How to Hike the 100 Mile Wilderness
The 100 mile Wilderness is a bucket list hike if there ever was one. The route is arduous but extremely beautiful, running over mountain ranges and past beautiful Maine lakes along the northern most section of the Appalachian Trail. However, it’s quite a remote and unforgiving hike if you haven’t trained and prepared for it in advance.
Here are some tips for hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness that will help you complete all 100 miles in one trip and that I learned the hard way. While useful for thru-hikers, this post is really intended to prepare section hikers or backpackers, who only get to hike a few weeks a year, for a successful and complete journey.
When To Go
The best time to hike the Wilderness is late June thru July. Early June is black fly season and not fun. In August, the trail is crowded with other hikers and kids from summer camps. The shelters are packed and campsites are hard to find near shelter areas. September and early October are good, but the trail can also be crowded with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers racing through to finish their hikes on Mt Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Factor that in if you plan on sleeping in the shelters. The rest of the year is too cold or wet.
If you plan to continue north and climb Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, you need to do so before October 15th. After that, the park is only open from sundown to sunset and the peak is often closed because snow and ice make it too dangerous to climb.
If you can’t hike 10 miles or more per day, up and down 3500 foot mountains with a fully loaded backpack, you’re not gong to make to through the 100 mile wilderness in one go. Don’t try to train on the trail, it doesn’t work. There’s only one way to prepare for a 100 mile hike and that is to day hike every weekend and backpack on as many 2-3 day trips as possible earlier in the season.
When I hiked north along the AT from Monson (southern end of the Wilderness) this summer, I was dismayed by the number of backpackers who’d bailed within the first 1o miles of their hikes because they weren’t physically prepared. It was absolute carnage. I can’t imagine scheduling a 2 week vacation to hike the Wilderness, only to discover that you’re not physically fit to complete it on the first day.
Gym training is not going to cut it. One hour workouts will not prepare you to carry a 30-40 pound pack for 8-12 hours a day up and down mountains. You need to carry a loaded pack when you train. It doesn’t matter if you go ultralight. You can’t skimp on food, which is where most of your pack weight will be at the start of your hike.
Bail Out Plan
Before you start your hike, make sure you have the phone number of someone who can pick you up at one of the logging roads that cross the trail if you decide to bail early. It happens far more frequently than you might expect. While it used to be hard to get cell phone access in the Wilderness, it’s much easier now. Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson is a reliable source of rides or shuttles if you need them, but there are others.
The weather will be your biggest challenge in the Wilderness. Hot and humid weather, buckets of rain, or drought are all potential issues. If you’ve never been on a 8-10 day hike, the impact of bad weather can have a cascading effect long after you experience it. For example, wet boots can chew up your feet for days after they get wet. The same goes for a wet sleeping bag, inner tent, and so on.
The best hedge for bad weather is to build some padding into your schedule. If it rains for a few days in a row and you start thinking about bailing out because you’re miserable, take a zero day in a shelter and give yourself a chance to recover. Dry out, eat a lot, sleep, socialize and you may recover enough to continue the next day.
It will rain during your hike. Make sure you know how to hike in continuous rain. Practice it even.
The best maps for the Wilderness are published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and available for purchase from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (you need Maine maps 1,2 and 3). I think they’re worth carrying, but if you want something a bit lighter weight, tear out the pages of David Miller’s AT Guide that correspond with this section of trail. Don’t bring the whole book.
Although the 100 Mile Wilderness/Katahdin Map published by the Appalachian Mountain Club has excellent detail for Baxter State park, the detail for the trail is insufficient. Don’t rely on this map alone for your hike.
Section Hiking and Slackpacking
If hiking the entire 100 mile wilderness end-to-end is beyond you, section hiking a part of it or slackpacking are viable alternatives. You just need to find a shuttle service to drop you off and pick you up along the lumber roads that cross the trail.
There’s usually quite a lot of water along the trail except when there is a drought and you need to carry extra water with you. I recommend that you bring 5 liters of carrying capacity with you although you’ll probably only want to carry two liters at a time.
You do need to chemically treat or filter water from natural sources in the Wilderness. Make sure you know how to do this before you embark on your trip. I recommend bringing Aqua Mira drops or the Sawyer Squeeze water filter because they are effective and light weight.
Figure on 1.75 to 2 pounds of food per day and carry 1-2 days of food more than you need in case you are delayed. The food should be calorically dense and average 100 calories or more per ounce.
If you estimate that it will take more than 10 days for you to hike the 100 miles, I recommend you hike part of the trail and come back the following year to finish it or arrange for a shuttle driver to bring you a food drop. Food is heavy and if you have to carry more than 10 days worth, in addition to fuel, water and gear, it’s going to really slow you down.
I recommend hanging a bear bag during your hike, even if you stay in a shelter. There are lots of bears in Maine and hanging a bear bag is necessary to protect them for becoming interested in human food. If this happens and they become “problem bears” they will be hunted down and exterminated. The mice in Maine shelters are also ferocious and hanging food in a shelter rarely deters them from eating your food even if you hang your bag under a can. Hang it in a tree. If you don’t know how to, learn before you get to the Wilderness.
There is a hiker hostel in the Wilderness called Whitehouse Landing. It’s expensive but you can get a roof over your head, food, and drink – about two-thirds of the way north. Some people have a good time there and some people have issues with the management. I’ve steered clear of the place. Your mileage may vary.
Your shoes are going to get soaking wet in the Wilderness. I guarantee it regardless of how careful you are. If you wear leather boots, you will regret it because your boots will never dry and it will feel like you are wearing cinderblocks when you hike. The same goes for Gore-tex lined footwear which has a hard time drying out when water comes in over the top. Instead, wear a shoe or mid that drains well and will dry at night.
Don’t wear tight-fitting shoes. Your feet will start to swell after a few days of hiking especially if it’s hot and you may get very bad blisters. Make sure your toes have a lot of room to expand into when they swell up.
I also recommend that you wash your feet every night before bed and wear a dry pair of socks to sleep. This will help your feet recover at night.
There are lots of bugs in Maine. I recommend wearing long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a hat when you hike. If you don’t, bring lots a DEET. You’ll need it.
Bring the lightest weight gear you can afford and make sure you break it in well before bringing it on your hike. You don’t want to discover that your backpack doesn’t fit you at the trailhead, that your water filter doesn’t work, or that can’t pitch your tent in the dark. Seriously, practice before you arrive in the Wilderness. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you not going to have a fun time.
There are many more things I could say about getting ready to hike the 100 mile Wilderness, but those are some basic things you need to know. Preparation really is everything and I don’t mean amassing a lot of gear. You need to get out and backpack before you arrive at the beginning of the Wilderness and try to hike to the other side. It’s just not the kind of place where you can learn on the job. Practice and train for this hike and you’ll have a fun and successful journey.
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