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  • Basic Advice For Newbies


    Back before our thru-hike, I compiled this for the many people in my life who had no clue what we were about to undertake. So what follows is a VERY basic overview of some general trail advice that someone new to hiking could perhaps benefit from. I was doing some computer clean-up last night and found it. I post it here as a general guideline for people who come to whiteblaze to obtain information on their newfound hobby of backpacking, even though many will not agree with some of the ideas (ie, please withhold criticism). I simply cut and pasted it from a word document, so the format may be a little weird, but I tried to clean it up as much as possible. The original document had more information and also many tables, pictures, figures, and appendices, which I have not included. Its simply stripped down to text (minus a few other sections) for the most part. My hope is that the new hiker may perhaps find something beneficial in the process. Happy hiking!__________________________________________________ _________

    Planning For the Appalachian Trail

    An Interactive Workbook for Future Thru-Hikers
    (To be used as a manual in collaboration with regional outfitters stores)

    Jacob L. Cartner
    “The Solemates” GAME ‘04

    November 2003

    Author’s Note

    Ever since I set foot on the Appalachian Trail at the tender age of ten, back in my mind I have had the vision of hiking its length. Son to a father who always took his boy on camping trips, at a young age my dad and I found adventure in the high mountain peaks and low valley streams along the AT. On one particular trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I remember seeing a black bear, a wild boar, a doe and its two fawns, and a rattlesnake. All in one four-day trip! Now to a young coming-of-age adolescent, don’t tell me that’s not exciting.

    Starting mid-February, it will take my fiancé and I approximately five months facing blinding snow, blistering heat, animal encounters, stinging insects, aching feet, and smelly socks to hike the AT. So why do it you ask? I offer simple reasons: for the thrill of adventure, the joy of accomplishment, the camaraderie of hikers, and the communion with nature. I guess it just has to be in your blood.

    Many people ask us about food. What will we eat? The answer we will simply eat whatever we get our hands on. If the typical person consumes 2000 calories a day, a thru-hiker will consume anywhere from 4000 to 6000 calories a day. Heavy carbohydrates such as rice and pastas, and fatty foods such as peanut butter and cheese will be our staples.

    Many people ask us about sleeping. Where will we lay our heads at night? For the most part, the AT has shelters that are spaced about a day’s hike apart. On days when we are not in a shelter, we will sleep in our tent.

    Many people ask us about re-supplying. How will we get more food, gear, and clothing? The AT crosses through (or passes close to) many mountain towns along its length. We will either have someone mail us food and gear to these towns, or we will purchase it while passing through. This procedure is easier in the south, where towns are about a week apart, but it gets harder in New England where towns are sparse. And yes, we will bathe in these towns about once a week.

    If you too are prone to wander, seek adventure in the outdoors, or have ever dreamt of walking long distances in the mountains, this manual is for you. It may not have the answers to every aspect of trail life, but I have tried my best to include every possible tidbit I have gathered along my way through years of planning and hiking. Use this workbook to plan for your Appalachian Trail hike, and hopefully it will help pacify such a tremendous task. Good luck and happy hiking…

    Table of Contents

    A Brief History 1

    The Dream 2

    Initial Planning 3
    Timing and Direction 3
    Alternate Hiking Patterns 4
    Weather 5
    How to Draft an Itinerary 7

    Maildrops 9

    Choosing Equipment 12

    Getting in Shape 15

    Closing Remarks 16

    References 17

    Brief History

    The Appalachian Trail, or AT, as it is called, meanders for over 2170 miles through fourteen states (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) along the Appalachian Mountain chain of the eastern United States. As a land surveyor and devout conservationist, Benton MacKaye first visioned “a mountain hinterland which penetrates the populous portions of America…but opens up a country as an escape from civilization,” when in 1921 he proposed the construction of the trail in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. With the help from avid outdoorsman Myron Avery, the plans started to become a reality when in 1937, only sixteen years after its initial conception, a completed footpath stretched from “the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south.”

