The Appalachian Trail spans nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. The average time of completion is between 4 and 6 months with a pace of 12-20 miles per day plus a day (or two) off per week. Walking that distance is a feat in and of itself, which is made clear by the fact that only about 20% of the nearly 4,000 people who start each year make it to the end.
That being said, there’s another side of the coin as well: those who not only complete the trail in its entirety, but do so in record time. The current speed record ( “Fastest Known Time”, aka FKT) for the Appalachian Trail is held by Ultrarunner Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, who completed the entire trail in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes in 2017 (self-supported, to boot!). Prior to 2017, the record was held by another Ultrarunner, Karl Meltzer, who finished it in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes in 2016. In fact, Red Bull made a documentary of his journey that is free to watch on their website.
Between the 6-monthers and FKTers is a subgroup of individuals who want to push themselves mentally and physically, yet still want to stop and smell the roses every once in a while. This is where I fit in.
Many folks who set out on the AT with a reduced timeframe for completion are restricted by external forces such as employment or family responsibilities which they must attend to. For me, that is not really the case. Because of the way my job works as Foreign Service Officer, I get a short break between overseas assignments in order to see friends and family and prepare for the next few years abroad (see: How’d You Get Time Off To Hike The AT?). The completion of my current assignment aligns with the ideal time to begin a thru-hike, and I specifically chose a follow-on assignment that begins much later in the year which would provide ample time to complete my journey. Through a combination of paid and unpaid leave, I managed to obtain approval for 5 months off between my assignments. Despite having the time to spare, I still plan to complete the AT within 100 days. Here’s why:
1. Physical & Mental Challenge
Like most venturing out on the AT, I am in search of a challenge unlike anything I have experienced before. The mental and physical obstacles that one must overcome to trek such a distance are significant and should not be underestimated. That being said, “slow” hiking (e.g. a leisurely pace, spending multiple days in Trail Towns along the way) doesn’t appeal to me as much as it may to others. Since 2016 I have been a devoted trailrunner, which I find to be the perfect mixture of speed, endurance, and exposure to nature. As a result of my training, which has allowed me to complete races such as the Buff Troodos Mountain Ultra 80k, I have become somewhat addicted to the notion of stretching my perceived physical limitations. As such, the prospect of doing “only” 10-15 miles per day just doesn’t move the needle for me as much as I’d like. However, averaging 23-30 miles per day? Now THAT’s a challenge!
2. More Time with Friends and Family
This sounds a bit backward, but it’s true. Because I have a hard-start date for my next work assignment in mid-August, the sooner I get done with the AT means I can spend more time with family and friends before heading to the “sandbox” in Pakistan. Once I leave I likely won’t be back home for about a year, so every day counts. If I finish in 100 days, I will have a solid 2 weeks at home in Maine before I take off. While not a long stretch, it’s more time than I’ve had there for several years so it will be welcomed. While I do have some great friends and family who I travel to see (and vice versa), there are others who don’t have the opportunity to get out as much so I’ll spend some time with them while enjoying the beautiful Acadia National Park.
3. Financial Reasons
Who doesn’t like to save a few bucks, amirite? This is actually one of the least important reasons for restricting my timeline, as life on the trail is far cheaper than paying rent. Despite that, the logistics and mental capacity needed to plan for and fund additional months of living outside and in hotels while coordinating resupplies is something I’d prefer to minimize. While I greatly enjoy planning in general, there can definitely be “too much of a good thing”, so I’m hoping to not overdose on preparation so I can avoid hating the trail before I even start! Also, I mentioned that I’d be taking Leave Without Pay to account for some of my time off. While I have made sure to set aside enough cash to cover the cost of the trek, there are still bills to be paid and unfortunately hiking doesn’t add to the bank account as much as I’d like (i.e. at all). As such, it’s in my interest to minimize the amount of unpaid leave I take in order to cause the least amount of disruption in cashflow.
