Suggestions and Tips for Section-Hikers, by Jerry Barker
The First Hike: “A journey of a thousand (1175) miles begins with a single step” or “a hike of the MST begins with the first hike.” Planning and taking the first step of the first hike gets the process rolling, and after 118 ten-mile hikes the entire 1175 mile MST can be completed. The first hike is critical. A fun, successful hike makes you want to go again, whereas a no-fun, too-hard, “I hated it” hike makes it hard to be excited about hiking again. Over-plan your first hike; research it – locate trailheads (starting and ending points); know the elevation, distance, difficulty before starting out; is this a one-way hike or out & back; do you need a shuttle; pack proper water/snacks; know the toilet situation; consider hiking with an experienced partner, have emergency plan, and pack your essentials (proper attire for weather, trail guide, water, snack, cell phone, meds, etc.)
While this sounds daunting, great resources are available. Detailed MST Guidebooks can be purchased in book format and are downloadable for free online here. In the Introduction of these three guidebooks (Mountains, Piedmont and Coastal Plain & Outer Banks) is a helpful summary of “How to Use this Guide.” Most notably, camping, lodging, parking, food, restrooms, supplies, water and picnic locations are all marked through the turn-by-turn directions for each segment of the trail. The online Google interactive map is on the MST website (mountainstoseatrail.org/map) and is very helpful in identifying clear starting and stopping points.
The MST is a well-marked trail – follow the 3” white circle blaze on trails and guidebook directions on roadways and rivers. When you think you’re lost, backtrack to the last white dot you passed and reassess your route. The MST annual meeting provides helpful information and opportunities to talk with other hikers. The Friends of the MST office staff and many previous section hikers are available for consultation.
Different seasons of life – not better or worse – might dictate that section hiking fits you better than thru-hiking. It might fit well if personal concerns involve vacation limits, funds available, family/children needs, health, or hiking/camping experience. Jim Hallsey offers these suggestions: “Start as young as you can and do as much as often as you can, considering your age, fitness and available blocks of free time. Ask for help with shuttles and group hikes. People will thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your story and the chance to join you on parts of the MST they may never have done otherwise. Take time to really experience the places, culture and people you encounter; enjoying fully the diversity of the MST and the ‘Old North State’ it traverses!”
Gaining Momentum: After each hike, ask “How can I be better prepared for my next hike?” Develop a day pack with essential items, restock when needed, and have ready for a hike on short notice. Because… after your FIRST hike, select your second hike. Repeat. And repeat. Set small goals. Day hikes near home are great for your first few hikes, to build your skills and confidence, and get your feet tough and muscles in condition. Begin recording in a hiker log (date, section hiked, miles, etc.) to help plan future hikes and have a log to submit to Friends of the MST when you complete the trail. Take photos and videos to capture the beauty and have pictures to share. If you plan to camp overnight, practice setting up and breaking down your tent and camp so you can do it quickly if the weather turns bad.
Remember the song “These boots are made for walking?” They are, but it’s important to gradually toughen your feet by gradually increasing your mileage. Good hiking shoes are important – low cuts are fine if carrying a lightweight day pack, with a firm sole and good tread (running shoes not recommended, though some prefer trail running shoes). Some hikers prefer over the ankle boots for the mountains and when backpacking with multi-day loads. Individual preferences and previous ankle or foot issues should be considered. Synthetic or wool socks are good – cotton is bad. Trekking poles can help provide stability, reduce stress on ankles, knees and hips, help on creek crossings, fend off dogs, and be beneficial as “brakes” on downhills and aids to the legs on uphills.
Ian Fraher (23, Greensboro) adds: “Take care of your feet. Pack two pairs of socks so that you can change in the middle of the day and wash them each night (with biodegradable soap and dispose of the water away from water sources, following Leave No Trace/LNT.) Air out your feet when you take breaks, and wash your feet each day. It’ll make you feel cleaner and help avoid blisters.”
“Eat well” says Ian, who did the entire trail in 56 days. “You can fuel your hike with candy bars, but you’ll crave fresh food on the trail. Take advantage of how close the MST comes to so many towns. Resupply often with fresh fruit and veggies, or even a block of cheese. These will keep in your pack for a couple days if your food bag is out of direct sunlight. Treat yourself and support the trail communities by dining at local restaurants, too!” As you stop for a drink, snack or meal, let the staff know you’re hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail across the state (exercise safety discretion if by yourself.) Share a word of praise like “I’m really enjoying hiking through this area and love the (insert local reference here)” – it will brighten their day and yours too.
