Thinking of Hiking the Israel National Trail?
I'd love to urge everyone with an interest to consider hiking this trail, and offer as encouragement that it's very doable, in terms of physical effort and logistics. However, there is currently somewhat of a scarcity of online resources for hikers. When planning my trip in early 2011, I found it essential to have help, in person and via email, from people who'd hiked the trail before me. The logistics of the desert section, in particular, are very daunting to someone who's not from Israel, and caused me some headache even after having lived there for a year.
If you're not an experienced backpacker, then there's all the usual intimidation to deal with - even the most basic questions will seem complicated and overwhelming. If you are an experienced backpacker, traveling to a foreign country throws in an extra degree of complication. And in all cases, the logistics of supplying yourself with water on the desert part of the trail will be a headache, expensive, or both (see below for more details).
The INT Data Project is a good place to start, and has some helpful (although sparsely populated) forums you can browse through and post questions. Their FAQ has some good beginning information, although I would vigorously dispute the estimate that 30-45 days is a good estimate for the length of a thru-hike (see below). This new site also has a small but growing amount of information as of this writing.
How Long Will a Hike Take?
All in all, 1000 km at 20 km a day comes to 50 days. My own hike took 60, including a week-long break and other occasional rest days, but I also skipped about 5 days worth of hiking, which roughly canceled out the longer break I took. I'd say two months is a safe amount of time to budget, but strong hikers could do it in less. If you are not an experienced backpacker, allow two full months to be on the safe side. I'd say 20 km is a fair estimate for daily distance, accounting for rest days - many days in the desert require you to hike around 25 km, but on other days you will surely want to hike less to take it easy.
The Two Portions of the Trail
For practical purposes, the Israel Trail has two segments - the desert (the southern 40%-ish of its length) and not the desert. This is a logistical distinction, and an ecological one only by coincidence. North of Arad, there are towns on or close to the trail at least once per day, where water and (usually) food can be obtained. You do have to plan your food supplies based on where supermarkets and mini-markets are known to exist, but this is not overly difficult, as most towns of any size have at least a mini-market where you can buy basic food. Therefore, your schedule and the length of your days are more flexible, and each person's hike might look quite different. You can camp anywhere that isn't private property or a nature reserve (and that includes most places) and not much advance planning is required.
In the desert, south of Arad, the trail is extremely isolated. There are generally several long days' worth of hiking in between towns - 6 days at the longest, from Midreshet Ben-Gurion to Arad!. Almost all of the desert is within nature reserves, and in reserves you may only camp in the designated night camps. These "camps" are simply areas where camping is permitted, and have no amenities whatsoever, meaning you have to bring in your own water for each night (there is very little reliable groundwater along the trail, and hikers taking it would be ecologically damaging in any case). This makes for the most tricky and expensive part of the hike (see below, "Supplies in the Desert"). The night camps are also spread apart such that it's usually not possible to vary your itinerary from that which is predetermined by trail distances, unless you're capable of hiking 40+ kilometers of extremely difficult terrain in a day.
In short, the northern section of the trail allows for a flexible schedule and a more lax approach to planning; the desert portion of your hike will likely need to follow the more or less standard itinerary, and you'll have to arrange for water caches or drops at night camps so that you don't become stranded in the wilderness with no water.
When to Hike?
As with many trails, time of year is a critical consideration. My personal recommendation, born from too many sweltering summer days, is not to go backpacking in the Middle East (or do anything in the Middle East at all, for that matter), between May and September, due to the often overwhelming heat. The hiking conditions vary from unpleasant at best, to deadly at worst.
The spring (February through April) is unquestionably the best time to visit Israel, as the winter rain will have tapered off, leaving weeks of perfect temperatures and green fields full of wildflowers in its wake - though you'll still likely encounter some heavy rain at times. The fall (late October through mid-December, usually) normally has moderate temperatures and little rain, though the winter downpours can start suddenly and at full force. The downside of the fall is that the landscape is dead brown, as hardly a drop of rain will have fallen since the previous spring.
