Planning a Long-Distance Hike on the North Country Trail
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN
The North Country Trail is unique
This trail is unique in its purpose. Do not expect the same kind of experience as you will find on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest or any other long trail. The strength of this trail is the diversity of the experiences it offers, and this is in line with the vision statement to traverse and interpret “the richly diverse environmental, cultural, and historic features of the northern United States.” You will find many scenic sections, and you will also find sections that major in small towns, farms, historic monuments and centuries-old transportation corridors. This trail is enjoyed most by those who take some time to delve into the local history and culture. If your primary concern is trail-bagging, just attempting to hike any trail as fast as possible, we don’t begrudge you that goal, but you will be less likely to appreciate what the NCT has to offer.
Planning your trip will be much more involved than the actual hike. Why is this true?
#1- the sheer length is daunting
The trail is somewhere around 4700-4800 miles long. Very few people have hiked it in less than a year. To do this requires you to average only 12-14 miles a day. However, hiking through the winter in the north is not necessarily pleasant. You will need extra gear to backpack safely in the cold and snow. To hike the trail in 10 months (if you are lucky you might get that many months of reasonable weather) requires you to average 15-16 miles a day. If you average 10 miles a day it will take 470-480 days to hike. Remember, these are averages. To be able to take a day off for rest or resupply at reasonable intervals means you must walk farther than the averages on walking days. The time involved requires an immense amount of strategic planning, organization, and possibly support.
#2- there are over 150 different land managers
The rules are not the same everywhere. Of course, everyone would like them to be, but for the foreseeable future, that is not going to be the case. The largest land manager along the trail is the National Forest Service. Broadly speaking, the same rules apply in all of the National Forests and the National Grassland along the NCT. Within those forests are designated Wilderness Areas with specific regulations. The trail also passes through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and other National Park sites. The rules in State Forests vary from state to state. There are also state lands which are managed primarily for hunting, state parks, and state wildlife areas. Counties, cities, villages, townships, nature preserves, historic sites, and private citizens own land through which the trail passes. Each of these entities holds the rights to decide what activities are lawful on that land. Hikers need to be aware of what is allowed. For example, hikers who have camped illegally have more than once caused the trail to be barred from future passage. You have the power to help the trail become 100% off road, and you have the power to hinder that desired outcome. Plan carefully.
#3- there is no one data book or guide
Multiple efforts through the years to complete such a resource have always collapsed under the weight of the immensity of the project. Not only is the trail long, the longest National Scenic Trail, but it is still evolving. This often results in large re-routes. By the time anyone completes a guide (which has never happened) so much has changed that it's already outdated. The most massive attempt was one of the earliest. Wes Boyd (volunteer and editor of the North Star) managed to complete a guide to 6 of the 7 (at the time) NCT states. It was a valuable planning tool, but is now so outdated it's of little use.
#4-there are good maps, but they are not all in the same format
The NCT is concurrent with four other major trails. In Vermont, the Long Trail produces and sells its own map. In New York, the Finger Lakes Trail produces and sells its own maps. The Ohio, the Buckeye Trail produces and sells its own maps. And in Minnesota, the Superior Hiking Trail produces and sells its own maps. The NCTA has phased out selling paper maps. The interactive online map can be printed in sections through any computer. However, I can’t say it often enough, this is a huge trail. The NCTA online maps are quite good, with half-mile nodes and Avenza app maps for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the non-FLT portion of New York. The association is working hard to bring you the best maps possible. Online mapping makes fast updating of trail changes available to all in ways that were never possible with pre-printed paper maps. Just remember that it takes time to verify and process 4600 miles of data.
See listing of these resources in the planning section.
#5- there are not as many accessible resupply points as one might like
The Trail Town program is helping to connect communities with hikers and their needs. There is a strong network of supporting North Country Trail Chapters whose members usually delight in helping long-distance hikers. However, you will not find towns where you can buy supplies or easily get to a Post Office with the same frequency as you can on some trails.
#6- there are not enough legal places to camp for backpackers
This is a reality, and it’s one that everyone is working on diligently. Stealth camping is highly discouraged for the reasons mentioned in #2 above. See more suggestions in the planning section.
#7- the trail is more difficult than you might imagine
Of course, this is not a mountain trail with huge elevation changes. However, it is not a walk in the park. Some people seem to believe that since there are currently some long pieces of paved trail (not ideal in the long run, but at least off road), that the entire trail is just a stroll that seemingly never ends. The mostly northern latitudes dictate that the hiking season with moderate weather is limited. Insects can be a real trial- the jokes about the mosquito being the state bird have been heard in more than one NCT state. The trail may not climb for ten miles to a rugged crag before beginning an equally long descent, but going up and down 500-1000 feet 6 times in a day can add up to the same thing.
The following books have been written about hiking the North Country Trail
Following the North Country National Scenic Trail by Wes Boyd, 1991 and 1999 - some history of the NCT and an overview of the early route
North Country Cache by Joan H. Young, 2005 - stories of her hikes on the NCT; a sampler of adventures in all seven states
Trekking the North Country Trail by M.J. Eberhard, 2009 - this is primarily a trail journal with personal thoughts sprinkled throughout
Thru and Back Again by Luke Jordan, 2017 - this is basically his trail journal published in book form. Less of a literary experience, but potentially useful for planning
North Country Quest by Joan H. Young, 2020 - stories of the completion of her hike on the NCT; a sampler of adventures in all eight states
Go West Old Man by James Dewan, 1994 - an early account of a thru hike on the Finger Lakes Trail. Now outdated but an interesting read.
Captain Blue on the Blue Blazes by Andy Neikamp, 2017 - Andy's circuit hike of the Buckeye Trail, of which 800 miles are NCT.
Follow the Blue Blazes by Connie and Robert Pond, 2014 - guides to some sections of the Buckeye/North Country Trail
Wandering Ohio by Chuck and Beth Hewett, 2017 - stories of the Hewett's circuit hike of the Buckeye Trail.
The North Country Trail: The Best Walks, Hikes, and Backpacking Trips on America's Longest National Scenic Trail by Ron Strickland, 2013 - this covers some of the major off-road segements, but is already becoming somewhat dated