Section hiking has unique features. “Close to home” allows for convenient day hikes, weekend hikes, hiking partners, easier shuttles and familiarity with the area. You get to cherry-pick when and where you hike — it is easier to hike on good weather days and avoid rain, cold, heat and bugs. You can carry a light pack. Hike when it fits your schedule. It may be easier to do bike, road and greenway sections as day trips. Section hiking allows you not to have to hike too far initially — increase distance and trail difficulty as you gain experience and stamina. Walk a steady, moderate pace. If hiking alone, some can be overpowered by loneliness and fears. Sometimes it is best to smile, suck it up and get through uncomfortable inconveniences such as no bathroom, out of water, tiredness, undesirable weather, blistered feet, bug bites, getting lost. Above all, have fun!
What are some of the challenges? 1) arranging shuttles (use guidebook, Friends of the MST Trail Angels, previous hikers, friends & partners); 2) finding campsites (especially road sections); 3) dogs/ticks/poison ivy/traffic on roads; 4) keeping feet healthy; 5) pests including bugs, heat, cold, wet – pick location at best seasons. Pepper spray can deter aggressive dogs—but remember Winston Churchill’s words: “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” Bug spray can deter bugs. Be vigilant about ticks – use repellent, permethrin on clothing, long pants, do tick checks, extra caution on weedy roadsides (also chiggers.) If you don’t like spiders, bugs & snakes, hike more in late fall to early spring. Though we’ve never had a reported case, if you get a snake bite, stay calm, ID the snake if possible, remove tight clothing/jewelry before swelling starts, and get to the ER right away. Yellowjacket and bee stings can be threatening if you’re allergic.
A 2017 hiker from Indianapolis, IN, told of his challenges. “I took a pretty scary fall in segment 2. I was traversing some slippery rocks, slipped and fell forward, one of my hiking poles broke in half, and my leg was covered in blood and scraped up pretty bad. I made my way to the closest BRP intersection…hiked my final stretch down to Asheville, and decided to stop my hike and go home. I came across very few people on the trail – it gets pretty lonely out there when you are hiking alone. I would definitely say that it is safer if you have others that can help and obviously less lonely.” Another solo hiker in 2017 abandoned her goal of thru-hiking after 230 miles due to loneliness.
Words of Wisdom: John Lanman (69, Blowing Rock) shared these tips: “First, preparation– closely examine hiking directions and maps. Packing will be less of a critical problem than with long distance thru-hiking, but still it is important to understand the essentials you need to carry. Having shuttle assistance is important – I had spousal assistance (I hiked 1,100 miles and my wife drove probably 5,000 miles).” Even though meticulous planning and preparation is recommended, hikers are all over the continuum from detailed planning to those who do very little.
Yvonne “Princess Doah” Entingh (57, Bellbrook, OH) crossed the state in 2015 in 10 months. She offered these helpful tips: “Research…always important when setting off on a new and unknown adventure. Itinerary…always have a schedule (plans, dates, trail name, mileage, etc.) left at home with family. Without many designated campsites, LNT principles are important when stealth camping or at any time. Visit museums, points of interest, a cemetery, art and garden centers, and historical sites when hiking. Trail Angels and Trail Magic are such a beautiful thing when you encounter it…accept it and thank the individual for their act of kindness no matter how great or small the deed was!”
“Definitely attend the Gathering of Friends to learn about the trail and meet people/make connections” stated Lou McLean (54, Boone). “That weekend really inspired me and gave me such a better feel for the scope of the MST. (The weekend) showed me what kind of family I had joined. Blessed, Grateful, Proud, Hopeful, Inspired, are just a few of the words to describe how I felt when I left the MST annual meeting last March.”
McLean continues, “It has been helpful for me to pick out a certain segment or two and concentrate on them. For example, I have finished Segment 10. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and smaller goals to work toward, whereas the whole 1175 miles seems overwhelming. Find creative and various ways to get the miles, like incorporating trail runs into family vacations and organized trail hikes and runs.”
McLean’s advice for new hikers: “No matter how far you get, whether you ever finish or not, it is still a blessing to get to experience any part of the trail. I promised myself from the beginning that I would not get caught up in number of miles, or completing certain sections during a certain time frame, or even completing the entire trail. This is about the experience, enjoying God’s creation, celebrating life (I’m a cancer survivor) and being grateful for every moment. There is no such thing as failure here, every step is a victory.”
