, passing through a patchwork of National Forests, National Parks, and Bureau of Land Management lands, as well as Indian reservations and private lands. Some of the highlights include the Colorado section, which averages about 11,000 feet in elevation and at times stays astride the Continental Divide for days at a time, and a section of hiking Rocky Mountain National Park trails.. Wyoming’s Wind River Range and Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park in Montana are three other C.D.T highlights.

In some sections, particularly in New Mexico, the trail’s route has not been officially approved, let alone marked or mapped. So in addition to rugged mountain terrain and weather, and in addition to trying to squeeze some 3,000 miles of hiking into the all-too-short snow-free months of summer and shoulder season, hikers must contend with navigational challenges and hiking cross country.

The three trails are all completely different. What they share is a mammoth challenge, and some of the finest mountain scenery and hiking experiences to be found anywhere.

Appalachian Trail: An Overview

I’ve been wanting to start a series of articles about great long hikes for a long time, so here goes. And if you’re going to talk about long hikes, then as far as I’m concerned, you HAVE to start with the Appalachian Trail. It’s the great-granddaddy of the long-distance hiking movement, coming up on a century old, and it has an iconic status in the hiking world that is, quite simple, unassailable.  

Maine’s Mighty Katahdin, the Northern Terminus

Let’s get the numbers out of the way. 

  • 14 states (from Georgia to Maine).
  • It takes between 4 and 6 months to hike the whole thing, depending on how fast you go.
  • As of today’s writing, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail, 11,823 people have completed the entire trail from end to end. 
  • The youngest was a six-year old boy; the oldest a 71-year old woman (An 80 year woman is the oldest section hiker; ie, person to complete the entire trail in a series of sections hiked over several years). 
  • Approximately 25 percent of thru-hikers are women.
  • The trail encompasses some 250,000 acres of public land.
  • It runs for nearly 2,200 miles. (The precise length keeps changing due to slight locations to move the trail to better routings as they become available through easements, or to respond to storm damage.)

What is interesting to me is the head-and-shoulders dominance of the Appalachian Trail as a long-distance hiking destination. Since 2000, Some 600 hikers a year complete the trail —  out of 2,000 – 3,000 starters. Compare this to the several hundred to who attempt the Pacific Crest Trail — and the few dozen who actually succeed. The ATC estimates that some 2 – 3 million people hike on the trail each year, making it one of America’s most popular national parklands.Yet you can still find yourself totally alone with nature.

There’s no question that other trails are higher, have more stunning scenery, spend more time above treeline, have more variety… but it’s the AT that draws the hikers.

Appalachian Trail Basic Geography and Terrain

A few points about the AT if you’re considering hiking a chunk of it. (And thru-hikers: Check this article about basic Appalachian Trail thru-hiking information; it’s the beginning of a series for thur-hikers):

The trail can be roughly divided into four sections: The South (Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee), Virginia (along with West Virginia and Maryland), the mid-Atlantic states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York), and New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine).

Southern Terminus Marker at Springer Mountain

The South has the highest mountains (although none of them poke above treeline, as they do in New Hampshire and Maine), along with a variety of terrain, from easy rambles to straight up and down scrambles. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is a good starting point for beginners, with a combination of well-marked and maintained trails and spectacular mountain landscapes.

Virginia is possibly the easiest of the four sections, with sections of trail that are downright gentle. Thru-hikers typically hike about 20 miles a day here (or more).This section’s highlights in include Shenandoah National Park and the Mt. Rogers, which has dramatic open mountain terrain and wild ponies.

The “Long Green Tunnel”

The mid-Atlantic section may be where the trail got its nickname, the “Long Green Tunnel.”  But although the elevations are low, that doesn’t necessarily make for easy trail: Pennsylvania is called “Rocksylvania” because of the rocky glacial debris left all over the place. The New Jersey section is surprsingly wild and beautiful: It starts at Interstate 80, and immediately climbs past lovely Sunfish Pond, which is a glacial tarn. The trail then hugs ridges covered with mountain laurel. New York boasts the oldest miles of trail, in Bear Mountain State Park, and the lowest elevations (at the Bear Mountain Zoo), but there are lots of what hikers call  “PUDs” (pointless ups and downs; for more thru-hiker lingo, check out the AT lingo post) which add up to enormous elevation gains and losses.

Autumn in New Hampshire

In New England, the trail just gets prettier and prettier. The Connecticut and Massachusetts sections are varied, from the riverbeds of the Housatonic to the rocky outcrops of the Berkshire ridges. In southern Vermont, the AT is contiguous with the Long Trail before it veers east to new Hampshire and Maine where the trail finally breaks free on treeless mountain summits, navigates hiking trail that at times resembles rock climbing more than hiking (mileage goes WAY down here), then ambles through Maine’s so-called “100-Mile wilderness” and ends in glory atop Katahdin.

A Community in the Wilderness

An Appalachian Trail Shelter


If the Appalachian Trail were merely all that… the long mileage, the 14 states, the thousands of mountains … it would be remarkable, but there is another aspect to it: The trail community, which encompasses the thru-hikers, the day-hikers, the weekenders, the volunteers, the managers, the townspeople, the hostel owners, the shelters where hikers cluster together, and the hiking alumni who show up for trail festivals or to dispense a bit of ‘trail magic” — taking hikers home, giving them a bit of a trail vacation.

And all this takes place within a few hours’ drive of most of the East Coast metropoli. You can actually see New York City from the trail (atop West Mountain, in New York), and take a train in on the commuter line, which stops at the eponymous Appalachian Trail station. Benton MacKaye, the trail’s founder, envisioned the trail as a place for respite, recreation, and rejuvenation from a American’s increasingly urban environment. He envisioned communities visiting these rural areas, linked by a trail: staying a farms and in the forests, creating a sort of wilderness community. His utopian vision didn’t quite come to fruit as he intended, but instead morphed into a trail community that in its own way does what he envisioned: provide a chance to reconnect with nature in a profound and rejuvenating way. 

And that, I think is the crux of what makes this trail so special. The number of people who hike it, the volunteers who maintain it, the trail shelters where hikers gather and sleep, the trail festivals that have sprung up in communities along the route: All of these have created something more than a mere hiking trail. The AT is a community in the wilderness: Two ideas that don’t go together.

Biologists tell us that the richest areas in an ecosystem are the places where two different types of communities come together: forest and marsh, lake and prairie, sand dune and salt marsh. In such places, ecological communities support the species of each overlapping ecosystem, as well as a few species unique to the intersection. That, I think, is the magic of the Appalachian Trail: In the juxtaposition of community and wilderness, we find something unique: part wild, part civilized — and entirely magical.