The Year’s Most Impressive Appalachian Trail Record: Heather Anderson’s Self-Supported Hike

Heather Anderson set the self-supported record by hiking from Maine to Georgia's Springer Mountain.
Heather Anderson set the self-supported record by hiking from Maine to Georgia's Springer Mountain.

The Appalachian Trail has a new hero. On September 24, Heather 'Anish' Anderson of Seattle, Washington, summited Springer Mountain in Georgia. When she reached the top, she'd set a new unofficial record for the fastest self-supported through-hike of the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail. In just 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes she'd traveled from Maine to Georgia, carrying all of her own food, water and gear the entire way.

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"She didn't just beat the record, she crushed it," says Jennifer Pharr Davis, who held the fastest known time (FKT) for a supported AT trek until Scott Jurek bested her record earlier this summer. Anderson took more than four days off the previous unsupported record, which was held by Matthew Kirk. Technically, no governing body certifies through-hiking records. But that's part of what makes the feat great, says Davis. "I love that it's an underground sport, that it's all on the honor system. It's nice to have something that's truly an amateur endeavor."

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While Anderson isn't a pro athlete, you could consider her among American hiking royalty. She also currently holds the self-supported speed record for the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico. She set that record in 2013, covering the 2,663 miles in just under 61 days.

And even without a governing body the rules are still strict. If you want to get technical, Anderson did a self-supported hike, which is different than an unsupported hike. With a self-supported hike, you may leave the trail to get supplies. For an unsupported hike she would have had to bring all of her food with her from the beginning. However, Anderson did all of her resupply missions on foot. When she declared her intent to set a new record, she stated that she would not accept any car rides to or from towns and that she would re-enter the trail at the exact place where she left it. "She wanted to honor Matt's [Kirk, the former record holder] journey and record and I think she had a very clean hike," says Davis.

A supported hike, on the other hand, usually involves having a team deliver food to you at points along the trail. "Someone can carry your pack, make you dinner, give you a massage, that's all allowed," says Davis. Still, a supported hike is no walk in the park. "It's definitely a team effort and it can be hard on your team; they're basically dealing with someone who is constantly irrational." 

Davis set several self-supported records before her supported AT record and she says that no matter what, both efforts are incredibly difficult. "An unsupported hike you have to be a lot tougher mentally. There were a lot of times during my hike where if I'd been unsupported I would have gotten off and given up," says Davis.

Amazingly, despite carrying all her own food and gear, Anderson took just eight more days than Scott Jurek — who did the hike with a support crew — to complete the trail during his recent record-setting through hike. Jurek says he's incredibly impressed by Anderson's effort. "I look up to the through hikers who are self-supported. I'm really inspired by Heather's feat," he saya, adding that he might try for his own self-supported record someday.

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