13 Things To Know Before You Hike the Appalachian Trail
Updated: May 26, 2021
Who would want to hike and camp following a trail that is thousands of kilometers long? Before movies like Wild or Walk in the Woods, this endeavor was the realm of extreme hikers but now thousands are attempting to do one of the big thru-hikes each year. The United States boasts the three most famous trails with the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails holding an almost mystical place in the imagination of backpackers.
The Appalachian Trail has the distinction of being the oldest and most rugged of the three. Being located on the east coast it is also the one that receives the most traffic as it is within easy access to millions of people for both thru-hikes and folks just doing a section.
What Is Thru-Hiking?
Thru-hiking is when you hike a trail from one end to the other generally camping along the way. I say generally as it isn't uncommon for people to stay in a hotel or hostel when they hit a town to resupply. As you can comfortably carry only about a week's worth of food, hitting the town to restock is the only way a person can do such a long trip.
After a week or more on the trail, a hot shower and clean clothes can be the most decadent luxury imaginable. Depending on your fitness level, experience, and goals you will be hiking anywhere from 15-35 km per day, rain or shine, up and down mountains. The more kilometers per day you do and the fewer rest days you take, the faster you will complete the trail.
But as only about 25 % of the people who attempt a thru-hike actually complete it, trying to push yourself isn't always a recipe for success. Start with lower mileage days and increase the distance covered as your fitness increases.
As the big thru-hikes are in the mountains, we have to bring clothing and shelter that will cover everything from hot, muggy summer nights to winter storms while trying to keep our pack weight as light as possible. A thru-hike of one of the big trails is a physical, mental, and logistical challenge.
Why Do a Thru-Hike?
This one is a little harder. Why do something that is going to have you sleeping in the forest, nursing sore feet, and slogging up seemingly endless mountain trails for months on end in whatever weather nature offers up?
If you are an avid outdoors person this may sound like heaven but it's more than that. I crave adventure, freedom, and challenge. A trip like this gives me all of those in abundance. Each day you see new sites, are faced with the beauty and fierceness of nature and meet interesting people along the trail.
It tests what you are made of while at the same time changing you into a new stronger version. I find the time away from the artificial stress of modern life allows me to focus on the essentials of life and spend time understanding myself.
Nothing is more fundamental to human experience than the journey into an adventure. Adventure is the unknown which is where we are challenged to grow. I found hiking the Appalachian Trail one of the hardest but most rewarding things I've done.
Not everyone has the time or inclination to hike the whole trail. You can section hike just about any part you like. Since the trail doesn't loop you will need to do an out-and-back, use other trails to turn it into a loop or hike in one direction.
If you drive to the trail you can often find a shuttle service to take you to a trailhead and you just hike until you get back to your car. The 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire are popular for this.
The Appalachian Trail Details
The Appalachian Trail is a roughly 3,510 km rough, single-track trail that goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, passing through 14 states along the way. Camping is free all along except for a couple of state or national parks it passes through.
The trail is known for being rough and rocky but littered with the nicest views in Eastern North America. While not as high as the Rockies or Western Coastal Range, the Appalachian trail has almost constant steep up and down.
If you start in Georgia you are said to be a north bounder or NOBO and starting in Maine makes you a south bounder or SOBO. Where we are in Eastern North America, we are within a day's drive of the trail. You can also flip flop which means hiking the whole trail in a season but not covering it in order. This has more logistical challenges but may be necessary due to timing or events such as a forest fire.
The trail is broken up into three broad sections:
1. Southern Mountains
This encompasses the section from Georgia to Virginia. A lot of climbing of forested trails. You will get occasional views but most of it is treed in. If you start your hike in March you can expect to see snow and cold rain.
2. Mid Atlantic
The mountains ease off in Virginia though to Connecticut. There will still be climbs but they are smaller and less numerous. This is usually hiked during late spring and summer so hot and muggy conditions are usually on the menu. The bugs can be the biggest challenge but the rocky terrain in Pennsylvania will also do its best to slow you down.
The height of summer is often prone to water sources that have dried up. Use an app like Guthook's to check for current water conditions.
3. Northern Mountains
The real climbing starts again in Vermont but that is just a warm-up the New Hampshire. By this point, you will be in great shape but the technical nature and steepness of the trails will feel like you threw out an anchor. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other as you only have one state left at this point. Maine is a mix of faster terrain with big climbs before the final challenges of the 100 Mile WIlderness and Mt. Katahdin.
While there are exciting and challenging sections over the whole trail, my personal favorite is the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Steep, rugged, and volatile weather make the White Mountains, unlike the areas you find further south. Due to the area being colder many summits and ridges are above the treeline making for epic views and wind conditions.
