A survey of the successful north-bound thru-hikers of 2011
I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig after I graduated from high school. The author said only by setting sanity aside can one understand life, just as a passenger must step off of a train in order to view the entire locomotive. I thought of the train metaphor often while thru-hiking the AT during 2011. I yearned to know how many thru-hikers were on the trail, and my relative position among them.
Fortunately, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) Headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia provided insight into my year class of AT thru-hikers. Situated near the trail’s half-way point, the office collects photographs and other information from all thru-hikers passing by. When I visited, I learned that I was the 430th north-bounder (Nobo) to reach the office during 2011. It was fascinating to view pictures of the hikers ahead of me, and to discover where they were from and when they had started. I felt like I had been afforded a glimpse of the train, at least the part of it that stretched ahead of me.
My curiosity about the 2011 year class of AT Nobos persisted long after I reached Mt. Katahdin and learned that I was the 292nd to finish. Returning to ATC Headquarters after the hiking season, I learned that about 1,700 Nobos had started at Springer Mt., 849 reached Harpers Ferry, and 344 made it to Mt. Katahdin. The ATC Headquarters staff expected to receive more applications for 2,000-miler certificates, however, so the number of finishers would most likely increase. By cross-referencing between the 2011 list of 2,000 milers and the photo albums, I identified 304 successful Nobos who had also registered at the ATC headquarters as they passed through Harpers Ferry.
The successful Nobos of 2011 comprised citizens of 43 states, Washington D.C., and 10 foreign countries. Georgia, Virginia, and New York took the prize for the three highest numbers of successful Nobos, while Germany, Canada, and Australia boasted the most from other countries.
From the albums, I acquired email addresses for 264 of the 304 successful Nobos. During January of 2012, I surveyed these hikers and received 128 responses. I’ll refer to these respondents as “hikers”. The similarity of the gender ratios for the 128 hikers (23.4% female) compared to the 304 successful Nobos (21.4% female) indicates the sample was representative.
figure-2-Hiker ages and genders.
Most of the hikers belonged to the 20 to 29-year-old age group. The rarest age group was the 40 to 49-year-olds. Males outnumbered females most notably in hikers older than 50 years. Most hikers trained prior to thru-hiking, especially the older ones. Only 13% of the hikers had taken backpack trips longer than two weeks in duration prior to their thru-hike. Only 3% of hikers had thru-hiked the AT before 2011.
figure-4-Previous backpacking experience.
The most popular starting time was late March. Early starters were more likely to encounter snow and to succumb to hypothermia, while later starters were more likely to encounter streams that were too high to ford (most likely in Maine). The most popular finishing period was late August. Hikers took from 71 to 223 days to finish. Average trip duration was 156 days.
figure-6-Hiking in snow.
Most hikers took less than 20 zero days. About 32% of hikers took time off from hiking to attend Trail Daze, a festival in Damascus, Virginia which occurred from May 13th through May 15th during 2011.
Only a few women hiked in groups of three or more, and they were all from the youngest age group. Middle-aged women were most likely to hike alone, while hiking with one other person was most popular with younger and older women. Young men showed the greatest tendency to hike in groups of three or more, while older males showed the greatest preference for hiking alone. Only 2% hiked with dogs.
figure-12-Hiking alone v.s. in groups.
Most (86%) hikers carried packs lighter than 40 pounds. Only 2% carried guns, while 91% carried trekking poles. Most (53%) purchased all of their food along the way, and 12% didn’t carry stoves. Women lost an average of 14 pounds while thru-hiking, while the weight loss for men averaged 17 pounds.
figure-13-Pack weight and portion of food pre-mailed.
The most popular water treatment method was Aquamira. I was surprised that 15% of the successful thru-hikers did not treat their drinking water. I did not see any pattern in their age or level of experience. Nine percent of all hikers suffered from water-borne ailments.
figure-14-Water treatment methods.
Hikers experienced a variety of problems or “challenges” during their thru-hike. About 8% contracted Lyme disease while 74% fell more than five times. On the average, each hiker experienced between two and three of the challenges listed below.
And finally, about 44% found that the actual cost of their hike was substantially higher than what they had predicted.
Although each year is different on the Appalachian Trail, I hope this survey can provide a glimpse of the thru-hiking community, and perhaps be informative to future thru-hikers.