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The Ups and Downs of Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail

This is a work in progress. More sections will be added as I complete them. If you have any feedback, please email me.


When I arrived at the Pleasant Pond Lean-To in Maine, I was a southbound thru-hiker. Two days later I continued on – as a section hiker. It was only a change in mindset, but that attitude adjustment had major consequences. For example, instead of completing the trail in around six months, it ended up taking me 10 years, 16 section hikes, and eight months of trail time to become a 2,000 miler.

Hiking the length of Appalachian Trail is a multi-dimensional endeavor that offers a wide variety of experiences -- from a walk in a park to climbing mountains; from a minimalist lifestyle to all the luxuries motels and restaurants have to offer; from sociable crowds to solitude to loneliness; from gorgeous scenery to long stretches of nondescript trail; from boredom to heart-palpitating close calls and wildlife encounters; from perfect days to extremes of weather; from extraordinary acts of kindness by complete strangers to being looked upon with disdain; from exhilaration to misery; from wanting to stop but needing to keep going.

Random chance and individual differences will determine, in part, the mix and intensity of experiences one ends up having. But the choices made will also be a factor. For example, gear selection will have an effect. So will the type of hike one decides to undertake.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) considers anyone who has hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, no matter how they did it or how long it took, to be a 2,000 Miler. The ATC’s stance recognizes that there is more than one way to hike the AT and that all the alternatives are fundamentally the same.

Yet, the myriad accounts by and about thru-hikers have created an air of mystique and fostered the perception that a thru-hike is first among equals. Individuals inspired to hike the AT by such stories want to thru-hike. Eighty-four percent of those who have walked the walk in recent years did thru-hikes. (Of the completions reported to the ATC during the seven year period 2011-2017, 65 percent were northbound thru-hikes, 10 percent were southbound thru-hikes, and nine percent were flip-flop/other non-traditional thru-hikes.)

“Thru-hike” so dominates the discourse today that it has become a reflexive choice. Aspiring 2,000 milers tend to give little, if any, thought to the alternative. (Yes, there is an alternative.) At most, a section hike is viewed as a backup plan.

Completing a thru-hike is a remarkable accomplishment. But it does not follow that section hiking the entire trail is a lesser feat. While some of the details may differ, overall, section hiking provides equivalent challenges and rewards. What really distinguishes the two are the tradeoffs each requires. For some people, a thru-hike best meets their personal interests, priorities, circumstances, needs, and desires. For others, a section hike is a better fit.

A section hike, just like a thru-hike, is a compromise. Each has upsides that are offset by downsides. Of course, whether something is an upside or a downside is often a matter of individual perspective. Likewise, which option, on balance, is better than the other is a personal judgment. So there is no objectively “correct” answer. The right choice is the one that each hiker concludes is best for him or her.

Individuals who are curious about which type of hike is more suitable for them can easily find pretty much everything they want to know about thru-hiking the AT. But there is comparatively little information about what it is like to section hike the entire length of the trail. As a 2,000 miler who chose that option, I offer the following observations and thoughts as a counterpoint to the thru-hiking narrative.

A thru-hike is one continuous hike that lasts about six months. A section-hike is a series of separate hikes over a period of years.

The ATC, defines “thru-hike” as “a hike of the entire A.T. in 12 months or less” and reports that “[m]ost thru-hikers take between five and seven months. The average is a week or two shy of six months.” As a practical matter, winter conditions reduce the window of time for completing a thru-hike to about seven months. For example, northbound thru-hikers traditionally start at Springer between mid-March and mid-April and must summit Katahdin before it closes in mid-October. That gives most northbounders sufficient time to finish so there is little advantage to starting much earlier unless one enjoys winter hiking.

A “section hiker,” in contrast, “completes the A.T. in a series of multi-day trips over a period of years. * * * From backpacking on a one-night overnight trip to section-hiking large portions of the A.T. . . . multi-day hikers tackle any stretch of the A.T. short of thru-hiking.” There is no upper limit on the number of years or sections. Section hikers can take as many years, and divide the trail into as many sections, as they want or need.

