Thinking about thru-hiking the AT? Here is a crash course to get you started.
The forums on WhiteBlaze will help answer specific questions or
How to Hike the Appalachian Trail: A Comprehensive Guide to Plan and Prepare for a Successful Thru-Hike is free on Amazon Kindle for the next few days. Hope it helps some of you 2017 feel less intimated about the journey.
Alright, letís dig in...
Thru-hiking is a 6 month commitment. 6 months of anything demands a certain level of planning. 6 months of an entirely new way of life can be overwhelming.
The statistics change every year. However, it is estimated that less than 10-25% of hikers who start out actually finish their hike. Those numbers should let you know that the AT ainít a cake walk.
Donít let this intimidate you though. Thru-hiking the AT is amazing - full of epic landscapes, great friendships and new experiences. The goal is to just be prepared for what lies ahead. Being prepared will not only help you get to the finish, but enjoy the journey.
1. Mentally Prepare.
The AT does not care how tired you are, how bad the weather is. After awhile, it can wear you down. Admittedly, I experienced a lot of boredom and some loneliness on the AT.
Here are some suggested tips to prepare...
- Find Your Motivation. Understanding why you are hiking is HUGE. Having a clear Ďmissioní can be a great combatant on less-than-joyful days. I suggest you write down a list of several concrete reasons why you want to hike the AT.
- Assess the Opportunity Cost. In other words, what are you going to miss out on over the next 6 months? There may be some important events you will have to decline.
- Know There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel. This experience will go down as one of your most proud moments, experiences, and achievements. Think about how you will feel when you finish and for years to come.
- Stay Positive. Donít fight it; embrace it. Try to think about every situation in a positive light. Ex: That annoying rain might actually be a refreshing face wash.
- Donít Quit on a Bad Day. If you are miserable, then get outta there! However, if you are just pissy for an afternoon and think it is time to go homeÖ chill out for a bit. Reassess tomorrow.
2. Physically Prepare.
Letís round up and say the AT is 2,200 miles... and say that you want to hike the AT in 22 weeks (5 months). Thatís 100 miles per week. Here is what an average week might look like:
Day 1: 20 miles
Day 2: 17 miles
Day 3: 13 miles
Day 4: 20 miles
Day 5: 17 miles
Day 6: 13 miles
Day 7: Rest
100 miles a week at a 2 mph pace means 50 hours of hiking every week. You can, of course, tack on a few extra weeks for cushion. Just know that hiking is about to become your full time job (sorry to use the word Ďjobí in a moment of unemployed freedom).
All of this walking up and down mountains will be taxing on your body and can lead to injury. Some suggestions to prevent injury:
- Donít Start Out Like Jabba the Hut. Iíd say you should be able to at least jog a mile before setting out. Not a crazy fitness goal, just not a total couch potato.
- Start off Slow. Maybe start off just doing 5 miles a day and ease into it. If you feel good, kick it up a notch. If not, stay slow until you do. You donít want to get injured early on (like I did).
- Listen to Your Body. Rest in town if you need to and take a zero day.
- Stretch. I stretched every morning and propped my feet up every night to keep muscles from cramping and blood flowing.
3. Financially Prepare.
Too many people get off trail and quit because they run out of funds. This should not happen to you. A little planning and basic budgeting, and youíll be fine. Here are some of my expenses (from what I remember)...
Trail: $10/ day X 150 days = $1,500
Town: $25/ day X 30 days = $600
Tent/ Shelter = $250
Sleeping Bag = $150
Backpack = $150
Mid-layer Jacket = $100
Shell Jacket = $100
Sleeping Pad = $100
Shoes = $100
Stove/ Kitchen = $60
Bag Liner = $50
Water Filter = $40
Headlamp = $40
Trekking Poles = $35
Stuff Sacks = $30
Water Containers = $20
Other = $150
Hostel: $15/ night X 30 nights = $450
Airfare/ shuttles = $300
Total Cost of My Thru-Hike: $4,225
Note I was not a big partier. This budget can vary A LOT depending on what gear you already have, eating and drinking habits, lodging needs, etc.
4. Direction and Timing.
Northbound = Georgia to Maine.
