The Best Supported Bike Rides in the Country

3 Apr

Everything’s still wet with dew in late August when nearly 400 riders mount their bikes, preparing for another 70-mile day through central Michigan. They’ve gathered here for the Dick Allen Lansing to Mackinaw Bicycle Tour (DALMAC), now in its 49th year. The marked route through undulating, rustic farmland seems like a perfect way to end the summer—on a bike, with a hint of fall in the air whooshing by.

I’m tagging along in a camper van with a friend who is riding, rubbing elbows with people from around the country—the participants total more than 1,000. At night, high schools are converted to campgrounds for us, complete with showers, green space for tents and a movie projected on a big screen, and calorie-dense meals, like tacos and hamburgers. All of this is courtesy of the ride’s organizers—made possible with a $300 entry fee—who also carry cyclists’ gear in moving trucks and have hired bike mechanics to help with any bike repairs.

Supported bike tours can now be found in almost every state and can draw anywhere from a couple hundred riders to more than 10,000. Cyclists typically have the essentials provided for them, but some tours offer luxuries like post-ride massages or yoga. Entry fees range from free to under $1,000. Most rides take place in spring and summer, with a few in fall or winter in the South.

Here’s a list of the best supported rides around.

Cycle Zydeco

Where: Louisiana
When: April 24 to 28, 2019

No one throws a party quite like the folks in southern Louisiana’s Acadiana region, whose local laissez les bons temps rouler attitude makes for one hell of a bike ride. What organizers call a festival on wheels, Cycle Zydeco traverses bayou country for four days, typically 40 miles a day along flat blacktop, with local festivities peppered along the way. In 2019, the ride will share a weekend with Festival International de Louisiane—the largest international music festival in the country—with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival commencing the next week. Expect pleasant spring weather and a lesson in how to peel crawfish.

Ride the Rockies 

Where: Colorado
When: June 8 to 15, 2019

On this six-day tour of the Rockies, be prepared for tough climbs—last year’s riders experienced more than 25,000 feet of elevation change over the course of 418 miles. But you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views Colorado has to offer, traversing this year through scenic mountain towns like Crested Butte, Snowmass, and Gunnison. (Routes and towns vary by year.) “You really get to see quintessential Colorado,” says tour director Deirdre Moynihan. “You get it all—the mountain passes, and you get to stay overnight in these great mountain communities.”

Sierra to the Sea 

Where: California
When: June 15 to 22, 2019

Designed for experienced cyclists, this eight-day route traverses the Sierra Nevada before snaking down to the California coast. The route wends 420 miles, with an average day topping out at 60 miles. Other mileage options are available for those who want an easier or more difficult ride. Along the way, riders travel through some of the state’s best-known locales, including Lake Tahoe and Napa Valley, finishing with a jaunt across the Golden Gate Bridge. The tour is limited to 130 people, giving you a more intimate experience with fellow riders.

RAGBRAI

Where: Iowa
When: July 21 to 27, 2019

In 1973, two Des Moines Register columnists—John Karras and Don Kaul—gathered some friends for a ride across Iowa, eventually drawing a few hundred people to bike across the state. Today, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is one of the biggest cycling events in the country. Last year, the 46th annual event drew 10,000 riders and thousands of other revelers from around the world, who rode nearly 500 miles over seven days. “When the ride started, people were stopping at farms for a slice of watermelon, and now it’s morphed into this street party in small-town America,” says director T.J. Juskiewicz. While the route changes every year, it normally begins near Iowa’s western border on the Missouri River and ends at the Mississippi River across the state. Don’t expect too tough a ride or much elevation change, but what the ride lacks in vistas, it makes up for with its party atmosphere and welcoming locals.

Ultimate Cycling Vacation 

Where: New York
When: August 17 to 23, 2019

Created by the Cycle Adirondacks organization, this six-day tour provides cyclists with a taste of the region, from local craft brews and food to insights into the mountain communities around the wilderness. When you’re not riding, there are plenty of hiking trails and swimming holes to explore—there’s even a yoga class included in the ride package. Organizers hope that folks who participate will take away an appreciation for the 6.1 million–acre Adirondack Park and its mountains, wetlands, and old-growth forests, all unique in size and biodiversity for the Northeast. Through a partnership with the Adirondack Mountain Club, part of the ride’s proceeds go toward education and conservation efforts in the region.

West Yellowstone Old Faithful Cycle Tour

Where: Wyoming
When: Fall 2019 (date not yet announced)

Fall is one of the best times to explore Yellowstone National Park, as the summer crowds die down. You’ll have the golden aspens, bugling elk, and Old Faithful almost to yourself on this 300-person, daylong tour, says Moira Dow, the ride’s cycle coordinator. The easy 60-mile trip snakes around a loop, starting in West Yellowstone and heading south past some of the park’s most famous geysers. After the ride, check out other classic attractions, like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or Hayden Valley, where you might see elk, bison, grizzlies, and wolves. Then, trek down to nearby Snake River in Grand Teton National Park to catch a glimpse of the cottonwoods, willows, and other deciduous trees turning red and orange.

WACANID Ride 

Where: Washington-Idaho-British Columbia
When: September 10 to 15, 2019

This tour circles through the Selkirk Mountains, a range that sprawls across the Idaho Panhandle, eastern Washington, and parts of southern British Columbia. For 370 miles over six days, cyclists ride on secondary highways, off the beaten path through breathtaking scenery. There are some pretty tough climbs on certain stretches, but a rest day in the middle allows you a day off from the 70-mile rides. If you have the energy, there’s plenty of hiking around and small communities that offer local food and beer. In September, the nights and mornings are crisp, while the days are warm and sunny. Keep an eye out for mountainside aspens transitioning to gold.

Mountains to Coast Ride 

Where: North Carolina
When: September 29 to October 6, 2019

Roughly 1,000 people gather each year to ride for seven days from the Blue Ridge Mountains to North Carolina’s coast through high-country forests, pine woods, and wetlands. This year’s route will start in Blowing Rock, a village named after a rock formation that overlooks the best of southern Appalachia’s mountainous topography. After more than 400 miles, the ride ends at Atlantic Beach, one of several communities along the Bogue Banks barrier island, which boasts 21 miles of beachfront. Expect some elevation changes in the first half of the ride until leveling out and then coasting downhill until you reach the sea.

