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How I hiked the AT (During Covid 19)

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Five months and one week. 160 days. 2,179 miles. 14 states. Covid 19. Hiking the entire trail is a huge endeavor – but it's easier than your mind lets you believe.



2,179 miles from the foothills of Georgia to the Northwoods of Maine, lies a footpath for hikers known as the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT is a pass through the tallest mountain range in the United States east of the Mississippi River, the AT is for those once in a lifetime, head above the clouds kind of dreamers. Completed in 1937, the AT has drawn people to its dreamy wilderness mountain peak views, and intimate nature encounters for 85 years now.


Sound like something for you? Imagine hiking the entire thing in one calendar year. In the hiker community this is recognized as a “thru-hike”, and a successfull thru hike of the entire AT does not demand specials skills or prior experience. Although the right equipment, cash, and time for the undertaking are essential. My name is Randy Smith and I was born and raised here in Maine. In this blog I want to share with you my thru hike of the AT in 2020.


Preparation

Preparing for a thru hike varies with every single hike/hiker but on average a person can count on completing a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 6 months, with a budget of around $3,000 – 5,000 to gear up, buy food, and binge on town visits depending on individual needs. I found myself closer to $5,000 after all said and done.

Knowing that the average person takes 6 months I planned for 7 months to be safe and finished in 5 months and one week. My start date was March 12th 2020 and my finish atop Mt. Katahdin August 20th 2020. I will say if this is something you are considering it is beneficial to know some things about camping but uncompromising survival skills aren't real necessity.



I have a wide-range of hiking experience over the years but lots of people who attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail have never seriously hiked or even spent the night alone in the woods. The year before I thru-hiked, I was working on finishing up a Master’s degree in adventure education and outdoor therapies, also working as a supervisor in a residential treatment for young adults, and I was spending all my free time developing a permaculture initiative while building a guide business in hopes to compliment my life’s work, passion, and dreams. I quit my job that winter of 2019, worked hard on my Masters thesis, and researched hiking the Appalachian Trail for a few months before I actually hit the trail.


I had a tentative plan to get myself in shape but alternately I ate double orders of breakfast sandwiches from Dunkin Donuts with my morning coffee, lounged around, stayed up till wee hours of the morning working on my thesis, mourned the loss of an 8 year relationship, and drank beer with friends. If I were to give recommendations to someone who was considering a thru hike I would say consider working towards being in better shape than I did, but at the same time there is no question that you can hike yourself to be fit on the trail.


When to Leave

In my research I found that most hikers start hiking from Georgia in March/April as a North bounder. South bounders starting there hike in Maine need to wait for the summer thaw in Maine and begin there hike sometime in June/July. It is common to encounter mobs of hikers attempting to do the same thing as you early in the start of a hike of the AT. This may seem overwhelming at first but don’t worry because only 1 in every 4 of those hikers will actually be successful so the mobs quickly thin out. I met great people along the AT but my goal was not to meet hiking partners, “tramilys”, or socialize. My goal was to be alone, get to know myself, and come to grips with my heart and soul. The year 2020 could not have been a better opportunity for meeting these goals because I started hiking the day Covid became a thing and the entire country shut down. To give you an idea of what this looked like, some statistics show that 3000 + people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail each year, in 2020 during Covid that number was around 450.



Its often recommended to beat the mobs of hikers and lessen the impact of the ever growing popularity of the Appalachian Trail by considering to leave Georgia earlier in February, and some leave as early as January. Its likely you won’t meet many hikers on the trail leaving this early on. You will be hiking in the cold for longer because Spring comes slowly to these mountains. So it’s important to plan appropriately so you’re not roughed up by nasty snowstorms and cold weather as you scramble across Whitetop Mountain. I ran into winter weather in early April so beware and be prepared if you plan to start early in the year.


What did I see



Every time I reached a summit peak, I counted on a view of the massive valley below. The gaps and hollers of the Appalachia are profuse with streams, pastures, forests, and animals of all kinds: rattlesnakes, deer, black bears, porcupines, mice, hawks, eagles, and more. You’ll run into groups, day hikers, and drifters alike.



