On Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, there is a plaque that describes the AT as a “footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.”
Mentioning this quote to a thru-hiker is likely to elicit a laugh. Fellowship with fellow hikers? Absolutely. Fellowship with chipmunks and squirrels? If you don’t kill them first. But, fellowship with the wilderness can be hard to come by on the most populated of the country’s long-distance trails.
Or so I’ve heard.
My AT thru-hiking experience was unlike most other backpackers’ in that it was relatively solitary, even though I was hiking northbound. Rather than wishing for more time alone, I actually found myself seeking the company of others. There were times when I did not see another human for a day or another northbounder for a couple days. When I tell other hikers this, they often find it completely baffling, so I thought I should post a list of tips for finding solitude and, perhaps, more fellowship with nature on the Appalachian Trail:
1) Don’t sleep at shelters.
In my mind, there are so many reasons not to sleep at shelters on the trail. First, as I’ve mentioned before, they can be sketchy. Second, staying at a shelter makes you 100x (according to the Institute for Reliable Statistics) more likely to have your gear moused or chipmunked. Shelters are rarely situated by the best views or in the prettiest woods. And, shelter sleeping makes sleeping more difficult; not only do shelters attract people, but they attract lots of bugs (many of which bite) as well.
Avoiding shelters is probably the easiest way to cultivate some sense of solitude on the Appalachian Trail. Even when I spent the day leap-frogging other hikers, being alone at night, with my tent tucked unobtrusively some 200 feet off the trail, left me with a feeling of peace and solitude.
2) Avoid towns.
Trail towns act like mega-shelters in that they often congregate several days’ worth of hikers at hostels and restaurants. Quick afternoon resupply trips allow hikers to get back to the woods faster and without the crowd that often leaves towns in the mornings.
3) Start or finish the trail outside the “bubble.”
For several reasons (often involving outside pressures or hiking companions), my daily mileage varied considerably over the course of the trail, even when taking elevation gain and difficulty of the treadway into account. As a result, I got to experience being in both the center of the the main pack of hikers marching toward Maine and on either end of it. Walking near the group that begins in early April and will summit Katahdin in early September can make for quite a social Appalachian Trail experience; hiking in front of or behind that group can make solitude easier to come by.
4) Enjoy the blue blazes.
As I’ve written before, most Appalachian Trail thru-hikers walk right past even short blue-blazed trails. Exploring some of these side trails is a great way to see more of the eastern woods, get off the beaten path, and enjoy some time alone.
5) Take short breaks randomly.
This is a quirky tip, and it’s one that I’ve intentionally not followed on many occasions, either because I’ve decided to enjoy a beautiful place or because I’ve sought companionship.
Most hikers take second breakfast/snack/lunch breaks at shelters and at scenic locations. Conversely, I have a tendency to simply pause briefly at these places and then keep walking until I’m tired or two hours have passed, whichever comes first. Then, I’ll just sit down on the trail, take a five-minute break, get up, and keep walking. This habit of mine makes other hikers unlikely to catch me in the time I’m taking a break.
6) Hike long days steadily.
As with the other tips, this was something I’d been doing for a fair bit of time before I realized that it was contributing to my unusual Appalachian Trail experience. Many (but by no means all) hikers enjoy slow mornings in camp, hike quickly, take long breaks, and make camp well before dusk. When left to my own devices, I put in very long days on the trail, hiking from not long after dawn until not long before dusk. I would often pass other hikers while they were taking breaks and, as they’ve teased me about on Facebook afterward, never see them again.
A few final thoughts
It’s easier to be alone on the Appalachian Trail than it might seem, and someone seeking solitude should not feel as though hiking northbound would make for a prohibitively social experience. That said, I would encourage thru-hikers to embrace both time in the wilderness and time in the company of others. One of the most fascinating parts of the Appalachian Trail is the community found on and along it, and I’ve appreciated changing my usual habits to enjoy that community.