The transformation from sedentary workaholic to backpacker extraordinaire snuck up on Dan Bruce.
Twenty years ago, Bruce was an engineer who spent his limited free time sprawled on the couch. In the last two decades, he’s become an Appalachian Trail expert. An A.T.-ophile. He’s hiked the 2,160-mile trail multiple times, written and annually updated a book on the subject and founded the not-for-profit Center for Appalachian Trail Studies dedicated to promoting and preserving what’s affectionately known by Bruce and others as The Trail.
Not bad for someone who used to pay someone else to mow his lawn.
Mere miles can’t express the significance of The Trail – something powerful enough to inspire a man to change not only his lifestyle but his entire life.
The legendary footpath follows the ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Range between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine. It runs through 14 states, eight national forests and six national parks.
A trip from end to end is known as a thru-hike. On average, this takes six months. Each year, a few thousand attempt this goal. Only a few hundred attain it. About 100 people say they’ve thru-hiked the A.T. two or more times. Roughly 25 report three or more times. Bruce has completed seven thru-hikes. He’s training for the eighth now.
“An A.T. hike is a very personal journey,” Bruce said. “It’s your feet that get you from point A to point B. So much of our entertainment today is either provided to us or done in a group setting. The Trail is still an individual journey with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual tests.”
These sorts of tests are pretty much what early trail planners had in mind 80 years ago when they set out to build a winding ridgetop retreat for Eastern city-dwellers harried by the new pressures of industrialization. Cities were becoming crowded, dirty and noisy. People were beginning to use automobiles to get from place to place. Forester and self-trained planner Benton MacKaye had a vision of a footpath connecting communities along the crests of the Appalachian Mountain Range where urbanites could re-connect with their more rural roots.
MacKaye wrote about this vision in a 1921 edition of Journal of the American Institute of Architects. His cause was taken up by the newly formed New York–New Jersey Trail Conference. The first section of The Trail opened in Bear Mountain State Park in New York two years later. On nearby sections, you can still catch the sun glinting off the Empire State Building in New York City – miles away, in more ways than one.
In April of 1937, MacKaye’s dream of a continuous footpath from Maine to Georgia became a reality. Hikers immediately took advantage of the rugged getaway, completing afternoon, overnight and end-to-end hikes.
Plan and Practice
The beauty of The Trail is that anyone can hike it – you don’t have to set out on a 2,000-mile trek to soak in the splendor of America’s most famous footpath. Do note, however, that Bruce equates a regular 10-hour day of hiking on the trail with a full pack equivalent in physical exertion to running two marathons. You have to be in better shape than you might think to put one foot in front of the other along this mountain ridge.
If you’re a beginning hiker with thoughts of an overnight (or longer) A.T. experience, get out on a trail. Any trail. Plan some short afternoon hikes near your home. If you live near The Trail, even better. Practice on the real thing. Go it alone, or contact your local university’s outdoor club or Sierra Club chapter for organized outings.
Since you won’t be spending more than a few hours on the trail initially, your equipment investment is minimal. Wear decent footwear – even a pair of comfortable tennis shoes will be fine. Carry a small fanny- or back-pack containing bare essentials, including a map, compass, small first-aid kit, water, food and rain protection. Depending on where you live, you may also need insect repellent. Include items like nature guides and binoculars if you like.
Once you’re comfortable with shorter hikes, graduate to overnights. Think logically about your minimal requirements, keeping in mind that you carry everything you bring. Add to your basic day-hike equipment things like a flashlight, a small tent, easy-to-prepare food, a camping stove and cooking gear. Though campfires add ambience, they diminish natural resources and should be kept to a minimum. Add a sleeping bag and pad (not for comfort so much as warmth during colder weather). Bring water with you, or be prepared to purify it along the way. Wear layers so you are easily able to adjust to changes in air and body temperature. And now is a good time to invest in a sturdy backpack and a decent pair of hiking boots. Look for something lightweight and comfortable with good ankle support. Break them in on shorter trips to avoid blisters during longer ones when you have less opportunity to rest your feet.
Now you’re ready for The Trail. There are many entry points along its 2,000-plus miles, which give you plenty of opportunities to choose one that fits you. With skill level and trip length in mind, narrow your choices. Be aware that each of the endpoints present the most difficult challenges. Research online or at the library (there are literally hundreds of books and Web sites on the subject).