    If you follow the mindset of most “thru-hikers,” people hiking the entire trail in one continuous trip, Springer Mountain, Georgia, is its southern origin, and Mount Katahdin, Maine, its northern terminus. However, the Appalachian Trail Conference, known as the ATC, and headquartered in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, describes the trail as proceeding southbound rather than northbound. The ATC has been involved with every aspect of the AT since the trail’s beginnings. Through trail clubs equipped with thousands of willing volunteers, the ATC oversees trail construction, re-routing, maintenance, and overall management. Part of the maintenance process includes marking the trail with a 2-inch by 6-inch white blaze often painted on the trunks of trees.

    The ATC also lobbies local, state, and national governments for land acquisitions so the future of the AT may be kept secure. As a result of their efforts, the National Scenic Trails Act of 1968 established the Appalachian National Scenic Trail as a protected entity. Recent amendments to this act have provided adequate land buffers on either side of the trail to protect it from the inevitability of modern urban sprawl.

    Each year over 3500 people set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia to hike the Appalachian Trail. Some 300 hardy souls will make it to Mount Katahdin in Maine. With a less than 10% success rate, a thru-hike hike demands tenacious commitment. It is an undertaking that should not be taken lightly.

    The Dream

    Obviously, the thought of hiking over 2000 rugged mountain miles appeals to you, or you would not be reading this. But before you proceed any further in your ambitious journey, you must realize the colossal commitment required to hike the Appalachian Trail. The idea to hike should not be an impulsive measure to temporarily ease your monotonous workday; it should consume your life, growing fat off your thoughts. The continual desire to thru-hike the AT will be your greatest asset once you finally set foot on the trail. Most people quit the trail not due to the physical tenacity needed to scale mountains, but due to a breakdown of mental fortitude needed to scale mountain after mountain after mountain, for days on end. Several things that should be considered before attempting a thru-hike are listed below.

    Time: The time needed to thru-hike the AT depends on the type of hike you wish to experience. Certainly, you could be a mile-buster. In 1991, David Horton completed the trail in 52 days, averaging about 40 miles per day. On the opposite extreme, you could decide to progress at a more Fletcher-like pace, spending your day admiring the views and rediscovering yourself rather than actually hiking. Most thru-hikers, however, complete the trail in 4.5-6.5 months. Both your departure date and your average daily mileage dictate the time it will take.

    Direction: The direction you hike goes hand-in-hand with the time it will take. Northbound hikers (GEME) typically start in March or April and follow spring northward. Southbound hikers (MEGA) typically start in June or July. It should be noted that Baxter State Park in Maine is closed from mid-October until mid-June due to hazardous weather conditions.

    Health: People of all shapes and sizes hike the AT each year. The better initial cardiovascular condition you are in at the hike’s start, the easier it will be for you to adjust to trail life. Do not let this hinder you, however. Join a local gym and get in the best shape possible. Then, arrange your first few weeks on the trail in a way so as to build your mileage slowly. If you keep at it, after a month you will be in the best shape of your life. I was on the trail in Georgia in spring 2001 and met a 350-pound thru-hiker, who hoped to lose weight on the trail.

    Money: The old adage “a-dollar-a-mile” has more or less been abandoned in most hiking circles these days. Although it is plausible to hike the AT for $2,000, or even less, such a frugal budget is not usually a good idea for first-time thru-hikers. After a week on the trail, most find they want to splurge in trail towns by buying beer, pizza, and a warm bed. If thru-hiking will only happen once in your life, I would splurge where possible. It is hard to pinpoint a concrete figure, but on average hikers spend $3,000-$4,000 on a thru-hike. However, if you have no gear, and plan on airfare transportation to the trailhead, this figure will increase respectively.

    Initial Planning

    Timing and Direction

    After deciding to thru-hike, you should begin to consider the effect it will have on your life. Most thru-hikers are at some sort of transition in their life. The most popular justifications include graduating from school, quitting your job, a recent divorce, or retirement. Whatever your excuse, you will need to make sure to coordinate your job absence, family absence, and bill paying accordingly. With that said, your departure time will ultimately influence life on the trail. Not only will it determine your finishing date, but it will also affect your overall comfort. Climate, terrain conditions, and even hiker camaraderie will be affected.

