The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,194.3 mile stretch of foot path that was completed in 1937. Since then it’s changed a lot, and most of the trail has been re-routed to nearby routes – in fact, it’s estimated that 99% of the trail is not in it’s original location. More than 20,000 hikers have completed the AT, but this number includes thru hikers, as well as sections hikers who don’t hike the entire length in one go. Nowadays, there are thousands of hikers who attempt it each year, but only about 1 in 4 actually finish. Hikers range in age from 5 to 86, and vary greatly in physical abilities, mentality, size, shape, wealth, and experience levels. It takes on average almost 6 months to complete, with most people taking between 5-7 months.
One of the most interesting facts about the trail is that the elevation gain and loss is equivalent to hiking Mt. Everest from sea level and back 16 times or 515,000 feet in elevation gain. This is because the AT is mountainous for its entire length, with each ascent and descent adding to the total elevation gain across the course of the trail.
Hikers encounter grassy balds, open farmland, towering mountains, amazing views, dense forests, bogs and swamps, and all kinds of beautiful natural scenes.
While this is a great break down of a beginner’s guide to the AT, the ways of thru-hiking and the Appalachian Trail are complex and ever-changing. This is just the beginning, and we highly recommend you take the time to read through, watch, and listen to as many resources as possible in preparation for your adventure.
A Brief History
The Father of the Appalachian Trail is Benton MacKaye, who was an American forester, planner, and conservationist from Connecticut. He studied at the Harvard School of Forestry in 1900-1905 and later taught there for several years. In 1921, he wrote an article titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning, and this groundbreaking article spurred the idea for the AT and then sparked 16 years of effort and organization between local groups and trail organizations.
In 1925, MacKaye and a few others started the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), which would later become the Appalachian Trail Conservancy much later in 2005. Myron Avery joined the effort, and took over in 1935 as MacKaye started to become less involved in the project due to clashing visions. Lucky, Avery was instrumental in making sure the project was completed a couple years later in 1937.
The following years were tumultuous and the trail grew slowly due to complications with big storms and WWII. Then in 1948, a 29 year old army veteran named Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the trail all the way through. This made it seem possible after years of trail organizers being told otherwise, and reignited the flame for the AT.
Urbanization started to encroach many of the once rural areas along the AT, so this time the ATC wanted legislative backing. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson made the AT the first national scenic trail as part of the National Park System under the law National Trails System Act.
Even today, the trail is ever-evolving and is never truly complete. Thousands of volunteers work to maintain everything and hundreds of organizations work together to make it possible.
Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH)
The unofficial AT motto (or really any major thru-hike) is to “hike your own hike.” This means making it yours and not listening to the expectations of others, real or imagined. There’s no single correct way to hike the AT, so do it the way you want. Start by looking at your “why”, and plan your experience around that. You are in control of your hike, so you get to make it your own.
Because this thru hike may be a once in a lifetime experience, it’s up to each hiker to adventure in such a way that they won’t look back on their time on the trail with any regrets. The second part of the phrase means not negatively impacting another hiker’s experience or giving them a hard time about the way they hike (e.g., giving a blue blazer a hard time about skipping some white blazes).
The third part involves following a general ethical code when you interact with other hikers and the community as a whole – be respectful of others at all times. Hiking your own hike doesn’t mean doing whatever you want when you want – there’s still social rules that need be followed. So make sure you’re not negatively impacting the experience of another hiker, just like how you wouldn’t want them to negatively impact you.
Which Way to Go and When to Start
The first step in the planning process is picking which direction you’ll go. There’s three main options, but there’s several others if you’re looking for alternatives. Why choose this first? The direction you’re hiking determines a lot about your hike, and is a major component of your planning process. It determines when you’ll start and finish, what seasons you’ll hike through, what gear you need to start off with versus what gear you will need to pick up mid-trip, number of other hikers you’ll encounter, weather expectations, and so much more.
NOBO is the most popular direction and sees over 10 times more hikers than SOBO. Hikers start at Springer Mountain in Georgia and must plan on reaching Mount Katahdin (the northern terminus) before Baxter State Park closes the trail to the summit in mid-October. The most popular start days are March 1, March 15, and April 1, so we recommend staying away from those. This stress on the southern portion of the trail has been leading to strained resources and overcrowding, which is why trail conservations asks that hikers consider other start options if possible.
