I'm a planner. A list maker. Long before I step onto a trail, I have to check it out. Research my route. Learn everything I can from my resources. I like to have a Plan. That plan usually gets altered during the course of its execution, but I also plan for that. I like flexibility, but I also like to have an outline, with goals and milestones. Nowhere are those two terms more literal, than on the trail.
Think about permits
A lot of trails have permits just to get on them. Out West that seems to be more so. On the A.T. there are a few places that require a permit as you pass through. One you have to pay for, the rest you don't, but all are required.
Going South to North, the first place you need a permit is for the Smokies. It costs $20 and is good for eight days once you enter the GSMNP. You can purchase it 30 days in advance. When you go to the website to register, you will pick the AT Thru-Hiker option. The rules are simple and are clearly explained during the permitting process. A lot of people whine about having to pay to hike the trail, but it is what it is and not paying can lead to a nice fine. Just pay it. If you hike even at a moderate pace, you can purchase the permit just before hitting the trail. There are also places where you can register and print your permit while hiking, namely at the N.O.C. and at Fontana Lodge.
The next place that requires a permit (heading North) is in Shenandoah National Park. These are free and can be acquired at a kiosk as you enter the park. Just fill it out and take along your part of it.
The last place to need a permit will be at Baxter State Park up in Maine. It too is free although you do have to pay to camp at the Birches site or Katahdin Stream Campground. The permits can be acquired in person in Millinocket or Abol Bridge outside the park and at Katahdin Stream Campground within the park.
One other thing, not really a permit, but a voluntary registration. Registering your hike with the ATC is a fairly new thing. It started two years ago and the number of people registering has increased each year. It helps ATC gather data and gives you (and the other hikers) an idea of what to expect at the various starting places as far as potential crowds.
Decide when you'll start
When do you start this long journey? There are different reasons for each and every date. Some dates you will want to avoid as they are a popular time to start (popular means hikers everywhere) Some of the popular days are March 1st, March 15th, March 21st (or first day of Spring), April 1st and maybe April 15th.
There are super early starters and some (like LoGear and me) will be starting on the "late" side of the calendar for our Nobo hike. We choose April 26th, mainly that was when we finish our last obligation to the Other World. Watching our grandoggy while our daughter and her new husband go on their honeymoon.
Also, we want to experience a Springer start in Spring, along with the crowds, but behind them. We know that leaving this late in April might put us at risk of not making Katahdin by Oct 15th, but in my plans, it is possible. As I said in my "Why", reaching Katahdin is a secondary goal, but still a goal nonetheless.
Other times to start if you are a South Bounder would be late May or early June. Some even start near the beginning of July. This is because Katahdin doesn't open until the snows have melted and the ground has dried some.
Flip floppers can start anywhere between March through July depending on where they start and which way they go. There are many possibilities with a Flip Flop.
So deciding when to start relies on when you are available and what style of hike you will be hiking.
Plan your hard-stop end date
It's great to have an open ended end date, but for most of us, the Other World will start to shout out at you with increasing volume. A job is available (or needed). Your children need you to come out of the woods for awhile. School is starting and this gap year is over. Or grad school need to get done. There are a plethora of reasons.
Figure out what is the latest you can keep hiking, barring emergencies, funds shortages or other unplanned events. That is your hard-stop date. I have seen those date move with some hikers, so it isn't written in stone. Just scratched in the dirt. If you are flexible, you have that date to strive for, but know that it can slide to the right as circumstances dictate.
I guess we have a soft-stop date of about October 15th, but being soft, we can adjust that whenever we want, forwards or back.
Decide where you'll start
You need to get on the trail somewhere. What is your desire? Do you want to join the Hiker Culture quickly, with lots of others hiking along with you? Flowing back and forth and leap frogging each other like salmon swimming up stream. Then starting on Springer Mountain in the Spring is where you start.
Do you want some solitude and immediate physical challenges? Then take the North to South route. Climbing Katahdin to start the task, moving through Maine and New Hampshire, the most physically challenging states the trail traverses.