Big BAM on the Katy 

Where: Missouri
When: October 7 to 12, 2019

This year marks the second installment of the Big BAM on the Katy, the fall version of the Big BAM, or Bike Across Missouri. The Katy Trail is nearly 240 miles and the longest rails-to-trails project in the United States. It’s off-road riding within Katy Trail State Park, closely following the Missouri River. The route passes through the state’s wine country—near the town of Hermann, German settlers have been growing grapes since the 1830s. “You’ll find great bratwurst and beer, plus there are a dozen wineries in the region,” says Greg Wood, the ride’s executive director. Daily mileage ranges from 40 to 60 miles, but with easy grades and no cars to contend with, it’ll make for an easy ride that’s perfect for beginners and younger cyclists.

How to Thru-Hike with Your Family

14 Sep

Last month, a family of eight completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. As far as we can tell, they’re the biggest family group to walk the full 2,190 miles. Although it may seem intimidating to hike through mountains for five months with kids ranging in age from two to 17, Ben Crawford, the father, says they were all more than capable of the task.

Crawford, his wife, Kami, and their kids live in Bellevue, Kentucky. They’ve been backpacking as a family for years—although never for a stretch this long—so they mostly knew what to expect when they started their AT hike. Now that they’ve finished, Crawford says any family with the desire and right amount of experience can do the same.

“One of the things we believe in,” Crawford says, “is seeing how far kids can go and supporting them to take another step.”

If you’re looking to take a big family backpacking trip—even if it’s on a much smaller scale—here’s what you need to know from the Crawfords and other families who’ve done it.

Start Slow

“It’s really important that my kids want to be out there—otherwise, we just wouldn’t go,” says Patricia Ellis Herr, author of Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, the story of how her family tackled all of New Hampshire’s 48 tallest mountains. Ellis Herr and her daughters, Alexandra, 15, and Sage, 13, live in Plymouth, with the White Mountains practically in their backyard. “We started out going a half-mile to a waterfall, something small,” she says. “I never tried to make them do something they weren’t comfortable with.”

From those half-mile trips to the waterfall, Ellis Herr’s family has come a long way. Over the past few years, they’ve thru-hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, and last month they completed England’s 191-mile Coast to Coast Trail. She recommends starting out with a day hike of no more than a couple of miles. Then, you can slowly ramp up to include overnights and short backpacking trips. Ellis Herr says that by starting slow, you can figure out if hiking is something your kids are into. “It needs to be their thing,” she says.

Share Gear and Tasks

When it comes to carrying gear, Ellis Herr always leans on the conservative side. She says to never let kids lug more than 10 percent of their body weight—though once they’re teens, they can haul a bit more. For young kids, anything heavier than that could cause lower-back pain. “I carried almost all of it” when they were really young, she says, so be prepared for some extra weight in your own pack.

The Crawfords similarly devised a system to ensure everyone carried enough gear on their AT hike—but not too much—and assigned tasks based on what they had in their backpacks. Dove, 17, carried food and handled dinner each night, while Seven, 13, hauled the camera equipment they used to document their trip and helped with video editing. Eden, 15, carried lunch supplies and helped prepare it when the time came. Memory, 11, did the same for breakfast. Seven-year-old Filia packed out the trash. And two-year-old Rainier sat in a child carrier.

Make It Fun and Educational

Damien Tougas, his wife, Renee, and their three kids came south in 2014 from their home in Montreal, Canada, to thru-hike the AT. What he soon learned about hiking with kids is that you can’t expect them to walk for miles on end without getting bored. His family found that audiobooks broke the monotony of hiking for days. “At some points, we had other hikers join in a row to listen,” Damien says.

While shorter thru-hikes can be done on summer vacation, longer trips mean homeschooling or taking some time off. The Tougas family was already homeschooling and found that the AT provided all sorts of education their kids couldn’t get in a classroom. “My son has always loved animals,” Damien says. “On the trail, he discovered new wildlife, like salamanders, newts, and things. We even met a group of biologists studying salamanders and stopped to talk with them. It wasn’t premeditated, but just another opportunity along the way to learn.”

Talk About What You Didn’t Like

Clear communication is vital to keeping kids happy. For Crawford and his family, that meant daily family talks. “We would discuss our highs and lows at night,” he says. “In the mornings, we would discuss our goals for the day and week.”

Tougas realized his three children all adjusted to the trail in different ways. For example, his oldest daughter, Celine, wanted more privacy, so she got her own tent.

“It was very rare when everyone was firing on all cylinders,” he says. “So there were times we would take a day off and go stay in a hotel, try to find someplace with a pool. I always wanted to hear what they had to say and encourage them and talk things through.”

These Are the Most Secluded Hikes in the U.S.

21 Aug

In my younger years, I frequented the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area (WMA), deep within Louisiana’s 1 million–acre Atchafalaya River Basin, to hunt migrating waterfowl or whitetail deer in fall and winter. In summer, I always returned to hike and camp and was usually the only soul on the maze of trails or in the bayous, making the region a far cry from the crowded state parks nearby. The property became a place of solace, where I knew I could trek for miles in the backcountry, sharing it only with bears and alligators.

These WMAs exist in most states and are maintained for wildlife habitat. They make for fantastic hiking trails and pristine forests after hunters pack up for the season. With our national parks growing ever more crowded, we rounded up seven of the best WMAs around the country for those who want to avoid the masses.

Catoosa WMA, Tennessee

Perched on the Cumberland Plateau, just west of the Smoky Mountains, Catoosa is known for its rugged mountains and wild rivers. The area is home to a section of the Cumberland Trail, and while the young footpath is still under construction, when completed it will stretch more than 300 miles northeast through Tennessee. Then there’s the Devil’s Breakfast Table, a 14.1-mile trail ending near a horizontal rock formation, the path’s namesake. For backpackers, there are designated camping spots scattered throughout the forest. Several free-flowing creeks with Class III and IV rapids run through the management area, including the Obed Wild and Scenic River, which boasts 500-foot-deep gorges and some of the best rafting in the region.

Snow Peak WMA, Idaho

There’s a short window to enjoy the steep canyons and mountains at Snow Peak between July, when snowpack melts, and when winter returns in September, says Laura Wolf, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There are about 50 miles of trails, but nearly half are overgrown—although Wolf says staff is chipping away at that. The Snow Peak Trail is an easy nine-mile round-trip hike to an old fire tower with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains and the occasional mountain goat. “Most higher-elevation ridgelines have ripening huckleberries in summer,” Wolf says. An easier trek is the Scribner Falls Creek Trail, which is just eight miles over mostly flat ground.