One of the pros of starting in the south is that you get a better social experience with hikers, and you get to summit Katahdin last, which has some of the best views and is one of the hardest ascents on the AT. This makes it easier than starting in the north, but the shelters can be crowded for the first few hundred miles.
The southern mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee can be cold, and this leaves you exposed to freezing temperatures and high elevation snow possible, even into April. You should start off with warmer gear, then plan on shipping it home once you get into the heart of Virginia. On the other weather side, you’ll hit the Mid-Atlantic states in the heat of the summer, which means humidity and mosquitos. After that you’ll get some ideal conditions before heading into cooler fall weather as you get into the northern mountains.
- Starts with easier terrain than SOBO
- More people means a more social experience
- Weather is more favorable than SOBO
- Grand finale at Mount Katahdin
- More people strains the resources
- There’s a deadline to reach the end
Starting at Mount Katahdin, you’ll work your way south to Springer Mountain in Georgia. SOBO has the shortest window of good weather and starts with the most difficult terrain first. This makes it less popular, but also less crowded, which could be ideal for someone looking for a more peaceful experience.
It’s only recommended for experienced backpackers, especially since you start off in the remote wilderness of Maine, which requires more planning and carrying more days worth of food at a time. Some hikers also avoid this route because Springer Mountain isn’t the grand finale they were looking for.
Something to think about is that you can experience winter weather conditions as you get into the southern mountains later in the year, but you’ll also get to see beautiful fall colors in the later months. You should plan on picking up warmer weather gear as you near southern Virginia. You also get to start later, with most people beginning in June or early July and ending in November or December.
These dates could line up better with students since you can start after graduating (high school or college) and not be limited by the March start time of NOBO. It also takes the pressure off your end date since you don’t have to worry about summiting Katahdin before it closes for the season. Could you imagine finishing your hike, only to be unable to do the last few miles to make it official? You don’t have to worry about that with SOBO.
Read here for an interesting article that interviewed a few SOBO and flip flop hikers.
- Less people
- Tackle the hard parts while you’re fresh
- No end deadline
- Later start date and end date
- Starts out with the most difficult terrain
- Less grand finale
- You may encounter snow in the beginning
Flip flop thru hikers start somewhere around halfway along the trail – some great options are Damascus, Virginia and Harpers Ferry. First, you hike north to Katahdin, and this allows you to beat the mid-October cutoff for when the last portion of the trail closes. Then you return to your starting point and hike south to Spring Mountain in Georgia.
You’ll encounter less crowds because you won’t be starting at the same time as large groups of people who begin at the northern or southern terminus. This approach also gives you a longer time frame to complete the trail, reduces exposure to extreme temperatures, and increases the ideal weather window for the whole trip.
Part of this ideal weather window is that you miss black fly season in Maine, you miss peak mosquito season in the Mid-Atlantic states (you also miss the hot summer temperatures in this section), and you get to see some beautiful fall colors in Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
It also helps conserve the trail by reducing overcrowding at the starting points in the spring, and you get to experience the easiest terrain on the trail first. The main downside is that you are getting to the more central parts of the trail well before the flow of hikers from the north and the south, so may find that some small businesses are still closed for the season. This could limit your in-town options, but as flip flop hiking becomes more popular perhaps this will be less likely.
If you’re interested in this method, the ATC offers great information on some example starting points.
- Largest weather window for ideal conditions
- Less people and less strain on the trail resources
- Flexible starting point and time
- You can tackle the easiest parts of the trail first
- Better for people who want a solitary experience
- You might get to portions of the trail too early and encounter seasonal closures at small businesses
Follow the White Blazes
The entire AT is marked by White Blazes, or trail markers. They’re approximately 2 x 6 inches and are painted on a variety of different places like trees, signs, posts, and other markers. They’re marked for both NOBO and SOBO directions, but the distance between them varies. As a general rule of thumb, if you travel more than a quarter mile without seeing a white blaze, you should retrace your steps to make sure you’re on the right path.
Beyond the general terms of thru-hikers and section hikers, there are terms for the different kinds of hikers.
White Blazers are AT thru-hiking purists who believe that the only way to fully complete the AT is to follow only white blazes. No shortcuts or skipping miles allowed.