Road walking requires full attention, walk facing traffic, and give vehicles their space. Try to avoid rush hour traffic or when it is too dark to be seen well, and you’ll hear better without earbuds. Particular dangers include road crossings, vehicles coming close to you when they are passing, big trucks/trailers, morning and evening sun blinding drivers…and all you can control is your attention and staying off the pavement.
Roger Holland (61, Texas) gives an example of the importance of having water and knowing the next water source. “I became really dehydrated hiking the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Table Rock, the Chimneys and Shortoff Mountain have almost no water and very little cover. By 3:00, I had consumed all my water and was exhausted, and I started making poor and dangerous decisions. Luckily, I ran into some campers on Shortoff Mountain who directed me to water and a place to camp.” It is recommended to treat all natural water, even from beautiful mountain streams.
And water also can be a problem in other ways. The Croatan and Neusiok trails flood following heavy rains and major storms. Crossing the Linville River can be dangerous at times and not fordable, and the multiple crossings of Harper Creek are cold, and dangerous if one tries to rock hop. After major rains and storms Falls Lake floods (above 272’ level many low points are flooded.) When Falls Lake is releasing lots of water the Neuse River Greenway will also flood. The Neuse and Yadkin River paddle routes should not be attempted in extreme low water, high water or cold temperatures. Only experienced paddlers should attempt the lower Neuse (New Bern to Pine Cliff) in windy, white-cap conditions. Ian Fraher on his 2010 hike encountered challenges on the Outer Banks. “There was high surf and the ocean washed over the road. I hiked on the beach at low tide, and either waded through high tide or tidal pools on the roads, and used other routes to avoid the dangerous waves.”
The MST guide is essential when section hiking, as it helps you plan your drop-off and pick-up points. Roger Holland said: “I don’t know how I would have completed the MST without the guide.” Expand the interactive map to familiarize yourself not only with the trail, but with close surroundings. This may be useful if plans must be changed and may open up supplementary ways to enjoy your outings. When planning your sections, be aware that due to elevation and terrain, miles in the mountains will be more difficult and take more time for most people than miles in the Piedmont and coastal regions.”
If you are leap-frogging in the mountains with a bike, plan your sections to allow you to hike uphill and bike downhill, which is much easier. A corresponding guideline for the coast is to walk with the wind to your back. At the coast a tide chart is helpful (good walking at low tide, difficult at high tide.)
Clothing tips include wearing bright colors or orange on roadside hikes; dress in layers. Know dates of hunting seasons (dates vary across the state) and either avoid hiking then or wear hunter orange cap and vest. An orange pack cover also works. Equip your bike with bright lights/reflectors and wear bright clothing for safety.
REI has a list of “10 Essentials for Hiking” that are important for safety, but can be simplified for day hikes, dependent on weather forecast, length & difficulty of trail, experience, etc. The essentials include medications you need; a phone for emergency contact or other locator device with a means of contacting someone (cell phone reception may not be available); a “breathable” raincoat with hood; navigation (map, guidebook, GPS); sun protection (sunscreen, cap, lip balm); insulation (jacket, vest, pants, hat); headlamp or flashlight; first-aid supplies (include blister prevention & treatment); nutrition; hydration (water bottle, treatment system); emergency shelter (tarp, reflective blanket); toilet paper and trowel; and if overnight camping—tent/shelter, food, cooking equipment, matches/lighter, sleeping bag & pad, repair kit.
Paul “Midlife” Penny (52, Holly Springs NC) has completed about 300 miles and plans to finish in early 2019. His trail name could be “Gadget Guy” based on his blog post on the trail-tested Garmin Fenix 5x and the Delorme InReach SE at midlifehikes.com His posts on Segment 1A and Linville Gorge may also be helpful. On an 8.5 hour day in March 2018, Paul paddled 35.7 miles down the Neuse from Smithfield and “saw tons of wildlife, including deer, hogs, fox, otter, osprey, heron, cormorant, ducks, geese, and a couple of young black bear. And the day ended with a shower, and my own bed!”
Respect all park rules and regulations and private landowners’ rights. Secure permits where required. When considering regulations and fire dangers, it is suggested that hikers not build open fires (but if you do, use existing fire rings, keep fires small and douse with several liters of water.) Use a backpacker stove for cooking. Obey trespassing and keep out signs. Practice “leave no trace” (LNT) along the entire MST. Thoughtfully select your overnight camp site if no campground or approved site is available and request permission where possible. In the mountains walk on the inside (uphill side) of the trail and don’t cut switchbacks.