Connecticut Hill WMA, New York

Connecticut Hill is only a short drive from Ithaca and is New York’s largest management area. As a part of the Appalachian Highlands, this area features 2,000-foot bluffs that offer views among mature maple, hemlock, and American beech forests. In warmer months, hikers can trek along a section of the Finger Lakes Trail, a 580-mile footpath that stretches across the state. In winter, the area is perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the property, so hikers can expect a feeling of seclusion even on a day hike. While state officials don’t allow camping on the WMA, there are a handful of nearby state forests that do.

Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA, Florida

Everglades National Park gets all the attention in southern Florida, but the adjacent Everglades and Francis S. Taylor WMA has enough gators and swampland to go around. The interior of the property can be accessed only by boat. If you can reach it, you’ll have access to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail—numerous canals and waterways that crisscross the swamp to offer glimpses of migrating birds. Hiking is restricted to levees, the only dry ground available, which snake around the exterior of the management area. The most popular paths are L-67 and L-35, including a 12-mile bike ride on a path through through sawgrass fields. Camping is allowed along the L-5 and Miami Canal levees, which offer spectacular bayou views. Both are currently closed due to hunting seasons and will reopen on November 16 (Friday through Sunday only).

Edward Sargent Wildlife Area, New Mexico

Edward Sargent is tucked along New Mexico’s border with Colorado, consisting of high aspen meadows and ponderosa pine that provide habitat for elk and cougars. “Trails are currently not named or specifically marked,” says Ryan Darr, a land manager with the state’s Department of Game and Fish, but you can follow creeks to access the interior of the management area—like a 14-mile out-and-back on Chamita Creek. You can also explore old logging roads or horse paths to features like Nabor Lake, home to a healthy population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. There are established primitive camping areas near the property’s entrance. As for the crowds, elk easily outnumber humans in this part of the Rockies.

G. Richard Thompson WMA, Virginia

Situated on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, G. Richard Thompson has all the beauty of Shenandoah National Park but without the crowds. At its highest point of 2,200 feet, hikers can trek along seven miles of the Appalachian Trail. You’ll get vistas of the pastoral Shenandoah Valley, along the way spotting wildflowers like trillium in summer. In October, you’ll be surrounded by the brilliant colors of fall foliage. In any season, the 9.2-mile G. Richard Thompson Loop is a great way to take in the sights. Remember a map—there are no blazes marking the path.

Thief Lake WMA, Minnesota

Thief Lake, in Minnesota’s wild north country, has plenty of solitude. Wildlife manager Kyle Arola says the property is managed as a wildlife sanctuary, providing habitat for gray wolves, moose, elk, and thousands of waterfowl. “Outside of hunting season, it feels like I have the place to myself,” he says. Walking trails for hunters aren’t maintained during summer, but for intrepid hikers, the paths offer access to the interior of the property and outer banks of the lake. In early summer, the forest is overrun with chokecherries, juneberries and raspberries; in fall, stands of aspen glow bright yellow. Designated campgrounds south of Thief Lake offer primitive camping with boat ramp access. Whenever you go, be sure to pack a GPS.

This Teacher May Set an FKT on the Appalachian Trail

5 Jul

“I’m not giving up,” ultrarunner Harvey Lewis told Outside last Friday while he was near the New York–Connecticut border. “The truth is I’m going to finish, and that’s my number one goal. I believe anything is possible.”

Lewis, a 42-year-old high school teacher from Cincinnati, is attempting an FKT on the Appalachian Trail. He set off from the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain on May 30 and for 34 days has been averaging roughly 47 miles a day. He now has fewer than 600 miles left. His attempt is considered supported, meaning he has outside help as he makes his way to Mount Katahdin. This includes a support vehicle, manned by his 78-year-old father, that’s full of food, medical supplies, and a team of folks offering moral support.

Although Lewis boasts some impressive running chops—he won the 2014 Badwater Ultramarathon and has represented Team USA at the 24-Hour World Championships four times—this is by far the toughest run of his life. Upwards of 50 falls have led to a hurt quad, tendinitis, and swollen ankles, forcing him on a few occasions to catch up on lost time by trekking nearly 60 miles in a day with only a few hours’ rest at night. During one especially rough stretch early on near the Virginia border, Lewis says, “Every stride hurt. At that point, it took everything I had to keep going.”

FKTs on the AT can get a little confusing because of all the qualifiers. Right now, there are three main times to beat. Scott Jurek has the supported title for a northbound hike, which he completed in 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes. Karl Meltzer is the overall supported record holder, having run southbound in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes. But the most impressive was set last year by Joe “Stringbean” McConaughey, when he completed an unsupported FKT in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. Not only does he hold the fastest time, but he also did it unsupported, meaning McConaughey carried all his own supplies in a 25-pound pack, set up and broke down his own camp, and slept on the ground each night.

Lewis is vying for the overall FKT, which means he’d need to beat McConaughey’s time. If he falls short, Lewis could still claim either Jurek’s or Meltzer’s record for the fastest supported time.

Before attempting an FKT, runners must follow a set of unofficial guidelines. These have been developed by the small FKT community to prevent dubious claims, and they’ve developed three simple rules to do this:

  1. Announce your intention.
  2. Invite previous record holders to observe your attempt.
  3. Record your attempt in detail.

Lewis has followed those protocols, and his crew is updating his every move via Garmin InReach. His team is also posting detailed and daily social media posts to serve as a record of where Lewis has been, which will make it easier to verify his claim if he does clutch one of the records. “We’re doing the best we can,” Lewis said. “If we get the record, that would be extraordinary.”

You can follow Lewis on his FKT attempt in real time via Road ID, one of his sponsors, or on social media with #WheresHarvey.

How to Escape a Wildfire When You’re Hiking

26 Jun

On Labor Day weekend last year, Oregon’s backcountry ignited, the night sky glowing red from flames. Peter Ames Carlin, his wife, and their three children were among 176 hikers who were surrounded by a wildfire on the Eagle Creek Trail, a short jaunt from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA). As the blaze blocked a safe exit to the north, to the south, the Indian Creek Fire—which had been smoldering for months—reawakened and threatened to trap the hikers amid steep canyons.

“I was mostly in a stage of intense denial. We were on an easy day hike on a familiar trail we had hiked probably a dozen times over the years,” says Carlin, who lives in Portland. “But it was also a moment of you either walk or die. So you just go.” Smoke choked the air while embers showered down hell upon them, starting spot fires all over the forest. Most people were prepared only for a short day outside, wearing swimsuits or flip-flops and carrying nothing more than a bottle of water.