Note that the term “section hike” is used to refer to two related but entirely different things: (1) a hike of the entire length of the AT that was accomplished piecemeal (2) a hike of one segment of the trail. Thus, it is accurate, but potentially confusing, to say “It took Slow Walker four section hikes to complete his section hike.” Fortunately, the intended meaning is usually apparent from context.

During my time on the AT, I met half-a-dozen section hikers (that I know of) who were already 2,000 milers or just days away from achieving that status. One hiked two equal sections in two consecutive summers. Another did one long section (~2,000 miles) and one short section (~150 miles) 30 years apart. The others took around five years, hiking one section a year. I did 16 sections, ranging from three days to more than a month in length, over a 10-year span (which included one year I didn’t make it to the trail at all).

The total cost of section hiking the entire trail is higher than for a thru-hike, but the annual expense is less.

Prospective 2,000 milers need enough money to cover: (1) the price of gear, (2 the cost of travel to and from the trail, (3) living and other hiking related expenses on the trail, and (4) non-trail expenses that must be paid while on the trail. According to the ATC “[m]ost hikers spend an average of about $1,000 a month during the hike itself. *** A new set of backpacking gear runs $1,200 to $2,000 or more.”

The total amount needed for travel depends upon the distance to the trailhead and the mode(s) of transportation used to get there. For the sake of illustration, I assumed a round trip costs $500 but it could be hundreds of dollars more or less.

Most hikers also have non-trail financial obligations they must continue to meet while on the trail. Those expenses will vary widely, depending upon individual circumstances. Homeowners may have property taxes, mortgage payments, utility bills, and insurance premiums that come due. Apartment renters may be able to terminate their lease but still have to pay for a place to store their belongings. Vehicle owners may have car payments or other expenses. College graduates may have student loan payments. Credit card holders may still owe pre-hike debt. The sum of these non-trail expenses can range from almost nothing to thousands of dollars.

Using these figures, the total cost of a thru-hike that takes six months is, at a minimum, around $7,500. Thru-hikers need to come up with the entire amount up front. If one is extremely frugal and disciplined, it is possible to get by with less, perhaps considerably less. But the more one scrimps, the greater the chance of going broke before finishing and the less enjoyable time on the trail will be. Running out of money is one of the most common reasons thru-hikers quit.

Section hikers incur additional expenses. For me, the biggest one was travel (gas, bus tickets, food, lodging, and shuttles). I live in Michigan, 1084 miles from Millinocket, ME and 770 miles from Amicalola Falls State Park, GA. Instead of one round trip, I took 16. My actual cost of the extra 15 trips totaled $5,500 – an average of $367 per trip. (When calculating this amount, I only included the cost of gas when I drove, which is only a fraction of the per mile expense of operating a vehicle.)

I spent eight months on the trail instead of six. At $1,000 a month, that was another $2,000.

And over the 10-year span of my hike, there were notable improvements in backpacking gear – equal or better quality at lighter weights. Various upgrades, which eventually reduced my base weight by over four pounds, cost $500.

As it turned out, I paid a premium of $8,000 to section hike the trail. That increased my total cost (not counting non-trail expenses) to over $15,000 -- up to double the cost of a thru-hike. If that amount seems outrageous, keep in mind that it was spread out over a decade. The average – $1,500 a year – is $500 less than the average American spends on gas each year.

Of course, my case is a somewhat extreme example. A section hiker who completes the AT in two years, hiking three months each year, will only incur one additional expense – the $500 cost of a second trip to and from the trail. That would increase the total cost to $8,000; an average of $4,000 a year. While still a substantial sum, coming up with half now, half later may be easier on the pocketbook than setting aside $7,500 for a thru-hike.

