One Month on the AT

This May, after wrapping up exams and coursework, I set off on an epic new adventure – a three-week solo backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail (AT). I felt drawn to nature, to clean air and wildlife, to green trees, and to the Appalachian mountains that feel so much like home. As John Muir put it, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

Appalachian Trail history

The AT is a 2,190-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine, originally dreamed up by regional planner Benton MacKaye in October 1921. At the first Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) MacKaye explained that “Its ultimate purpose is to conserve, use, and enjoy the mountain hinterland.”

In March 1925, retired judge Arthur Perkins took charge of the ATC and initiated trailblazing in Virginia and West Virginia. Soon after, Myron H. Avery took leadership of the organization and started the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), which provided further support in developing the trail. After years of work and the development of many other trail clubs, the footpath was completed in August 1937.

The AT just south of the NC/GA border. Years of advocacy and volunteer effort helped make the dream of the nation’s first formal long-distance hiking trail a reality, and, today, the ATC still relies on volunteers to maintain the trail. Photo by Olivia Corriere

When President Johnson signed the National Trails Systems Act in 1968, the AT became the first National Scenic Trail under the National Park Service. In 1978, ATC leaders began the long and complicated process of land acquisition along the length of the trail corridor, a process that was only recently completed in 2014. Today, the ATC is known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and remains the primary entity responsible for the management and preservation of one of America’s most famous trails.

The value of the Appalachian Trail

But why is a trail like the AT important? Beyond the ecological services that the land provides, it can be difficult to quantify the value of a long, strenuous footpath that can take 5-7 months to complete.

The simple existence of the AT as a natural destination inspires people to get outside. Just being in a natural environment is enough to reduce stress, boost your mood, and inspire creativity. These are the same qualities of “natural” features that planners use in promoting more green urban landscapes. Quite plainly, people need nature in their lives!

Hiking is also a great form of exercise. I see backpacking as the ultimate endurance sport because you are moving so slowly for so long. For some context, I hiked at approximately two miles per hour for 14-20 miles per day (check out the record of my hike at the end of this article).

The AT is a highly supported Scenic Trail; during my hike, I passed through small towns about every four days. Even so, you have to get creative with meals that can sustain heavy physical exertion but still taste good at the end of a long day! Photo by Olivia Corriere

The AT is also the mecca of the East Coast backpacking community. When I got on the trail near Hiawassee, Georgia, I was incredibly nervous as a young, female solo hiker. Stranger danger was already ingrained in my daily life, so I was on especially high alert heading into the woods. To my surprise, I found myself camping with 5-10 other people every single night. People always introduced themselves, asked about pacing and plans for the next day, and ended the evening by sharing food and stories. I felt as safe on the trail as I do walking around Chapel Hill in the daytime.

In my experience, it seems there is a good assortment of ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds in the trail community. However, as with many outdoor recreation activities, there is a noticeable lack of racial diversity on the AT. This gap in the trail community reflects the impact of larger societal problems like the racial wage gap (backpacking gear is insanely expensive and long trips require taking off time from work), a problem that has only recently begun to be addressed by outdoor retailers and environmental organizations hoping to serve low-income hikers. Fortunately, diversity has become a central discussion topic in the outdoor media and recreation community in recent years.

Hiking the AT can be a highly social experience. I found myself hiking and camping with new friends almost every day. From right to left: Kelly “Indie” from Pennsylvania, Wyatt “Giggles” from Green Bay, Nicole “Oats” from Maine, Kayla “Google” from Florida, and myself. Photo by Eric “Cold Soak” Fitch

Planning for the AT

There is so much to be said about backpacking gear and planning for a trip like this. If you want to plan your own adventure, there are many resources like Outside Magazine, REI backpacking articles and videos, or the classic Awol AT guidebook. However, the best place to start is simply talking with people at your local adventure outfitter. In Chapel Hill, check out Townsend Bertram & Company and Great Outdoor Provision Co!

Check out the record of my hike here:

Date Daily mileage Starting mile marker Ending mile marker
May 15 11.8mi 69.0 Dicks Creek Gap 80.8 Muskrat Creek Shelter
May 16 16.2mi 80.8 97.0 Betty Creek Gap Campsite
May 17 16.4mi 97.0 113.4 Siler Bald Shelter
May 18 17.4mi 113.4 130.8 Wesser Bald Shelter
May 19 5.9mi 130.8 136.7 Nantahala Outdoor Center
May 20 16.0mi 136.7 152.7 Brown Fork Gap Shelter
May 21 12.8mi 152.7 165.5 Fontana Dam Shelter
May 22 14.9mi 165.5 180.4 Russell Field Shelter
May 23 14.7mi 180.4 195.1 Siler Bald Shelter
May 24 12.2mi 195.1 207.3 Newfound Gap (Gatlinburg, TN)
May 25 15.7mi 207.3 223.0 Tri-Corner Knob Shelter
May 26 14.8mi 223.0 237.8 Davenport Gap Shelter
May 27 18.8mi 237.8 Tentsite ~.25mi past Max Patch Summit
May 28 14.7mi 256.6 271.3 Laughing Heart Hostel (Hot Springs, NC)
May 29 14.2mi 271.3 285.5 Spring Mountain Shelter
May 30 15.9mi 285.5 301.4 Jerry Cabin Shelter
May 31 15.5mi 301.4 316.9 Hogback Ridge Shelter
June 1 20.7mi 316.9 337.6 No Business Knob Shelter
June 2 4.4mi 316.9 342 Uncle Johnny’s Hostel (Erwin, TN)

For more information on the trail, check out:

Featured Image: The author at Big Bald near Erwin, Tennessee. Photo by Eric Fitch.

About the author: Olivia Corriere is an undergraduate student from Ann Arbor, Michigan, majoring in Environmental Studies (Sustainability Track) and minoring in Geography. She is particularly interested in the implementation of sustainable practices of all kinds in the daily lives of the public. During Summer 2017, she interned with the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative with the Karen’s Trail campaign. In her free time, she enjoys running, creating music playlists, and spending time in coffee shops with friends.