The ordeal had started just a few hours earlier, when a 15-year-old boy threw a firecracker into a nearby ravine. The dry conditions were ripe for a blaze—the National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a red flag warning for dry, unstable conditions that day. By late afternoon, roughly 200 acres had burned while Carlin and 147 other hikers were stranded near a popular swimming hole at Punch Bowl Falls. The massive group spent the night walking, hoping to make it out alive before flames consumed the footpath.

“That night, my family crashed in the dirt, all huddled together in a big pile, cuddling for warmth,” Carlin says. “It was cold and miserable—it was really bad. But it could’ve ended a lot worse.”

No deaths were reported that night or throughout the duration of the Eagle Creek Fire. It was, by all measures, a miraculous outcome. The blaze ended up destroying close to 50,000 acres before it was contained on November 30, costing nearly $40 million.

The warnings from the NWS that day prompted the Forest Service to station a ranger near the Eagle Creek Trailhead to educate hikers on the risks. Despite this, people still set out on the trail completely unprepared, says Rachel Pawlitz, a spokesperson for the Columbia River Gorge NSA. “People hike with nothing but flip-flops, a towel, and no water and no food. We see it time and time again that people aren’t prepared.” While no one could’ve anticipated the outbreak of the Eagle Creek Fire, Pawlitz says a lot can be taken away from how everything unfolded, especially since over the next 20 years, scientists predict that up to 11 states will see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent due to environmental factors like drought. The reality is that the West’s future includes fires as part of daily life, and those who recreate outdoors will have to know how to deal with them.

“We’re expecting over 700 wildland fires [in California] this year, and that’s well more than last year,” says Deputy Chief Scott McLean with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who has spent 18 years as a wildland firefighter in remote sections of Butte County. “The public needs to be aware of fire safety—that’s part of backpacking and hiking and nature nowadays. People need to pay attention to their surroundings and provide for their own safety while being responsible in a forest.”

Before your next hike in the woods, here are a few helpful strategies if you find yourself staring at flames and rising smoke.

Before You Leave

Before hitting the trail, check online for current conditions. McLean recommends InciWeb, a map displaying where fires are burning on forests in the United States. “Check in at the ranger station, too,” he says. “Look to see if there is a fire nearby or any trail closures that are in effect. Check the weather conditions, and find out the wind direction.”

Be sure to pack the ten essentials to aid in navigation. Instead of synthetic clothes, McLean advises wearing wool. When exposed to the high heat of fires, synthetics “have a tendency to melt to your body,” he says.

If You Spot a Fire…

McLean says to decipher the wind direction by analyzing the smoke. If the smoke is going straight up, that means there’s little to no wind—a good sign. But if you see it scattered about the horizon in one direction, that means the blaze will spread rapidly. It also tells you where the fire is heading.

“Fires burn uphill,” McLean says. “It’s preheating the vegetation in front of it, so your best bet is down low.” Travel upwind and downhill on dirt roads or streambeds with little vegetation. Stay away from canyons and draws, which can work to amplify a fire. Keep your distance, and maneuver around the flames as fast as possible.

If You Get Caught in a Fire…

If you find yourself in an active fire zone, McLean says the safest place is “in the black,” meaning an area that has already burned. If you can find that, hold tight until the danger has passed. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, dry, and hot, but it’s one of the safest areas to be,” he says.

With no other escape options, outrunning the impending inferno is futile—you have to prepare to wait it out. McLean says to find a depression in the topography with no vegetation, such as a roadway with a ditch or a streambed. “Lay down on your stomach with your feet pointed toward the fire,” he says. “Dig a hole and stick your face in it to avoid breathing in smoke. If you have a handkerchief, put that over your face as well.”

As the fire begins to consume the forest around you, McLean says it’s important to stay there. “Hunker down, and the fire might change directions,” he says. “It also might burn around you. But stay there for a good amount of time so there’s no chance of it coming back at you.” If the fire passes around you, find a way out behind the path of the blaze, sticking to the black whenever possible.

Take Care When Hiking in Charred Forests

The acreage of charred forest in America grows each year, and if a fire is intense enough, it can take years before the environment is stable again. Perhaps the biggest hazards in these areas are damaged trees. “Trees or limbs could drop at any time,” McLean says, “so give distance between you and those trees.” Even burned-out root systems can be precarious, trapping hikers in nearly invisible holes beneath them. When the vegetation is burned from the environment, mud- and rockslides are more common, especially when it’s raining. Even water sources can be less reliable after a fire has ravaged a forest.

Ultralight Hacks Every Thru-Hiker Should Know

26 May

The ultralight mentality stems from keeping what you carry in your pack as light as possible—which means you can log more miles with less stress on your body. It has gotten a lot easier for ounce counters these days, as more companies have begun to specialize in ultralight gear.

Still, keeping weight down can get complicated (and expensive), especially if you’re spending weeks or months on the trail and need to carry enough to be comfortable on long hikes. But a few hacks and tricks to help cut weight from your pack offer plenty of ways you can rack up the miles this summer without breaking your back or the bank.


Leave the Stove at Home

Even the most lightweight stoves add extra pounds when combined with fuel, utensils, and a pot. Instead, leave it all at home. As most hikers figure out, hot meals in town are usually only a few days apart, especially on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t be afraid to eat a few cold meals in between.

trail life
(Courtesy Alpine Start)

While on the trail, choose foods that don’t require cooking or those you can soak in cold water using a small container with a screw-on top (Ziplocs work, too). Good options include oatmeal, Zatarain’s many instant rice mixes, ramen, and dehydrated meals like those from Mountain House. Soak them in cold water when you get to camp; roughly an hour later, you’ll have dinner. If you can’t live without an early morning cup of joe, Alpine Start instant coffee works well in cold water.

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…And the Tent

trail life
(Courtesy Mountain Laurel Designs)

Tarp camping isn’t for everyone. But for those willing to forgo a few creature comforts, it provides protection from the sun, rain, and wind without adding much weight. (Granted, it’s light on the bug protection.) While any old tarp will do the trick, the Solo Grace from Mountain Laurel Designs is a classic A-frame made from Cuben Fiber, which is super lightweight (seven ounces), strong, and waterproof. To rig it up just right, trekking poles and guylines are a necessity.