When you hike also tends to dictate which direction you want to hike. The ideal INT thru-hike would be north to south - the more forgiving terrain of the north gives you a chance to get your body into hiking shape before the much more brutal desert, and ending a long hike by descending a canyon to the Red Sea is certainly better than walking into a drab kibbutz backyard.
However, if you hike in the spring, going north to south means you will face either heavy, frequent rain in the north (if you start in January or February) or extreme heat in the Negev (if you start later than that). Starting in the Negev in February, though, will give you moderate temperatures in the desert and, with luck, not too much rain in the north. My northbound hike in March and April gave me almost perfect weather, save for a hot last few days toward the end of April.
On the other hand, if you hike in the fall/winter, you can head south, getting into the Negev by the time rain begins in earnest in December - but the downside of this is that the land up north will still be brown and dead-looking instead of green and lush, as it would be in spring.
It's your call which direction to hike, but remember that there are good reasons for going north-to-south in fall/winter and south-to-north in spring, and for hiking in spring rather than fall.
Guides and Navigation
Navigation on the trail can be done by means of the existing guidebook, "Hike the Land of Israel", with whose quality and price (as I mention sometimes in my journal entries) I have a lot of issues. However, it's the only English-language guide right now and does include maps that should be adequate for most navigation. There is a new version out (I hiked with the 2009 edition) and the reviewers on Amazon seem to think highly of it, as did the Israelis I hiked with, so make of my complaints what you will.
Here's an excerpt from one of my entries regarding navigation-related issues: "The Israel Trail is very well marked for probably 90% of the trail. For another 5%, the marks are either faded, hidden, or damaged, but you can pretty much tell where you have to go even without markings. The other 5% you're basically guessing, and these parts are where a good guidebook steps in and gives you detailed directions. A good guidebook, unfortunately, does not exist (as of when we hiked) and so our attempts to navigate just made us more and more irritated."
Basically, there are a few places (occasionally of significant length) where the trail markings are difficult to find, nonexistent, very infrequent, or otherwise unhelpful, and in those areas, if the path itself is unclear or intersects with many other paths, you will probably have trouble finding your way. In all these cases, maps are essential so that you can, at least, find your way to a point where the trail passes an obvious landmark.
Needless to say, either a GPS or paper maps are a good way to address these difficulties, though both have their failings. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel publishes a set of 19 excellent 1:50,000 topographical maps covering all of Israel, the Golan, and the Palestinian territories, which include comprehensive information on terrain, land features, and marked and unmarked paths, roads and tracks. The maps exist only in Hebrew, but I created a free, PDF-format English-speaker's guide to them last year, which with a bit of effort should enable you to use them. It's essentially a rough draft and has a few errors (for example, what I translated as "night parking" and "day parking" actually represent night camps in the Negev), and a few of the symbols are different depending on how new your map is, but I vouch for its overall reliability. The SPNI topo maps are sold in outdoors stores all over Israel, and in the SPNI's offices for somewhat lower prices than elsewhere.
The Israel Trail runs through 14 of the SPNI's 19 maps, and the list of which you'd need if you were were using those maps is found on the Jesus Trail site's brief blurb on the INT. I wrote most of said blurb, and would change a few details: For one, I'm not sure why I said that only experienced backpackers should through-hike, although experience most definitely helps a lot, in terms of physical conditioning if nothing else.
Also available in Hebrew only are some section maps of the INT, published by the SPNI - if you can read Hebrew, they should be quite helpful, although where they excel in compactness, they correspondingly sacrifice detail and thoroughness.
The Main Complication: Supplies in the Desert
Desert logistics are the foremost source of headache and expense. In the Negev, as mentioned above, opportunities for resupply are so scarce as to dictate your hiking schedule. You'll need to plan your itinerary in advance, and stash water at certain places along the way, then make sure that you end each day's hiking at a place where there is water. The Israel Trail Wiki has a good (though fairly daunting for the foreigner) list of people who can be paid to stash water for you, or even bring water out to you once you arrive at a night camp. Here is a page with links to several accounts of people caching water and their experiences.
