The AT Legend Passing on Wisdom to Young Thru-Hikers
For Warren Doyle, who has thru-hiked the trail nine times, it comes down to mental—as much as physical—preparedness
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With nine thru-hikes and nine section hikes of the Appalachian Trail under his belt, Warren Doyle, 70, is a legend in the trail community. When he set the first known speed record of 66.3 days on the AT in 1973, he did it wearing blue jeans. The 38,000-miler has even been arrested for civil disobedience, an incident that occurred on Mount Katahdin in the late 1970s when he climbed the Maine peak to protest a rule that prohibited summiting it during rainy weather (at the time, it was the only American mountain with such a policy). He chose to spend a night in jail rather than pay a fine, but it was worth it: Baxter State Park eventually changed the rule.
However, Doyle’s accomplishments don’t end where his footsteps do. In 1983, he founded the American Long Distance Hikers Association. And in 1989, he created the Appalachian Trail Institute (ATI), which offers courses to prepare thru-hikers. Doyle has worked tirelessly to bring others to his sanctuary, to give back to the trail by inspiring generations of thru-hikers and leading others into the mountains. And even with the thru-hiking season on hold, the trail icon’s message continues to resonate.
Doyle’s love for the trail began in his home state of Connecticut. After his first thru-hike, he returned to the University of Connecticut, where he was a graduate student, to organize a series of eight hikes on the AT through the Outing Club. If a student went on all eight, they completed the state’s entire 56-mile section of the AT. Pleased with the group’s success, he organized a “super hike” for the spring semester, which involved hiking all 56 miles in one shot. After a three-month prep period, Doyle and a dozen other hikers started at midnight on April 21 and finished the trail that night. It was the first time he used his what he calls his circle concept—everyone who starts, finishes, and each member of the expedition must pledge to support the others and not quit unless there’s an emergency. “The students’ evaluations brought me to tears,” said Doyle.
After that, Doyle began thinking about guiding longer hikes and maybe even a completing 2,200-mile thru-hike himself. What came next was a much larger-scale operation. In 1975, he founded AT Circle Expeditions. After a two-semester prep period, he led his first trip, taking 19 University of Connecticut students from Springer Mountain, Georgia, all the way to Mount Katahdin. It took 109 days, and everyone finished.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only about one in four who set out to complete a thru-hike will go all the way; most of those who do finish take about five months to do so. The success rate is much higher for Doyle’s students. Over the course of 45 years, he led eight Circle Expeditions, seven of which boasted a 100 percent completion rate. He doesn’t lead expeditions over the entire length of the trail anymore, but he continues to share his knowledge with hikers through the ATI, which reports that three-fourths of its graduates go on to finish their thru-hike.
When asked about the high success rate for his students, Doyle points to a number of factors. He notes that common issues, like running out of money, are avoidable. But it’s really the preparation period and the method in which his students hike that lead each person toward success. His groups had about 20 days to get ready before beginning their hike. During that time, his teams discussed concepts like pack weight, mental toughness, and determination. “Barring unavoidable injury or death or illness in the family, it all comes down to your level of comfort, your threshold for pain, and your temperament,” he says. Success depends on how well you’re able to balance each of these qualities on the trail.
Doyle’s strategy involves consistently hiking about 20 miles per day. If all you’re doing is walking, you could walk at a pace of two miles per hour each day and still get adequate sleep and have time to spend in camp. This also leaves space for breaks and lunch on the trail. Hikers rise at dawn, and they’ll often enter camp at around 3 or 4 P.M. His hikes allow for two to three days with zero miles. When asked why he doesn’t factor a lot of rest into his itinerary, he responds: “Well, why should we?” It’s a moderate schedule, emphasizing consistency, and notwithstanding extreme circumstances, it’s probably the most sustainable way to thru-hike.
Additionally, his agenda does include several short trips into town, as well as a support van (an element controversial in some quarters of the thru-hiking community). And he isn’t so strict that he’ll make his team hike through dangerous weather, so there’s some flexibility built in.
“Commitment is the thing that’s lacking in our society,” he says. “Commitment to each other. I think there are just as many broken commitments as there are those that have been fulfilled.” And that’s the overarching principle that guides Doyle’s approach to thru-hiking. It’s reflected in the pledge that participants in his Circle Expeditions make to finish the trail as a group; the idea that nobody will make it if they aren’t bound to the endeavor is a fundamental component of his ATI prep courses.
“Barring unavoidable injury or death or illness in the family, it all comes down to your level of comfort, your threshold for pain, and your temperament,” Doyle says.
It should come as no surprise that his thru-hiking strategies have contributed to the world of fastest known times. He worked with current AT record holder Karle Sabbe, who completed the trail in 41 days 7 hours 39 minutes in 2018.
His most famous student is Jennifer Pharr Davis, who came to the ATI fresh out of college before completing her first AT thru-hike in 2005. She loved the experience so much that she went on to complete the Pacific Crest Trail and Australia’s 600-mile Bibbulmun Track soon after. In 2008, she became the AT’s fastest female thru-hiker, completing the trail in 57 days 8 hours 38 minutes. Before every thru-hike, she consulted Doyle, absorbing his knowledge and advice. It wasn’t long before she told him that she wanted to try for the overall long-distance speed record.
Doyle coached Pharr Davis through her 2011 FKT attempt, using his same approach—make sure you’re committed, and stay consistent. She completed the Appalachian Trail in an astounding 46 days 11 hours 20 minutes, a feat requiring a 47-mile-per-day pace. Her overall record has since been broken, but she still holds the FKT for a female thru-hike on the AT.
“They’re not speed records to me,” says Doyle. “That’s a mistake to label them speed. They are endurance records.”
Doyle considers his greatest achievement to be his educational endeavors; he likes to think of himself as a student developer. It’s reflected in the advice he offers to his pupils: “The more education you put into it, the higher the success rate.” He encourages his students to soften to the flow of the trail instead of swimming against the current. And as long as you’re ready to be uncomfortable, he tells them, you’re ready for the Appalachian Trail.