The Section Hiker’s Dilemma

Maine AT Hiker Art

Maine AT – Hiker Art

This week I hiked the another 32 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. This brings the total number of miles I’ve hiked on the AT to 840 of the 885  miles from the Mohican Outdoor Center in New Jersey all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Some would say these are the hardest miles of the AT to hike, but they have all been relatively close to home, at least within driving distance. In some ways, I expect that the hiking down south will be much harder.

For one, the commute down south that will be much more difficult to work into the rest of my life. Hiking the northern half of the AT was easy since it is all within a 6 hour drive of my house. That’s made it possible to do lots of shorter sections of trail, sometime as little as two miles a day (with a 10 mile walk in and out).

But commuting to the southern 1,300 miles of the trail I have left between Georgia and Pennsylvania is going to be a lot harder. I’m probably going to have to take planes or trains to get to the trail heads near Roanoke, Washington DC, and Harrisburg and spend 2-4 weeks out at a time to finish off the southern sections I have left. I’ll also have to adopt more of a thru-hiker mentality, which is to stay on the trail until I finish a big section without the luxury of coming back at some later date to make up a few missed miles.

Working those longer sections into one’s schedule is one of the biggest challenges of Section Hiking and what makes it even more difficult than a continuous Thru-hike where you know you have 6 months of vacation ahead of you, with time to spare. But it’s also the norm really, because most people don’t get to backpack for more than 2 0r 3 weeks each year, and section hiking the AT is the only way that many people can even attempt such a journey.

I can’t take eleven weeks off to hike the rest of the AT: that wouldn’t be fair to my wife. I also doubt I’d enjoy it. I can hike three, maybe four weeks max, before it becomes too routine and less of an adventure.

But the trail still calls me and I’m sure I will finish the AT one day.

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39 Responses to The Section Hiker’s Dilemma

  1. Tim September 13, 2013 at 3:00 am #

    well, now that you have a awesome and popular blog, you may be able to find some readers to help you with rides to and from the trailhead or re-supply.

    Post before you get down to the PA-MD line and i will help you out, for sure.

    Good luck!

    • Philip Werner September 13, 2013 at 8:39 am #

      Many thanks for the kind offer Tim.

      • Tim September 13, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

        Anything between carlisle PA and Boonsboro MD is an easy drive for me. I am about 10 minutes from the last major road crossing in PA. The section of the AT from MD line up to rte 94 is my ‘local section’. I am on it once or twice a month if you have questions…

        I think you could 1) drive to the mid atlantic states or 2) fly to the southern states and then rely on some trail magic and the readers of your site to take care of the car shuttles or resupply points.

        Good luck,
        Tim

  2. jasonb September 13, 2013 at 6:04 am #

    I know whatcha mean…I figure Ill be retired by the time I tackle the northern states…if’n when you get to Ga/Nc/Tenn, give us a hollar.

  3. Matt September 13, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    I was faced with roughly the same dilemma. After completing the northern AT sections closest to my home in Brookline, MA, I realized that it would be an expensive logistic nightmare to complete the sections in the southern states if I tried to hike them the same way. I pared my pack weight to the bone and tackled longer sections with higher daily miles on a few 2-3 week outings. I also had family considerations that limited how long I could take off at one time. After VT, NH and ME the mountains down south weren’t so scary, which is not to say that I didn’t feel like I had an ass-whuppin’ by day’s end and that I felt fairly spent at the end of my trips.

    Given the way technology has evolved I imagine you could update your most excellent blog a few times from the trail, and with a few guest bloggers and pre-hike produced entries you’d be about covered. I’m happy to share what worked for me, pluses and minuses, should you think that might be helpful.

    • Philip Werner September 13, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      It may come to that Matt, but I’ve found that the cell phone interferes with my ability to tune out on hikes. I’ve had good luck with those hiking author guest post series I run each year when I go walkabout for a few weeks, but I’m running out of authors to ask for guest posts!

      I’m always interested in the mystery of section hiking and what works for others, so if you ever want to write something up and share your photos, I’m happy to have a guest post from you.

      I was talking to someone I met this week who hiked a 500 mile section down south this spring and he said it was much much easier compared to New England, except that the weather was just as bad! Hah.

  4. Guthook September 13, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    I’ve been toying with the idea of a month-long section hike in Virginia next summer, so maybe we could team up on logistics a little bit. I’ve been having the same troubles with doing sections of the AT outside of New England, as well, since getting to the trail is one of the hardest parts of any long hike.

