Hiking the Long Trail: What You Need to Know
The United States is home to some of the best parks and hiking trails in the world. Each one of them has a distinct culture and history that says something about the part of the country it was cut from. By simply hiking the lengths of these trails you gain a deeper understanding of the nation and its beautiful nature. One trail that does this best, through its sheer toughness and ruggedness, is the Long Trail.
Trucking straight uphill through mud, water, and flies lends a new perspective to the work put in by countless people to make the modern trails a reality. Although some trails have become more and more hiker friendly with time the Long Trail still presents a certain degree of challenge which isn’t always found in other places. For that the trail is special.
A brief history of the trail
The Long Trail has a history that originates with one man over one hundred years ago. At a time when trails of the kind didn’t exist James P. Taylor (1849-1949) had the vision to make the Vermont mountains a part of people’s lives. He gathered with twenty-two others on March 11, 1910, in Burlington to begin work on what would become the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States. That gathering marked the beginning of the Green Mountain Club which maintains and protects the trail to this day.
The original twenty-three began work near the areas of Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield and continued to blaze on for another two decades. They finished 209 miles of trail in the first decade alone. By 1930 the Club cut the final path of the trail into Canada and the Long Trail was officially born.
As thru-hiking trail traffic spiked in the ‘60s and ‘70s the GMC continued to play a significant role in protecting Vermont’s Long Trail. They had already been busily building shelters since the ‘50s but then they branched into the growingly necessary work of conservation. A significant Long Trail Protection Campaign in 1986 proved especially important in the history of the trail and resulted in the effective protection of all but 6.5 miles of the trail. The Green Mountain Club has steadfastly worked to maintain the beauty and authenticity of the trail ever since.
The Long Trail is a truly special 273 miles of wilderness and those who walk it from one end to the other earn the elusive title of “end-to-ender”. From a high of 4,393 ft above sea level at Mount Mansfield to a low of 326 ft in Jonesville most “end-to-enders” cover the length of the path in about twenty days.
Mount Abraham, Camel’s Hump, and Mount Mansfield are three key summits of the trail all with alpine vegetation. On good weather days, these spots provide the best views of the entire hike but on the especially wet and muddy days, these peaks can be impassable.
Typically people take the trail south to north (nobo) going from the Vermont/Massachusetts border at the southern terminus of Williamstown up to the northern terminus near the Canadian border about 5 miles outside the town of North Troy. Interestingly enough the southernmost 104 miles of the Long Trail overlaps with the Appalachian Trail. Just as it is with the AT some people do hike the Long Trail from north to south (sobo).
When to hike
Although thru-hikers complete the trail in about 20 days, and sometimes quicker, you’ll want to give yourself a full month so you have a nice buffer. Hiking season runs from mid-June to mid-October but the best time to go is mid-September to early October. This should get you the best climate and the best views as the New England Autumn colors begin to show. The downside to this time of year, of course, is that there will be more people.
If you do decide to go in June you might beat the crowds but be prepared for heat and Black Flies. You can also expect mud, lots of mud. That’s more of a year-round constant though except for in the dead of winter. The upside to hiking closer to the summer months is that many water holes will still be full so you’ll have more water options than you know what to do with. Towards the end of the hiking season, things begin to dry up. Water can still be found fairly easily but it is more scarce.
Snowmelt and extreme muddiness cause most peaks to be closed from April to mid-June while November to March is a no go for obvious winter induced reasons. For safety and for the purposes of conservation there is a small window of time each year that the Long Trail can be hiked end to end.
Life on the trail
Prepare for mud. This is no exaggeration. Vermont has even been jokingly renamed by some backpackers as Vermud and that isn’t wrong. Reportedly the muddiness of the trail persists all season long and only abates when it freezes. The mud is just a part of the sheer ruggedness of the Long Trail though, and you grow to live with it.
If it rains you can expect to be hiking along a Long Trail river in some places because water runoff doesn’t seem to exist there. The upside to that, of course, is that it washes the mud off. The downside is that some sections are especially rocky and nearly dangerously impassable in the rain. Some like to joke that a kayak is required equipment for the trail, you might be fine without one though.
Even when it is relatively drier you are going to encounter uneven, slippery, and rocky terrain. This is where a good pair of breathable boots will come in handy. That combined with a light pack and maybe some good hiking poles and you should be on your way.
Prepare to move slow on the last sections of the trail, however. Even though there are ladders to help you along your way at times you will also be facing several ascents and descents without the help of switchbacks. This is a straight-up and straight down the mountain kind of path and with all the wetness and mud that can be dangerous.
Shelters and sleeping
Like any of the great trails of the United States, there are a variety of roughly 70 lean-tos and shelters studded along the Long Trail. This mix of three-sided and four-sided shelters is just about what you’d expect and each of them has its own unique quirks. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, if you’re familiar with its shelters, some of the Long Trail shelters are full-blown cabins. They are sparsely equipped, of course, and none of them has electricity but some have doors and even a porch. Quite like home!
Several of these shelters are supposed to have caretakers though and if so there is a small fee expected. This is to help care for the facilities and the trail and it will probably be around $5 at most. A stay at these shelters isn’t necessary and during the busier months, it might be downright impossible. Many of them are located near gorgeous highlights of the trail so they can fill up quickly.