    Most thru-hikers start out in early spring (mid-March to mid-April) at Springer Mountain. Every year, the shelters and campsites along the first 76 AT miles in Georgia get used, overused, and abused. In order to avoid the crowd, some hikers opt to start a little earlier (late-February to early-March) or a little later (late-April to early-May). Nevertheless, northbound hikers must arrive at Katahdin before October 15, when Baxter State Park closes for the winter. Most likely, your departure date will probably be determined by your life’s schedule before you hit the trail.

    If you are among the 10% that seeks more solitude and decides to hike the trail in the southbound direction, your departure time is more or less regulated by Maine’s forest service. Baxter State Park does not officially open until June 1, although this date is susceptible to change if dangerous conditions still exist or heavy snowfall continues to linger late into the season. There is no finishing date restriction for southbound hikers.
    Plan on taking about six months to hike the AT, which is about average if you are walking about 12 to 15 miles-per-day. Conversely, at the beginning you may only average 10 miles-per-day. Then again, in the relatively flat mid-Atlantic states many hikers find themselves walking well over 20 miles a day. You should have an idea concerning the number of miles-per-day you think you will want to hike so that after preliminary planning you will be able to draft a tentative itinerary. Refer to Tables 1 and 2 below for daily mileage expectations.

    Entrance to Katahdin is strictly monitored. Baxter State Park is officially closed from October 15 until June 1, barring seasonal weather conditions. Plan appropriately.

    Remember to take into account time spent in trail towns when calculating your average miles-per-day. Most thru-hikers plan for 5-10 rest days with zero hiking miles.

    Alternate Hiking Patterns

    Thru-hiking in one continuous trip is not the only method to hike the AT. Mainly due to the time commitment associated with hiking the trail, a many hikers attempt to section hike portions of the trail over the course of several years, or even a lifetime. By planning week-long hiking trips, hikers can balance their careers and family lives while accomplishing their goals. The “2,000-miler” recognition the ATC acknowledges does not mandate the way the 2,000 miles are hiked. It simply states that all 2,000 miles are hiked.

    Those hikers not starting on the typical departure dates also have another option. By not starting in the off-season when temperatures are cool, thru-hikers may start at a non-traditional origin and embark on a flip-flop thru-hike. Even though it is not the exact mileage mid-point, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia is considered the psychological trail mid-point. Some hikers leave Harper’s Ferry and head towards Springer Mountain—the “flip” portion—and then hitch a ride back to Harper’s Ferry and from there proceed northwards until they reach Katahdin—the “flop” portion. The only downfall to this journey type is the effect may not be as rewarding. Some people find a climb up Springer a bit anticlimactic when they know they still have half the trail ahead.

    Lastly, for the ambitious hiker, with plenty time to spare, exists a yo-yo hike. In this journey, a thru-hike is followed by another thru-hike. A northbound hiker, upon reaching Katahdin, simply turns around and hikes back to where he started in Georgia.


    Important to the hiker is an ubiquitous critical eye on the weather. Weather in the high Appalachian mountain chain can change within an hour’s time. One should never underestimate the mountain’s climatic ability; rain, snow, hail, sleet, lightening, and cooler temperatures can arrive virtually without warning. As a general rule, the temperature will decrease by 3ºF with every 1000 feet in elevation gain. But elevations are unpredictable as well. Along the ridgeline winds can pick up much faster than in the valley below, and fog created from decreasing air temperatures, bringing it closer to the dew point, can reduce visibility to less than ten feet.

    Climatic zones along the AT are generally divided into three, although not completely regionally distinct, sectors: the South (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland [though some would argue about this last state]), the Mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), and the North (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine). What follows is a brief description of weather patterns along the AT in these sectors for the three hiking seasons.


    Spring: Spring hiking in the South can be very pleasant, with typical low nighttime temperatures hovering around the freezing point, and daytime temperatures often reaching 70ºF. At high elevations, snowstorms often linger well into April, but snowfall is never enough to merit snowshoes or the like. Average annual rainfall hits its peak during the spring, so always pack your raingear.

