Section Hiking One Way to Conquer Longer Trails
Mar 30, 2020 03:18PM
By Kathleen Ganster
North Country Trail. Photo by Kelly Williams
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the most well-known trails in the United States. And for good reason: It is estimated that more than 3 million people will hike at least part of the trail each year. Passing through 14 states from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, ME, the trail has nearly 3,000 hardy folks who will attempt to hike the entire 2,192 miles in one season, nonstop, which is also known as a thru-hike.
The North Country Trail (NCT) is another beloved trail, traversing 4,600 miles in eight states and crossing more than 160 federal, state and local public lands. According to Kate Lemon, marketing and communications coordinator, North Country Trail Association, the NCT has no way of tracking hikers based on its sheer length and the fact that many don’t notify the association, particularly day users. Within a day’s drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, the NCT is easily accessible to many hikers.
“Many of our long-distance hikers contact Joan Young, one of our volunteer leaders, who is also the first woman to hike the entire North Country Trail,” said Lemon. Young estimates that there are over 100 people either working on thru-hiking or section hiking on the NCT in any given year.
Thru-hikers—those attempting to hike the entire trail at once—usually take five to six months to complete the AT and even more for the NCT.
“The North Country Trail can seem like a daunting thru-hike,” said Lemon. “Some brave hikers have accomplished it, but it's guaranteed that a thru-hike of the NCT will take at least the better part of a year.”
This is where section hiking comes in. Hikers can choose to trek sections, over a span of years, to complete an entire trail. The beauty of section hiking is that hikers can have ‘real’ lives while achieving their goals.
Doug MacPhail, 67, finished section hiking the Appalachian Trail last fall.
“Raising a family and having a career limited my time to section hike,” he explained. “I would hike for one, two or three days, if I was anywhere near the trail visiting family or in the area.” MacPhail started his quest in 2007.
“I also planned weeklong trips, one in the spring, typically in the South, and one in the fall, in the northern states,” he added.
While the closest section of the AT is approximately three hours from Pittsburgh, the NCT passes within a short 20-minute drive of the North Hills region, going through Moraine State Park.
“Section hiking is a fabulous alternative. Hikers can break down the North Country Trail by state or by using a North Country Trail Association program like the Hike 100 Challenge, in which participants hike any 100 miles of the NCT between January 1 and December 31 of each calendar year,” Lemon said.
For section hikers, planning is key. MacPhail drove to all of his hikes to keep costs down and would aim for 10 to 15 miles per day, sometimes reaching 20.
“Locally, around Pittsburgh, we average 3 mph hiking, but that was not possible on the Appalachian Trail,” said MacPhail. “There were too many rocks, roots, elevation changes, and twists and turns. In arduous New Hampshire and Maine, it was sometimes 1 mph.”
Often, friends would join MacPhail or he would hike alone, making friends on the trail.
It may seem that 12 years is a long time to hike just one trail, but it wasn’t until the final stretch that MacPhail even thought of stopping his quest.
“I only felt like calling it quits in Maine, with the incredibly challenging terrain,” he explained. “Despite those last difficult miles, it was worth it.
“Section hiking the AT over 12 years was a dream,” he added. “The journey was the best part, especially with my wonderful hiking friends. It was a bit anticlimactic to finish.”
For MacPhail, the hike is hardly over. He participates in the one-day, 35-mile Rachel Carson Trail Challenge every year and soon plans to head back to the AT.
“In April, a group of us are headed to the section near Carlisle, and I may do it all over again, however, this time in a southbound direction,” said MacPhail, who went from Georgia to Maine on his first section trek.
The Franklin Park resident encourages others to get out and hike. “The AT is within a few hours’ drive for millions of people in the U.S.,” he said. “It is a national treasure and historic.”
The NCT has approximately 280 miles in Pennsylvania, roughly 1,000 miles in Ohio and 700 miles in New York, all of which are fairly close to the Pittsburgh region.