Roughly 90% of all thru-hikers go North. NOBOs start at Springer Mountain, GA in early Spring and end at Mt. Katahdin in late summer. They hike with the blossoming spring flowers. The first day of Spring is a popular day to start. Iíd recommend starting anywhere between March 1 - 30.
- Large social groups. 50 thru-hikers might be within a day of you. You will get to know a lot people and possibly have more options to find who you enjoy hiking with.
- Start off easy(ish). GA is a great primer.
- More infrastructure. Everything revolves around the NOBO season. Hostels, outfitters, shuttles, etc. We (SOBOs) heard stories of elaborate trail magic cookouts setup at road crossings for NOBOs.
- Epic finish. Mt. Katahdin is an iconic summit.
- Crowded shelters and overbooked hostels.
- Less solitude in nature.
- Potentially snowy start in early March.
- Mt. Katahdin closes down on October 15th for weather concerns. This may put you in a time crunch if you start in late April.
Southbound = Maine to Georgia.
About 10% go South. SOBOs start at Mt. Katahdin, ME in early summer and end at Springer Mountain, GA in late fall. They hike with the bright fall foliage. I recommend starting at the northern terminus anytime from June 1 - 30.
I started June 13th and wish I would have started more like June 1. I found winter especially harsh. An extra couple weeks would have been a nice cushion to prevent from hitting that intense snowy weather down South.
- Intimate social groups. Hike with maybe a handful of thru-hikers at a time. As a SOBO, I am biased. But, I suspect I would not have enjoyed the large NOBO group environment.
- More solitude in nature.
- Epic start. Mt. Katahdin on Day 1. I also thought Maine and New Hampshire were some of the most beautiful sections.
- No deadline. There is no one preventing you from finishing at Springer in the dead of winter. The cold weather should be enough of a deadline for you though.
- Lack of infrastructure. Not too common. But, there were several parks and hostels that were closed for the season as I hiked later into fall and early winter.
- The 100 Mile Wilderness is immediately after Mt. Katahdin. While extremely flat (and gorgeous), it can be a rude awakening for rationing food and supplies properly. Other than a few logging roads, once you start the Wilderness, you must finish it.
- Hard start. ME and NH are beautiful, but they have the toughest terrain and most drastic elevation changes on the entire AT.
- Black flies. NOBOs encounter their fair share of bugs. But, the black flies in Maine in June are hellacious.
You donít need a map or compass. 99% of the Trail is pretty obvious and marked by "blaze's" every 50-100 yards. AT blazes are 2X6 inch white stripes of paint located near eye-level, typically on a tree. Hence Ďwhiteblazeí
Get David Millerís The AT Guide guide and thank me later. It provides a horizontal profile of the entire Trail. Having this detailed trail gradient info is SUPER HELPFUL. Not only does it inform you how difficult or easy the upcoming miles are, but about upcoming water sources and shelters. Complete with hostel, shuttle, town info as well as a bunch of other good stuff.
Hitchhiking is the most common method to get to town. If hitchhiking is absurd to you - just hold on a sec. Yes, you need to be careful. However, almost all thru-hikers hitchhike. The citizens near the Trail are used to driving by trail crossings and seeing hikers waiting. Your driver has probably picked up many hikers for many years. Just donít hop in with a driver if he looks like a drunken lunatic.
There are hostels and motels in town. Towns are scattered anywhere from 10 - 100 miles from each other. On average you will only stay in town about once a week. Youíll be on the trail the rest of the time.
Two sleeping options on the Trail:
1) The AT Shelters. These are three walled wooden structures located ABOUT every 10 miles along the Trail. With a floor space of 8x12 feet, they can sleep anywhere from 6-10 people.
I slept in these probably 80% of the time. Shelters usually have a privy (outhouse type thing), a picnic table, fire pit and a water source nearby. On top of that, you donít have to set up and take down your own shelter every night and morning.
They are permanent structures though which makes their location rather inflexible. Sometimes they are crowded as well.
2) Your own tent/ hammock. Set this up almost anywhere. However, it is best to minimize your environmental footprint and stay at already designated sites (generally right by the shelters).
I highly recommend bringing your own shelter. You could be exhausted and not be up for pushing onto the shelter, you could encounter some impromptu bad weather and need to set up camp pronto. You could also stumble across a nice perch to watch the sunrise from.
