A First-Timer's Ultimate Guide to the Appalachian Trail
So, you’ve decided you want to hike the Appalachian Trail — all 2,200 miles of it.
It’s an honorable goal, one that we here at The Active Times respect greatly. But before you even think about investing in a pair of hiking boots, there are many, many factors to be considered.
To help you better understand what it actually takes to conquer the AT (and everything else you’ll need to know if and when the gigantic journey becomes a reality for you), we recruited several experts to weigh in.
These men and women are not only experts on all things hiking, but also on the AT itself. Below, we’ve compiled their combined knowledge to bring you our ultimate first-timer’s guide to the Appalachian Trail.
Before You Even Decide to Hike
Jeff Alt, a talented speaker, hiking expert and the award-winning author of A Walk for Sunshine: A 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail, said before you think about putting in your sabbatical , you should ask yourself the following questions:
• Have I ever backpacked for a week or more?
• Have I ever hiked 12 miles with a full backpack in mountain terrain?
• Do I have the financial resources for this adventure ($4,000-$8,000)?
“75 percent who attempt the AT, bow out,” Alt said. “You need to average 12 miles a day to make the entire journey in one season. Living nomadically in the woods for four to six months is a long time and takes a real gut check. Is this something you really want to do and do you have the time and resources to do it?”
If you’re unsure about any of this Alt suggests taking a weeklong backpacking trip with an experienced hiker or group of hikers.
“Rent the gear from an outfitter or university, or borrow some from a friend before investing in everything,” he said. “A weeklong hike will give you somewhat of a good feel for what an AT adventure will be like.”
Planning the Logistics
Once you’ve decided your full commitment to conquering the trail, you’ll need plenty of time to plan out specific details.
“First let's talk about time,” said Tommy Bailey, an avid hiker and outdoorsman and author of The Appalachian Trail, Step by Step: How to Prepare for a Thru or Long Distance Section Hike. “The AT is nearly 2,200 miles long. Most hikers complete the trail in four-and-a-half months, but I've seen people who take as little as three months and some up to six months to finish it. When planning a thru-hike be realistic. Do you want to average 15 or 25 miles per day?”
The next thing you need to consider is when you’ll set out on your hike and where you’ll begin and end.
“The majority of thru-hikers start in Georgia and hike north to Maine — they're called Northbounders,” Bailey explained. “If you think it is going to take four to five months to hike the trail you could leave as late as May. If you plan to take it slower you would need to leave earlier because Mt. Katahdin closes on October 15th, and sometimes before, due to weather. I've personally heard stories of hikers reaching Katahdin too late and not being able to finish their thru-hike.”
On the other hand, Bailey said, Southerbounders — those who hike from Maine to Georgia — can't officially start hiking Katahdin until May 15th.
Another important part of your logistic plan includes preparing for your hike financially.
“I have seen plenty of hikers that had to get off the trail because they ran out of money,” Bailey said. “There used to be a day when someone could easily hike the AT on $1 a mile. In my experience, budget at least $2+ a mile. This includes traveling to the AT and the added 'luxury' expenses such as hostels, restaurants and the occasional ice cream stand. I hiked the first 500 miles with only a few stops at hostels, but during my last 500 miles I stopped at a hostel almost every week.”
Additionally, if you’re looking for more of a “one with nature experience,” you might consider hiking the trail southbound.
“The trail in Georgia can be very crowded in March and April,” said Jennifer Pharr Davis, a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board and 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. “Instead, consider hiking southbound from Katahdin in Maine in late June or early July.”
Or, Pharr Davis suggests, you could start from Harper's Ferry (the traditional mid-point in West Virginia) and hike north to Katahdin then "flip flop" by driving back to Harper's Ferry and hiking south to Springer Mountain.
Don’t forget, section hiking is also an option. “Cover different stretches in two or three week chunks,” Pharr Davis said. “Typically, all three of these options will lead to better weather, [less crowded] shelters and a more solitary encounter with the wilderness.”
Training and More Planning
Nearly every expert we spoke with mentioned that preparing yourself mentally is just as important as preparing physically when it comes to getting ready to thru-hike the AT.
Below, Alt provides a detailed prep timeline for physical training and preparations.
Six Months Out:
• Start Training. Any athlete will tell you that the key to success is training and practice. Commit a few days a week to walking and hiking (around town, at the park, up and down the steps, on the treadmill). Keep up your regular workout as well. Cross training (running, weights, yoga) will help with your conditioning.
• Attend talks/lectures/and clinics from accomplished thru-hikers.
• Acquire the necessary planning publications for your journey. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is the main source for most publications. You’ll definitely want: Appalachian Trail Through-Hike Planner (great for planning where to ship food boxes and supplies along the trail, available from ATC); Appalachian Trail Data Book (very useful on the trail and the number one item carried by thru-hikers, available from ATC); Appalachian Trail maps (never hike without a map, available from ATC); The AT Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail by David Miller (available from Amazon).