Your best source is the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC). Established in 1925, ATC is a volunteer-based nonprofit organization made up of over 30 local trailside groups dedicated to building, protecting, and managing the Appalachian Trail for the public. Their Web site (www.atconf.org) is jam-packed with information, including where to stay, what sort of weather and terrain to expect, and other recommended resources. The ATC’s own 11 Appalachian Trail Guides and maps cover The Trail in as many segments. Proceeds from guide sales keep their organizations running.
Planning, common sense and determination will take you far on The Trail. If you can tackle a week, why not longer? One hiker recently completed the entire trail – after 38 years of hiking a section at a time.
Bruce will tell you that a continuous hike is not as tough as it sounds. If you can manage a three- or four-day section hike, he says, you can manage a thru-hike. After all, it’s just a section hike repeated over and over (and over) again.
For him, this is appealing because it puts things in perspective. He calls it a “transition from the 55-mph life to the 2-mph way of life.” While you may not quit your job and dedicate your life to the trail as Bruce has, most likely you’ll still walk away with some sort of similar thought shift as well as a killer workout.
“A long hike is like a miniature life,” Bruce explains. “You don’t carry things you don’t need. As a result, you come away a more basic and centered person. By being in the woods, away from everything, you can examine your basic priorities and find that the things that make you happy are simple. That permeates the rest of your life.”
7 Principles of the Trail
As with any outdoor recreation site, there are guidelines to keep in mind when traveling the Appalachian Trail. Most importantly, remember The Trail is a footpath only – no pack animals or wheeled vehicles, motorized or otherwise. To reduce the amount of stress inflicted on trailside resources, it’s also recommended that you travel in groups smaller than 10 people. Beyond that, trailkeepers defer to Leave No Trace, Inc., a national non-profit organization that builds awareness, appreciation and respect for America’s wildlands. The group developed the following seven principles, devoutly followed by federal agencies and private citizens alike.
1) Plan Ahead and Prepare
2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
3) Dispose of Waste Properly
4) Leave What You Find
5) Minimize Campfire Impacts
6) Respect Wildlife
7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information about Leave No Trace, call 1-800-332-4100 or check out their Web site at www.lnt.org.
Know Before You Go
Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC)
(304) 535-6331 or www.appalachiantrail.org
Center for Appalachian Trail Studies
(828) 622-7601 or www.trailplace.com
(415) 977-5500 or www.sierraclub.org
WHEN TO HIKE
Most parts of the Appalachian Trail are used by day hikers daily year ’round. Thru-hikers have to be more conscious of weather. Seventy percent travel northbound, and most of these leave in March and April.
No permits or fees are necessary in all areas except for Shenandoah and Great Smoky National Parks.
Lean-tos and three-sided shelters are spaced about a day’s hike apart along the trail. Most are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campsites are also located along the trail. Less rustic cabins and hostels can be found near the trail. For more information, contact the Appalachian Trail Conference.
Though The Trail is statistically safer than most U.S. cities, it is not completely free from crime, especially with its relatively recent rise in popularity. Sign in at trail and shelter registers. Make sure your family knows your trail name if you use one. Don’t camp near road crossings. If you feel threatened or in danger in any way, contact local police and the ATC as soon as possible. Remember: Just because you’re in the wilderness doesn’t mean you should shake your street smarts.
ACTS OF GOD
Nature will probably give you more problems than other humans. Lightening is the most dangerous risk. If lightening hits when you’re on a ridgeline (which most of the trail follows), get off. If you are caught in an open area, get as low to the ground as possible. Abandon all metal objects, including any metal-frame backpacks. Use your sleeping pad for insulation.
Also prepare against hypothermia. Remember that higher elevations bring lower temperatures. Even when it’s warm out, if a light rain is followed by a brisk wind and you’re caught without rain protection, you could be in danger. Always bring rain gear and layers, with an extra garbage bag in case of emergency.
Whether you’re preparing for a thru-hike or just tackling a section of the 2,160-mile trail, check out Dan Bruce’s Thru-hiker’s Handbook, considered a must-have for serious trail hikers. Bruce, whose trail name is Wingfoot, updates the book annually for accurate information, including wildlife, history and trail-town offerings like food and lodging. Bruce is also founder and head of the volunteer-run Center for Appalachian Trail Studies.