In the beginning I tried to photo op every moment on my camera, before I fell back to a lifelong belief that the most lasting memories I have or encounter are not found in a photo op but by chance, consciousness, and presence in the moment. Like a time I relaxed on top of that mountain in Virginia and watched the sunset. One day I hiked off trail (blue blaze) to a massive waterfall with a perfect pool and swam alone until my heart was content. In Vermont, I crossed a road and met a man who offered me the most tasty, icy cold beer I had ever experienced (Orbital elevator), and then I hiked on to sleep high atop a mountain where I fell asleep in a fire tower enjoying the serene views of the state.


The Appalachian Trail has long been known as "the long green tunnel" because of the overlying canopy of trees that hang over its distinct foot path. It was always the unexpected that made me awe inspired. For example The spruce and fir woodlands at the highest elevations, appear fairy tale like, the iconic McAfee Knob in Virginia, Civil War memorials In Maryland, the flat rocky stretches of Pennsylvania, and farms for miles and miles spread along the entire 2,190-mile trail. I fed cows, walked with ponies, and visited alpaca. While I forged and ferried across remote and untamed rivers.


The Gear needed

I learned very quickly during my research of thru hiking, do not agonize yourself over the decisions you make on gear. You can spend copious amounts of money here but it is not necessary. There will be plenty of time to reconsider your choices along the trail through local gear shops or planning a mail drop. Buy cheap or middle of the road if you’re uncertain. When it comes to camping knowledge, the wilderness will teach you everything you will need to know and you can adopt proven ideas from other thru-hikers. The gear you choose will help with comfortability but it will not hike the hike for you.



Regardless of advice to not agonize yourself, there are three (known as the big three) items you will not regret investing your money on: 1. lightweight, warm sleeping bag, 2. a comfortable, well-organized backpack, and 3. a lightweight, shelter to keep you dry and out of the elements as necessary. The first time you sleep at 4,000 feet in March, you’ll be thankful for the money you spent on your goose-down sleeping bag.


While choosing your foot wear it’s important to know that there's no such thing as waterproof boots/shoes. If you want dry feet? Don’t go hiking. You'll be walking in the elements along the rainy East Coast, crossing rivers, encountering rainstorms, and bogs. Invest in light, yet breathable hiking shoes designed to get wet and dry quickly and let them get wet (trail runners are a good consideration) this is normal and healthier for your feet (my opinion).


Hiking with others

Even though I did start hiking the AT with a friend I would highly recommend starting alone and meeting other potentials on the trail. Not everyone hikes the same pace as you, spends as much or as little money and time in town as you, or rest the way you do. These are some of the key determining factors for a successful hike.



I started out with a friend and we sort of hiked together for the first 400-500 miles but ultimately I found that hiking alone was best for me. My friend left the trail due to an injury and I found great solitude and peace in the easier decision making process of hiking my own hike. I did meet a handful of hikers that I spent little stints with on the trail but ultimately I hiked the remaining 1500 (ish) miles hiking in solitude. My overarching goal to hike the AT was to push myself in solitude, and some good ole fashion soul searching. So I found my greatest moments and most cherished memories alone in the woods and on the trail.

Hiking partners don’t actually hike “together “anyway. It’s more about the company. When hiking with others there are days when you only see them at camp in the morning or at night. What little time (I do mean little time) I spent hiking with others, which was only ever 1-2 others, there was a plan for how many miles we were going to hike and where we would rest. It is nice to catch lunch with a hiker friend here and there. Sometimes it was easier to hitchhike into town with others, and nice to take a zero day with others. But all said and done my favorite and most enlightening moments and experiences were on top of a big mountain alone where I could truly realize just how small my problems really are.


Potable Drinking Water

There are many ways to purify water but the three most popular ways that I encountered on the trail were filtration systems, tablets, or bleach. I struggle with the taste of bleach in my water or the taste of iodine in my water so I used a 40 dollar sawyer water filter with a coupling that adapted to smart water bottles which I carried 2. Later in my trip I bought and carried a 2L CNOC bag for easier access at the water source, the ability to hang it while filtering my water and free up my hands, and to a carry surplus when I new I was going to be sleeping where there was not water source. The CNOC had many advantages and I would recommend it to anyone.