Blue Blazers may take some short cuts on blue blazed routes, and therefore cut off some white blaze miles. Blue blazed trails are marked with a similar shaped blaze but is bright blue, and they can take you to shelters, water resources, viewpoints, and a variety of other things. If you’re unsure where a blue blaze trail takes you, consult a guide book or app before leaving the AT path.
There’s also Pink Blazers, who edit their schedule to hike with a crush, as well as yellow blazers who hitchhike to skip a section of the trail. The final type is Green Blazers, who always see to have a joint in their hand.
Platinum blazing, which was coined in this book by “RTK” and “SharkBait”, means bringing luxury to your thru-hike. It takes the basic white blaze and turns is platinum by recommending the best accommodations, meals, and experiences for hikers.
The trail may also be marked by rock cairns in places where there’s not enough vegetation to make a natural marker, or if the ground is too rocky for a sign post. These are stacked rocks that decrease in size as they grow taller, but generally they are only a foot or two tall.
The 14 States
The white blazes are going to take you through 14 different states, each with their own unique challenges, triumphs, and features. There’s also six national parks, eight national forests, innumerous small towns, and lots of state recreation areas. We’ve broken down each state into a more detailed guide, in order for SOBO.
The Southern Mountains
- Georgia – the trail starts on Springer Mountain (southern terminus) in northern Georgia and continues through the state for 78 miles. The mountains range from easy and sloping to difficult ascents. The tallest point is Blood Mountain at 4,458 feet in elevation.
- North Carolina/Tennessee – this portion of the trail follows the NC/TN border for the majority of the distance. It passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and runs for a total of 217.8 through both these states (plus 95.7 miles in North Carolina alone). The peaks here may be easier than the northern peaks, but they are more frequent and are some of the highest peaks on the trail, with several over 6,000 feet in elevation.
- Virginia – the first town you encounter in southern Virginia is Damascus, which is home to Trail Days and is “Trail Town USA.” You’ll then continue up through the heart of Virginia, with a small stint along the border with West Virginia. This is the longest state on the AT and includes Shenandoah NP, Grayson Highlands State Park, and the highest peak in the state (554 miles – or a quarter of the total length of the AT).
- West Virginia only takes up four miles (not including about 20 miles along the Virginia border) of the entire trail but is home to a major landmark – Harpers Ferry, headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).
The Mid-Atlantic states provide some of the lowest elevation sections and have more farmland, wetlands, and low ridge lines instead of towering peaks like the northern and southern mountains. It’s less remote, but has its own challenges, especially since it’s usually completed in the warmer summer months.
- Maryland – You’re only in Maryland for a short amount of time compared to the other larger states, and it offers some of the gentlest terrain. In fact, the southern most three miles are the three flattest miles of the AT – 41 miles.
- Pennsylvania has 229.8 miles of trail and is nicknamed “Rocksylvania” because of its rocky terrain in the northern part of the state. The southern part actually offers some of the gentlest terrain as you come out of Maryland.
- New Jersey – even though there’s only 72.4 miles of trail, New Jersey offers a wide range of scenery like steep, rocky pitches and bogs and wetlands. Know that campfires are always prohibited in NJ and camping is restricted to designated sites.
- New York is home to lowest point on the trail (124 feet) and passes within 30 miles of New York City. It’s a difficult state that not many people warn you about and the rocky terrain gets slippery during wet weather – 93 miles
- Connecticut – pristine hardwood forests and lots of history line this trail in CT. Fires are prohibited and camping is only allowed at designated sites – 52 miles.
- Massachusetts leads you into more small towns and resupply points as compared to the remote wilderness of the more northern states. Mt. Greylock sits at 3,491 feet and is said to have inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick – 90.2 miles.
- Vermont is known for being muddy (“Vermud”) because of its heavy rainfall during the spring. Otherwise, it’s one of the easier states on the route and is home to the Green Mountains – 150.8 miles.
- New Hampshire is home to the White Mountains, which will challenge hikers with long exhausting climbs that are mostly above treeline. – 161 miles.
- Maine – Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the trail and is located in Mount Baker State Park. The trail closes in Mid-October, so you have to summit before then if you’re NOBO. This state also has the 100-Mile-Wilderness, which requires extra logistical planning with their hut system and designated camping areas (see below- where to sleep). – 282 miles.