    • Philip Werner September 13, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      That would be way cool Ryan. Do you know how to drive a standard?

      • Guthook September 13, 2013 at 10:49 am #

        I sure do!

        • EZ Hiker September 20, 2013 at 7:33 am #

          If the two of you make plans for Virginia next Summer, let me know. Ever since my thru hike I’ve wanted to do that section over and attempt the 4 state challenge at the end. I think it would be great to hike with the two of you.

  5. Jeanne Hatter September 13, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I feel like I wrote this article… same words, same exact feelings :) Only difference is that I live in the South, and my Northern sections will become my logistical nightmare.

    Until my kids are grown and gone, I will only get the opportunity to hike approx. 100 miles a year. It’s so hard to juggle a full-time job, 3 kids, a business on the side, a husband and family responsibilities and get out in the wilderness for more than 3-4 day stretches a few times a year. By of the end of next week, I will have cranked out 200 miles (from Springer to Clingman’s Dome) and am already planning my next section in the Spring.

    Keep up the great blog— I just joined, and really enjoy your posts!

    • Philip Werner September 13, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      Glad to have you aboard Jeanne. I was up in Maine last week and the geography and remoteness makes it so difficult to get from one trailhead to another – for instance a hike that requires 40 miles of travel needs a 100 mile shuttle because you need to drive around mountains and lakes. Perserverance and patience – good takeaways from this crazy endeavor!

      The irony in Maine is that the trail was pioneered by Milton Avery, co-founder of the AT, who was the first section hiker to complete the trail and who created the AT so that regional hikers would have a great trail system within easy reach of major metro areas. He would never have predicted that people would want to hike the entire route as section hikers or thru-hikers, and in fact the earliest thru-hikes were considered stunts, more than “legitimate” uses of the trail.

  6. Marc September 13, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Even if in my country hikes are considerably shorter, I’ve planned my tackle to the GR-11/High Pyreneean Route (I take them as one trail, even if they are distinct) and Saint James Way as section hikes (which, at my rate, I’ll retire before I finish them and I haven’t even finished college). Money and time are serious issues, although if I can ever get enough money to spare and have two absolutely free months a thru-hike of the HRP would really appeal to me.
    By the way, should you ever need an european guest writer, I’d feel very honoured to do so.
    Hike on!
    Marc.

  7. RevLee September 13, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Keep us in the loop when you are planning for Virginia. DripDry and I would be happy to help with information, rides, and supply drops.

  8. john September 13, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    I agree with Jeanne and am also from the south, Alabama.

    My plan is do the Pinhoti and then all the way up the AT. You should plan to continue south with your hike.

    I started at Flagg Mt, the southern terminus of the Pinhoti. We haven’t put the trail there yet but flagged it a bout two years ago. I believe all the paper work and transfer of land has now happened and we’ll start working on that section later this year.

    So for I’ve done 136 miles in two hikes, one 100 miles the other the 36 and will get more in late October. My plan as I get farther north is take a small camper I have for some trips until the driving becomes to far and time consuming. Then swap to flying. I haven’t really made a plan on what part or where that will be because some of my trips will be tied in with my wife and vacations which gives me little wiggle room time wise.

    I’m aiming to get at least three 3 to 7 day windows each year for the next couple of years.

    • Philip Werner September 13, 2013 at 11:17 am #

      The fact that Guthook can drive a standard means we could hike the same sections in opposite directions and trade car keys off when we pass each other. If we did that once a week we could zero the same day in trail towns to resupply and inch worm our way up the trail.

      But I’d also been toying with doing sections that are book-ended with good transporation hubs and which are close to the trail like Harrisburg, Harpers Ferry/DC, Roanoke, Ashville, and Atlanta.

      • john September 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

        I like that idea of two people hiking it in opposite directions. The book end idea is also a very workable solution.

    • Daviid September 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      I’m very close (North Central, AL) to the Pinhoti and have wanted to hike it for several years but have not set foot on it yet. Done a lot of research on hiking it and I’ll make it someday soon.

  9. Louis Brooks September 13, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    I am at the opposite end of the problem living in Florida. It’s already 8 hours just to get to the trail in GA if I drive so farther north will require flying or riding the train. Can’t wait to get up and do some of the Whites though.

  10. JERMM September 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    We struggle with the same problem on opposite ends of the trail, but somehow it always works out.

