So You Wanna Be a SoBo?

Most people reading this blog know that I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail as a northbounder, or a NoBo as it will be abbreviated in the rest of this post.  When I lived and worked in Millinocket during the 2013 thru hiker season I had an idea in my head that Southbounder (SoBo) hikers would be more prepared and better equipped to deal with the journey beginning the trail in Maine. I was sorely mistaken by the people I met getting off the bus in Medway, Maine who were ready to tackle the trail.  While many people do some degree of research about the trail in general, I found it was incredibly common for people to chose a SoBo thru hike just because they graduated school in May or June - having done absolutely no research on what it truly means to start a hike in Maine that early in the season.  If you're considering a Southbound AT thru hike, check this post out and think about a few things you might not have known!

Katahdin can mean the end of an epic journey for many, but the very beginning of a difficult first month for a few!

Katahdin can mean the end of an epic journey for many, but the very beginning of a difficult first month for a few!

Before delving into the things you should know about hiking SoBo on the AT, here are a few quick facts from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- In 2014 it was estimated 2500 hikers began hiking at Amicalola Falls in Georgia to hike NoBo.  It was reported that 242 hikers began hiking SoBo from Baxter State Park. As of March 2015, 653 hikers reported completing a NoBo thru hike and 76 had reported finishing a SoBo thru hike.  Obviously, SoBo is much less crowded as a direction to hike!  
- Numbers of completed hikes on the AT are also steadily rising.  According to their statistics, the number of thru hikers reporting a completion each decade has doubled steadily since the 1970s.  More than 15,000 people have now reported a completion of a thru hike!

Now that you know a few things about people on the trail, here are a few things to consider about starting a SoBo thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. 

The Weather in Maine in May and June

When I arrived in Maine in late April in 2013, there was more than a foot of snow reported to still be on the trails on Katahdin.  By late May, this was still in the double digits.  The snow began to melt in late May, but the mountain didn't officially open for hiking until June 3rd that year.  We had already had more than a dozen thru hikers stay with us by that date.  Some hikers gave up on waiting and began their hike in the 100 Mile Wilderness.  Unfortunately for them, the recent heavy snow melt also meant the wild streams of Maine, which are nearly completely unbridged, were dangerous and cold to cross.  Statistically speaking, we pulled out nearly 80% of the people we dropped off at Baxter State Park or on the Golden Road after approximately 50 miles of hiking - at Jo Mary Road.  I would easily guess another 5% had dropped out by the time they reached Monson. (Statistics are rough and include both hikers that claimed to be thru hikers and section hikers.)  When asked what made them throw in the towel we heard mostly that it was cold at night, the streams were dangerous to cross, and the black flies were maddening.  Not only will the black flies be swarming, the mosquitos and gnats will be relentless.  NoKey and I did a day hike over Chairback in late June and by the end of our 16-mile hike we were both covered in bites and blood from the flies.  I spent the early part of my summer scrubbing blood and scabs off my neck and face!  While June means summer to most of us, in Maine I would compare the weather to early spring in most other places. 

The Logistics of Getting to Katahdin

Thru hikers are known for their ability to improvise and do it well.  Unfortunately, Baxter State Park isn't the place to try your new skills on improvising!  Not only do you need to find a way from the bus stop in Medway to Millinocket, there are a few things you need to know about getting into Baxter State Park.  First of all, you cannot drive in after dark.  When the bus arrives in Medway, more than an hour away from the park entrance, at 7:30 p.m. (if it's on time, which it often is not!), if you haven't found a way in to town, chances are you're hitching a ride.  Baxter State Park will NOT let you drive in after dark unless you've got a long-standing reservation for a campsite - and you're going to get an earful about your late arrival as well.  As a shuttle driver, I was scolded several times for people who poorly planned their arrivals.  Also, a good 90% of SoBos were not aware that they needed a RESERVATION to camp in the park the night of their Katahdin summit.  Hiking Katahdin is a 10.2-mile round trip hike.  It is another 9 miles out of the park to the Abol Bridge Campground.  Unless you can do a 20-mile day easily in New England, and we only had TWO hikers (that I know of) the whole season who did it, you need a camping reservation!

Hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness

Many of us who have hiked this section of Maine can tell you the name evokes deep, dark, secluded woods.  However, the experience of hiking through here is completely different.  For NoBo hikers, it's a 3.5-4 day hike.  For many of our SoBo hikers, I found the early June arrivals took between 8 and 12 days to get through.  It should be taken into consideration that streams will be too deep to ford this time of year and you may spend a day or so waiting for the river to drop.  We had several hikers get swept downstream during the summer of 2013.  The trails in Maine are very primitive.  The MATC takes pride in keeping their trails looking like the did 75 years ago when the AT was built - minimal bridges and switchbacks definitely make for harder hiking.  If you aren't used to hiking in New England, you will definitely have a rude awakening when you begin your hike in Maine.  If it's raining, your trail will look like a river.  If you see a mountain, you will climb straight up and over it.  Many people who have trail experience in other places of the country definitely report struggling a bit in this section.  Instead of carrying 8-12 days worth of food, I highly recommend looking into doing a food drop bucket like those offered by hostels on either end of this section, and carrying a lighter pack!

