After going on my first section hike of the Appalachian Trail with my son, recently, I thought I’d share my 5 tips for section hiking the Appalachian Trail.
My son’s Boy Scout patrol recently decided they wanted to do a section hike of the Appalachian Trail. For them, this served two purposes, working on the Camping Merit Badge and working on the Cooking Merit Badge. It also got them out hiking and backpacking. Something our Troop rarely does.
With some guidance from one of the Assistant Scoutmasters, the boys created a plan for section hiking the Appalachian Trail that went from Winding Stair Gap in Franklin, NC to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, NC. A section hike of about 28.5 miles. In roughly 3 days. This brings me to my first tip.
1. Hike Less
The Appalachian Trail is no joke. It will chew you up and spit you out as a crying baby in the fetal position. I may or may not have resembled this description after the first 4.5 mile hike to our first night’s shelter.
Between the elevation (something we do not EVER experience in my home state of Florida) and the technicality of the trail (what are these hard, round objects in the middle of the trail?), our group was brought to a screeching halt and only averaged a mile per hour hiking the trail. With 11+ miles to go on our day two plan, we knew this just wan’t a feasible plan.
After hiking into the wilderness for 4.5 miles with cars stationed at our intended entry and exit points, we had to drastically alter the plan and change the location of the vehicles.
Another Assistant Scoutmaster and I hiked back out to the entry vehicle, went and picked up the exit vehicle, and brought them both to the new end point. Then, we had to back track to the rest of the group on the Trail. Needless to say, this was not the intended way to section hike the Appalachian Trail.
2. Pack Less
I don’t have a scale at home. Or a luggage scale. Or any way to weigh my pack. Weight is everything when section hiking the Appalachian Trail, so a luggage scale will likely be in my near future, if I plan to do any more backpacking.
The other dads on the trip had packs that weighed between 40 and 50 pounds with all water and food included. My pack was definitely somewhere in that range and probably on the higher end of the scale.
After reaching our first destination, Siler Bald, I dropped my pack and headed down to find the “privy.” I was shocked and what a difference it made in my energy to hike without that weight on my back!
Things to Leave at Home
After miles of “consideration” on the Trail, I learned that there were many things in this pack on my back that I could have left at home. These are just a few of the things that I think were unnecessary:
- Food. I packed way more food than I needed and you likely will, as well. Especially hiking in the summer, I found that the heat and the copious amount of water I had to drink made it so I really wasn’t all that hungry. I had lots of my “trail snacks” and two full meals left over at the end of the hike and I could have easily not eaten two more of the meals I brought, but I did just to get rid of the weight.
- Knives. I packed two knives. A Leatherman and a nice fixed blade knife. They came in handy and each serve their own purpose, but for a short section hike, you can definitely get by with just one.
- Camp chair. While I LOVE my folding backpack chair, and it only weighs 24 oz., I could have easily gotten away with a Reflectix or Therm-A-Rest sit pad at less than half the weight.
3. Stop to Enjoy the View
Section hiking the Appalachian Trail should provide you with some spectacular views of the Smokey Mountains (on the Southern part), as well as potentially some wildlife encounters.
Unfortunately, I found you become so focused on the trail (and not killing yourself by an awkward step on a rock) and getting to your destination, that you seldom stop and look around. The whole reason for section hiking the Appalachian Trail is to experience one of the longest, most beautiful hiking trails in existence. Make sure you don’t miss that beauty because you’re staring at your feet for 10 miles.
4. Have a “Plan B”
As I mentioned, we were 100% committed to our 28.5 mile plan. Until we weren’t.
We spent a great deal of time “re-planning” our hike. There needed to have water where ever we stopped for the night. The scouts kind of wanted to be at a shelter. After day one, we knew we couldn’t be too far between stopping points (about 4ish miles was our max). All of these factors played a role in coming up with a new plan.
Until we realized that Plan A wasn’t going to work out, we didn’t have a Plan B. It took quite a bit of map examination and book reading to develop that Plan B. It would have been nice to have it as a backup, all along.
5. Bring Lots of Maps and Books
Well, don’t get too carried away, but one map of the Appalachian Trail will not work out well for you.
I tended to use a National Geographic map of the AT that included our section and an Appalachian Trail Data Book together to determine our location and where we were headed, each day.
Other dads and scouts preferred different maps and/or books. They all show slightly different data. Different trail lengths. Different landmarks and camp sites.
Some water supply locations were not shown on my map, but they were in the book or vice versa. Camp sites would pop up on the trail that weren’t mentioned in either.
After relocating vehicles, the other dad and I headed “backwards” on the trail to catch the group at Wine Spring — a known camp site and water source on the Trail.
My AT book said it was 1.8 miles from Wayah Bald (where we parked the cars for extraction). We hiked and hiked and hiked. Suddenly we hit a camp site and a water source. Could this be it? No water sources were mentioned in this area on the map or book.
Just a bit past the water was a nice, wooden sign. It said Wayah Bald was 1.6 miles back in the direction we came. OK. We’re only .2 miles from Wine Spring, then. Awesome!
I proceed to nearly run down the trail those last .2 miles. Just one problem. That camp site and water source was Wine Spring. It wasn’t marked in any way. Not at the camp site. Not on the nice wooden sign. And the mileage from our map and book was off, too.
So, back up the trail I went.
As I mentioned at the beginning, section hiking the Appalachian Trail is no joke. It’s certainly not anything like backpacking in Florida. However, it is certainly a great adventure and my son and I ended with smiles on our faces.