The AT is a “community in the wilderness” and can sometimes feel more like home than any house you’ve ever lived in. The trail has its traditions and many hikers take on trail names, which can be chosen or given on the trail. These names might be for features like personality, speed, favorite foods, habits, appearance, or any other particular aspect of your identity.
The community extends beyond hikers, and flows into the towns and communities along the trail. People who maintain the Appalachian Trail are mostly volunteers, and they can be found painting white blazes, cleaning facilities, building steps, clearing trail, etc. There are also seasonal employees called trailrunners who are stationed along certain sections of the trail and are paid to help with education and assist in emergencies.
“Trail magic” is random acts of kindness by strangers called “trail angels,” or people who you encounter along the trail who offer free (or steeply discounted) assistance to hikers. It comes in many forms, from roadside donuts at a trail intersection to a former hiker who opens their home to current hikers. This also includes locals who give hikers a ride into town for a re-supply, local landowners who offer a washing machine and a shower, and/or even day hikers you pass that offer food, drink, and other supplies. We love this personal account of a hiker’s favorite trail magic.
Once you’re part of the community, make sure you mark your calendar for the annual Trail Days festival in Damascus, VA. It’s in May and is a huge festival that’s meant to celebrate the AT by bringing together past, present, and future hikers with vendors, gear, and a fun festival with live music and so much more.
Get Into Hiking Shape
We’ve heard stories about all kinds of thru hikers and the various levels of physically shape they’re in. Some are like Cheryl Strayed from Wild, where she had no experience or training and learned a lot along the way. While it’s possible to have a successful hike with this method, you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more if you do more physical preparations.
What’s the best thing you can do to train for a backpacking trip? Go backpacking! Take all your gear and hit the trail beforehand. This lets you test your gear ahead of time, start the break in process for your shoes, and gets your muscles moving. If you aren’t able to hit the trail, at least take your backpack on hikes around your neighborhood or local park, or even just to the treadmill at your local gym. Pack it heavy enough that you’re getting a feel for the real deal, and let your body get used to carrying something on your back.
Even if you’re in shape, the first couple weeks on the AT will be tough. Start by gradually increasing your daily distance. New hikers are prone to pushing themselves too hard, too fast, which leads to injury and quick burnouts. Remember that transformation takes time, and it’s part of the journey of thru-hiking.
While the AT thru-hike is one of the most demanding things you could do to your body, it’s actually a mind game at it’s heart. While those who are physically ready may initially have the upper hand, you have to prepare your mind for the challenges you’re going to encounter. A common mantra is “No rain, no pain, no Maine” (for NOBO) since if you don’t experience discomfort, pain, and hiking in the rain, then you won’t make it to Maine. Always remember your “why” and keep reminding yourself throughout the entire trip. Also, manage your expectations beforehand, so you know to expect discomfort and pain but you’ll also get one of the most rewarding accomplishments of your life.
Pack the Right Gear
Know that whatever you pack at the beginning of your hike will be very different than what you’re left with at the end. Thru-hiking gear is adapted as you go, and you’ll learn a lot along the way. The most important thing you can do is to thoroughly research the best gear and pack only the necessities. The first thing you’ll shed is extra weight, so starting off with ultralight and lightweight gear is a must.
You can use resupply points to your advantage by sending yourself gear and/or sending gear home that you do or don’t need. Post offices (and some local outfitters along the route will hold packages for long periods of time – all you have to do it make the proper arrangements. If you don’t have the time or ability to send yourself stuff, you can designate a close family member or friend to send you select packages along the way with the gear you provide.
Buying a backpack is actually a much more technical endeavor than most beginners may think. It’s the one piece of gear that you may or may not be able to find used since it can be very specific to you. They come in many shapes and sizes, and you should take the time to visit a local outfitter where you can be measured and fitted for a pack. It doesn’t mean you have to buy the one right there in the store, but it’s worth going and physically trying them on.
What size pack do you need for the AT? If you’re carrying 65 liters or more, you’re probably carrying too much. Lighter is better, and if you’re carrying that much stuff in your pack, you’re likely going to be downsizing the whole trail, and possibly even buying new, lighter gear. Looks for packs that are less than 65 liters that weigh less than 3.5 lbs.
