Friday, August 21, 2015

Getting to the trail (and getting down the trail)

AT Trail Angel "Homer" has shuttled me on several hikes in Virginia. 

Shuttles and Trail Angels

One of the biggest challenges in hiking sections of the AT is figuring out the best way to start at one location and end at another. Sure, you can drive to the start, but how are you going to get back to your car when you finish?

That's where shuttle drivers come in. For a fee they'll pick you up at one spot on the trail and take you to another. So you can park your car at the end of the hike, and get driven to the start. Then all you have to do is walk back to your car. Just be sure you don't forget your car key -- I did, once...

Many shuttle drivers are previous thru-hikers who like lending a hand to other hikers. They can be broadly classified under the amorphous heading of "Trail Angels" -- people who make it their avocation to help out hikers. Others may run lodging establishments or outfitters in trail towns. At any rate, it's not free to use a shuttle, but I don't think anybody gets rich doing -- $1 a mile for a shuttle is a pretty typical rate. There are a variety of resources for finding shuttles -- websites like, guidebooks, or the well-maintained Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Shuttle Guide.

For my hike I'll drive to Harpers Ferry,WV on the morning of Sept. 17, then take a shuttle up to Duncannon, PA. Then it's up to me to lace up my shoes and cover the 125 miles back to the car.

Navigating the trail

In over 700 miles of hiking on the AT I've only gotten lost once, on a poorly marked section in Tennessee, but a few minutes of backtracking got me back on course. Of course there was the time I started hiking the wrong direction one morning, but that's a different story...

One of the many, many white blazes marking the AT.
Generally speaking, if you start hiking in the correct direction, follow the path, and watch for the white blazes on trees, posts, rocks, etc., you're not going to get lost on the AT. So most hikers don't carry maps (or at least they don't bother after their first hike). But trail info is still nice to have -- how far to the next town, water source, campsite, road crossing, shelter? Will this climb up the mountain ever stop? Where's the closest place to get pizza?

The gold standard for most section and thru hikers these days is the A.T. Guide, a clever publication that combines mileage tables with an elevation profile, and contains detailed town maps and lists of services. Vital info for anybody doing a long-distance AT hike, and very easy to use. To save weight, I simply photocopy the few pages I need for my trip, and eschew packing the whole book.
A sample page from the AT Guide

Next Time: Shelters, shelter, and lodgings

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