  11. John Fisher September 13, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

    My brother and I have section hiked almost 600 miles of the AT since 2000, mostly in annual week-long segments. He’s in Charleston, SC and when I was living in New Jersey it was easy to polish off New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and part of Massachusetts. But then I moved to Los Angeles, which has added a whole new level of complication to our trips. We took a break from the AT for a few years and started work on the JMT. But one crystal clear, cool, bug-free, low humidity day, standing at 10,000 feet with unlimited views in every direction, we decided that we actually missed the green tunnel of the AT (I blame the thin air). We resumed the AT at Springer and over the next few years worked our way north through the GSMNP. Then we jumped to NH and the Whites, which absolutely devastated us. We laugh now about the lack of adjectives in the White Mountain guide books – words like “very”, “really”, and “unbelievably” rarely appear in-between “ascend/descend” and “steeply”. It was not funny at the time. We know we have unfinished business in the Whites, but this summer we decided to finish off Massachusetts.

    The logistics of these annual excursions have been daunting – complex, expensive and time consuming. Fortunately I enjoy the planning part, but maximizing time on the trail often means hiking on a schedule with little leeway. Everyday factors like weather, gear performance, minor injuries and even interactions with other hikers – things that can be a mere inconvenience during a longer segment or a thru – take on disproportionate significance when your time on the trail is limited.

    Now part of our dilemma is whether we slavishly adhere to picking up where we left off or cherry-pick the sections that offer the most return on investment. I suppose that really depends on how much longer we’ll want to/need to/be able to do this.

    • Philip Werner September 14, 2013 at 7:58 am #

      That is a difficult pickle – living so far away. Althoughj I have a Boston friend who is section hiking the PCT, one west coast business trip at a time!

      You said – “things that can be a mere inconvenience during a longer segment or a thru – take on disproportionate significance when your time on the trail is limited” – How very true! Like bad weather.

  12. camping 101 September 14, 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Philip, Great post. Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the dream….and just keep hiking! Good Luck!

  13. Journeyman September 14, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    You’ve picked all the low hanging fruit, but after all is said, it is a good problem to have.

  14. David September 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    I’m having the same problem as the distance increases. I live in northern AL and getting into middle VA was starting to stretch it. I section hike with a pilot and we started flying up but that became much more expensive. If I continue doing this I’ll end up spending much more section hiking than if I took a 6 month leave and did a thru-hike. I wouldn’t have to do a thru-hike to complete the trail, but I would REALLY like to. I never really feel like I’m a part of the community of hikers by doing the AT in sections.

    • Philip Werner September 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

      That’s never really bothered me because I don’t know many thru-hikers who are that interested in hiking as a lifetime vocation. It seems that many hike the trail and never hike again, they can’t read maps or use a compass and have to follow blazes, and all they care about is staying as wasted as possible on the trail by smoking dope. That’s totally not my scene. I prefer hanging with people who have a hiking life outside of the AT or (name a scenic trail) and like developing the acute self-sufficiency that comes from learning wilderness skills. My AT experience is pretty private I guess.

      • GreenPackin' September 14, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

        Maybe it’s just the people I’ve run into along the way. I enjoy the solitude but I do like to be able to share along the way and the end of the day.

        • Philip Werner September 14, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

          I do to, but somethimes the trail culture gets a little too oppressive for me. I’ll give you an example. I was sitting in Miss Janet’s van a few days ago. Far as I can tell, she’s a thru-hiker groupie who drives up to Maine in September to run slacks and shuttle thrus to town. There I am a 53 year old guy dressed like a old-time mountain man (long pants/all kahki) in a van full of 20 years olds being driven in a van plastered with hiking and grateful dead stickers. I appreciated the ride and all and yeah I used to drive cross-country to grafeful dead concerts in tie-dyed shirts but it was a jarring transition to step out of the woods and 30 years into my past. It’s not my scene anymore.

          • josh camp September 19, 2013 at 9:21 am #

            I’m only 35, but I find myself thinking the same thing every time I go out. I did a small section during the summer and ran into a gaggle (probably at least 100) of thru-hikers at one shelter. They were all nice but… It really made me realize that I hike to get away and be alone in nature. The whole scene was too hipster for me. Don’t get me wrong I love running into a couple of folks each evening when it’s time to wind down but the whole traveling circus thing left a bad taste in my mouth.

  15. kcross September 14, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    I understand your dilemma! I actually got to the GA section this summer after finishing my home state MD. Scheduling for 2 to 3 weeks is interesting when the rest of the family isn’t coming with me. But oh I cherish the time to myself! ;) happy hiking!