Be aware that both of your options - caching or ordering deliveries - are expensive, especially the latter, unless you have a fairly large group of hikers. I was able to find a group online by emailing around to various folks and seeing if they could hook me up with someone, so my group of 8 ended up splitting the cost for caches between Gev Holit and Arad. I think it was 8 or 9 caches, and the jeep service we hired cost a reasonable 250 NIS apiece, if I remember correctly.
If you are not on the actual caching trip, it's crucial to have very detailed directions to where your caches can be found - otherwise you may be stranded in the middle of nowhere without water! If you have access to GPS, make sure to get a .gpx file from your supplier which will point you to the exact cache locations (this could have saved my group a lot of anxiety and trouble). If you are on the caching trip, do not ever assume that someone who finds your water will leave it alone - hide your caches very well. Groups I've been with have had water caches stolen on three occasions - caches placed, I might add, by people other than myself!
I personally would only recommend caching your own water if you have a decent knowledge of the Negev's geography, and preferably GPS navigation. The cost will be similar to having someone place caches for you, and if you're renting a car, you'll save having to drive your rented vehicle over some truly crappy dirt roads. As for those accounts you may hear wherein hikers don't cache water and try to carry extra - you're welcome to try this, and I do know people who have gotten away with it, but I'd advise against it very strongly. The remote desert doesn't forgive mistakes, and it'll kill you if you don't take it seriously. People die of dehydration in Israel every year on lesser trips than you'll be taking on by tackling the trail through the Negev, and lack of planning and awareness of the environment is responsible for just about all of these cases.
Leave No Trace
It should go without saying that while hiking anywhere, you should behave according to Leave No Trace guidelines. Israel's environment has undergone a lot of stress over the last century, with a number of species wiped out and entire ecosystems obliterated. While you may not be draining any swamps or single-handedly depleting aquifers, you should still do your part to minimize your impact.
As always, the desert has the most fragile environments. The greatest offense you should avoid is the building of campfires using wood you find nearby, as removing organic matter from arid ecological communities does far more damage than it would in more fertile places. Campfires are also not a great idea in the rest of the country, especially in the dry seasons - you don't want to start the next wildfire that kills dozens of people. Bring a camp stove instead and eliminate the damage to the local environment as well as the risk of fire spreading.
Be conscientious about your bathroom practices - make a visit to Small Makhtesh Lookout Night Camp and try to find a tent spot on its toilet-paper-littered surface to understand why.
There's very little groundwater available on the southern parts of the trail, where it would be helpful what with the lack of towns. Don't take water from the pools you might find; you can't depend on it being there anyway, and thus should have other plans made for water. And if everyone does it, it will deprive the desert wildlife of precious water it can't get elsewhere.
Hammocking the INT
Finally, a concession to my personal penchant for hammock camping. Hammocks are gaining popularity in backpacking circles as an alternative to sleeping on the ground or in tents, the main benefit being the far greater comfort they provide if set up properly. They also eliminate the damage your tent would do to the ground by being pitched on it, and don't harm trees if set up correctly (using webbing, not ropes).
In some biomes, like my native eastern USA, trees are everywhere to be used as supports, and a hammock greatly expands the number of potential campsites one can find. In less wooded areas, including most of Israel, it can be more difficult to find trees to support the hammock.
In case you're thinking of taking a hammock on the INT, I can tell you that it can be done - in the northern section only, of course; the Negev is totally out of the question. I did have several nights where I couldn't find trees and had to "go to ground," but that was before I upgraded my suspension (the method used to hang the hammock). With my new setup, I could easily have camped in all of them. If you're familiar with your hammock setup and confident in your ability to find usable sites, go for it. One consideration - if you're with a group, some of whom are sleeping on the ground, your need for trees may interfere with their hiking pace, since your campsite options are restricted.
For those interested, Hammock Forums is a good place to start learning about this fairly radical alternative to traditional camping technology.
Please see the contact page for my information if you have any specific questions regarding anything to do with the trail - I'll see if there's anything I can do to help you.