Sep 6, 2011 at 10:40 am #1278981
OK, so I've got an acquaintance that has decided to South-North thru-hike the AT, starting Oct. 15. He's ex-military with plenty of survival training, but very little backpacking experience.
I have failed to talk any sense into him, but at the same time, I admire his excitment about just getting out there and going, and I figure that leaving South-North, if he has to, he can bail out when it gets too bad.
Has anyone here done a winter thru-hike of the AT? I'd like to help patch him into people who can give first-hand experience.
Also, he's in the process of buying gear for the trip. He needs at least a tent and a sleeping pad still, recommendations or used gear that people are looking to sell?
I realize this is a bit ridiculous, but I'm just trying to help get him up to speed enough to make sure he lives to tell his story.Sep 6, 2011 at 11:08 am #1776519
@newtonLocale: Southeastern Louisiana
Since you say your friend is ex-military this link to SGT Rock's Hiking H.Q. should be somewhat familiar, humorous and helpful to your friend. ;-)
FWIW someone else on this forum may correct me but I don't believe I'd be starting a North bound AT thru hike as late as October 15th.
NewtonSep 6, 2011 at 11:23 am #1776525
Thanks for the link — I'll pass that along. It does look helpful and humorous.
I'd agree — I don't think many people would start a thru-hike either direction in mid-October. Just no way to do it without unbelievably challenging weather somewhere (if not most of the way) along the trip.Sep 6, 2011 at 11:37 am #1776529
Hey – I live near the AT in Pennsylvania and your post intrigued me. Things were a little slow here at work today so I put together the spreadsheet below. It's probably not perfect, but it does give an idea, by state, of how many miles it is and where he'd be (assuming an October 15th start) if he were to average 20, 25, or 30 miles per day…
My immediate conclusion is that he'd be much better off starting in Maine and heading south than hiking the trip NOBO. According to my VERY rough calculations that would put him into Pennsylvania near the end of November if he's able to average 20 miles per day (including zero days). Not too unpleasant. Conversely, heading NOBO he'd just be getting to PA (same assumption) in the middle of December.
I'm impressed by his enthusiasm and would love to hear how he does, but I really think he should hike it the other direction! I would NOT want to be crossing Mt. Washington in January and I believe I've heard that Katahdin is closed during some of the winter months (but don't quote me on that).Sep 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm #1776549
I think I would be more worried about PA – MA. He would be hitting those states in December and January. The months where rain is likely. Midwinter rain is one of the most dangerious games out there. Next concern would be Nh and the presidentials if he has survivial skills he will have learned the wait and then go fast and get down game that is required by the presidentials in the middle of winter. I haven't done a winter traverse it is on the list for this year. All my research has pointed towards you have to be very lucky with timing and then when you get that 24-36 hour window of decent weather go quickly, and with a person you trust. Also being comfortable with bailing or re-routing would be an important skill to know. Maine would be a heck of a finisher, remote winter terrain, extemely cold and no sunlight. I would say there would be several 10 mile or less days once you hit VT and on due to heavy snow storms, or just deep untouched snow. Katahdin isn't closed, just very very restricted. You have to gain permission ahead of time and then get you and your gear checked in. Previous winter mountaineering experience is a requirement. I believe restrictions are in place until the end of April, but it is typically dangerious past May I would have to guess.
I have given a winter AT thruhike a thought or two in my day dreams. I think I would want to do it SOBO. There will be snow in Maine starting in Late October, that would give you enough time to hit the middle of the country in mid-winter best chance for no rain. I think no matter how you look at it the last few hundred miles would probably be a rotten spring rain bug mess. I would rather those miles be in the South than the North.Sep 6, 2011 at 4:18 pm #1776634
@kushbabyLocale: South Texas
I've been doing some obsessive reading about the AT, since I'm planning to finish it in sections, and I have also been thinking about alternative timings (e.g., what about starting NOBO in late January or February) – though not seriously, since I won't be able to thru-hike it until I retire (a long way off, I hope).
Doesn't Katahdin close in October (sometimes early October or even late September, depending on weather)? As Kevin said, it would make a lot more sense to start in Maine in late September/early October and head south… (Is he not available before the 15th of October?).
Edit: Jeremy overlapped and answered the question about Katahdin access…Sep 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm #1776645
@newtonLocale: Southeastern Louisiana
After a quick internet search I found this website.
Pay particular attention to the information near the bottom of the page under the heading Your Climb of Katahdin.
There is also this bit of advice under the sub-heading of November 1:, and I quote;
"If you do not feel you can reach Katahdin by that date, you may wish to "Flip Flop," climbing Katahdin earlier and returning to the rest of your hike afterwards."
Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Flip Flop, Flip Flop and Go South Bound sooner if you can young man. ;-)
NewtonSep 6, 2011 at 5:01 pm #1776660
"I realize this is a bit ridiculous, but I'm just trying to help get him up to speed enough to make sure he lives to tell his story."
It sure is, and that's why I love the idea. I've thought of hiking the Long Trail in winter, but it's a pretty big undertaking. Starting the AT Northbound at that time of year, you'd be able to make good time for the first two months or so. I imagine GA, NC, TN and VA are mighty nice in fall and early winter. I think the biggest issue would be once the snow starts falling on him in Virginia and further north.
You'd have to be an absolute tank to make 20 mile days in the snow (how many miles a day did Skurka do in the Coast to Coast in winter?). Route finding, shorter days, heavier pack, and slogging in the snow would slow you down a lot. And as you get further north, the higher elevations of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine would mean more snow (it's there until the end of April, beginning of May), and then melting snow, which slows you down even more. There's also all the alpine terrain in Maine and New Hampshire.
I like this idea. Tell him to keep a blog or something so we can follow :)Sep 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm #1776697
I think you're right to be seriously concerned about your friend. A winter thru hike in northern New England would be difficult and dangerous for an experienced winter backpacker. For a person who has never spent a night out and is in the process of buying the most basic gear, I would be extremely concerned about their well-being.
That said, if he's really going to start his trip October 15, I agree with Kevin that he should start in Maine and head south as quickly as possible. If he doesn't get past the Whites before winter hits, he's not going to be able to make it across.
Conversely, he could delay his trip. You could suggest that he starts January 1 at midnight and hike North slowly. He could camp out a few times between Oct and Dec to get the hang of winter camping. I think that starting on Midnight Jan 1, 2012 might appeal to him. With luck, he'll be able to build up his skills heading north and maybe spring will come early this year.
Just some ideas.Sep 6, 2011 at 7:28 pm #1776732
Check Baxter State park website. Look at the bottom for policies in the above tree line section. A very very restricted place in the winter.Sep 6, 2011 at 8:15 pm #1776745
@rcowmanLocale: Canadian Rockies
Justin lichter did it in the winter on his triple crown. he'd probably be willing to answer any questions.Sep 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm #1776757
I think he'll have to be a very quick learner to get up to speed that quickly.
I heard Skurka speak soon after his Sea-to-Sea hike. He spent January, February and March in Michigan, northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota. He was extremely candid about the fact that he couldn't have done that without many trail angels taking him in for a night once or twice a week to dry out his gear.
He worked on his long term cold weather techniques for a year and a half and returned to MN to test them in his Ultralight in the Nation's Icebox hike.
Note that none of that was dealing with mountains … a few large hills but that is it.
That's not to say that I know your friend can't handle his hike … I'm just saying that it's not enough to be tough … he'll need to be both tough and skilled.Sep 7, 2011 at 7:12 am #1776820
@foundLocale: Sacramento, CA
I started northbound in mid March this year. All of the sobo "winter" hikers that I met had taken substantial time off for the deepest periods of winter snow.Sep 7, 2011 at 8:52 am #1776852
Completely agree with cautionary posts. I'm going to send him the link to this thread once it hits critical mass, just to provide context, as well as to share all the helpful suggestions.
Do you all have any specific recommendations for a tent/shelter for the kind of conditions likely to be encountered? My gut is Hilleberg/Stephenson as the best options, but I don't know if those are in budget. Anything cheaper that comes close?Sep 7, 2011 at 9:36 am #1776865
My winter tent is a MYOG Bivy and a GoLite SL-2. If I were doing the AT in the winter SOLO I would give serious consideration to a fully enclosed bivy, a sleeping bag that is about 10 F warmer than he would consider taking, and a great sleeping pad. My reasoning is that there are shelters almost everywhere on the AT, but shelters in the winter run a bit cold because you aren't using the snow as insulation. Sleeping in those shelters will protect from most of the wind, the bivy will protect from the rest, and extremely light (sub 1 lb) allowing more weight for insulation on those long and cold winter nights. The most important part to a bivy is to practice with it, that is a hugh commitment for 6-8 months of living. If he was wanting a little more tent I would look at Black Diamond more complex bivys that are 1-2 lbs, and more like single person tents.Sep 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm #1777076
Before I mention any gear, I want to share a few weather resources. First, here's the NOAA Mountain Point Forecast and historical data for Mt Mansfield in Vermont. The records show you the average and record highs and low temps, along with some snow depth data.