Whether you carry a traditional tent or an ultralight tarp, you do need something to protect you from the elements while you sleep. Your shelter really comes down to personal preference for desired weight and style. There are three main types: tents, hammocks, and tarps. The majority of hikers use tents (about 60%), with the second most common being hammocks (about 15%).
To help you answer some difficult questions about tent vs tarp vs hammock, check out this flow chart.
A sleep system consists of a sleeping pad and sleeping bag and finding the right fit for you is essential. A good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for your body while on the trail, so don’t skimp on the right sleeping gear. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will most likely need warmer gear for part of you hike, and this time depends on the direction you’re walking. A lot of ultralight hikers will use a down sleeping quilt, which tends to be more lightweight, and pair that with a cut Nemo Switchback pad that’s shortened to only fit from your shoulders to butt. It’s far from luxurious but it’s the lightest combination you can make.
Treat Your Feet Right
The most important piece of gear you could focus on is your shoes or boots. Treat your feet right, and they will carry you the distance. But if you don’t take care of them, your hike will quickly be cut short. While hiking, your feet will swell, so start off by sizing up. Most hikers will also opt for lightweight footwear like hiking shoes over boots.
Part of treating your feet right also includes socks and sock liners, which are essential in the prevention of blisters. It’s essential that your socks are made mostly from Merino wool (plus some synthetic material), which has moisture wicking properties that help prevent stink and they can be used for several days at a time. Pair these with a lightweight sock liner, and you’re more likely to stay blister free for longer.
Also keep in mind that you’ll probably have to replace your shoes at some point, or even multiple points, during your hike. Plan on getting about 500 miles out of hiking shoes and up to 1,000 miles out of boots.
Clothing layers are essential pieces of clothing, as you’ll encounter a wide variety of temperatures and weather conditions along the way. You can also plan on sending yourself warmer layers for the times you plan on encountering those conditions in the mountains.
The most basic must haves for clothing are a lightweight puffy jacket, rain poncho, and clothes made of breathable, synthetic fabrics with a UPF rating. From there, the specific clothing is more personal – shorts vs. pants, long sleeves vs. short sleeves, hooded or not, etc. Accessories are also a personal choice, such as sunglasses, hat(s), bandanas, Buffs, etc.
Some other pieces of gear are basic necessities, while others are platinum blazing luxuries. It all depends on the person and what they want to carry.
Most hikers will carry trekking poles, which can be life savers. Make sure they’re ultralight so the extra weight is worth it, and see if you can use them as your tent poles so cut back on even more weight. Poles are especially helpful on descents, slippery rocks, and rocky ground that may cause you to lose your balance.
You’ll need something to prepare food, so you’ll need to decide if you want to eat cold food or hot food. Hot food requires extra gear and weight in the form of a stove, fuel, and a kettle, but a warm meal after a long day can help loads. If you plan on cold soaking, this can cut back on weight but also may not be as enjoyable. At the very least, pack a spoon to eat things, trash bags, baggies, etc.
All hikers will need to carry a trowel to bury your waste. This is required as part of Leave No Trace and is a necessary part of keeping the trail clean and usable. You should also consider carrying sunscreen and bug spray, although toiletries vary a lot between hikers.
Other accessories include a small first aid kit with a blister kit, ways to store water, period products, nail clippers, and more.
Remember, don’t leave essentials behind on the assumption that you’ll just borrow it from someone else. Pack your own stuff and carry your own weight. You’ll also frequently run into ‘hiker boxes’, which are found in shops, hostels, post offices, and other frequented places along the trail. This is where previous hikers can leave behind things they had too much of, so you can frequently find equipment, clothing, food, and general supplies.
Eat Enough Calories
The biggest thing about what to eat is CALORIES. Calorie requirements vary a lot person-to-person, but a general rule of thumb is up to 3,000-4,000 calories per day. It will take a couple to a few weeks for “hiker hunger” to kick in, but before you know it you will be doubling your daily food intake from your off trail levels. Hiker Hunger is the ability to eat large amounts of food, but it’s also the constant day dreaming about food and eating food as well.
There’s a way to eat pretty much any diet while out on the trail, and most people carry 3-6 days of food – this depends on distance between towns and when your next resupply is. Carrying more than six days worth of food gets too heavy but less than three days makes shopping and getting back and forth into town not necessarily worth it. While most of the AT has ample resupply points, there are portions in the northern mountains that require you to carry food for upwards of 8 days at a time. This takes considerable planning.
