Friday, February 29, 2008


Finally have completed my itinerary, the making of which has felt like hiking the trail itself. Elizabeth can testify to the nights and weekend days spent with maps and guidebooks, pencils and paper spread over the room, often with Camille laying on whatever item I needed next. All told, 187 days of hiking, 16 mail drops, and 25 known overnights in hostels and such are whittled down to a single 11in x 17in piece of paper, looking so clean and easy. Of course, hidden within the spreadsheet lines are the blood, sweat, and tears to come.

The itinerary can be found through the link at the top of the links along the right side of this blog. It opens as a PDF document, which can be printed or saved to your computer.

I will be relying on mail drops to supplement food purchases I make in towns close to the trail. (No, I will not be carrying 6 months worth of food from the start). This will help save money, and is the traditional way of resupplying, from an age when not every town had grocery stores and 24-hour big box stores. Plus, its a nice way to keep in contact with everyone back home - Elizabeth especially is expecting many letters from me. Plus, waiting for mail is a good excuse for a day off, or what the hikers call a "zero-day".

For those of you planning on sending any mail drops along the trail, I've included addresses of the places I know I will be stopping at along the way. I think the instructions are clear on the intinerary, but it bears repeating - remember to address any packages in the following manner:

Shawn Rairigh

c/o name of business and address


c/o General Delivery (only for a Post Office)

Town, State Zipcode

"Please hold for AT thru-hiker, ETA date"

Be sure to include the last part - the business owners and postmasters of the small towns and villages the Trail goes through are understandingly overwhelmed sometimes and will only hold packages for a few weeks within that date.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


One of the more fun aspects of this trip is coming up with a trail name. It seems most hikers don't go by their real names, but assume some sort of new identity. I suppose its a way of completing the escape from working life and creating a new trail life, and it probably helps bond hikers to each other and the challenge itself.

Usually the name comes from a character trait, like "Old Man" or "Wingfoot" or the person's original name, like "Mountain Laurel". They also come from happenings on the trail: I've heard of a "JumpStart", who started his thru-hike by parachuting from a plane, or "The Rhymin' Worm" who would leave little rhymes for entries in the trail registers. One of the best has to be Greg "Pooh" Knoettner, who got his name after sitting down too hard, breaking a bottle of honey and coating everything inside his pack.

I've been trying to come up with a name before I go, if only to avoid being named "Farts in His Sleep" or "Toiletpaper Tail" or something else embarrassing by my trailmates. Its tough, and I suspect I won't settle on one until I'm out there. At first I thought of names like "Hilladelphia" or "Medium Rair" but I think my best potential names have come from my favorite soft drink: "Mountain Dewde" or "Mountain Do". Elizabeth ruled out "Mountin' Dude".

All suggestions are welcome...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Camille says, "Don't Go!"

Here's Camille "helping" Shawn prepare for the trail...

Friday, February 22, 2008


My real worry about the trail is sustaining it mentally and physically for the six months I need to complete it. I’m sure it will mess with the body pretty hard, specifically my old friend Iliotibial Band, which if not stretched out has caused me loads of pain during past hikes. I cried coming off of Mt. Washington three years ago after three days of hardcore hiking. I’m starting daily stretching exercises now that I’m five weeks away.

The trail will be tough, without doubt. When you look at the basic stats, the dropoff rate is severe. Almost 20% of hikers don’t even make it to Neel’s Gap, 30 miles from Springer. I suspect these are the folks who have no idea what they’re getting into and learn quickly that backpacking is not for them. I’m pretty sure I know what I’m getting into at this point.

Still, even the seasoned hikers suffer have trouble completing the whole trail. Roughly half of the thru-hikers are gone by the Smokies, 160 miles away. Another 10% drop out in Virginia. Only about 1 in 4 thru-hikers makes it all the way to Katahdin.

By the way, all these stats come from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:


One of the things I initially worried about was being alone for such a long time. But I quickly discovered that I will be not be alone at all – especially in the beginning. In fact, lots of trail literature talks about how “crowded” the trail is these days. Forty years ago, there were only a couple dozen hikers each year who attempted to do the whole trail, but by 2001, there were 2,375 would-be thru-hikers leaving Springer Mountain each spring.

Strangely, the last few years has seen a steady and considerable decrease in thru-hikers – in 2006, only 1,150 people attempted a thru-hike. Your guess is as good as mine as to why that is. Maybe it’s because people have less free time and money, or more and more students have larger and larger loans to repay, or because there’s less of an environmental ethic, or even fitness ethic, than in previous decades. It might even have something to do with how many young adults are tied up in the military nowadays – I’ve read that the Trail draws lots of people who are transitioning out of military life.

At any rate, there are still a lot of people who start out from Springer Mountain each spring. I suspect it will be crowded at early shelters and in popular places like Smokey Mountain National Park. In fact the vast majority of hikers go the same south-to-north route I do. Only 15% of hikers start in Maine since that section is the toughest and you have to wait until June or July for the snow to melt and the blackflies to go away.

Trail Basics

Here are some basics about the Trail, for those of you just grasping this thing – as I did last fall. These are the questions I’ve received most often:
  • The wha? The Appalachian Trail – one of the longest, oldest, and most well-known footpaths in the world. It runs along the spine of the Appalachians, between Georgia and Maine.
  • How long is it? Right now, its 2,175 miles. The trail length changes because it is constantly rebuilt and relocated onto public easements and off-road areas over the years. For comparisons sake, it’s the same driving distance between New York and Salt Lake City.
  • Where’s it start and end? The trail runs between the top of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia (about 1.5 hour’s drive north of Atlanta) and the top of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine (about 4 days drive from anywhere). Of course, you have to hike to and from these peaks, which adds another 16 miles or so to the total length, but as Bill Bryson wrote, that’s like getting out of the car after driving cross-country.
  • How long will it take? About 6 months. Fast hikers will do it in 5 months, slower ones in 7 months. I figure I am average, or at least I intend to take enough time off to go that pace. To make it in six months, I will have to go a little over 12 miles each day, including days off.
  • Who am I going with? No one, except the hundreds of other would-be thru-hikers who will also start in Georgia this spring. In fact the trail might seem downright crowded in the beginning.
  • Will I be taking a gun? Funny how often I’ve been asked this. No, I’m not bringing a weapon of any sort besides a Swiss Army knife. Any weapon will be too heavy, offer no real protection, and will only increase the chance of someone getting hurt or killed. Statistically, the trail is safer than almost anywhere else in the country, certainly safer than my own neighborhood in Philly. There have only been around a dozen murders on the trail in its 70-year existence, including one this past winter. If you draw any other 2,000 mile line across the US, you’ll probably hit many more than that.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What is Ten Feet of Crazy?

Ten feet of crazy is a map, scanned from road atlases, resized to a 1 inch to 10 miles scale, plotted out, and laid out on the floor of our office. Imagine here a bunch of city planners, staring at a map covering Georgia to Maine, and ten feet long … and then I said, “well, that’s just ten feet of crazy, right there.”

But, those ten feet of crazy represents exactly what Shawn is going to do, starting in late March this year – leave Philadelphia, and Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail. It also shows the one-inch he will have to hike every day to finish by October. For those who were told there would be no math, that’s 2,175 miles in six months.

So with the majority of the gear purchased, and an itinerary in draft form, the trail has become a reality. This blog is intended to keep everyone up to date on his preparations, and his progress while he’s away – Shawn will be posting here while he continues to prepare, and I’ll be updating while he’s on the trail.