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…And Maybe Your Sleeping Bag, Too

trail life
(Courtesy Enlightened Equipment)

A quilt will save both weight and money compared to a mummy sleeping bag. The Enlightened Equipment Enigma—rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit and filled with water-resistant 850 down—weighs just over a pound. One reason quilts are so lightweight is that they lack material on the underside, so it’s up to your sleeping pad to do the insulating. For a pad, look for one with a solid R-value, such as the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite—the women’s version has a higher R-value but still weighs just 12 ounces.

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Go 2-in-1 for H2O

trail life
(Courtesy Katadyn)

A filter/bladder combo cuts down on weight and saves time. The obvious benefit is that the two-in-one feature eliminates the need to carry a separate filtration system and even those larger bottles you might lug around so you have enough water at camp.

I like the Katadyn BeFree filter, which attaches to a hydration bladder and is available in .6-liter, one-liter, and three-liter sizes. The flow rate is lightning fast (up to two liters per minute), and the whole package is lightweight and packable (the one-liter option weighs just two ounces).

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Put Your Rain Gear on a Diet

trail life
(Courtesy Frogg Toggs)

You’d be surprised how heavy rain gear can get. It can become a big burden, especially if you’re hiking in a place you know won’t see too much precip. Neither fancy nor expensive, the Frogg Toggs Ultra-Lite II Rain Suit is feather light (10.4 ounces) and packs down to pocket-size. The suit and jacket are made from thin, breathable polypropylene that’s surprisingly durable. When not in use, the set stuffs well in a pack and, as a bonus, doubles as town clothes when you’re resupplying and doing laundry. If you want to go even lighter, there’s a nine-ounce poncho.

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Free Yourself from the Frame

trail life
(Courtesy Gossamer Gear)

Ultralighters often opt for frameless packs to cut down on weight, but those bags offer little in the way of structural support. A quick fix is to position a sleeping pad, such as the 14-ounce Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol, near your spine as cushioning. The Gossamer Gear Kumo 36 pack is a favorite among weight-conscious hikers. At just over one pound, its roomy main pocket holds plenty of gear, while the minimalist shoulder straps and hipbelts offer ample cushioning—provided you don’t exceed the recommended 25-pound load. To keep the contents dry, line the pack’s interior with a trash compactor bag, which is cheaper and lighter than a pack cover.

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Grab Lots of Ziplocs

trail life
(Courtesy Ziploc)

From storing spare food to stuffing with clothes for a makeshift pillow, these baggies have plenty of uses, are cheap, and can often be reused through your entire trek. Every thru-hiker should keep Ziplocs in their pack. Be sure to look for the freezer bags, which are thicker than most and have a sturdy seal. They’re perfect for stashing electronics and toilet paper.

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The Best Thru-Hikes You’ve Never Heard Of

14 May

The Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails get all the attention—and the foot traffic—but there are plenty of long walks that aren’t crowded. These five offer the best glimpses into unspoiled wilderness, spanning each region of the country. From hot springs and vistas in the Rockies to less-frequented trails in southern Appalachia, there’s something for every thru-hiker’s skill level.

Ouachita National Recreation Trail

ouachita national forest
(U.S. Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons)

Length: 223 miles
Completion Time: 10 to 14 days
Season: Fall and spring

The Ouachita traces from east to west through Oklahoma and central Arkansas in the Ouachita National Forest, the South’s largest and oldest forest. Peaks rise to roughly 2,600 feet (the highest between the Rockies and Appalachians) and lead to a labyrinth of stony hollows, waterfalls, and sweeping vistas. At 1.8 million acres, the forest is better known for its abundant plants and wildlife than its crowds.

It doesn’t cross any towns. “This is still the kind of trail where you can hike for days and not see another soul,” says Tim Ernst, who wrote the route’s only available guidebook, the Ouachita Trail Guide. Ernst advises hanging food caches (Arkansas is black bear country) near road crossings, as resupply options are slim. Trail shelters are available at certain segments, but be prepared to pitch a tent most nights. Daily stream crossings also provide plenty of places to fill up on water, although some sources have been known to dry up in summer.

Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

pacific northwest trail
(U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest/Flickr)

Length: 1,200 miles
Completion Time: 2 to 3 months
Season: Summer

This trail begins on Glacier National Park’s jagged peaks and meanders west to Washington’s Olympic coast, passing through pristine wilderness in three national parks and seven national forests. As a relatively young trail, it’s “mostly unmarked, receives light use, and may not have been recently maintained in some remote areas,” according to the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Be prepared for bushwhacking, road walking, scrambling, and various networks of unsigned forest roads through grizzly country—this makes navigation tools, bear spray, and mountaineering skills necessities. Resupply points can be hundreds of miles apart, but you’ll be rewarded with solitude: Only some 100 people attempted a thru-hike last year.

Pinhoti National Recreation Trail

Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest
(US Forest Service Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Length: 337 miles
Completion Time: 22 to 30 days
Season: Fall to late spring

The Pinhoti is better known as a connector to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but it’s a very scenic thru-hike in its own right. From the 1,152-foot Flagg Mountain the trail tracks through national forests and private land easements to the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. Expect rugged, pine-covered ridges in Alabama; in Georgia, you can count on 4,000-foot peaks encompassing the finest of southern Appalachia’s beauty. Due to ongoing trail construction, some portions of the hike will be on roads, but highlights include abundant year-round springs, trail shelters, ample resupply points, and no crowds.

Finger Lakes Trail

catskills
(Michelle Joyce/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2)

Length: 580 miles
Completion Time: 1 to 2 months
Season: Spring through early fall

Explore the best of rural New York, traversing through wine country and the Catskills. By combining spur and branch trails, there are 1,000 miles of hiking available. The trail passes through rolling hills, where it’s easy to find a little serenity—this route is big on pastoral landscape and little on crowds. In fact, the Finger Lakes Trail Conference estimates fewer than 25 people thru-hike the trail each year. Jacqui Wensich, trail’s thru-hiker coordinator, oversees a list of volunteers called “car spotters” to assist hikers along the way, providing rides to town, food, or a place to sleep. For the intrepid hiker, there’s always the option to continue west on the North Country National Scenic Trail, an ambitious footpath that totals 4,600 miles, stretching across seven states from New York to central North Dakota.

