AT Prep: Terrain Analysis

AT Prep: Terrain Analysis

January 28, 2015 Categories Appalachian Trail, Backpacking, Hiking

Although the Appalachian Trail is nicknamed “the green tunnel” due to its vastly wooded landscape, there are significant amounts steep, rocky climbs and other obstacles to overcome – you are hiking in the mountains, after all. Some of my bigger concerns are just how steep and rocky it really is, and in the event of snowfall, how slippery and dangerous these areas will become. I’ve done some steep and rocky climbs in Hawaii, to the point of requiring ropes and sliding on my hands and feet to “safely” get back down from muddy ridges during a rainfall, but without the added risk of snow or freezing temperatures.

I’ve been checking out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy‘s (ATC) website to try to get a better idea of what the terrain is like in different sections of the trail and what kind of climate to expect, as I don’t want to carry the weight of cold weather gear in areas I don’t need it.

From what I’ve gathered, the end points of the trail are the most difficult areas due to snow, cold, or pure ruggedness. New Hampshire and Maine are the most difficult areas of the entire trail. I’ve long heard about the 100 mile wilderness in Maine, where there is little or no options to resupply between Monson and Katahdin. The White Mountains in New Hampshire seem to pose as the second biggest obstacle to me.

Even though the western part of Maine is described as the toughest part of the AT, I feel as if the 100 mile wilderness will be more difficult because it’ll last for days. I’m hoping that I can do around 20 mile days in that section, though I have planned closer to an average of 15 miles per day. Being that Katahdin is a steep climb, I don’t want to arrive there tired, hungry, and out of food.

Based on what I’ve found, I’m planning on taking my cold weather gear with me on the bus to Georgia and keeping it likely until halfway through Virginia or at least until the end of May. I’ll then mail it home and have it mailed back to me once I reach New Hampshire to have it for the White Mountains and Maine. Being that I’m from Wisconsin, I’m used to cold weather and I get hot pretty easily, but I imagine it’ll feel chilly once hiking is done for the day.

I also came across some FREE maps. They only give an overview, but I think that’s perfect:

  • National Park Service – click on “Official Appalachian Trail Brochure Map” (it’s a downloadable PDF document) or try directly
  • The Fox lists the same map, broken into sections as JPG files. Not sure if it’s as updated as the NPS version.

Here is a general summary of what is available on the ATC website. The difficulty scale was taken directly from the ATC website.

Difficulty Ratings:

1 = Flat and smooth
2 = Flat terrain but uneven treadway, or slight elevation change
3 = Moderate elevation change, but well graded trail, or flat trail with very rough treadway
4 = Strenuous climbs, but of moderate duration, or short but steep climbs
5 = Lengthy graded climbs, alternating with easier sections
6 = Extended climbs that may last hours or shorter climbs with difficult footing
7 = Includes rock scrambling that is relatively easy and of short duration
8 = Includes rock scrambling that is somewhat challenging
9 = Rock scrambling that is difficult and extended
10 = Use of hands required for extended periods of climbing, footing precarious, and leaping may be required — not recommended for those with fear of heights and not in good physical condition. Shorter hikers may be at a disadvantage

State Mileage Elevation Difficulty Best Time
Georgia 76.4 2,510 – 4,461 6 April or May
Expect cold rain, sleet, and snow in March; rugged hiking; many steep ups and downs.
North Carolina 95.5 (not including NC/TN border) 1,725 – 5,498 3 – 6 Mid May to October
Deep forests; excellent grade between Georgia border and Nantahala River; 4,000 ft gaps and 5,000 ft peaks.
Tennessee 287.9 (includes TN/NC border) 1,326 – 6,625 5 – 8 Late May to October
Features highest point on trail, Clingmans Dome, and several others above 6,000 ft. Can encounter dangerous weather on high ridges; sudden snow storms are common as late as May and early as October; lightning can be dangerous in summer. Possibility of getting stranded by snow. Great Smokey Mountains has most rain/snow on the AT in the South, catching hikers off-guard with snow and cold.
Virginia 550.3 265 – 5,500 2 – 8 May to October
One-forth of entire trail. Mt. Rogers in southern VA gets snowfall from October to May. Central VA is well-graded, but has many 2,000-3,000 ft climbs; includes McAfee Knob, most photographed place on trail. Shenandoah area is well-graded; climbs rarely exceed 1,000 ft. Northern VA features the strenuous “roller coaster” section.
West Virginia 4 265 – 1,200 2 – 3 Mid April to mid June
Summer heat/humidity can be rough. Harpers Ferry is home of ATC headquarters
Maryland 40.9 230 – 1,880 2 – 3 Mid April to mid June
Summer heat/humidity can be rough. Very easy section of trail, but REQUIRED to stay only at designated campsites or shelters.
Pennsylvania 229.6 320 – 2,080 2 – 4 Mid April to mid June
Summer heat/humidity can sometimes be rough. Notorious for a foot-bruising, boot-destroying rocky section of trail. Also has long, flat, rocky ridges with fairly strenuous climbs. All this, yet still described as an “easy” section. Water may become scarce in summer. Some crime problems around shelters that are near roads.
New Jersey 72.2 350 – 1,685 2 – 5 Late April to early June
Active bear population. Elevation changes are moderate; vary from relatively flat to steep and rocky, but for short periods.
New York 88.4 124 – 1,433 2 – 8 Late April to early June
Lowest elevation point in Bear Mountain. Natural water sources are scarce and sometimes polluted. Confusingly described as both easy and hard. Climbs may be long, have poor footing, or include rock scrambling.
Connecticut 51.6 260 – 2,316 4 – 5 Mat to early October
Mostly moderate hiking, with some short but steep sections that can be challenging. Many sections along river banks.
Massachusetts 90.2 650 – 3,491 3 – 6 May to early October
Wooded hills and valleys; water is plentiful. Some long, flat sections quite different from dry ridgewalks of Virginia.
Vermont 149.8 400 – 4,010 5 – 6 June to September
Avoid Vermont trails in “mud season,” mid-April through Memorial Day. High, rugged woods and overgrown farmland. Some strenuous ascents, but generally varied terrain. Fair amount of elevation gain and loss. Overnight fees charged at some shelters.
New Hampshire 160.9 400 – 6,288 6 – 10 July or August
Features the beautiful, but rugged White Mountains. Plan no more than five to eight miles per day. Steep ascents and descents that require use of hands or the seat of your pants. Temperature can change suddenly; snow is possible in any season. High winds and dense fog are common. Overnight fees charged at most shelters and campsites.
Maine 281.4 490 – 5,267 3 – 10 July or August
Most difficult section of trail. Parts may require using tree roots or limbs to ascend or descend; very slippery when wet. Moose are common. Lakes and streams make it muddy. West has extremely steep 4,000 ft mountains; includes a notorious mile-long boulder scramble at Mahoosuc Notch. Central has a short, rugged stretch, then eases out. Kennebec River can be dangerous; take free canoe service across. East features the 100 mile wilderness from Monson to Katahdin; rugged climbs; stream crossings can be tricky.

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