Flip Floppers can start just about anywhere they desire, but some popular places are Harpers Ferry,WV, in PA near the halfway point and Damascus, VA.
We choose to do the traditional Nobo hike, starting in Georgia and heading North as far as Pamola allows us. We are starting a little later in the season to get behind the larger bubbles that start earlier.
One final "where" decision is to do or not do the Approach Trail that runs from Amicalola Falls State Park to the southern terminus of the A.T. at Springer Mountain. Millions of hours and words have been argued about the pros and cons of doing this 8.8 mile lead in to the A.T., so I won't go into this too much. LoGear and I have done it once and it was a good hike. We still haven't decided if we will do it again.
I usually advise to do it to anyone who is trying to decide. It is a good warm up, gives you an idea of what the Georgia mountains are like and as I like to joke, we need to cull the herd somewhere. We might as well start at the beginning. There have been quite a few people who got to Big Stamp parking lot after doing the Approach and hitched a ride off the mountain, getting themselves back to the Other World after deciding that a long distance hike isn't their cup of tea. Do or Do Not. The choice is yours.
Getting to and from the trailhead
How will you get there? Planes, trains, busses and automobiles are the most used. The A.T. Guide gives lots of information on how to get to the trailhead. In the South, you can fly into Atlanta, take the MARTA up North of the city and then have a shuttle pick you up and take you to the trailhead or to a Hostel. You can take a train or bus to Gainesville, GA and shuttle from there. You can rent a car, drive to Atlanta or Gainesville and shuttle from there. Someone can drop you off. There are so many choices.
Figure out what works for you. What you can afford and how much time and effort you want to dedicate to getting there. We have a lot of miles on our credit card, so we will most likely fly down for free. Not a bad way to start, but it will still cost a pretty penny to get from Atlanta to the trailhead.
Getting home from the other trailhead can be done the same ways. There are shuttles that you can take out of the Park, then a bus that will take you to Bangor or Portland where you can fly home or rent a car. Having loved ones come up to finish the hike with you is also a great way to catch a ride home.
Using your guide, local help and the Internet will always help you find a way home if you have to leave somewhere in the middle of your trek. In today's technological society, it isn't hard to make arrangements or communicate with those that can help move you along.
Roughing out your itinerary
It will be impossible to plan where you will be every day of a hike, when it extends over months, but it is a good idea to do some calculations, based on knowns and possibles.
I have roughed out an itinerary about three or four times so far. I keep looking at it a different way, making adjustments and creating another viewpoint as things come to mind. I started by just selecting goals throughout the length of the trail. My next goal will always be the only important one while we hike. I won't think too much of the goal after that, or the one after that. The final goal will be so far away as to be non-existent for now.
I came up with about 28 goals based on places and towns that the trail go to or near. Next, I determined different average mileages to calculate the mileage. I start us off at 10 Miles Per Day (MPD), then move to 12, 15 and 18. Coming back down to 15 and 12 near the Northern part of the trail, due to its difficulty. I could then place the goals along the trail near their mileposts and figure out on a possible end date.
After doing that, I went through AWOLs resupply spreadsheets, taking his three different average MPD sheets and creating a hybrid of my own that matched my changing averages.
The two come out about 4 days different, which is a very acceptable margin of error that any political poll would be proud to boast.
It is fun to compare the two. The first is rough. The second blends some possible reality as to possible resupply points and helps plan how extensive each resupply will be.
Of course, once we are into our hike a month or so, it will be funny to look at what I "thought" we would do, and what we actually do.
I plan on planning from now, until the day before we head out. I like to plan, to replan, to plan again. It keeps my mind busy. It helps me familiarize myself with my guidebook and the things that are in it. I don't think you can plan enough, but knowing that you will need to be very flexible will keep your head from exploding. As a natural troubleshooter, I am pretty good at changing and updating plans. Usually I can do it in stride, on the fly, but sometimes I need to sit down, get the guidebook out and figure out where do we go from here? I look forward to the challenge.
EarthTone and LoGear