Three Months Out:
• Make sure you have all the gear (see lists below) and take a “shake down” hike to a wilderness area with all your gear. Do the boots fit right? Does the stove work? Can I eat this food every week for six months? Does the pack fit right?
• Appoint someone you trust to serve as your adventure command center. This person will mail packages to you, monitor your personal affairs and keep tabs on you along the route. Are you going to have them ship your food to you, or buy as you go in towns along the route? Establish a weekly method (text/e-mail/phone) to contact this person. Be sure this person knows your “trail name.” If they don’t’ hear from you by a set date, they will be the person who alerts authorities to conduct a search.
• Continue to train. Most injuries occur on the downhill and that’s hard to train for if you don’t live in mountain terrain. Try to simulate hiking with an incline treadmill, stairs, snake through the stadium bleachers etc.
Getting the Gear
Remember this very important tip as you gather and collect the items you’ll bring with you on the trail: “'The lighter the pack, the more enjoyable the journey' is the mantra of a thru-hiker,” Alt said.
It seemed every expert we talked with could not emphasize this point enough.
Below, Alt provides a breakdown of just about everything you’ll need.
“Food and Water: These are the heaviest items you will have in your pack. About two pounds of food for each day on the trail is a good rule of thumb. You only need to carry a week of food or less in between resupply points. Bring food you enjoy eating. You will burn 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day and you need to replenish the lost calories.
Here are some food suggestions: freeze-dried meals; pasta/rice/beans; foil-wrapped meats such as tuna or chicken; dehydrated fruit and veggies; energy bars or granola bars; peanut butter; cheese and sausage; bagels, honey and oatmeal.
Two to three quarts of water is the max anyone should carry at a time. Disinfect wild water using a high-tech portable treatment water system such as a UV wand or micro-straining filter from springs, creeks and rivers. A hydration hose system for your pack will encourage more water intake instead of having to stop and retrieve a bottle from your pack. Bring extra batteries for the UV wand.
Footwear: An ounce on our foot is a pound on your back. Thru-hikers have downsized from heavy boots to trail shoes. However, if you’re prone to rolling your ankle, you might want to consider a lightweight three-quarter, over-the-ankle boot. Visit a respectable outfitter and get fitted properly. Today’s hiking footwear should not require break-in time. Gone are the days of stiff, thick, heavy leather. They should fit comfortably when you walk out of the store. You want a sturdy Vibram sole and a breathable, waterproof liner. Wear non-cotton, moisture-wicking, synthetic or wool socks. Bring your socks to the store to try the boots on. Be sure to inform the sales person that you are hiking the AT. Buy an extra pair of boots for your support person to mail to you when your first pair wears out; they will.
Clothing: Dress for the weather! Wear non-cotton, synthetic wool and fleece clothes and dress in layers. Wear multipurpose clothes like pants that zip off into shorts or shirts with role up sleeves. Pack a waterproof breathable rain parka. Dress for the season with a fleece hat and gloves, long underwear, etc. Forget about carrying a change of clothes for each day. Think, two outfits (one for daytime and one for nighttime). At most, you should carry three pairs of socks. All hikers smell, so you will blend in just fine.
Packs: Get fitted for a backpack at a respectable outfitter.
Trekking Poles: Get a pair of adjustable, collapsible poles with an ergonomically designed handle.
Communication: Bring a smartphone so you can take lots of pictures and, if there’s connectivity, send email to friends and your support person or upload to your online blog. Remember, cell signals are unreliable in the mountains so you might want to keep your phone on airplane mode so it doesn’t drain your battery. Solar chargers are not recommended on the AT since you’re beneath the tree canopy most of the time. Instead, carry a portable cell battery charger. Have a waterproof way of carrying your phone.
Other Must Haves: A light weight hiking stove; tent; sleeping bag; sleeping pad; bug repellent; a first aid kit along with some first aid knowledge; include plenty of blister treatment items; a compass and map, and brush up on how to use them; toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, personal hygiene items; a whistle; a survival knife with a locking blade; a headlamp flashlight; extra batteries; 50 feet of rope or twine; and always have several feet of duct tape for that unexpected repair. Also, keep matches and a lighter in a dry place and know how to make a fire to keep warm.
A few more gear recommendations from other experts:
Dennis Blanchard, an Appalachian Trail hiker and author of Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the heart on the Appalachian Trail, suggests carrying a water bladder, like the MSR Dromedary Hydration Bag.
“It can be used to carry water to camp, and can be used to take a field shower,” he said.
Also, if you choose to bring a portable stove, Blanchard recommends learning how to use it before you hit the trail.
Depending on how much you’re willing to carry, you might also consider bringing a lightweight, three-season tent, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad, said Pharr Davis.
She continues, “Guys usually need some sort of lubricant like Vaseline or Bag Balm to avoid chaffing in their nether regions and under arms. And a drying powder like Gold Bond is very helpful to avoid trenchfoot when your socks and shoes get wet. Packing too much is just as detrimental as packing too little. You want to strike a balance between having what you want and need in camp (i.e., a book or journal) and not carrying so much that you're pack weighs more than what is comfortable for you to carry on the trail.”