Idaho Centennial Trail

idaho-centennial-mountains_h.jpg
(Bureau of Land Management/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Length: 900 miles
Completion Time: 2 to 3 months
Season: Summer

Hike among Idaho’s varied terrain, ranging from sagebrush desert to alpine forests, through wilderness areas in the Sawtooth and Bitterroot Mountains, where “you may not see anyone for two to three weeks,” says Leo Hennessy, the trail’s coordinator for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. Due to the Idaho Centennial Trail’s remoteness, Hennessey says most thru-hikers (he estimates around ten have ever finished, with roughly 50 attempting each year) have friends or family resupply them along the way. There are ample angling opportunities in the famed Salmon River, alpine lakes along the backbone of the Bitterroots, and a handful of undammed national scenic rivers. You’ll find hot springs and caves along the trail and primitive forest roads in some sections. Most thru-hikers begin in early June at the Idaho-Nevada line to beat the desert heat and to reach the Canadian border before early fall snow blankets the high country.

Fixing the Appalachian Trail’s Overcrowding Crisis

31 Mar

Carl Goodman has patrolled a section of the Appalachian Trail where it passes through the Great Smoky Mountains for 15 seasons. Five days a week, he chats with hikers about how to lessen their impact, and each day he cleans up the messes they leave behind.

Goodman, 76, hails from Louisville, Kentucky, and his white beard is practically the only sign of his age; thousands of miles logged in the backcountry have helped keep him fit. This year he’s one of more than 50 trail stewards, called ridgerunners, hired to help maintain the 2,190-mile trail as hordes of hikers make their way north or south.

Throughout the 1970s, about 800 people walked the length of the AT—a huge jump from just 37 the decade before. Last year, a record 3,839 hikers set out from Georgia alone, a 14 percent increase over 2016, and about 40 percent more than 2015. So far this year, roughly 2,800 people have registered their hikes with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), and that figure is sure to rise once peak season arrives. As the number of hikers has exploded, so has trailside litter, overcrowding at shelter sites, noise, and the general sense that what is supposed to be an epic journey through the solitude of this great American trail is increasingly being ruined by people—lots and lots of people.

“I’ve seen a major change in the usage of the trail in recent years,” says Goodman, who first thru-hiked the AT in 1999. “The more crowded it gets, the more it needs to be managed and taken care of.”

The ridgerunner program started in the 1980s. It’s a seasonal job that usually begins in early spring, depending on the location, and is funded mainly by government agencies, the ATC, and local clubs. Goodman patrols approximately 16 miles of trail. He’s skilled in wilderness first-aid and the tenets of Leave No Trace, and he can offer information on everything from weather conditions to how to hang a bear bag. More than knowledgeable docents, the ridgerunners consider every hiker they meet a chance to preserve the AT and reduce human impact. Last year, ridgerunners in Georgia interacted with more than 10,000 people. They also dismantled 245 fire rings and packed out 486 pounds of trash. 

In the past few years, there’s been a big push by the ATC to educate new hikers before they ever set foot on the trail. The reason: inexperienced hikers have the worst environmental impact, says Chloe de Camara, a former ridgerunner who thru-hiked the trail in 2015 and is now the ATC’s trail-education specialist. Trail managers often find that human waste hasn’t been buried the recommended six to eight inches, and some people even defecate near water sources. There are more messes left behind at shelters these days, and when those spots are overcrowded, hikers sometimes camp in the wilderness and trample vegetation. “We’re trying to reach people well in advance, and we’re trying to engage with them and ensure they know the right steps to take before they go out hiking.”

And the hikers the ATC isn’t able to teach beforehand? The ridgerunners must educate them on the trail. The hope is that hikers encounter at least one ridgerunner along the way. Indeed, the program has been so effective that, three years ago, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) created a trail-ambassador program to patrol a 76-mile section of the AT. The 38 ambassadors are like ridgerunners in every way but one: they’re volunteers. Other groups are adopting that system, including the Nantahala Hiking Club in North Carolina, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club in Virginia, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club near Washington, D.C., and the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The ridgerunners are just one small component of a much larger plan to manage and train the surge of new hikers. Last year, the AT rolled out an online program called AT Camper Registration, hoping that hikers would sign up for periods when campsites are available in greater numbers. It’s too soon to tell if the initiative will work; if it doesn’t, the ATC may need to take more drastic measures, like permitting, something the Pacific Crest Trail instituted last year. The ATC wants to avoid that, so for now it’s up to the ridgerunners to control the crowds.“We’re encouraging year-round patrols, because there are so many people on the trail who are unprepared,” says Jay Dement, president of the GATC. 

Overcrowding has already prompted a big push from the ATC to get hikers to plan alternatives to the usual northbound route with either the southbound option, or a flip-flop route in which hikers start in the middle. The ATC is also collecting more data, using infrared counters along the path for instant traffic numbers. 

There are a few spots where the ATC has been forced to require permits, including along Mount Katahdin in Maine and to camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the goal is to avoid a trailwide permitting system like the one in use on the PCT, which allows only 50 registrants per day. “We would love the Appalachian Trail to be as pristine and unmarked by humans as possible,” says Morgan Sommerville, the ATC’s southern regional director. “It’s supposed to provide a primitive, natural experience.” 

Some believe the bump in hikers on the Appalachian Trail will wane, as it has in the past. The ATC is doing everything in its power to ensure it’s experienced exactly as intended—as a wilderness retreat. For now, the ridgerunners may be the best hope.

This 9-Year-Old Completed Thru-Hiking’s Triple Crown

16 Oct

On September 18, nine-year-old Christian Thomas stood in front of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park with his parents, Andrea Rego and Dion Pagonis. The family from Crested Butte, Colorado, had just finished a 1,200-mile section hike of the Continental Divide Trail, the last leg on their journey to say they officially walked its length. Having finished both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, this was the third long-distance footpath they’d hiked in nearly five years.

With that final step toward the geyser, Thomas became the youngest person in history to complete all three trails, called the “triple crown” of hiking. Doing so requires trekking nearly 8,000 miles and climbing more than 1,000,000 feet in elevation. Fewer than 350 people have reported their triple crown to the American Long Distance Hiking Association–West, an organization that tracks such feats, though ALDHA-West president Whitney LaRuffa says unreported triple crowns could double that figure.

Thomas, who goes by his trail name Buddy Backpacker, says his first thought after finishing the CDT was pride. “I felt really proud of what I did and also what my family did. Then, the first thing I wanted to do was eat at a Chinese buffet in town.”

(Courtesy of Dion Pagonis)
(Courtesy of Dion Pagonis)
(Courtesy of Dion Pagonis)

On September 30, ALDHA-West recognized Thomas as a triple-crowner at the Gathering, a yearly ceremony where those who have completed all three trails are given awards. (The organization doesn’t recognize speed or age records.) “This is a huge feat for anybody, but the fact the he did it between the ages of five and nine is pretty remarkable,” says LaRuffa. “I met him on the CDT in 2016, and he’s such a happy kid and likes being out on the trail. I had no doubts that he could achieve it.”

