Marianne O’Connor, author of Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire, writes about her adventures in hiking from time to time in the Hippo. This summer her focus has been hiking to lose weight (go to www.hippopress.com to find her articles in the July 22, June 24 and May 22 issues of the Hippo). Looking to take on an even more serious physical challenge? Here, Marianne looks into the ultimate hike — the hike of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia through Maine. About 160 miles of the trail runs through New Hampshire, most of it in the White Mountains.
So you want to be a thru hiker? Follow this simple set of instructions and you’ll be on your way to thru-hiker paradise in about six months.
Day 1: Load about 30 pounds of random weight into your backpack. A car battery, some textbooks and a heavy bag of rice will do. Wear the back pack all day.
Now look outside. Is it raining? Good. Go stand in the rain wearing your clothes and sneakers.
Come back inside and walk briskly on your treadmill for eight to 10 hours. Make sure the “incline” is set all the way up. Do not bathe, shave or wash your clothes for at least five days. When nature calls, go out back and dig a hole. Hungry yet? Have a Snickers bar or some dried fruit and water. You’ll have to eat this on the treadmill, no cheating. You’ll be ready for bed early. Go back outside and find a patch of grass. You can use a tarp.
Repeat for 100 days. There. Now you’re almost ready for the intense raw exposed beauty of living life as a thru hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Have a good buddy assign you a funny trail name based on your weird personal habits and you’re ready to hit the trail.
What makes a thru hiker?
A thru hiker is technically a backpacker who begins a quest at the beginning of a long trail and continues along that trail in one continuous journey until he/or she completes its entire length.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, also called the A.T., is one of America’s most popular long trails, and every year about 2,000 hikers start at Springer Mountain in Georgia in a romantic attempt to thru-hike the A.T.’s 2,178 miles to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. One in four will make it. Thru hikers who begin the journey in the South and head north are called NOBOs (northbounders). About 10 percent of the thru hikers who make it the whole way begin at Mt. Katahdin and head south on the A.T.; they are called SOBOSs (southbounders.)
As a NOBO, you will need to begin the trail early in the spring season, by late March or early April. For NOBOs, getting to Maine “on time” means following a critical time line to reach Baxter State Park, location of the journey’s end upon Mt. Katahdin, before it is closed to overnight camping after Oct. 15. Slackers who indulge in too many zero days (days of not hiking) may fall off schedule easily. SOBOs generally begin their A.T. journey in the end of May or early June and are typically graduating college seniors or backpackers who cannot take time off before summer. The SOBOs have fewer time constraints, and they trudge through the most rugged section of the A.T. at the journey’s start, including Maine’s Katahdin (5,267 feet) and New Hampshire’s rough section of white-blazed trail over a dozen 4,000+-foot mountains including Mt. Washington (6288 feet). In July and August, the SOBOs and the NOBOs are in New Hampshire and pass one another on the trail, meet up in shelters, share stories at hostels and find others carrying out the dream from the opposite direction.
To hike the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) as a thru hiker you will need to spend time preparing for an intense trip. You will also need lots of time off — at least six months. You will familiarize yourself with the many guidebooks and trail maps out there. You’ll stock up on gear and send packages of dried food, socks, shoes, money and candy to yourself in advance at specifically designated postal centers. These packages will be treasures after days of wilderness hiking.
Oh, did I mention you will need a trail name? Usually someone else, presumably another thru hiker, will give you your name, and it may not be flattering, but it is a tattoo of your experience on the A.T. and a badge you wear with pride and loyalty. Even if your trail name is Gummy Bear, Toothpick or Doozy. There are those who insist the name must be assigned by others, but some say you can pick your own, especially if you don’t like the one you’ve been given.
“Hike your own hike,” as they say. And follow the golden rule; it’s a credo of thru-hiking.
Are you ready to hike 20 miles a day now for the next six months? What are you waiting for?
Of course there are other options along the A.T. and other long trails. Some choose to section-hike the A.T., which means hiking long sections of the trail separately, but not continuously, and completing the entire trail over a course of time. For folks who can’t afford to lose time from work, section-hiking the A.T. piecemeal over long weekends and vacation periods proves to be a winning ticket.
Vermont’s Long Trail is another popular long-distance trail where you will find distance hikers, thru hikers and families who camp along the trail and enjoy the trail experience with their children.
A shorter hike in New Hampshire is the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, a 49-mile trail linking Grand Monadnock in Jaffrey to Mt. Sunapee. The terrain along the Monadnock highlands is moderate and there are five camp sites on the route. For a hiker looking to power hike through the entire 49 miles, it will take three or four days. Use of the trail is free, and the five shelters are spread out along the length of the trail. You can download a map and find information to plan a long weekend hike at www.msgtc.org. Some rules of note: there are no dogs allowed in Grand Monadnock, but dogs are welcome on the rest of the trail. There are also no campfires permitted on any part of the Greenway.
When pursuing a distance hike, it’s important to know the rules regarding fires, pets, parking and reservations.
Why the A.T.?
The decision to hike the entire length of the A.T. is one of passion, commitment and self-discovery. Most thru hikers say they are at a crossroads in life, like recent college grad Scotty, who is section hiking the A.T. after graduating from Edinburgh in May. He thru-hiked England’s long trail The Pennine Way but found himself yearning for more wilderness and solitude, which he has discovered in the States.
“I’ve got to fly back to Birmingham for a speeding ticket in August,” Scotty said, but he’ll be back on the trail section hiking through the season. He reports completing 30 percent of the trail.