Regarding boots and footwear, Bailey adds, “I went through three pairs of $200+ boots to complete the trail. People who wear trail runners and such can go through as many as five to six pairs during their trip; and these are generally $100+ shoes made specifically for rugged outdoor use. Don't go cheap in this department — the trail will eat them up and spit them out in only a few weeks. I have witnessed this happen to many hikers on the trail and it usually doesn't end well.”
Additionally, many of the experts we spoke with suggested taking your boots (and all gear, if possible) out on several test hikes in order to break them in, even if the label says you don’t need to do so.
Hiking the Trail
“The Appalachian Trail is an extraordinary treasure. It is well managed and it is mostly well marked,” said Lafe Low, an experienced Appalachian Trail hiker and author of The Best In Tent Camping: New England. “There are sections where you’ll be hiking confidently from white blaze to white blaze. There will also be times when you might wonder if they ran out of white paint. If you haven’t seen a blaze in a while, turn around. Often, you can find one in the other direction. If you truly feel you’ve wandered off the trail, simply retrace your steps. Remember that it’s not a race. You’re hiking your own hike. Enjoy every step along the way.”
Most experts recommend averaging at least 12 miles a day while thru-hiking. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t let yourself become overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Take each day one hike at a time.
“You’ll want to quit at least a few times a day – to varying degrees,” said Phil Baily a Boston-based REI Outdoor School instructor. “But if you tell yourself that you’re just doing the trail for the experience, going as far as you need to get what you need out of it, each day seems a little more significant.”
Laura Woodcock, who hiked 1,453.8 miles of the AT this summer from Hot Springs, North Carolina to Cloudland Farms in Woodstock, Vermont, adds, “If you go into any trail with the right mindset, you will have fun despite the roots, rocks, ups and downs. There are times when you will have to take your pack off, put your poles away to climb with your hands and lower to the ground off steep rocks, but all is manageable as the demographic on the AT is generally young adults and retired people.”
Bailey weighs in with some similar words of Wisdom.
“Each part of the AT brings its own beauty and challenges. One day you might be strolling along on a nice level forest path for miles, but the next day you could spend the same amount of time doing half the miles because you're walking over boulders all day long,” he said. “There will be a lot of physically challenging days on the trail, especially in the beginning as you get 'trail-hardened.' Try not to lose your morale, because the AT has a way of rewarding you later on.”
And for those who really want to know exactly what’s ahead, here are a few “rough spots” to look out for according to Baily from REI.
• Day One – There is a fairly steep and challenging hike from the trailhead just to get up to Springer Mountain, the beginning of the AT.
• The Mahoosic Notch in Maine is known as the hardest mile on the trail.
• The Hundred-Mile Wilderness in Maine is not particularly difficult but is remote. Plan to carry at least ten days worth of food though this section.
• As you get into New England, especially the White Mountains and into Maine, the tree line is much lower, so there are areas of exposure that are susceptible to high winds, rock fall, etc.
• Unfortunately, there are those out there with nefarious intentions. Higher crime areas along the trail are closer to populated areas and closer to a road. You may want to plan to camp away from these areas.
Another pointer from Pharr Davis: keep your head up while you’re in Virginia. “Many hikers get bogged down with the ‘Virginia Blues’ because that state has more than 500 miles of trail and seems to go on forever.
She also noted that Pennsylvania can be pretty rocky, which may take a toll on your shins and joints.
Leave No Trace
Don't forget, leaving the trail as you found it (meaning, clean and litter free) is of the utmost importance.
"When you hike 1,500 miles you begin to notice every piece of trash, the clumps of toilet paper along the trail, the Clif Bar wrappers and cans in the small fire pits, the significant impact we are having on the forest," Woodcock said. "It’s amazing and incredible that the public is recognizing the beauty of nature and experiencing a desire to live among it, however we must leave the trail more beautiful than we found it. When it comes down to it, your gear, preparedness, and fitness do not matter if the trail has been defaced by humans. So carry light, leave only footprints, and enjoy everything Mother Nature has to offer."
Visit lnt.org to learn more about outdoor ethics.
On Preparing Mentally
“You need to prepare yourself mentally for stifling heat in the Mid-Atlantic, bitter cold in the Smokies in Tennessee and the White Mountains in New Hampshire,” Pharr Davis said. “Mosquitoes in Massachusetts, blackflies in Maine, hiking through afternoon thunderstorms and waking up to soaking wet socks and shoes. Thru-hiking the AT is not for the faint of heart.”
Most experts agreed, so long as you keep this in mind and are prepared to deal with unexpected challenges, you’ll successfully be able to complete the trail.
“I've seen hikers age eight to 70+ thru-hiking the trail,” Bailey said. “It's definitely physically challenging, but I think the mental challenge is the hardest part of the whole AT. Prepare yourself mentally. Be realistic. Plan ahead. Stay strong and most of all, have fun!”
For a full list of AT resources and guides, be sure to consult the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Editor's Note: This story was first published on September 17, 2015 and was updated on September 18, 2015.