Be flexible. You never know when a trail might be closed due to forest fire, prescribed burn, storm damage, or another unforeseen reason. Road construction can also throw a wrench in your plans (road walks or shuttles.) Annie Porche (28, Johnson City, TN) arrived on Hatteras Island when the power was out and survived on PB&J sandwiches for a couple of days. Take a paper map of the area you’re hiking to visualize alternate routes when you need a backup plan. The Blue Ridge Parkway often closes sections during winter, which can interfere with shuttles. Check temporary road closures at https://www.nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/roadclosures.htm Camping is not permitted along the Parkway except in designated sites. Certain areas may require bear canisters for food storage. Proper food storage is important so as not to have small critters or bears eat your food (in recognition that there are 7,000 bears in the mountains and 13,000 in the coastal region.)
More Hiker Comments & Data
If you spoke with other segment hikers what would they share? Debra Palermo (64) took seven years on the MST (April 2009-May 2016.) She enjoyed the mountains, around Falls Lake, and seeing all the tobacco and cotton fields. “I will never tent camp on the Outer Banks again because of strong winds.” Jeff Brewer, a 2003 thru-hiker, recommends for the beaches to “take a pair of ski googles to keep the sand from the windy dunes out of your eyes. Get ready to see NC in a way only a few get to see its natural beauty.”
Nancy and Kent Wilson (64, Kingsport, TN) spent 18 years section hiking. Nancy loved the wildflowers in abundance in the mountains, enjoyed the Piedmont and east road sections, and enjoyed the community in small towns (especially bakeries and church dinners.) Sharon McCarthy (53, Charlotte) and Danny Bernstein (64, Asheville) hiked October 2009-August, 2011. They loved Glencoe Mill Village, but Sharon said “Beach walking is not as simple as it sounds.”
Sharon “Mama Goose” Smith (48, Banner Elk) and Craig “JetLag” Smith (69) completed in 2014. Sharon loved riding the ferries, and hiking through the battlefields, pastures and farmland – they had a certain beauty. “JetLag” loved the beautiful fall colors, the game lands and OBX. Heidi Domeisen (53, thru-hiker) said “There are no strangers on the trail.” Lora Arrington (51, Martinsville, VA) noted that rural country stores were unbeatable, and “how bizarre to walk the beach from Avon to Salvo and not see anyone for 11 miles.” Ryan “Candyman” Skrabalak (25, Delmar, NY), a 7-week completer, wrote of setting his socks on fire in the Smokies and of the animals he saw – bear, snakes, wild turkeys, dogs and “skeeters.” Kristen Keane (28) said “The trail guides are phenomenal. Jockey’s Ridge is a perfect choice for a terminus.”
Cathie “Fruitcake” and Randy “Nutz” Cummins (55, Centerville, VA) section-hiked 47 days between October 2010 and May 2012. William Dolling (52, Cumbria, United Kingdom) took almost 12 years (December 2004-November 2011.) Most hikers loved the Chimneys and Craggy Gardens. Johnny “Chief” Massey (Garner) hiked three summers and completed the beaches in winter, with time at home between sections of trail, walking the entire trail (July 2004-January 2007.) Jonathan Felts (Jacksonville Beach, FL) spent a year hiking (September 2008-August 2009), cited a dozen angels who assisted him, and named Middle Prong Wilderness his favorite location.
Six completers from 2017 were interviewed at the 2018 MST Annual Meeting and shared their tips. Miriam Ash-Jones, who started her hike in 2010, & Danelle Hallenbeck, both paddled the Neuse River; Danelle loved doing the Hope Floats group paddle but was scared on the three mile wide Neuse past New Bern when wind whipped up whitecaps. Carla Gardner said “myself was the biggest challenge but faith & family got me through.” She was delighted to hike 500 miles with her brother, and slept 30 nights in her Prius. Jude Rodrigue was a Warrior Expedition hiker, used the Hiking Project App to plan resupplies, and like a couple of others relied on the Life-Straw to get treated drinking water. Road walking was not kind to his feet. Brad Beavers, who saw wild hogs in the Smokies, and Jennifer Pharr Davis, relied on trail angels & local resupplying along the route; however, anyone with diet restrictions would need more planning & pre-packing of food. Jennifer especially enjoyed “down east” farms, walking through communities and enjoying southern hospitality.