There were a few times when I was higher up at elevation, that I felt that the water was far less likely to be contaminated, so I drank straight from the source. A couple of times I discovered frosty isolated springs during a heat wave and comparable to ice cream in my own mind.


Calorie intake (Food)



I spent a few months before my hike preparing and making my own meals at home. I planned 20 boxes (100 days of food with the intention to supplement the remainder, 50 or so days, in towns for variety) which had 5 day resupplies and as close to 5000 cal per day that I could


get. I researched dehydrated dinner recipes and tried several of them before I picked 5 meals that I would take with me (This meant that in every 5 day supply I would never eat the same meal twice). I did the same research for breakfast and made high calorie oatmeal “bombs”. For lunches I always snacked on the go which consisted of trail mix, bars, sugary drinks, peanut butter, etc. There are differing opinions about using maildrops these days. It is not the most popular way but it once was “the” way. The biggest things I read about maildrops was that you get sick of eating the same old things and this was not the case for me and my hike. I thoroughly enjoyed all my meals for the entire journey.



I hiked the entire trail in exactly 160 days. That means I had to buy 60 days of food on top of the hundred days that I had planned for maildrops. Something that I noticed right away about buying food on the fly in town was that I experienced lower energy levels because I was not able to spend the time that I spent making sure that my maildrops were packed with healthy calories. Here is how I got my calories when buying in town: ramen, peanut butter, bagels, cheese, pepperoni, instant mashed potatoes, Cliff bars, granola, trail mix, Snickers, country time lemonade, tuna pouches, and all kinds of other junk. No limits! My diet evolved daily. And it wasn’t gourmet. My metabolism was working like a well fed furnace.


Trail Towns Along the Way



Some of the most frequent questions I received before I set out to hike were; are you going to carry a gun? Are you going to kill your own food? How will you get food? Where will you sleep? One of the biggest misconceptions is that the trail is far far far from civilization. The largest part of my thru-hike was in the woods, yet road crossings were a daily, sometimes hourly occurrence. And convenience stores are sometimes just a short walk from these crossings. Towns may be six miles from a spot where I cross a road, but I was never truly far from a resupply. Often times it was stick out my thumb and wait.



Towns were my chance to take advantage of buffets and cheap hostels. Wash my clothes and use a computer at a local library Covid effected this sometimes but seldom. My weakness was ice cold Coca-Cola at the gas stations, and as many as I could put into me well I was there.



These towns were not to be written off in my book, they were not the wilderness that people would associate with hiking, but the AT runs directly through some of the most rustic backwoods towns along the way like Hot Springs, North Carolina, Damascus, Virginia, Hanover, New Hampshire, and Monson, Maine. It also travels through some of the poorest areas in all of the United States. I saw America in a way that one would only see on a thru hike of the AT.



The AT was a calling from my ongoing entangled love affair with nature, and my desire to be alone in wild places. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to know if I could get up every day and just keep hiking. I wanted to return to a primal human experience, out in the elements, testing my skills, exhausting my body, and as far away from technology as possible for extended period of time.


I learned that thru-hikers are delicate. We all believe that our system, our way, and our gear is the answer. But hiking alone I found that the Appalachian Trail is forgiving: It allowed me to learn what I needed to learn while I was there. This is unlike a daunting first decent of a class V river, or a summit to the top of K2. It was rarely technically challenging me, but I encountered many days that I didn’t want to stomp up 4 and 5000 ft mountains, and it was a mental challenge. I lived in my head for months. I revisited life memories that long laid dormant inside my brain: This is the reason why I wanted solitude.


Within the 160 days of my entire thru hike, I met mind boggling strangers, Drs., couples, lifetime friends, burnouts, musicians, and poets. As I approached my last steps to the summit of Katahdin with a hiker friend (Lady Slipper) met along the way close to Katahdin, I found myself wanting to summarize this heroine once in a lifetime walk in the woods. It’s taken me a long time to do that. Here I am three years after that day of victory on top of Mt Katahdin truly reflecting on it and talking about it for the first time with depth (literally) and I want to share my summary. Be strong, be passionate, and chase your dreams and you will always find the best version of yourself.




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