It’s essential that you pack calorie dense meals that are low in water content (like dehydrated meals) over heavy foods like fruits and vegetables that are mostly water. Calorie density is when the weight of food provides the most amount of calories possible. The heavier the food, the more calories it should provide, otherwise you’re just carrying around excess weight.
Some hikers opt for cold meals that don’t require the extra weight of a stove, fuel, and kettle to boil water for a hot meal. Most ultralight hikers will not carry this excess weight and just eat their food cold to save time and weight.
If you’re a serious planner, you can break down your route into sections between towns, look at how many days each section will take, and use that information to calculate how much food you can send yourself (or have a friend send) for general delivery at the local post office. While it’s a lot of work beforehand, you know that you will be getting your favorite foods each time and won’t be limited by the selection in small towns on your way. On the downside, postage can add up but you could ultimately save that money by buying items in bulk online instead of small stores that mark up their prices.
You could also only send resupply boxes to smaller towns where you may anticipate limited resupply options, while leaving the larger towns open for local shopping. Most people reserve resupply mail boxes for changing out gear and specialty items and treats that you probably can’t get in the small towns.
Drink Clean Water
Water is the most important resource you could manage on a thru hike and should be planned carefully. Luckily, the AT is one of the best thru hikes for water availability, and hikers will frequently encounter water sources several times throughout the day. There will be fresh springs, rivers, lakes, ponds, and all kinds of water most of the year. In extreme circumstances, a drought could limit water availability and the ATC will post about it to keep hikers informed.
How much water should an AT hiker carry? That depends on the hiker, how much they drink, and the availability of water on their upcoming route. This is part of the planning process. Since water is the heaviest piece of “gear” you can carry, it’s important to carry the right amount, if not a bit extra. Specifically on the AT, it’s unlikely that most hikers would need to carry more than 2 liters of water at a time.
Remember, if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. It will take some time to understand your personal water intake requirements, so it’s important to pay close attention towards the beginning of your hike.
As with water on any hiking trail, you should always treat it before drinking. Giardia can be present in water sources, so proper filtration or treating is a must. There are several ways to treat water in the backcountry, but the main two are filtering or a chemical treatment. We personally prefer to filter our water and always carry a backup filter or alternative method just in case. While chemical treatments may be lighter, you usually have to wait to drink your water and it doesn’t keep particulates out of the water like a filter would.
Pro tip: if possible, it’s much preferred to collect water from a moving source, since stagnant water is more likely to contain waterborne parasites and illnesses.
When hiking long distances, your body will need rest that’s an essential part of healing up for the next day. There a few options when it comes to sleeping, and a few obstacles as well.
On the AT, there are 250+ primitive shelters that are no more than a day’s walk apart – usually 5-15 miles but the average is about 8.5 miles. They are wooden lean-tos that provide a covered sleeping quarters and they are first come first serve. Most house anywhere from 5-20 people depending on size and they can fill up quickly during peak season.
In the vicinity, there will be access to a water source, tent areas, fire pits, a privy (a.k.a. outhouse), and picnic tables. Keep in mind that camping is only allowed in the immediate vicinity, and some states only allow dispersed camping in designated sites.
While shelters are a nice luxury on the AT (most other long distance trails don’t have them), you can’t rely on them for shelter. You should always have your own tent or hammock and sleeping gear that will keep you warm and dry.
Hiker midnight is around 9pm – it’s impolite to arrive after that. If it’s unavoidable, pitch a tent nearby and try to be quiet. Don’t shine your headlamp towards other people. Here’s a cool post on shelter etiquette.
Dispersed camping (just setting up a tent wherever) is not very common and is prohibited on most sections of the trail. It’s important to know local regulations, and this information is up to the hiker to find and know beforehand.
In addition to the sites near the shelter, there are about 125 designated backcountry campsites. Know the locations of these and use them whenever possible. Remember, part of Leave No Trace is camping in already established sites and not creating new ones.
In the White Mountains, there are designated Forest Protection Areas (FPAs), which are high use places that need protection for future overuse. Camping of any kind of prohibited in these areas, and it’s up the hiker to make sure you’re following the rules. This section requires strict planning so you can be at the right place for the night.