As is usually the case on the trail you will want to bring your own shelter just in case. A tent or hammock system is just fine, you just need to consider weight when choosing what to bring. The lighter the better.
You will find some version of a camping site every 8 to 10 miles along the trail at least. These sites will often have one of the aforementioned shelters, some kind of water source, and even a privy. The quality is variable though, specifically with the water sources. The Green Mountain Club can’t guarantee the purity and reliability of water at every site so you have to take it when you can get it.
The shelters also lack wood stoves and because the Long Trail crosses through private, state and federal land, regulations on primitive camping and fires are variable. This just means you have to check the regulations for each region as you hike along. Usually, there will be a place to make fire though.
Resupply, food, and water
The Long Trail passes close by enough trail towns that you can get by without carrying too much food and water. You can easily resupply every three days or so with a little jaunt into town. This is especially helpful because the conditions on the trail really require light travel if you expect to traverse them safely.
The great thing is you don’t even need to worry about setting up mail drops at a local post office beforehand. Each nearby town is well-stocked enough to keep you going the whole way. It also isn’t uncommon to hitch a ride into town. Locals are well aware of the Long Trail and are usually quite happy to help anyone journeying along it.
When it comes to water the Long Trail is plentiful. There are several pumps, springs, ponds, and brooks along the path you just have to treat the water. The campsites and shelters usually have a water source nearby, it just depends on the climate and time of year.
The Green Mountain Club’s “10 Essentials”
The Green Mountain Club (GMC) is the expert on all things Long Trail. Given the variability and severity of conditions on the trail, they compiled “10 essentials” for every hike which are explained in more detail here:
1. Navigation: Although the Long Trail is fairly easy to navigate by just following the white blazes from end-to-end or the blue blazes side-to-side you still need navigation tools. This means a compass, the official Green Mountain Club Long Trail Map, and a working cell phone for good measure.
2. Sun Protection: Along some sections of the hike, like the Alpine zones, you will be brutally exposed to the sun at times. You need a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and maybe even UV protective clothing.
3. Insulation: The GMC suggests extra clothing and rain gear but if you’re going for a longer hike then insulation also includes a good sleeping pad and sleeping bag. Make sure these are rated for the temperatures you’ll be experiencing.
4. Illumination: Not only do you need a light source but you need one that can withstand all the wetness and mud of the trail. A light with an IPX-8 rating is the best.
5. First-aid: Everyone’s hiking first aid kit might be a little different but for the Long Trail you will want a kit for blister care. Also, don’t forget your own personal medications!
6. Fire: Bring a lighter, waterproof matches, dry kindling, and a waterproof container to keep it all in. Remember, you’re on the wet and muddy Long Trail.
7. Tools: A little multitool or Swiss Army knife is always a good idea. For some, this can become a daily resource.
8. Nutrition: The important thing with nutrition is that even though you can resupply regularly you might as well bring more than you need if you have space.
9. Hydration: As previously mentioned water can be found easily on the trail but you will need to treat it or filter it. If you’re not confident in your treatment system then bring fresh water with you.
10. Emergency Shelter: You need something that you can make a temporary backup shelter with, in case your tent or hammock isn’t available. This could be a tarp or even an emergency blanket.
End to end or side to side
The classic thru-hike of the Long Trail takes hikers from the southernmost point of Williamstown near the VT/MA border to the northernmost point up near North Troy by Canada. Anyone who completes this 273-mile hike from end-to-end earns the title of “end-to-ender”. This isn’t the only way to experience the Long Trail though.
There is a second title to be earned which is “side-to-sider”. To be a side-to-sider you must hike the 166.1 miles of blue blaze marked side trails that branch from the main trail. There are 88 in total and the spur trails to the shelters don’t count. Most of the trails are a mile or less long but some stretch on for almost ten miles. Depending on the day you could cover several side trails of the Long Trail.
After the hike
Whether you take on the Long Trail end-to-end, side-to-side, or both you can become certified after finishing each section. The Green Mountain Club offers official recognition of achievement to those who apply. You just have to send in an application online or via mail before one of the deadlines. If you have kept a trail journal you can send up to 10 pages of excerpts from that as well which might be used in their work to educate and inspire future hikers.
If your application is accepted and certification is granted you get some nice rewards. For one, you receive an official End-to-End certificate. The Green Mountain Club also sends you an end-to-end rocker patch and a GMC logo patch. You get a complimentary one-year GMC membership too which awards you several discounts and privileges. To top it all off the certification gets your name listed in the official Long Trail News publication the following year.
Get the guides
Many overviews of the Long Trail seem to overlook the fact that the Green Mountain Club has released three excellent guides for anyone seriously planning an end-to-end hike. These are the Long Trail Guide, the End to Enders Guide and the Long Trail Map. These resources are absolutely indispensable for a smooth and successful end-to-end hike.
At a quick glance, the Long Trail might only look like a rugged, rocky, rooty, muddy offshoot of the Appalachian Trail. Really though the Long Trail is a deeply important part of trail history in the United States. It is a path that every serious hiker should undertake. After enduring the black flies and mud they can come out the other end with a deeper appreciation for the mountains of Vermont and the work that must go into making such a trail.
Bonus tip: Watch as one couple encounters mud, bugs, and bears on day one of their northbound thru-hike of the Long Trail!