When Roger Holland describes what he most enjoyed, you sense his excitement. “I really enjoyed backpacking to remote places in the mountains. Before the MST, I had very limited backpacking experience, and most of my knowledge was from “Backpacking for Dummies”. My first trip was a 2-day/1-night, 14-mile hike in Segment 2. When I pitched my tent and cooked dinner that night, I remember having a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. It was so great to be out there by myself, dependent only on myself for survival. Unfortunately, that feeling evaporated when a blood-curdling owl scream woke me up at 2 a.m. While hiking the MST, I had a sense of connection with the MST community. How cool it was to hike on a trail that stretched across the entire state. Although I only met a couple of trail maintainers, I could see their work every step of the way. I have tremendous gratitude to everyone that made my journey.”
“Seriously, Bull Elk or no Bull Elk, September 9, 2017 was a magical day and I am still amazed at what we accomplished and overwhelmed to tears that I was able to be a part of it” said Lou McLean, after finding a Bull Elk blocking her path on ‘MST in a Day.’ (This was the 40th anniversary of the trail and over 1800 hikers joined together to hike every mile of the trail in celebration.) “I think the most beautiful scenery I have encountered so far was on that run from Heintooga Road to Waterrock Knob. Another memorable day started at the end of Geer Street in Durham. Before I was even out of sight of the car, in the tall grass before I entered the woods, was a 4 ½ foot snake. I almost turned back to scream to my shuttle driver “don’t leave me!” I hurdled several more snakes that were in the trail on that 93-degree day. Apparently no one had been through that section for some time and every pair of trees had a huge spider web stretched across the trail complete with resident spider. I ran 12 miles that day, finishing at the Rolling View Campground. As I exited the woods, I went up to the check-in building to ask if I could come back in and take a shower at the campground. The young man at the window was obviously shocked at my appearance, ‘Lady, what happened to you?’ I looked down at myself to see that I was visibly covered in spider webs; I looked like a creature from a Halloween Haunted House. I explained myself and he gladly gave me directions to the bathhouse.” Lou had ‘survived’ one of those challenging days on the trail and come away with great stories to tell through the years.
From Jerry Barker (71, Raleigh) comes data from his completer log: “Over the 75 days on the MST, I averaged 13.9 miles per day. I spent six nights in a hotel, three with friends, and 34 camping out, and about 32 done as day trips from home. Over 35 hiking partners helped provide shuttles, companionship and safety while on the trail, about 30 campers also hiked sections with me, and 16 days I hiked solo.”
Jerry continues, “These are some of my hiking highlights: longest mileage day 21.4 miles on the Neusiok Trail; hardest day was 19.1 miles Ox Creek Rd (N of Folk Art Ct, Asheville) to Mt. Mitchell Rd with 5530’ elevation; unique to me was the 5 day, 145 mile paddle of the Neuse River with Eliza Vistica (24, Beaverton, OR, 7 week thru-hiker); it was odd walking across the Bonner Bridge while in a construction zone; worst dogs were walking New Bern to Minnesott Ferry; thigh-deep river crossings of Harper Creek and Linville River; beautiful dolphins in the breakers on Ocracoke; most laughs when pizza was delivered to me and NC State students near Middle Prong Wilderness (on a 6-day, 70-mile backpack); was wonderful when Howard Lee and I met thru-hikers Mama Goose & Jetlag on the trail; fun conservation with fellow hikers I met on the trail; having “trail angels” Johnny Massey, Steve & Donna Metcalf, Bill Sadler, Jay Coward and Jake Blood helping so generously with shuttles. It was a delight to receive my completion certificate at the 40th Anniversary meeting in Elkin March 25, 2017 (4 days after completing my hike.) I was the 70th person to complete the MST (and 78th completion since several hikers have completed it multiple times.)”
Our hope is this article will inspire you to plan and take an MST hike; that comments by other hikers will encourage you; that these tips will make your hikes faster, safer and more enjoyable; that many of your questions about section hiking will be answered; that maybe you will even hike the entire MST, and invite others to go along for the adventure with you. Think on these words from John Muir: “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Start exploring North Carolina – one step at a time.
Thanks to hikers who contributed their comments and tips, and apologies to those not able to be included.
Notes: Other long distance trails also see the need to help hikers cover their trail in sections. Shawnte Salabert recently authored Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California: Section Hiking from Campo to Tuolumne Meadows (2017.) This book serves as a trail guide, whether headed out for a weekend, a week or a month. The author says that “while many hikers attempt a “thru-hike” every year…even more people enjoy “section hiking”- tackling the trail in bits and pieces.”
Photo of Mary and Jane, section hiking the MST, photo credit Jane Green.