Long distance thru-hiking has exploded in the last couple of years. Books and films such as ‘Wild’ and ‘A Walk in the Woods’ have fuelled a passion for long, stateside walks. Aspiring thru-hikers often aim first for the Appalachian Trail. It’s the most popular of the long American hikes, and justifiably so. To my mind it makes the perfect first long distance trek for three reasons.
Firstly, other people to share the occasional hardship with. In 2014, 2,500 prospective thru-hikers set out north from Springer Mountain, and the numbers are rising – especially with all that attention from Hollywood. However, it doesn’t seem that busy except perhaps at the shelters in the evening. On the trail everyone is spread out, and although you do bump into people over the months, these are people who share the same purpose as you. If you want more solitude, consider heading south instead of north. In 2014, those that chose this option totalled just 242.
Second, the shelters. These simple, three sided wooden buildings offer no electricity, water or heating but do provide protection from the elements. You’re pretty much guaranteed to pass one per day, often many more. When everything you own is wet (not uncommon on the AT), you have the chance to dry it out in a shelter and share temporary moans and groans with like minded others. And as Sam had pointed out, shared moments of both triumph and adversity really do make the hike.
Finally, every few days there are small towns and villages to re-supply, grab a shower, and eat fresh food. This also means you can carry less food, and therefore less weight. In theory you can’t even get lost, as the ‘white blazes’ – dollar bill sized white markings painted on trees and rocks – lead you all the way. All these things serve to smooth out the rough edges of a walk that lasts months.