  16. Backpacking Engineer September 15, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    Like you, the trail from PA to ME is the easiest for me to get to. That is why I tackled those sections on 2 and 3 day weekend trips for the most part. Being done those sections, last year I started section hiking from Springer Mtn. north. I take off 2 straight weeks a year for a hike. Last year it was Springer to Fontana Dam. This year it was Fontana Dam to Erwin, TN. I can personally say that the trail is must easier in the south. My wife and I drive each time. The drive is not that bad and it gives us a chance to explore other areas off the trail. Good luck with finishing!

    • Philip Werner September 15, 2013 at 11:09 am #

      That’s what’s heard. If you’re used to hiking in New Hampshire and Maine, the southern trail is easy, with switchbacks and everything!

  17. Kevin O September 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Philip – This is a dilemma I think about all the time. I live in the greater Boston area and like you, I have relatively easy access to everything north of New York. I have a young son (10 months old), a beautiful wife and 2 dogs. Taking off for long periods of time and putting all of those responsibilities squarely on my wife just isn’t fair.

    This weekend I did 36 miles in MA from I-20 to the Mount Greylock summit. The hours of solitude brought me a lot of time for contemplation. I have come to the realization that until my son is older, my section hike is going to be weekend trips focused on New England. If I can say I walked from CT to Baxter, I will feel completely accomplished.

    On another note, if your ever looking for a shuttle in New England, shoot me an email. There is nothing more difficult then arranging transportation on these hikes. I am a bit younger then you, but I have a strict “No Grateful Dead” rule in my car. I have no problems with the dead heads, but like you, it’s just not where I am in life.

  18. Robin Odland September 18, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    Philip,

    Having done roughly the same mileage as you, though in many different sections (I live near Philly and have done VT, NH much of Maine, Shenandoah, Georgia through the Smokies), I have done my share of flying, riding buses, and shuttling to get to destinations along the trail, and have found it quite easy to get to places. While I have driven to the trail throughout VT and NH, I’ve resorted to flying, & busing to Maine and the southern sections. While clearly it will be difficult for you to knock off sections of southern VA and TN over a weekend, If you plan a week or so at a time, you will be able to make some headway. And having experienced most of Maine and GA through the Smokies, I can definitely say that it is infinitely easier to get to and from the trail (without a car) in the southern part of the trail than the northern part of the trail. There are far more active trail angels, private shuttles and easy access to civilization in the south, than there is in Maine.

    The other thing that I should note is that during the start of the through hike season (late March through April) almost every road crossing has trail magic south of the Smokies, and there are more pancake breakfasts offered by Baptist Churches than you can imagine–the Churches pick hikers up at trailheads and bring them back after the Breakfasts. It is a social phenomenon that you really should experience–truly heartwarming–and definitely part of what defines the AT. I love the remote wilderness as much as anyone, but I appreciate the unique interconnectedness with civilization that the AT provides as well.

    I love the challenge of figuring out how the heck I am going to get to and from the trail, scheduling my pick ups and keeping me focused while I hike.

    You have a wonderful blog with an immense following. I am sure that all you have to do is say, “I’d love to to hike the trail from Davenport Gap, TN to Erwin, TN or some other section and you’d have more people than you could imagine that would help you make it happen. When you choose to do Rocksilvania, let me know so that I can assist you with your transportation needs.

    Robin

  19. Steve September 20, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    As a section hiker from CT, I can understand the difficulty to get to the southern states. It’s the financial commitment (plane, shuttle, sleeping arrangement), the logistics of leaving & returning (on a deadline), making the most use of your time and not feeling rushed.

    I don’t have any friends that backpack, but I love the AT so I end up hiking solo. Two years past, I had 8 days and decided to go south. One of the best hiking experiences I ever had was to go to Springer in March. Experiencing this new section of the trail with countless thru’s who were also eagerly excited was amazing. I made friends on that trail who I still keep in touch with and have so many amazing memories from the trip; it was such an interesting feeling of being treated like a thru, despite being a section hiker (I still love being a section hiker, by the way!). I went again this past March to continue where I left off in NC. Again, a great experience, made a new friend, hosted him when he made up to CT, more great memories. It had firsts, multiple times.

    In my opinion, I would wholeheartedly recommend going north from Springer during that thru-hiker bubble. The people, the trail magic, the excitement, the camaraderie, and the new experiences gave me a new look about the trail… I just wish I had more time.

    Thank you,

    Steve
    Trail name: Not Yet

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