To help out, there are 13 shelters and designated campsites along this portion, but they often require a small maintenance fee so make sure you have cash on hand. Some of the shelters can also require a large detour off trail, so make sure you thoroughly research this section ahead of time.
The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is an option for a hut alternative.
Prepare Your Finances
How much does it cost to hike the AT? Plan on spending around $1,000 a month. Frugal hikers who skip out on motels and restaurants may spend less, while those who stay in town and eat at restaurants can spend more. You’ll be eating a lot more calories per day, and food costs money.
The initial gear purchase can cost upwards of $2,000, with ultralight gear costing even more. Plus, many hikers end up purchasing replacement gear along the trail, often replacing heavier gear with more lightweight options. While it may be more expensive initially, it can be worth it to spend more money upfront on lighter gear that won’t need replacing. You can also purchase gear secondhand. Though this takes quite a bit of effort, it could save you lots of money.
You’ll also need to set aside money for extras like postage, laundry, gear repair, new hiking shoes, showers, shuttles, and more. It will also cost money for transportation to and from the terminus, as well as any other travel costs to get there and back. Always keep extra money aside for emergency situations like medical emergencies or even just extra hotel nights.
Here’s an awesome list of 18 ways you can prepare your wallet for thru hiking.
Safety is always number one, so take the time to research how you can stay safe on the trail while still enjoying the adventure.
#1 – Always carry a first aid kit of some kind. It doesn’t have to be big or bulky, but have some Band-Aids, blister bandages, and antibiotic ointment will go a long way.
#2 – Look out for widow makers, which are dead standing trees that are prone to falling. This isn’t as much of an issue on the trail, but be selective in where you set up your sleeping quarters.
#3 – While gear varies from hiker to hiker, you should at least carry the 10 essentials. This includes navigation, a headlamp, sun protection, a first aid kit, and a few other essential items. Even if you don’t think you should carry navigation, you should always have something on hand in case of emergency. Always be aware of where you are and how close you are to roads in case you need help.
#4 – Even though a bear canister isn’t technically required on the trail, it’s worth having and using the whole time. Bears are present along the entire AT, and a fed bear is a dead bear. Not only does properly storing your food keep you safe (so you don’t lose all your food) and bears safe (so they don’t become dangerous), but it also keeps your food safe from mice that frequent the shelters.
#5 – While hikers fear bears and snakes, the most dangerous critter on the trail is actually ticks. Ticks are more common in the warmer months and certain states have more abundant populations (Massachusetts and Connecticut especially). The NPS did a really in depth tick collection and testing and it’s worth the read. The greatest exposure to deer ticks (which carry Lyme Disease) is May to July in the states of MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, and MA in elevations less than 1,600 ft. One of the best things you can do is wear clothing that covers your legs/ankles that’s been treated with 0.5% permethrin (tents can be treated with this as well). Make sure sure you also do daily tick checks. We also really enjoyed this article from a thru-hiker who survived Lyme disease.
#6 – Speaking of diseases, don’t share water bottles with hikers and make sure you sanitize your hands after going poop and using a privy. Norovirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted between dirty hikers easily. It causes diarrhea and vomiting, which is no fun on the trail. You can get it by touching infected surfaces (like a privy door or shelter log) then touching your face. Keep your hands clean and your finger nails clean, then you reduce your risk by a huge amount.
#7 – Have a trusted friend or family member that you check in with periodically. Make sure they know your trail name and when to expect you at certain locations. They should also be aware that your schedule may vary, as some sections will take longer than anticipated. You should set clear plans with this designated person about when to expect you, how many hours of leeway they should give in case you’re running behind, and when they should start contacting the proper authorities.
#8 – There aren’t many river crossings (fords) on the AT, but there are some safety precautions to keep in mind. One in particular, the Kennebec, is too difficult to cross on foot, and you must use the provided ferry service for your own safety. For the other ford crossings, try to avoid crossing after heavy rain and only cross if it’s 100% safe to do so. Many are equipped with a rope to help out.
Leave no Trace
Leave no Trace is a set of 7 principles that tell you how to properly recreate in the outdoors while still preserving it for future generations. They were created by the Center for Outdoor Ethics and they are the best guidelines on minimizing your impact. You should take the time to read through them all, even if you think you’re familiar with the concept. Some examples of their principles are:
- Only use designated campfire rings in places where there are no fire bans or restrictions – never make a new campfire ring.