Thomas was five when he and Pagonis started hiking the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail. They planned a short section hike going north, starting at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in April 2013. “We thought we’d go hike for a few weeks,” Pagonis says. “He did so well, we just kept going.”

So Pagonis began giving Thomas homeschool lessons on the trail. Since neither of them carried a pack, Rego provided support at road crossings in the family’s Jeep. Nine months later, Thomas became the youngest person to hike the trail, having been homeschooled as he hiked. He claimed that same record on the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail, starting in April 2014 and finishing in November. “Since hiking is something we brought him up doing, I don’t think he knew any different,” Pagonis says. “I don’t think he knew how big of a deal it was.”

The natural progression was to then take on the CDT, which snakes through the Rocky Mountains for 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. In 2016, they made it roughly 1,900 miles before ditching the attempt. “We got off trail at Old Faithful last year because it was already September 11,” Rego says. “We still had 1,200 miles to go, and there was snow in the forecast for every day in the coming week. We knew we wouldn’t make it to Glacier National Park before a huge snowstorm hit, and it would be too difficult to finish.” The family tackled the remaining miles from April 2016 to September this year.

Now that Thomas is back at home in Crested Butte, Colorado, he’s doing what you’d expect from a fourth-grader—playing video games and hanging with friends. “I am happy to be home and back in school,” he says. “Every day is different when I’m home and in school.”

In 2012, the family moved from Long Island, New York, to Boulder, Colorado, and eventually to Crested Butte. The goal was a lifestyle change, one that included a focus on health and being outdoors. With the Rocky Mountains so close by, the family began taking regular day hikes. That progressed to overnights, and then longer backpacking excursions. Even as a toddler, Thomas proved to be a natural. “He’s never known anything other than hiking,” Pagonis says. “He did so well with hiking and really took to it. He loved meeting different people we saw on the trails.”

On the AT, Thomas typically hiked 12 to 16 miles a day without a pack. But on the CDT, he routinely cranked out 20 miles and carried a homemade cuben-fiber backpack containing his quilt and some gear—it normally weighed around five pounds. “He loves doing big miles and guessing how many we have left in a day,” Rego says. “He never pushes himself beyond his limits. When adults get tired and hungry, they make bad decisions and can get hurt on the trail. When he’s tired, we recognize that.”

thru hiking
(Courtesy of Dion Pagonis)

Thomas says one of his favorite parts about hiking is cranking up “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons and pretending the song is a soundtrack to a movie he’s starring in. “He always has his headphones in, and he’s usually listening to music,” Rego says. “He’ll be dancing down the trail on the side of a mountain, just bopping along, skipping and dancing.”

Rego and Pagonis say they’re finished long-distance hiking for now, but they don’t plan to remove themselves from the culture. They recently purchased land near Hachita, New Mexico, close to the southern terminus of the CDT, with plans to open a hiker hostel. As for Thomas, he plans to give his legs a break for a few years. “I might do one of the trails again one day,” he says, “but not anytime soon. My feet are happy to be done hiking.”

The Crew Building the Next Great American Thru-Hike

22 Jun

In early May, I hiked with Peter Berntsen through eastern Tennessee, where the 70-year-old trail builder is laying segments of the Cumberland Trail. The path will wend more than 300 miles through deep hollows, spiraling waterfalls, and diverse flora in the heart of Appalachia, at the mountainous edge of the Cumberland Plateau. I followed as Berntsen lugged an axe and mattock up a rocky and root-riddled stretch meandering through untouched forest. He and his two-man crew were slowly chipping away at the final 100 miles.

The Cumberland is on track to be all but complete in 2019 and will function as a leg of the country’s next great wilderness trail: the Great Eastern Trail, which will span 1,600 miles from Alabama to New York and be composed of already existing trails. It may also serve an important purpose: to siphon foot traffic away from the nearby Appalachian Trail. “The Great Eastern Trail is going to ease the pressure off the Appalachian Trail,” Berntsen says. “If we can relieve just a bit from the big bubble of hikers that starts in Georgia every year, it’ll be beneficial for everyone.”

Last year, nearly 4,200 thru-hikers set off to walk the AT—more than three times the number of people who attempted in 2007. Overcrowding has exacerbated issues like norovirus and trailside litter, prompting the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to push for alternate start dates and travel routes for thru-hikers. The hope is that the Great Eastern will siphon some of the crowds, thus lessening the environmental burden on America’s favorite wilderness footpath.

The Great Eastern, however, is only around 70 percent complete. Without any setbacks, it could be finished within ten years. But first, trail advocates will have to overcome a number of hurdles between hikers and a new glorious trail.


A quick overview of hang-ups that could hamper the Great Eastern: most notably, the coal and timber companies in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that have been unwilling to allow a path through, indefinitely halting construction in those regions. In northern Georgia, much of the path follows paved roads, and progress has been slow due to negotiations between dozens of landowners and government entities. Almost 200 miles of the originally proposed route in southern Alabama, which would have connected to the Florida Trail, was put on the back burner due to lack of a viable route.

Since construction and land acquisition is left to regional trail-building clubs with limited budgets and bargaining power, as well as bare-bones staff, blazing new tread has generally been slow. Trail organizers estimate the obstacles could delay a complete path until as late as 2040. So for now, hikers must navigate the absent chunks by walking on paved roads for around 400 miles.

“Every hiking trail once started on a shoestring budget,” says Tom Johnson, president of the Great Eastern Trail Association (GETA), the nonprofit group that loosely oversees almost two dozen regional trail clubs building the Great Eastern. “The Appalachian Trail went through the same process. It was finished in 1937, in the sense that there was a connectivity from Maine to Georgia, but a lot of it was on roads, and 43 percent was on private land.” It wasn’t until roughly 2010 that most of the road walks were eliminated and privately owned land was acquired and protected.

Much like the Great Eastern, the Appalachian Trail started out as a collection of footpaths scattered throughout the east that were eventually strung together. When public land wasn’t available, builders sought access from private property owners—some obliged, while others refused. It wasn’t until the National Trails System Act was passed in 1968 that builders made any headway. The act named the footpath a National Scenic Trail, which gave it federal funding and permanent protection, as well as powerful allies like the National Park Service. The biggest advantage was the power of eminent domain. In some cases, private land acquisition was met with fierce opposition from locals, but without that authority, it’s possible the AT as we know it would be much different.

