I'm going for a 150 mile section hike along the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine, this autumn. By the time I'm there, the last of the thru-hikers will have past, but the Kennebec ferry will still be running so I can get across the river.
Since I just finished planning the route, resupply points and shuttles, I thought I'd share my AT planning routine with you and some of the information sources I use.
When planning a section, the first thing I do is to consult a ragged 2006 copy of the AT Thru-Hikers' Companion that I use to keep track of all of the miles I've hiked. I provides a mile by mile account of all of the shelters, water sources, resupply points and roads crossings on the trail in a liner fashion that I find easy to digest. If you don't want to buy the book, you can also access the latest copy online in PDF.
After I decide on the section I want to hike, I like to look at detailed topographic maps to get a feel for the difficulty of the route in terms of elevation gain. I always buy these from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy online store. I'm a member of the ATC, and if you hike the trail, I'd recommend that you become one too.
Their section maps are sold by state and come with a guide book. They are printed on thick waterproof paper so they can stand up to a lot of abuse. I carry the relevant ones with me on all of my hikes and refer to them often.
Each bundle of maps (there are 7 for Maine) is produced by different regional trail maintenance organizations and the currency of the maps can vary quite a bit. For example, the AT maps for New York and New Jersey were published in 2007, the maps for Maine were published in 2004, and the maps for New Hampshire and Vermont were published in 2001.
In the period between their publication and "today", the route of the trail may have changed or the level of urban development around the AT may have increased. The resulting Map Drift between "the now" and a map's publication date can be confusing sometimes. You just need to be aware of it and trust your compass. Repeat after me: trust your compass.
In addition to elevation changes, the maps help me chunk out rough daily mileage estimates. In Maine, which is the toughest section of the AT, I plan on 10-12 miles per day and look to see what the camping and water supply options are like at those approximate end points. I rarely stick to this exact plan during a hike, but it gives me a baseline level of comfort knowing that I have some good alternatives available.
The next step in my planning process is to locate resupply points every 3-5 days along my intended route. The Thru-Hikers Companion is a good resource for this, as is The Resupply Book (2007) at Whiteblaze.net. Unfortunately, the latter is a bit dated, but you can always post a query at WhiteBlaze and you're sure to get a very accurate and up-to-date response.
Shuttles and Parking
Since I usually backpack solo, except in winter, I need to run a shuttle to get back to my car. As a rule of thumb, I try to hike to my parked car, so I can drive home when I emerge from the trail without having to hitch out or run a reverse shuttle.
For parking, you need to decide whether you want to park at a trail head or someplace less remote. When I hike 30-50 mile sections, I usually just park at the trail head. However, if I'm going to be away longer than that, I like to park someplace less remote to prevent the chance that my car will be broken into. Lodgings near the trail will often let you leave your car out back for a nominal fee.
Finding section hiker shuttles along the Appalachian Trail is usually pretty easy, but it may take a little detective work. While I can sometimes get a friend who lives near the trail to drive a shuttle, I often have to spring for a rural taxi. These can be a difficult to locate online in rural parts of New England, but persistence does eventually pay off. I use Yahoo Maps to find possible cab services and then start calling the listings. It can be pretty hit or miss.
You can also post a query on WhiteBlaze or call a local outfitter or hostel to get a lead on someone who will drive you to the other end of the section. Hiker friendly hostels and B&B's will often pick you up at a road crossing if you stay the night, but they won't do a really long 50+ mile shuttle unless you pay some serious coin.
As a solo section hiker, shuttle availability and cost are usually the determining factor in deciding which direction I hike the AT, either as a NOBO (northbounder) or a SOBO (southbounder)
For example, on this upcoming hike, a friend of mine is driving me up to Monson, at the southern end of the 100 mile Wilderness. From there, I'll be hiking south, all the way to Grafton Notch (150 miles). Lucky for me, he has family he wants to visit up that way.
Otherwise, this would have been a brutally expensive shuttle (like $150+) or I'd have had to break my route into 2 or 3 sections and shuttle my car to each resupply point, as I headed south. The logistics of that would have sucked.
The last important stage of planning is to check the seasonal weather conditions and how long the days will be.
The best place to look up this information is in The Almanac Section of The Weather Underground which lists average high and low temperatures for a given region. Reading the chart, I see that the average daytime temperature for mid-October is between 50-60 degrees F with average nighttime lows near 20 degrees F. That's a bit colder than I expected, so I going to add a fleece to my gear list and bring along an isobutane stove instead of an alcohol one, because it doesn't require priming in colder weather.
Daylight also going to be a big factor, with days down to 12 hours in length. That means I'm going to want to bring a book and some extra headlamp batteries to pass the time. Plus, I'm going to be getting a lot of sleep.
This is the route planning process I use for planning any long distance backpacking trip on a well-marked trail.
Do you do anything differently?