Living off the land along the AT

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 6-12, 1997
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Living off the land along the AT
Question: Do you think that it's realistic to plan a through-hike of the A.T. by living off the land?

Staten Island, NY
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: In a word, no. According to Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, founder and director of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, it's "theoretically feasible but extremely difficult." He pointed out that only one thru-hiker, Branley Owen, successfully completed the approximately 2,200-mile trek by living off the land--this was the late '60s and he was a Vietnam vet, fresh out of Ranger training and honed for such difficult conditions. More recently, there was one hiker who tried but failed miserably: Forty miles up the trail from Springer he was in such bad shape that he stopped at a pay phone and got his family's credit card number.

Harvest season for berries and edible plants along the AT doesn't start until late June or July, so you'll need to wait until then to begin your hike. "There's not much up on the ridges until then," Wingfoot says, "and even in mid-summer, there are really sparse areas through central Pennsylvania. And the White Mountains--well, there's nothing up there."

You shouldn't even consider attempting this, advises Wingfoot, unless you've grown up learning to live off the land; in other words, having a wilderness course under your belt isn't enough. It's also worth pointing out that, from an ecological and environmental standpoint, living off the trail is very much frowned upon. "You get enough people trying it," Wingfoot says, "and pretty soon the trail is 20 feet wide."

Your best bet: Ditch the romantic notion of foraging berries and cache your food along the way or just load up as you go. Wingfoot has plenty of logistical advice on matters of caloric intake and other fine points of through-hiking. Call him at 704-622-7601 and have him send you his books, The Thru-Hiker's Handbook ($10.95) and The Thru-Hiker's Planning Guide ($11.95).

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