To hike the AT in half the time normally allocated, one faces a unique set of challenges that are exacerbated by the restrictions. Renowned thru-hiker and respected ultrarunner Andrew Skurka wrote a great article in Backpacking Light back in 2006 called, How to hike a “fast” thru-hike. In it, he examines the pros/cons of such an endeavor and also explains a number of ways to accomplish the feat–most of which I plan to incorporate into my own plan of action. Although he wrote the article several years ago, the wisdom still applies.
1. Hike Longer, not Faster
As Skurka explains, there is only one way to increase daily mileage: hiking faster or hiking longer. To hike faster, the only tool you have is to lighten your load and increase your speed. If you instead choose to hike longer, you have the advantage of utilizing all the daylight hours and moving at a more comfortable and sustainable pace. When I covered 53 miles and over 11,000 feet of elevation during the Buff Troodos Mountain Ultra, it took me nearly 16 hours. My pace was slow, but it was faster than I’d want to hike the AT and I surely wouldn’t have been able to do it all over again the next day. The key for me will be to put in consistently long days without the physical strain of an ultramarathon.
2. Go Light
This is solid advice for anyone who is planning a thru-hike, but it becomes even more crucial when you’re against the clock. The idea is to go “as light as you can afford”, but to avoid going, as Skurka writes, “stupid light”. Stupid light occurs when you don’t bring the gear necessary given the conditions you will face and sacrifice your safety and comfort in the name of weight savings.
With a start date of late March, the conditions I will face on the AT should be rather mild. Barring some kind of freak storm, I shouldn’t see much (if any) snow or experience more than a few nights where the temperature drops below freezing. As such, I can keep base layers and extra clothing to a minimum. To get my base weight down and to make sure I’m not packing things I don’t need, I’ll be doing a series of “shakedown” hikes before starting to rid my pack of extra non-essentials.
3. Fewer Zeros, More Neros
This goes back to the “longer, not faster” mantra noted above. Instead of going balls-to-the-walls and risking injury which may necessitate additional rest days, I plan to implement the common tactic of using “Nero” days (near-zero) instead of “Zero” days (when no miles are hiked). To do this, I’ve planned my town visits and hotel stays such that I’ll be able to arrive in the early afternoon and get all of my “chores” done (e.g. laundry, resupplying, etc.), have a good night’s rest, and then sleep in the next morning while checking out as late as possible. By bookending a town visit this way, I am not technically taking a zero – rather I’m hiking a full day over the course of two – but I still get to experience the luxuries and benefits that trail towns provide. What’s more, I’ve painstakingly researched the route to find out which towns have both suitable accommodations (e.g. hotels I can book with rewards points) and are close to the trail. There were a number of towns that sounded like a lot of fun and had great sleep options, but were simply too far from the trail. I couldn’t justify spending extra time trying to arrange shuttles or rely on getting a hitch to towns that were several miles from the trail on a regular basis, so I cut as many of those out as I could. I am also limiting my town visits to about one per week, coinciding with when I will have a resupply box sent, so that every time I leave the trail it’s for more than one purpose.
While I plan to employ this Nero this for most of my off-trail stays, although I have budgeted time for a handful of actual zeroes as well, since I’m sure I’ll need a full days’ recovery every few weeks.
Other tactics from Skurka’s article (which I will use but not emphasise as heavily as the above) include:
- Increase efficiency of routine tasks (making food, setting up camp, etc.).
- Optimize the morning hours when you have the most energy.
- Use resupply boxes instead of resupplying in town.
My reasons for wanting to complete the AT within 100 days are so that I can push myself mentally and physically, enjoy more time with family once I finish, and to spend less time and money planning the trip. I plan to do it by hiking long days (duh!), going as light as I can, and taking fewer days off. As with many things in life, this plan is simple, but not easy. And while a well thought-out plan is nice to have, the great Mike Tyson reminds us that it doesn’t always work out:
What I need to understand and keep in mind is that I will be having a different experience than many thru-hikers. “Hike Your Own Hike”, as they say, applies here. I will be spending less time in the cool Trail Towns having beers, I won’t stop at every fire tower or scenic overlook, and I probably won’t have much of a “trail family”. That’s all perfectly fine, because I know that I will still have a great experience and that the reasons behind my pace are solid.