- Avoid places that show the beginnings of frequent use – those places still have a chance at recovering if they’re left alone. Only camp in pre-established places that are already worn down.
- Know the rules about camping and dispersed camping.
- Bury your human waste and pack out all trash – this funny article about an AT hiker “Slurpee” who made an app he where he tracked his poops along the trail, including the location, rating, and which type of potty it was. Great comic relief.
- Stay on the trail.
Research, Research, Research
Just like you’re doing now, one of the most important parts of thru-hiking is doing the right amount of research beforehand. This will help keep you safe, prepared, and let you have a more enjoyable experience overall. Study your guidebook, read blogs from former hikers, watch YouTube, listen to podcasts, and seek as much information as possible. Create a rough itinerary of your trip so you can an idea of the challenges you’re about to face.
Some items that you should plan ahead of time:
- A contact person who keeps track of your whereabouts and is the person you check in with while in service.
- Supply boxes that you either ship yourself or have a designated person mail out. This takes extensive planning and should mainly be used for things you can’t get along the trail like medications, diet restricted foods, and special treats. Plus, sending too many boxes will just cost a fortune in shipping fees.
- Register for your hike with the ATC, which helps them keep track hikers and helps you avoid increasing the social and ecological impacts of overcrowding. While this isn’t required, it’s highly recommended.
- Purchase the right permits for certain sections of the trail. While the AT itself doesn’t require a permit, there are still a few you need. Backcountry permits for Great Smoky Mountains NP should be purchased in advance online; Shenandoah NP permits can be obtained in advance online or one of the self-registration kiosks along the trail; and NOBO hikers need permits for Katahdin and can get them at the Stream Campground Ranger Station – SOBO will need a day-use reservation with Baxter State Park.
- Plan on carrying warmer sleeping gear and clothes earlier in the hiking seasons. Generally, NOBO and flip flop hikers that start before May should carry warmer gear until you are north of Mt. Rogers in Virginia (the sections of trail before this have some higher elevations that experience more extremes in weather, even later in the winter season and into spring). For SOBO, plan on picking up warmer gear as you reach southern Virginia in the fall.
- Practice taking your gear on multi day backpacking treks before heading out for the AT. This way you can work out any kinks, determine what you really need, and get a feel for what the next few months is going to be like.
- Warren Doyle has hiked the entire AT a record 18 times and offers a five day course on the trail. While the completion rate is around 20-25% normally, people who take his class have a 75% completion rate.
Here are some other resources you should peruse:
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) are stewards of the AT and work to protect, manage, and advocate for the AT. They have an amazing online library of all kinds of reading materials, maps, guidebooks, and recent updates like COVID regulations.
- The A.T. Guide by “AWOL” has an updated 2023 edition that is available as a bound book, loose leaf pages, or a printable PDF. It’s one of the most thorough guidebooks and we also highly recommend his personal account in his book AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.
- WhiteBlaze.net is a great up-to-date resource for current happenings on the trail like shelter closures, resupply points, town information, and more. They also have a PDF complete trail guidebook that’s only a few dollars. There’s really informative lists on the hostels, post offices, shuttle providers, and more.
- The Trek has an amazing compilation of information about the AT and has some of the most well rounded personal accounts on any website I’ve seen. They even have a collection of podcasts, blogs, and articles about advice, gear, inspiration, and thru-hiking culture. Perhaps one of the coolest features of this website is their interactive AT Map!
- Trail Journals is a collection of journals from past and present hikers that includes trail accounts, photos, and tips.
Enjoy & Have Fun
While planning is a necessary part of the adventure, so is relaxing and having fun. Don’t spend too much time stressing about a day-by-day itinerary, as this is likely to change. In fact, having a plan that’s too detailed could leave you feeling discouraged and anxious about being somewhere at a certain time when part of the AT is having nowhere to be at any point in time. Remain flexible and remember that the trail doesn’t keep a strict schedule. In fact, just use the term “schedule” loosely.
Thank you to the people who make the AT possible- lots of different entities including the National Park Service Appalachians Trail Conservancy (ATC), US Forest Services, thousands of volunteers, and a ton of different state agencies and parks.