Snowman had a similar tale to tell. As a father of a young son, he’s pushed himself to be a provider but found himself between jobs. Unhappy as a truck driver, he left to pursue a challenge that he knew he would accomplish with determination. When he completes the trail in August, he can see himself in a new light. Enoch, too, is between jobs, having graduated college and entering a difficult field as a wildlife biologist in Daytona Beach. This summer he turns 30. With precision timing, Enoch plans to be on the summit of Mt. Katahdin on his 30th birthday, Aug. 8.
On the trail in July I saw groups of men and male solo hikers. But women are thru hiking too. Sugar Bush, Mother Nature, Hot Lips and Mother Goose are out there now. Early Bird is a Nashua thru hiker who finished the A.T. as a solo hiker in 2005 and has thru-hiked The Long Trail in Vermont (272 miles) eight times. She too reached a milestone in life; on her 30th birthday she read an article on The Long Trail and decided to go for it. She had never camped in her life. She passionately loved it the first time. She decided to hike the A.T. next. Her research included gear supply lists from Backpacker magazine and information clinics at EMS. She began saving her money. She asked for a leave of absence from her job and was granted the time off. She completed the A.T. in 138 days, a remarkably fast-paced journey. Last year her daughter was born and she longs for the trail. “I’ll do it again in 17 years!” Early Bird said.
Many who complete the trail yearn for a return. Two-thousand-milers itching to get back have what is known as “Springer Fever.” For 2,000-milers who have completed the A.T., the American Long Distance Hiking Association (ALDHA) hosts an event called The Gathering every October. This year the event will take place in Concord University in West Virginia Oct. 15-17 (See www.aldha.org). There are other festivals highlighting thru-hiking journeys as well.
Hiking for a cause
In 2007 Pony Tail Dave of Bethlehem, N.H., lost his big brother, Michael, to pneumonia. Michael was mentally challenged but enjoyed time spent hiking with Dave in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In Michael’s memory, Dave made the decision raise awareness for those struggling with physical and mental challenges. About a year ago, he and his wife Pam connected with Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country, located in Easton. Dave is chronicling his journey on a blog and has raised more than $5,000 for the organization. His aim is to raise $10,000, which will all go directly to serving handicapped individuals in outdoor sports such as hiking, kayaking and bicycling, Follow Dave’s thru-hiking journey or make a donation: www.shovelhead2010.blogspot.com. To learn more about the organization go to www.adaptivesportspartners.org. They are also in need of volunteers.
Other thru hikers sharing their journeys online are at www.trailjournals.com.
New Hampshire shelters and hostels
New Hampshire has a variety of options for thru hikers wanting to hunker down for the night. The 160-mile section of trail running through New Hampshire includes more than 10 shelters, from the Velvet Rocks shelter in Hanover to the Gentian Pond shelter five miles before the Maine/New Hampshire border. There are also a number of hiker-friendly hostels in neighboring towns where thru hikers are welcome and can spend a night for $20 or less, take a hot shower, do some laundry and catch a shuttle back to the trail.
Pack Rat is a thru-hiker who runs Hikers Welcome in Glencliff, a small village north of Warren where the A.T. crosses Route 25. He has run the hostel for 10 years and hosts 700 to 800 hikers a year. He sees both thru hikers and section hikers and charges $15 a night, $10 for tenters. He can accommodate up to 20 comfortably. I met Phil from Maine here recently on his 92nd day on the trail. He thru-hiked the A.T. in 1977 and again in 1982. This will be the third and last time, said the 55-year-old grandfather. At Hiker’s Welcome, Phil was rejuvenated with a hot shower, clean laundry and six Pepsis. Completing the A.T. one last time was part of his “Bucket List.”
Another popular hostel is Hiker’s Paradise in Gorham on Route 2. Since 1994, Bruno has been hosting hikers and climbers of all abilities, and his place serves as both a hostel and an inn where there are two private apartments with bunks, laundry, cable and kitchen. There are also private motel rooms. Bruno, of Polish descent, hiked in Poland as a boy and often stayed in hostels in Eastern Europe. He and his wife operate the Colonial Ford Inn — they rented out the back apartments at one time. In 1994 Bruno opened these apartments as the Gorham Hostel, but other guests were leery. “Why are the hikers considered hostile?” they would ask. So Bruno changed the name to Hiker’s Paradise. Sipping a glass of Chardonnay, he tells how his advertising is word of mouth. He has many returning French Canadian guests who tell him that they found the information about Hiker’s Paradise on a gay French Canadian website. He chuckles, “so now I have a gay French Canadian hostel, it’s all good. We accept everybody.”
Thru hikers traversing the White Mountains can access the shelter system or the many tent sites off and on the A.T. The AMC hut system will offer overnight shelter to thru hikers on a work-to-stay basis. Otherwise, the hikers pay full price to stay at AMC huts and will need reservations.
To search for hostels and inns catering to hikers, try www.hikerhostel.com.
Be part of the experience
The continuous march of thru hikers white-blazing New Hampshire is an adventure worth joining. Day hikers venturing into the White Mountains this month can spot thru hikers on the road to re-supply, or maybe in town for a zero day. They are free spirits, adventurers and storytellers. Collectively, they have walked thousands of miles in pursuit of a single dream — the end of the trail. Take a day hike along any section of New Hampshire’s A.T. and you will likely run into them powering their way through our state. Offer encouragement, play by the golden rule, and maybe offer some trail magic.