OK, I just got back from Forest Service Road 42 at the foot of Springer. I saw about 150 people begin their long distance journey to Maine (not including section hikers). Some observations/suggestions for those planning a long distance hike on the AT:
1. I’m sure this has alot of opinions, but the bottom line is that the approach trail is not part of the AT. Somebody is dropping you off somewhere. Add an extra hour to your driving trip and say your goodbyes at FS42. Stop at the State Park visitor center for directions, sign-in, weigh your pack, etc. Although FS42 is a dirt/gravel road, the preferred route that most people take is passable by cars.
2. Too many people with heavy packs. If your pack weighs more than 50 pounds, it weighs too much (30 pounds or less is desirable). If you are unable to get below 50#, ensure you have 2 crisp hundred dollar bills included in that weight. When you finally make it to Mountain Crossings @ Walasi-Yi (Neels Gap), find the nearest employee and hand him/her your 200 bucks. You’ll need it for a new backpack, sleeping bag or tent (possibly all three, not to mention resupply and the heavy box of gear that you‘ll be mailing home). It is highly likely that you will spend alot of money there.
**On this note, remember that ounces add up to pounds. While going over your gear, keep track of how many times you’ve thought “Hey, it is only a few ounces.”.
**Still on this note, I would suggest a pre-trip to Mountain Crossings, if it is at all possible. Preferably at least a year before you start and when there are likely to be hikers there. It would also be best to visit before making major gear purchases (backpack, sleeping bag, tent). Discussions with employees and hikers will help solidify your gear decisions and save you money. While there, ask what was the most any one hiker spent.
3. Many hikers start on or after the 1st day of Spring. Unfortunately, that does not mean instant warm weather. It will be cold and the possibility of snow still exists (don’t forget the Smokies). Ensure you have appropriate cold weather gear (including long pants). Another interesting thing about spring is that leaves don’t appear over night. Until the leaves arrive, when the sun is out you are exposed all day long. Bring some sunscreen.
**During your pre-trip to Mountain Crossings, observe sunburned hikers. OUCH!!
4. The weekends are busy on Springer. Start during the week. If you do start on the weekend understand that upwards of 60 other hikers will also be starting (on 4/1/06 and 4/2/06, I counted 29 (Sat) and 35 (Sun) at FS42). The shelters (and tent sites) will definitely be crowded (as well as the hostel at Neels Gap).
5. Climbing rope is extreme overkill for bear rope (you don’t need to haul your entire backpack up a tree). 50 feet of nylon cord (parachute cord or 550 cord - whatever you want to call it) is sufficient. Nor do you need those huge carabiners that usually accompany climbing rope. Although required in several places on the PCT, bear canisters are NOT required on the AT. Areas that have heavy bear concentrations have appropriate systems for hanging food (and other aromatic items). GA and GSMNP have cable pulleys. SNP has poles and NJ has metal boxes. A sil-nylon stuff sack will work for food bag.
6. Saws, axes, Rambo/hunting knives can be left at home (unless you plan on wrasslin’ a b’ar as part of the evenings entertainment at the shelter). A small knife (with tweezers for pulling out those tiny ticks up North) for slicing bagels and spreading peanut butter is perfect.
7. Another piece of useless gear is a camp chair/stool. A camp chair/stool is nice for camping. However, you’ll be hiking more than camping. When you stop for the day, you fix dinner (while talking gear with other hikers, who are also carrying too much) and then you go to sleep. If you stay at shelters (which most do) there will be somewhere to sit down.
8. Nalgene bottles. Almost everyone carries two or three of them (sometimes clipped to back of pack with large carabiners). Nalgenes are heavy and bulky. Consider a collapsible water reservoir which is lighter, holds more water and can be rolled up when empty. Of course, for drinking on the go you will also have a water bladder with a drinking tube.
9. Crocs/Waldies. Very comfortable and very lightweight. Enough said. Buy them before your hike and save the money it’ll cost to mail home your heavy sandals.
10. It takes approximately 4 days to get to Neels Gap (30.6 mi) from Springer. That means you only need enough food for approx 4 days. Anymore more than that only increases pack weight. Of course, err on the side of caution. If you are uncertain of your daily mileage, carry an extra day of food.
Anyway, these tips have absolutely no bearing on whether or not you make it to Katahdin. Hopefully, they will make your first week a little more enjoyable and save you some money. I’m sure you don’t want to blow half of your budget on day 4.
See you on the trail,