Compared to the Pacific Crest Trail, which is 800 Kilometers longer, the Appalachian Trail has more elevation gain. With about 500,000 feet of climbing and more technically demanding terrain, many people find the Appalachian Trail the most physically demanding of the Triple Crown trails (Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest Trails).
Most people take 4-6 months to hike the whole trail so you need to schedule accordingly. Mt. Katahdin is usually closed in Mid-October so you need to be done by then. This means starting between Mid-March and Mid-April if you are going northbound.
Southbound hikers are best to begin Mid-May to Mid-June. When you hike southbound be aware that there will be fewer services such as hostels and shuttles toward the end of your hike as most base their business on the northbound hikers.
You need backpacking gear that will cover temperature ranges from below freezing to sweltering summer conditions. Since you are going to have to carry this gear with you then a focus on keeping it light will really benefit you. Lightweight gear saves you energy and reduces the impact on the joints.
To deal with the changing seasons you can have a cold-weather kit and a warm-weather one that you swap as the weather warms us. If you do this be prepared to get your cold-weather gear back when you hit New Hampshire as the White Mountains can be cold even in late summer.
Once you are on the trail expect to have to replace some gear. You will usually need a new pair of shoes every 600-700 kilometers. Plus if you didn't get a chance to test everything out, you might find you will be changing gear because what you started with didn't suit you. Until you hit Maine it isn't hard to find an outdoor store in almost every town you resupply in. Additionally, you can mail-order and pick it up from a post office along the way.
Check out our backpacking series for a full understanding of how to put a kit together.
Campsites and Shelters
You have three options for camping along the Appalachian Trail: Shelters, Official Campsites, and Stealth Campsites
You will find shelters that are a 3-sided log cabin roughly every 15 kilometers along the trail. The use of these shelters is communal and operates on a first-come, first-serve basis. Most will hold 8 people but you will occasionally find a deluxe version that has a fireplace and more space. The use of the shelters is convenient but they fill up fast so it precludes hiking long days.
There are usually campsites at the shelters as well as between them giving you more options of how many miles to cover.
Most shelters and campsites have an outhouse or privy. The shelters are usually near water sources making it easy to equip yourself for the day.
In higher traffic areas there may be bear-resistant food storage measures such as metal hanging lines or storage boxes near the campsites. Otherwise, it is smart to carry your food in a bear-resistant canister or hang your food at night away from your camp. The best practice is to cook and eat away from camp and store your food 150 meters away from where you sleep.
Be aware that many people don't store their food this way so if you stay at a shelter with other people you are taking the risk based on what they do. It is not unusual for people to cook, eat, and store their food in the shelter. On the plus side, bears aren't prone to coming around large groups of people. While I don't recommend this, there are very few dangerous bear encounters reported on the Appalachian Trail.
Stealth camping sites are unofficial spots that either naturally occurs or people have developed. We all have had to use them occasionally but they usually don't have many spots and don't have outhouses. Practice Leave No Trace to minimize your impact. Guthook's app will tend to have locations of stealth sites in the comments for an area.
Since the Appalachian Trail is mainly through forests you can hammock camp at just about every campsite. Just make sure you are below the treeline when it is time to make camp. This will only apply to Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire where you spend appreciable time above the treeline.
How Do You Resupply?
As the trails are routed in such a way that you cross a road leading into town every 3-7 days, you head off-trail and resupply. This can be hitting the local Walmart or picking a package up at the post office, that either we sent ahead or was sent by our family from home. The towns along the trail have embraced thru-hikers so you can find iso-butane gas canisters, dehydrated food, and other hiker-specific staples in almost every stop.
You can make it through the whole trail without sending any boxes but you may have to resupply at a small gas station which can have a limited selection and higher prices.
One of the common approaches is to stock up in the bigger towns where things are cheaper and send a box forward to the smaller towns. This cuts costs and makes things simple when you get to town. The only problem is being a slave to the hours of the post office. If you hit the town on the weekend, you have to hang around until they open on Monday. Many hostels and outfitters along the trail will also receive your packages for a small fee.
When stocking up on things like toilet paper, wet wipes, and ibuprofen consider splitting the purchase with your hiking friends or trail family so you don't have to carry a whole box worth.
Hostels and Hiker Services
In most of the towns along the trail, there are hiker hostels that cater to the thru-hiking crowd. Aside from a place to sleep and shower they often have meals, laundry, and shuttle services between the town and trail. Some hostels even have their own store so you can pick up any food or other items you might need.
The prices are usually pretty affordable but don't expect a hotel-like experience. You often have to share a bunk room. The hostels can be a great place to hang out with other hikers and take a zero-day. The people that run the hostels can be a great source of info about the section of trails near them.