If minimizing total cost is the goal, a fast thru-hike may be the answer. Hiking the entire AT in around four months is not that uncommon. Eliminating two months of living expenses would save a couple of thousand dollars, lowering the total cost to $5,500. Whether that turns out to be a bargain or an example of “you get what you pay for” just depends. For example, maintaining the required pace will leave less time available for enjoyable diversions. That may or may not be a major sacrifice. When Karel Sabbe set the speed record for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2018 (41 days 7 hours 39 minutes), I doubt that “getting in some sightseeing” was one of his priorities.

Thru-hiking is like paying cash for a new car. It is less expensive and less hassle in the long term. But if one does not have the money ready at hand, it means going without until enough has been saved to make the purchase.

Section hiking is more like making a down-payment on a new car and getting a loan for the balance due. The obligation to make future payments and pay interest is part of the price of being allowed to drive the car off the lot the same day. Section hikers can start experiencing the pleasure (and enduring the hardship) of hiking the AT as soon as they have sufficient funds to cover the cost of their first trip. But the cost of the next trip and the one after that will be a recurring expense for as many years as it takes to complete the trail.

Section-hiking allows more flexibility in scheduling.

Arguably, thru-hiking the AT is the more convenient and efficient option. You can be done in a mere six months (more or less). Just carve out the necessary block of time, make arrangements for someone to handle your affairs while you’re gone, and then devote all your efforts to that single task. Take a celebratory photo at Katahdin, Springer, or wherever you finish, cross “hike the AT” off your to-do list, and move on to other things.

For most people, however, taking half-a-year off from whatever they are doing is simply not feasible. Family, work, or other obligations may limit the time they can be away from home. They may lack the financial resources to go that long without an income.

And many of those who could find the time if they wanted, don’t want to. Going backpacking for two weeks may sound like fun. But for six months? The thought may be exciting to some but the typical reaction will probably be somewhat less enthusiastic: “Boooooring.” “That would be too much like work.” “I’ve got better things to do with my time.” “I would get homesick.”

Individuals who attempt a thru-hike are the exception. Most are at a transition point in their lives -- having just graduated from high school or college, recently retired or otherwise unemployed, or struggling in the aftermath of an emotionally trying experience. It is a moment in time when they have both the opportunity and the incentive to take a lengthy break from their routine to figure out what to do with the rest of their life, try something wildly different, or chase a long held dream.

For those who cannot or do not want to thru-hike, section hiking offers a much more flexible means to accomplish the same end. It enables hikers to tackle the AT in stages and schedule the timing, length, and location of their hikes to fit their circumstances and preferences. For example, I hiked the White Mountains in late July because that time of year promised the best chance of good weather. Most of my hikes were in the spring and fall, in part, to leave my summers free for sailing but also to avoid crowds. My itinerary for some trips was determined by the date(s) a friend was driving to and/or from the east coast. Riding with him was more convenient than taking public transportation and we both saved money by splitting expenses. (And in between AT trips I managed to get in some sections of the North Country Trail and Florida Trail.)

Thru-hikers have some latitude in setting their itinerary, but not much. They can choose whether to do a northbound, southbound, or flip-flop/other non-traditional hike. They can pick a starting location and date. But that’s about it. They must hike 2,190 miles. They must do that in seven months or less. They must average at least 10.5 miles a day; more if they start late.

Section hikers must hike the same distance but have years to do so. They can hike as many miles a day and as many days at a time as they like. They can choose when and where to start and stop and hop, skip, and jump around the trail as much as they want.

But while section hikers have more flexibility in scheduling their hike, thru-hikers are trading off less leeway now for more flexibility later in life. Concentrating on one task at a time is more efficient and productive than multi-tasking. Focusing on hiking the AT and getting it out of the way quickly provides more freedom of choice in the future to spend time with friends and family, pursue career and other opportunities, devote to other interests, or thru-hike another long trail.

Copyright 2019
David Guenther

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