The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says that 20% of the people who claim to hiking the Appalachian Trail each year are section hikers, although I suspect that the actual number is much higher. While some section hikers complete the trail in just a few years, many others take a decade or more to hike all 2180 miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin.
If you have a passion to hike the Appalachian Trail, which is still arguably one of the greatest adventures one can undertake in the United States, section hiking the trail has many advantages worth considering.
Advantages of Section Hiking
Keep Your Job
If you’re willing the hike the AT on weekends and during your vacation, you can keep you job and keep you career on track without having to quit or take a long unpaid leave of absence with no guarantee of a job at the end.
Hike in Good Weather
There’s no need to hike the AT in March when they’re still snow down south or during the heat and humidity of mid-summer. You can schedule your hikes during the best weather months, in late spring and early autumn when there are less bugs and cooler weather. As a section hiker, you have the option of quitting a section early if you run into a period of bad weather and come back later when the weather is more favorable.
As a section hiker, there’s no need to hike with the huge crowd of northbound thru-hikers. You can hike your section after all the thru-hikers have passed through and on weekdays when the trail is less crowded. I’ve spent many nights in AT shelters on section hikes either ahead of the wave or behind it, where I had the entire shelter to myself, without other snoring hikers. Even the shelter mice leave you alone!
Fewer Miles Per Day
Section hikers can hike fewer miles per day because they don’t have to rush north before the Kennebec Ferry stops in October or Baxter State Park closes for the season. As long as you have the time, you can hike your miles at a comfortable pace, take as many side trails as you want, and learn more about the history and customs of the area you’re hiking through. This is one of the key differences that can make a section hike better than a through hike.
Easier on Your Body
Hiking for one or two weeks at a time as a section hiker is a lot easier on your body than thru-hiking for five months in a row. As a section hiker, you can avoid many of the overuse injuries that thru-hikers experience including plantar fasciitis. You also won’t have the same weight loss and dietary issues that thru-hikers have because you’re on the trail for a much shorter amount of time.
You Can Take as Long as You Want to Finish the Trail
As a section hiker, you can take as much time as you need to finish the trail as you want. If you hike the AT for a few years, but find you need to stay at home more while your kids are growing, it’s no big deal. You can pick up where you left off when they become more independent or when they want to come with you on your hikes.
Learn How to Backpack Better
As the years pass by, and you do more and more backpacking, and more section hikes, you’ll pick up a lot of skills and backpacking techniques that thru-hikers never learn. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail is a fairly narrow skill set compared to all the different styles of backpacking and hiking that people do in other parts of the country and learning more skills will set you up for your next big adventure after you complete the AT.
Bring Lighter Weight Gear
Backpacking gear gets lighter and lighter weight every year, and as backpacking technology evolves you can use improvements in gear to your advantage. For example, if you started hiking the AT ten years ago, chances are you’d have been hiking in heavy backpacking boots and carrying a lot more gear weight. Since the gear available during your hike will evolve with time, you can upgrade to newer and lighter weight gear as it is developed, instead of being stuck with the same gear for six straight months like most thru-hikers. This will matter more than your realize as you get older.
Disadvantages of Section Hiking
Unlike thru-hikers, there’s not a lot of glory in being a section hiker. Gear manufacturers won’t sponsor you and newspapers are unlikely to write stories about you.
Hard on Your Loved Ones
If you only get three weeks of vacation at your job and you spend two of them hiking the Appalachian Trail every year, your spouse and children can grow to hate the AT. Make sure you mix things up a little and spend as much time with them as they need. The Appalachian Trail is not going anywhere and you can come back to hike it when family circumstances make it possible.
The cost of getting back to the trail where you last stopped hiking can add up over time if you live far away from it. The Appalachian Trail passes through some fairly remote and rural country and there are few points that are accessible via public transportation. While you can drive to the Appalachian Trail from anywhere along the east coast of the United States, it can eat up a lot of time if you need to drive from New England to the southern states. This may be your only option though since the AT doesn’t run past many major cities with airports or train terminals. Then there’s the issue of shuttles from your car to a remote part of the trail, which may be 100-200 miles away. Shuttle drivers will typically charge you a dollar a mile fo ra shuttle and these fees can add up over time. unless you do fewer and longer section hikes.
While there are disadvantages to section hiking, the advantages far outweigh them, particularly if you’re working and on a career path, or have a growing family. But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you hike the Appalachian Trail as a thru-hiker or a section hiker. What matters is that you get out and have a life of adventure; an adventure that you can call your own.