Next, here's the historical data for the Mt Washington summit station. Again, you can get some very exact historical data – temps, wind speed, conditions, etc.
I use this NOAA page to keep an eye on snow depth.
I hope your friend has a generous budget. Winter gear isn't always cheap. Your friend will be spending a good deal of time in his shelter, so it should be one he likes. I'd check out the Marmot Aplinist tent, if the Hilleberg is out of his budget. A Black Diamond FirstLight could work too, but setup can be a little more difficult and no vestibule. Considering that he could get pinned down on a ridge, I'd want a fully enclosed shelter.
He should make sure to have a neoprene face mask, balaclava, neck gaiter, micro spikes, snowshoes, trekking poles with snow baskets, lithium batteries for the headlamp, water bottle cozy, duct tape for repairs, etc.Sep 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm #1777121
@ken_bennettLocale: southeastern usa
Well, the good news is that he won't need any of the really specialized winter gear for the first few months. Fall and early winter in the Southern mountains are beautiful times to hike. Starting in mid-October he can expect good hiking weather during the day, and chilly nights. November gets colder, and of course the days get a lot shorter. By then he'll need a very warm sleeping bag and pad. By Central Virginia he'll probably want some traction aids. Assuming he takes 3 months to get to Pennsylvania (not a bad assumption given the day length), he'll start to see much tougher winter conditions as he heads into the Northeast. That's when he'll need the winter tent, snow shoes, etc.
The impossible part probably starts in New York. Getting through New England and Maine in the toughest part of winter would be quite a feat. Can it be done? Sure. Whether or not your friend can do it, I can't judge. But hikers die every year on the mountains in New England in the winter.
Good luck to him. I would second the idea of starting Jan 1 from Springer. There is a nice group of hikers there every year for the New Year celebration, and to send off the early thru-hikers.Sep 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm #1777123
Knowing snow depths is crucial to many aspects of travel on a trip like this. As far as sleeping on exposed ridgelines, I know the AT follows ridges at times but I don't know how many are exposed. There aren't alot of places out east that are extremely exposed so a less "expedition worthy" tent would be very possible as long as your friend pays attention to weather and has a good understanding of what is ahead in the next 10 miles as far as terrain.
To recommend an alternate mode of travel, if you friend has any ski or snowboard skills I would consider a pair of AT or Telemark Skis, maybe even approach skies (I snowboard so can't really be any help there) or a Splitboard instead of snowshoes for at least probably Virginia and North. If we have a winer like last year you could ski all the way to Maine from almost Florida. I would still recommend snow shoes until the snow pack was consistently between 1-2 feet. I also would say the micro spikes could (again don't really know what it is like down there) be a good recommendation for the southern states, but up north full steel crampons, and an ice axe are the tools of choice. Crampons and an Ice Axe and the skills to use them would be a requirement for most of New Hampshire and Maine and would help in other states I am sure. From Vermont North (minimum New Hampshire and Maine) he would need mountaineering boots. Your friend needs to learn about VBL (vapor barrier liner), it comes in two different "styles". As individual base layer clothing or as a sleeping bag liner and socks. VBL of some sort would be a requirement for staying dry on the entire trip. Stoves are another tricky issue, I would say the entire trip a white gas stove would be the best solution but I could also see getting away with the right canister stove as a possibility. The research on that would be well worth the effort, as well as finding reliable running water in the winter. If you buddy could find running water as much as possible boiling is much preferred to melting snow. Running water vs melting snow would save pounds of fuel by the end of the AT.
As I am giving this gear list some more thought I can only see a few none worn items that would be needed on the entire trip, so a way to do a bounce box up the trail for the extras that weren't needed based on snow conditions would be very helpful. I do think it would be possible to do the trip without a bounce box but it would mean carrying the most extreme gear for most of the trip which would mean more weight. If your buddy isn't careful he could end up with a 40-50 lb base weight.
The best news is that bug spray wouldn't be needed so there is 1 oz of savings!Sep 7, 2011 at 7:28 pm #1777137
@rcowmanLocale: Canadian Rockies
justin lichter started November 1st in Quebec on the International AT trail and did the whole AT in the winter to key west florida, which is alot of extra distance added to the trail. he's probably the best person to ask.
you can email him and ask him about gear, gear lists and condition. and he also had to take care of his dog the whole time.Sep 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm #1777870
Thank you all for your help — both in this thread and via PM. I'm passing this thread along and hoping it provides some much needed help. If a travel blog happens for the trip, I'll post up here to let everyone know where to watch the progress.
I know I'm looking forward to hearing some good stories.
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