I finished my AT hike at Erwin, Tennessee, 343 trail miles (550 kms) from Springer Mountain. This is a little less than one-sixth of the entire trail. Was it a good experience? Would I do it again? The answer to both of these questions is yes.
The AT is a very challenging walk. On the Gaspé last summer we met a 60ish woman who had hiked from Florida. She was familiar with the Camino, but said she was saving it until she was older. Having now walked a section of the AT, her statement sounds about right. Not only is hiking the AT strenuous, the exposure to the weather, the hygiene issues, and the need to carry sufficient quantities of lightweight food all present their own challenges. On the other hand, the AT allows the freedom to make your own decisions about how far you will walk, when and what you will eat, and where you will camp.
A hike on the AT takes you through beautiful forests and landscapes. I was fortunate to be walking in the autumn, with its colours and transition from summer to winter. There is, however, a certain sameness in what you see. Compared to a long walk in Europe, with the contrast between the forests, the fields and the villages, the visual experience on the AT is more limited. The scarcity of good views is also frustrating. Because the tree line is so high at this latitude, you can rarely see the surrounding area, despite the fact that the Trail is often on a ridge line. The “balds” (bare hilltops) are particularly valued because of their scarcity.
Like the Camino, the AT has a culture. Although there are a surprising number of older walkers, most of the people who were doing more than a day hike were young and male. This, and the sheer scale of the AT, leads to an emphasis on mileage. Many of the thru hikers were walking more than 20 miles a day, a challenging goal when such a distance could easily involve 6,000 to 7,000 feet of climbing and descent. The result is that most of the hikers were constantly in a hurry – to get up and start walking, to cover as many miles as possible, to prepare and consume meals, and to set up camp. The shorter days of fall exacerbate this feeling of being rushed. By comparison, I found that although there was a desire and pressure to move towards Santiago on the Camino, there was also more down time, more leisurely meals, and more time for sightseeing than there is on the AT.
Many of the AT hikers, past and current, cite the camaraderie of the trail as one of its primary draws. I felt this on the Camino, but less so on the AT. This is partly because I am older than most of the AT hikers, and also because I was not a thru hiker. There is also a sparse distribution of walkers in the AT. I generally met fewer than a dozen other people each day. On a number of occasions I was the only person camped at a shelter or camping area.
When it comes to material goods on the AT, less is definitely more. When I saw a hiker approaching on the trail I could generally guess whether they were section or thru hikers by the size of their pack: those of thru hikers were smaller. (The presence of a beard and a strong gait were also cues.) My large pack identified me as an inexperienced AT hiker. If I were to hike another section of the trail I would use a smaller and lighter pack. My Deuter is robust and comfortable, but it weighs seven pounds. Other packs on the trail weighed as little as two pounds, and most were less than four. Other gear changes I would make would be to replace my white gas stove with the butane fuel canister variety that was in general use, and to bring a smaller tent or bivvy bag. There is a minimalist ethos in the thru hikers. Many do not have a stove, and some have replaced a tent with a hammock, a bivvy bag, or nothing (meaning that they are dependent on shelters). I heard of one thru hiker who did not have a change of clothing: when he washed his clothes he wore a green garbage bag.
I am very glad that I had the opportunity to spend a month on the AT. It was an interesting and rewarding hike and it exposed me to a culture and experience that is quite distinct from other hikes that I have done. It also bumped up my fitness level and stripped some weight from my frame. There is a reasonable probability that I will return to do another section at some point in the future. Indeed, although I am enjoying the food and physical comforts of a return to civilization, I am already nostalgic for the AT experience.