Thursday, February 24, 2011

Southbound vs Northbound Part II - The Social Aspects

Day One on the Approach Trail to Springer Mtn, GA March 5, 2007

Yes, there is nothing like the solitude of a wilderness experience. The flora. The fauna. The views. The fresh air. The ability to leave homes and cities, and smog and Internet and live free with just a backpack and a few bare essentials.

But there are people.

Yes, the trail is still filled with people. People of all walks of life. People on the trail, at the shelters, in the hostels, in towns, on the roads. Thru hikers, sectioners, day hikers, weeekenders, townsfolk, trail angels, hostel providers, shuttlers. The variety is endless. And so are the contacts one makes.

Tents abound in thru hiking season come late March.
I believe the social aspects is what sets the Appalachian Trail apart from more remote regions where trails wander without a soul in sight for days on end. Not to say you won't ever be alone on the AT. You will be, whether going north or south. But there is definitely a difference in social living in a NOBO vs SOBO hiking experience. And things one might consider if you are pondering NOBO vs SOBO. If you lean toward being a social bird and like social things OR if you are one of solitude and want to experience trail life with just yourself as company. I have done both and came away with different experiences.

SOBO Hikers that Began July 1 or late June gather at Antlers Campground in the 100 Mile Wilderness, July, 2010

Going Southbound (SOBO)

Hikers heading southbound have a narrow window of opportunity if they plan to hike the whole trail. Depending on weather on Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus, hikers can start anywhere from late May to mid July with most heading out between June 15th and July 1 for optimal season conditions and to avoid snow down south. Southbounders are also faced with difficult challenges right off the bat - the most difficult parts of the trail in the first six weeks of hiking and little in the way of resupply, refreshing or even changing out gear. Hikers come in as newbies without trail legs and must hike the toughest parts of the trail where most say 90% of the work remain. And this is bound to cut down on the social aspects of the trail as hikers start to fall behind, drop out, etc. We happened to leave on a popular start date - July 1 and were in with a bunch of SOBOers all throughout the 100 mile wilderness. Some of the NOBOS we ran into in southern Maine were blown away by our contingent. But the group quickly dissipated soon afterwards as the toughness of terrain seeped in. People's mileage varies as does their desire to stay in the few towns that exist in Maine. When I began in July, by the time I reached NH (and having to get off a week myself for family issues) I was alone going Southbound by August. There were a few ahead of me. Some behind. The ones that began in June were way ahead. But I was on my own. And I remained that way throughout my hike with only occasional sightings of fellow SOBOers in my travels. I did run into Northbounders up until Vermont. But they were all giddy with their miles behind them, and I was in the beginning of my task, so to speak. They were of a different mindset, and I could not relate to them per say.

Trail services were also different for the SOBOer. Everything is geared toward the Northbound hiker. The stores, the hostels. Many were closing up by the time I got there or were closed, including shuttle services. And very little in the way of Trail Magic (where thoughtful folks leave food and fluid at times for hikers at road crossings). People were wondering why I was out there when no one else was. It was a one on one experience for sure. Especially after September when most hikers were back at jobs and schools and sectioners began to drop off (there were a lot of sectioners in September and early October, but again, all were going north. It was my observation that no one hikes south.). I was alone many times at shelter areas or campsites. It was just part of the Southbound experience.

I would definitely say if solitude and independence without support is your key, then Southbound is the way to go.

Going Northbound (NOBO)

If social activities, friends, etc is the rule for you on a long distance hike, then you must go north. Everything is geared toward the NOBO thru hiker. All the stores, the hostels, the shuttles, the trail magic is out there to enjoy. You really have no excuse in the over and abundance of support to keep this hike going, because support is everywhere. And so too are crowded shelters and hostels, and sometimes even services. Though when I did the trail starting in early March, I came through many of the towns before the main onslaught of hikers (which is usually March 15 to April 1st).

If you want a friend to hike with, going North it's easy to find one. And many times the first day or two. See the initial picture at the beginning of this blog and the two hikers we met up with on day one of the Approach Trail on March 5th (without even setting foot on the AT itself). Though a few times my son and I did eventually find ourselves alone on the hike north (mainly in PA). We spent very few nights alone in a shelter (I think three maybe?). And even if there aren't thru hikers, sectioners are out in full force in summer. We had sectioners with us throughout NJ and NY into CT and beyond. And made some great friends. For some reason everyone hikes the trail north. And so there is little trouble with having an active social life, if you want one.

There you have it. The trail is a slice of the good life. As is the great people you meet along the way. And whether north or south, it's a great place to be.

Other Related Blog:

Part Three of the Series - Outfitters and Resupply
Observations of a Two Week Appalachian Trail Start

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