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Thoughts on Starting an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike in the Winter…

Ice Near Hogpen Gap

Ice Near Hogpen Gap

January is typically one of the slowest months of the year at the Hiker Hostel. That is not to say that we don’t find other things to keep us busy; but “Bed and Breakfast/Hostel operations” go into a state of torpor relative to our other, busier months. Then, beginning around the last week in February, there is a change in the air. “Thru Hiker Season” officially begins and the Hiker Hostel truly lives up to its name, as hundreds of hopeful Northbound Appalachian Trail Hikers descend upon Dahlonega.

 

Each year, during Thru Hiker season, the Hiker Hostel puts roughly a third of all who attempt the 2,100ish mile journey onto the start of the trail. In 2014, about 2500 people attempted a thru hike; most of them starting at Springer Mountain between March 1st-April 15th. As awareness and promotion of the trail increases, so will the number of people on the trail each year; and at peak times. As a result, more and more people are choosing “alternative itineraries” to avoid the crowds and the impacts that they bring to the trail (you can find more information on alternative itineraries on the ATC websites). One of these itineraries includes getting a “head start” and beginning one’s hike well before “the herd”.

 

A Chilly Start at Springer Mountain

A Chilly Start at Springer Mountain

This year, our first attempting Northbounders hit the trail right around New Year’s Day and the numbers have steadily been picking up in February. Who are these brave souls and why would anyone want to start a journey that’s hard enough on a good day, in the heart of winter?

 

While winter is relatively mild in Georgia, it’s still winter and anything is possible in the mountains; especially as one travels North! Anyone preparing to travel into the backcountry in the cold winter months is hopefully someone who has experience with this. Proper clothing and gear is a must. With bulkier winter gear and additional calories needed, packs are heavier and travel may be slower. Learning how to stay warm and dry while winter hiking/camping is definitely an acquired skill and it can quickly become a matter of life and death. Knowing how to navigate in snow and white out conditions is also key, and it may not be enough to just rely on GPS (cold weather zaps battery life and GPS signal is unavailable/unreliable in some areas). These are just some things to consider, so again…why would anyone want to start a thru hike in the winter?

 

Some would argue that the benefits of an “early start thru hike” far outweigh the disadvantages. First and foremost, is solitude. January/February hikers may have the trail and its shelters to themselves, especially during the week on the coldest days. Compare that to the “heaviest traffic” day last year, when close to 100 people started on the same day! That’s 100 people competing for shelter space, water sources, camp sites…! Second, with solitude comes learning the true art of self-reliance. Being alone out there forces one to figure things out on their own; and while this can be frustrating at times, it can be an equally empowering experience. Furthermore, traveling without a crowd not only minimizes the impact from which the trail suffers, but can greatly reduce a lot of discouragement, as well. For example, when you’re on your own you’re not constantly comparing your comfortable pace with others who may be faster (comparisons that can lead to injury or unrealistic expectations that all too often end a thru hike). Finally, starting early in the season (if you are lucky enough to have extra time off from your “other life”) means more opportunity to take your time. It becomes less about pounding out the miles each day or worrying about rigid time constraints and more about enjoying the moment…

Winter Beauty

Winter Beauty

One Response so far.

  1. mani mato....(mado) says:

    Started in the winter on the approach trail. Trees on the ground and ice shards hitting my head. The first night in the free shelter at amicola falls was below zero wind chill and there after was cold but not so bad you felt in danger. After three days at amicola I had to go regardless of repeated thwartings on my attempts to hike by rangers. I am from the north and have seen seriously cold weather that can kill you. Came overly prepared and never worried. There were others that were around, but very few. That was feb. 19, 2015….

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