I vote stay in shelters whenever possible, but bring your own tent/ hammock for backup. Having your own shelter will give you, at times, much needed flexibility.
7. Food and Supplies.
Typically you want 1.5 to 2 lbs of food per day. Depending on a whole bunch of factors (weight, daily mileage, sex, etc), your body can burn 5,000 calories per day. You gotta keep up with that alarming burn rate. So how to do it?
You wonít be foraging for nuts and berries nor hunting down birds and rabbits. You will resupply all food in town and carry all of it in your pack. The distance between towns can range anywhere from 40 to 100 miles or about 3 to 7 days.
Resupply in Towns.
Most towns will have a grocery store to stock up on your food for the approaching section... until the next town. There are several outfitters scattered along the trail as well to replace any worn or broken gear. Sometimes your will have to resupply at gas stations (hello beef jerky!!)
Plan out your entire food supply ahead of time and strategically ship boxes to Ďmail dropsí (post offices and hostels) along the way. This is a huge pain in the butt and does not work well in my opinion. Your taste buds will change from what you originally planned, your nutritional needs will change, etc. You also may arrive in town on Saturday afternoon when the post office is closed and have to wait for it to open on monday. Mail drops = no fun.
I found these to be a good compromise to the full-on mail drop arsenal option. Instead of trying to plan my entire resupply months in advance, bounce boxes let you ship supplies up a week or two on an as needed basis. Within a week or two window, you have a MUCH better idea of where you will be and when.
Put the supplies you need (but don't necessarily need ON the Trail) into a box and ship it forward to the next town. Repeat as needed. This was particularly helpful if I bought a 10 pack of granola bars and only needed 6 for the upcoming section or if I bought a 4 pack of batteries and only needed 2. At times, I also bounced the Ďsometimes neededí items ahead like extra socks, my journal, seasonal medicine or my ankle brace.
8. Water Guide.
You will rely on nature to keep you hydrated - ponds, streams, waterfalls, springs, etc. But, you should always treat your water (filter, chemical drops, light sterilization, etc) before drinking it.
Most of the Trail is very wet (minus some sections in PA) and water sources are every few miles. Water is heavy though - Over 2 lbs per liter. Considering you will only carry about 2 lbs of food per day, water can add a relatively huge amount of weight to your pack. Think twice before loading up on several liters.
I usually aimed to sip down a liter anytime I was leaving a water source. This meant during breakfast at the shelter, heading to the trailhead from town, or just before leaving the stream I stopped at for lunch.
I would almost always keep a liter in my bag in case the next water source was dry or in case of an emergency.
Monitor your urine color. Clear means overhydrated. Yellow means dehydrated. It should be a transparent yellow.
I feel like one of the most common questions thru-hikers get asked is ďIs it dangerous?Ē. Maybe we fear the unknown or maybe pop culture has portrayed the woods to be full of ravenous bears and estranged murderers.
Basically, the AT is very safe. I never experienced bear attacks, snake bites, what have you. There are some things keep an eye out for though.
Black bears and snakes (namely copperheads and timber rattlers). Keep your distance, be respectful and hang your food. They're probably much more scared of you than you are of them.
Bugs: Ticks can carry lyme disease and mosquitoes will drive you crazy. Wear repellent and give yourself a "tick check" as often as possible.
Weather: On both ends of the spectrum, your colder months can cause hypothermia and hotter months, dehydration. Lightning storms, particularly on balds, can be a danger as well.
Sanitation: Always treat your water. Use hand sanitizer as much as possible - mice (and other hikers!) are in some shelters and can spread some nasty stuff.
Poison Ivy: Know what it looks like and avoid it.
People: Unfortunately, we are probably our biggest danger. Although the AT has an alarmingly low crime rate, there can be some bad apples.
10. Random Things I Cherished.
- Earplugs. Some people snore in shelters. The woods can get noisey as well.
- Trekking poles. I started off without them. My knees were so beat up after the 100 Mile Wilderness, I almost when home. They saved my hike.
- Journal. My AT journal is now one of my most prized possessions
Hope y'all enjoy the hike! It's an awesome experience. Feel free to connect anytime. If you don't have a Kindle, I am happy to email you a free pdf of the guidebook: email@example.com.
Chris or 'Smooth' (like the Peanut Butter).