“We would have probably ended up with more road walking and inferior locations,” says David Startzell, who was the executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy from 1986 to 2012. “It’s possible some sections might not have even survived simply because a landowner could have closed off a given section without any decent rerouting alternatives.”

Federal backing is a luxury that Great Eastern organizers neither have nor want. While it’s an attractive option to mend budgeting woes and speed up the process, those on the GETA board fear that landowners could perceive such a designation of the Great Eastern as a bureaucratic intrusion by the federal government, disrupting agreements already in place. The relationships between regional trail clubs and locals have gotten them this far, and that’s the model they’re sticking with.

Startzell says it took 30 years to considerably reduce road walks and establish a protected corridor on the Appalachian Trail after the federal designation and with strong central organization. The Great Eastern, without those advantages, faces an uphill battle. “I won’t say it’s not possible,” Startzell says, “but it’s going to be a very big challenge.”


The concept for the Great Eastern was first proposed by Earl Shaffer, who in 1948 was the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He recognized that trails already existed in the region, and in a 1952 letter to his brother John, Shaffer suggested the trails be linked together. For years, the idea, known then as the Western Appalachian Alternative, floated around in small hiking circles. But the concept didn’t pick up steam until the popularity of the Appalachian Trail skyrocketed in the early aughts.

In 2003, the plan was set in motion by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and the Great Eastern Trail Association was formed in 2007. Regional trail-building clubs began working to lay down new tread to connect the extensive network of footpaths from Flagg Mountain in central Alabama all the way up to the North Country Trail in New York. The Great Eastern traces along the Mid State Trail in Pennsylvania, Allegheny Trail in West Virginia, Cumberland Trail in Tennessee, Alabama Pinhoti Trail, Tuscarora Trail in Maryland, and even the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, among others.

While the natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail is unmatched in the East, it was clear to the organizers that the Great Eastern offers what the AT cannot: solitude. “What I really enjoyed about the Great Eastern Trail was that it is young and we didn’t see lot of people out there,” says Jo Swanson, who in 2013, along with Bart Houck, was the first to thru-hike the Great Eastern (one other person thru-hiked in 2016). Swanson thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 and says that while the social component made the journey special, on the Great Eastern she felt secluded and challenged.

Swanson had to prepare for six months before taking on the Great Eastern, compiling several guidebooks and mapping out exactly where the trail would take them. “There are sections that are marked so well, and others that are not,” she says. “It’s a trail you still need a map for. On the AT, you just follow the white blazes. On the Great Eastern Trail, you’re following a whole collection of different colored blazes, or shapes, or there are no blazes at all.”

The mixture of trail markers is a result of the Great Eastern passing through federal, private, and state-owned property—some with specific regulations on signs, trail width, and the blazes that are allowed. When route planning, builders first seek out public land. While state-owned land out east abounds, it’s often smaller and more fragmented compared to the large swath of federal land available for western trail systems. (In the western states, 47 percent of land is federally owned, while only 4 percent of land is in federal hands east of the Mississippi.)

The expanse of public land offers several key advantages, says Matthew Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association. Government agencies that manage land typically have a mission to provide public access and recreational opportunities, and long-distance hiking trails fit into that mold, which improves the chances of getting a green light for construction. The 800-mile Arizona Trail lies mostly on U.S. Forest Service property—intersecting with only one private landowner. Nelson says the small number of stakeholders reduced negotiations and sped up the construction process. Out east, that’s not the case, as there are often hundreds of individuals and government bodies tossed into the mix. And due to environmental impact studies, it can still take months, even years, before the first inch of trail is constructed.

When Appalachian Trail builders were faced with crossing private property, they were able to purchase it. But trail clubs building the Great Eastern don’t have the capital to acquire every inch of woodlands the trail will trace through. “Getting private landowners to grant easements or rights-of-way is a delicate art, and some individuals have no interest in public access across their land,” Nelson says. “Trying to convince someone to agree to a recreation trail through their property is a tough sell.” In some cases, landowners refuse any access. A collection of almost a dozen coal and timber companies in West Virginia have halted progress on parts of trail due to liability concerns, says Doug Wood with the West Virginia Scenic Trails Coalition. “They don’t want anybody on their property unless there’s a multimillion-dollar insurance policy to cover damages,” he says. “You’re talking about some real expense on the part of a nonprofit to try to get an insurance policy.” At the moment, planners have no solution to move forward.

When a trail is blocked by private land with nowhere else to go, it’s typically directed to a nearby paved road, which not only takes away from the wilderness experience, but also can add a level of risk. “The Great Eastern Trail turns into eastern Kentucky with about 40 miles of road walking,” Johnson says. “The roads are narrow and dangerous, with no road shoulders and a drop-off to a ditch. It’s really difficult for hikers to get through that area safely.” (In 1978, 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail were either in private hands or along paved roads. But trekking along blacktop didn’t stop people from thru-hiking—and those on the GETA board are hoping that’s the case with their trail.)

Despite the similarities, Great Eastern organizers aren’t trying to replicate the Appalachian Trail. Rather, they’re attempting to preserve it, while at the same time showcasing another unique segment of the region. Even with the setbacks, organizers are confident and determined to push forward. For now, that’s all they can do. “I think so much work has been put into it, we will continue it, even with the problem in southern West Virginia,” Johnson says. “Eventually that will get solved, too. We just have to work on it.”


Out on the trail, the politics of constructing a hiking path are far less apparent. In early May, the Cumberland was quiet, save for the birds, rustling leaves, and the low clink of Berntsen’s mattock as he chipped away at a root. His job is straightforward: push forward, construct trail, repeat. The only thing on his mind, he told me, are the miles of trail he needs to finish.

A couple day hikers made their way down to the trail’s dead end, and neither had knowledge of the Great Eastern. As they trotted off, Berntsen said, “A lot of people have no idea this trail is here.”

Swanson hopes that as awareness of the trail grows, so will support for it. According to the American Hiking Society, trail recreation activities contribute $196 billion to the U.S. economy. If locals start to see the benefits of thru-hikers, Swanson thinks sentiments could change. But first there must be willing hikers.

“I think a lot of hikers are afraid to hike an incomplete trail because they think they won’t have fun,” Swanson says. “I found that I had a ton of fun trying to figure out where to go. It was like putting together a puzzle. It felt like the Appalachian Trail probably did 40 years ago. It still feels wild."