Minimal Support or Trail Magic

This factor of hiking SoBo is one that many don't think about at all.  While more hostels are staying open longer each year, SoBo's may have less of a chance of finding cheap places to stay during their hikes.  Especially for hostels on the southern end of the trail, their NoBo season is hectic enough for them!  I know where I worked in Maine, Baxter State Park closed for camping at Katahdin on October 15th and that's the day we drove out of town.  Again, more and more hostels are reopening or staying open to accommodate the throngs of people every year, but it is something to consider. Trail Magic in the traditional sense of the word isn't common for SoBo hikers.  Many NoBo's these days are experiencing trail magic nearly every day in the form of free snack cakes or a cold soda left in a cooler at the roadside.  While the ATC is starting to strongly discourage trail magic left as trash at trailheads, many SoBos don't see much of this at all, especially after they've passed the last NoBo thru hiker bubble.  However, one shouldn't think of trail magic as just free food.  Trail magic can take many forms, be it a hitchhike you we're expecting or an offer of a hot shower and a ride to town.  While the magic may not be in the traditional sense, SoBo hikers often say they don't feel like they're not being provided for. 

Fewer Hikers on Trail

While I have met both introverts and extroverts who were SoBo hikers, definitely be prepared to be in the minority of hikers on the AT.  With less than 10% of thru hikers choosing the SoBo route, you'll deal with fewer thru hikers.  While this can be nice if you're wanting a less crowded experience on your thru hike, you'll definitely have to deal with fewer services and less traditional trail magic, as mentioned above.  That being said, working as a hiking guide in the Smokies, I meet many SoBo thru hikers in the fall.  They're usually traveling in a group, albeit a small one.  Like any hike of this length, chances are you'll find a few people to hike with for a given period of time. 

The Difficult Start

While I mentioned the 100 Mile Wilderness near the beginning of this article, I didn't mention the rest of the state of Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont.  While the 100 Mile Wilderness is actually relatively flat, it still takes many SoBo hikers longer to complete it.  While Maine is only 281 miles of hiking, it's not an easy 281 miles!  It takes a lot of SoBo's between 3-4 weeks to complete this state, only to move on to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  It's definitely a trial by fire for those who have never hiked in New England!  Granted, the portion of the AT in Vermont is a lot smoother and less difficult, it's still bigger mountains for SoBo hikers.  The good news is, in my opinion, the hardest mountains and climbs are definitely behind you once you hit Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts. 

While my experiences working with SoBo thru hikers in Maine was only for a season, I got a lot of insight into the mindset of a person deciding to tackle the hike this direction. As someone who had hiked the trail NoBo and met many SoBo's along the way, I just always assumed the SoBo hikers were more prepared and better equipped to tackle this difficult section of trail. Based on the many, MANY people I met, both thru hiking and section hiking alike, I couldn't believe how wrong I was!  

Here is my advice to anyone looking to do a thru hike as a Southbounder: 

1) Get your reservation set up for Baxter State Park at Katahdin Stream Campground.  Set it up for the day after you arrive in Maine. If you get off the bus July 1st, stay in town that night and head up to Baxter State Park early on the July 2nd to hike Katahdin and camp at Katahdin Stream Campground. I cannot stress this enough!  Baxter State Park is already warning the AT of skating on thin ice due to the sheer number of people trying to cheat the system.  Don't be that guy - make your reservation!
2) Make sure you have enough food to get through the 100 Mile Wilderness.  Again, I highly recommend doing a food drop bucket from one of the hostels if you think it's going to take you more than 5 days to hike this distance!  Yeah, it costs upwards of $35, but if you're carrying half the weight in food, it is worth the money!
3) Start in July - not June!  I know you're excited to get on the trail. I get it!  The weather is drier in July.  The bugs have chilled out a bit, the nights are warmer, and the streams are more tame.  You'll see more people in Maine and New Hampshire as a result, but if I were to do the trail SoBo I would wait until July 4th at least to start. 
4) Don't let the crowds freak you out.  They'll be gone soon!

After all that I've said here, I will definitely say that if I were to ever thru hike the AT again I would definitely do it Southbound.  After hiking shorter and less densely populated trails in the summer of 2015 I definitely prefer the smaller crowds and I plan on hiking the PCT as a Southbounder as well - whenever it is I can save the funds to do so!  I think hiking as a SoBo has many appeals, but as with any hike it definitely helps to do your research and make sure the direction you chose is right for you.  

Did you do a thru hike in the opposite direction from most other people?  What would you add to this list of things to know? Leave me a comment or find me on Facebook to get the conversation started!