Check the guides or Guthook's app for the hostels in each town. There are many types of hostels so it is good to check into them. There are places that are more of a party spot and others are in a local church and operate on a donation system. Others may offer a work-to-stay program. You put in a few hours of work to cover your place to sleep and a meal.
Just about every hostel will have a hiker box that people have dropped off unwanted gear and food. Check them out when you stay at the hostel as it can be a great way to save some money on resupply or get an extra set of shoelaces. If there is any gear or food you don't want, drop it off at the next hiker box you hit to help people coming after you.
When in the White Mountains between Mt Moosilauke and Gorham, NH you will come across the AMC hut system. The huts usually offer a limited work-to-stay program for a few thru-hikers per night. It can be a great way to get a warm place to sleep and a good meal in exchange for doing some dishes and sweeping up.
In addition to hostels, there are people who operate shuttle services along the trail. This can be to get to the beginning of the trail or just to get to town if you don't want to hitchhike.
It is not unusual to come to a road crossing on the trail and be 5 kilometers or more from town. While you have the option of calling a shuttle in some areas in other you are looking at walking extra miles or hitchhiking.
It is a common practice on the Appalachian Trail and I never found it take that long to get picked up.
For safety don't hitchhike alone if you can avoid it. If someone seems sketchy, trust your instincts and pass up the ride.
Getting back to the trail works the same way. Start to walk out of town and throw out your thumb.
Assuming you have your gear already then how much your hike will cost will vary based on how long you take and how often you stay in town. A thru-hike can be done relatively cheap if you get back on the trail as soon as you resupply. Hostels, restaurants, and alcohol are the spots where your cost can really add up.
A good rule of thumb is to budget $1000 USD per month. You can do it much cheaper than this but you want the room in the budget to replace damaged gear and worn-out shoes as well as unforeseen issues like illness and injury.
This doesn't factor in getting to the trail. Depending on where you are from it can vary dramatically. If you are northbound then you would be looking at flying into Atlanta, taking a bus or train, and then a shuttle to the trailhead at Amicalola State Park. You could also just book a shuttle from the airport but expect this to cost more.
The Appalachian Trail has its own history and culture. It's the places and traditions that set the character of the trail. Because of the number of people hiking the trail and the shelters acting as nature meeting spots the Appalachian Trail is much more social than other long trails.
After the first few weeks, you will settle in with people who are moving at the same pace as you. Of these people, you will often find some who you click with so you end up part of a trail family. These will be the people you camp with and hang out in town. Of course, you can stay on your own as well if that is your intention.
When people thru-hike they are often looking to escape for while and trail names are part of this. Whether you give it to yourself or others anoint you with it, your trail name is like an alias that lets you be a new person for your hike.
If you time your hike right you can end up in Damascus, VA in mid-May for the annual Hiker Days festival which is a celebration of the Appalachian Trail and all things hiker trash.
Each shelter has a logbook that lets you leave the story of your hike that day. It's is also a way to communicate with your friends who may be behind you and see the stories of those who have passed ahead.
There are many other parts of the Appalachian Trail experience that act as milestones of your trek. From getting your picture taken at the ATC headquarters in Harper's Ferry, Va to the Half-Gallon Ice Cream Challenge, hiking the trail is more than just the miles of rocks and dirt.
1. Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The ATC is a non-profit that works to protect and advocate on behalf of the
Appalachian Trail. Their website has a ton of good information for planning your trek. www.appalachiantrail.org
2. The Trek
This website is all about thru-hiking and has a specific section on the Appalachian Trail. You can see people's stories, gear reviews, and they even have a podcast all about thru-hiking. www.thetrek.co
3. Guthook's App and Guide
Put Guthook's Appalachian Trail Guide on your phone and you will know where the next water, camp, or mountain summit is even without cellphone coverage. Easy to use and updated by users it is the most current information about trail conditions. You just click a point you are interested in and you instantly see how far away you are.
4. Awol's Guidebooks
If you want a printed trail guide then Awol's is the best. Updated every year with options for northbound or southbound, it has elevation profiles, mileage markers, water sources, campsites, and information about trail towns. You can also get it in a PDF version to carry on your phone with clickable links. https://www.theatguide.com/
The Appalachian Trail is logistically the easiest long trail while at the same time being hardest technically. The rough terrain and constant elevation changes are surprising since it is so close to the masses of civilization on the east coast. This makes it a very unique challenge to thru-hike.
When you combine this with the people and the towns along the way it becomes a Lord of the Rings scale epic minus the monsters trying to kill you.
If you want to know more or have any questions leave a comment.