    Summer: Expect warm, even hot, daytime temperatures and cool nights. With temperature reaching 100ºF in many places, you should always carry enough water to prevent dehydration. Water is abundant along the AT since it crosses many streams, but during a drought season even these sources can be dried up. Check the weather for precautionary measures. Afternoon thunderstorms are also very common, but typically will not last more than a few hours. One last note: Be prepared for flesh-eating skeeters!

    Autumn: Fall in the South means hunting season. Always be on the look-out for eager trigger fingers, and try to wear bright colors when possible. The temperatures start to drop by October, with daytime highs in the 60s and lows dipping to freezing at night.


    Spring: With average daytime temperatures in the 50s, warmer temperatures do not begin to surface until May or June for this region. As always, bugs are prevalent, as muddy conditions from balmy weather conditions provide a unique hatching ground. Plan on encountering light snow dustings up until early May.

    Summer: High temperatures usually extend into the 80s, and can reach the high 90s during especially warm seasons. Cool, pleasant nights make for good tenting, although humid conditions may drive you out. Raingear is necessary since thunderstorms frequently last the good part of a day.

    Autumn: The forest around you will transform into an array of colors, making this a prime hiking season. Changing weather patterns, however, can create extreme conditions for the unprepared. Nighttime temperatures can reach into the 20s and winds pick up, especially along exposed ridgelines.


    Spring: Most people do not want to be hiking during this season in the North, as snowstorms are still the norm well into June. With winter thaw-out, grounds are muddy, and large black flies begin to emerge. Nighttime temperatures often reach the 0ºF rank, and daytime temperature seldom reach 50ºF.

    Summer: Black flies still persist well into the summer, but are tolerable with adequate protection. Thus, tents are more appropriate than the lean-tos often found in the North. High temperatures in the 70s make for perfect hiking weather, but nighttime lows can be chilly, often reaching freezing. Snow and rain are not out of the question even during the Summer.

    Autumn: Fall foliage exhibits nature’s wonderful color scheme, but also brings out more and more tourists, especially in the quaint little trail towns of the North. The bugs are gone, and cold-weather clothing again becomes a necessity. Raingear is also needed, as this tends to be the North’s wettest months. October is about the latest to expect to be hiking without running into some serious snowstorms.

    A constant awareness to the threat of hypothermia should be upheld along the entire trail in all seasons, no matter what the weather conditions. Always carry adequate clothing.

    How to Draft an Itinerary

    The main premise that your itinerary will be based upon is the distance you plan to hike per day. This number, in turn, is the deciding factor as to where you plan to sleep each night. As aforementioned, trail shelters are displaced along the AT, but are not necessarily always used by all hikers. Some prefer to tent out under the stars, bringing more freedom to their hiking regime. For the majority of this section, however, trail shelters will be implemented when available.

    Trail data, mileages, and other basic information can be found in many recent publications. The ATC publishes data books and trail guides each year to help assist the hiker. Many private books are also available. Due to the availability of such materials and for the simplicity sake, it will herein be assumed that you have access to them. For a publication list, please see the bibliography at the end of this manual. Otherwise, proceed with the following instructions.

    STEP 1: Determine the trip start date based upon your schedule and the hiking season you wish to begin your trip. Fill in this information in the itinerary on Day 1. For entries into the itinerary, make sure to include the day number, date, and weekday. This will help you later when planning for town visits. If staying at commercial lodging, arrangements for the first night should be made prior to trip commencement.

    STEP 2. Once your start date is set, begin scheduling your hiking destinations for each night for about two weeks. During this two week period, keep the trail mileage between nights low, so as to provide an adequate break-in time for getting in shape and accustomed to trail life. For example, if you have estimated a 15 miles-per-day average, plan for only 10-12 miles-per-day during the first two weeks.

    STEP 3. The time needed to begin to adapt to trail life is hiker-dependent. At most, though, a month should be ample time. Two weeks should suffice for most people. When planning your destination each night, begin to increase your mileage per day until it is slightly higher than your calculated average miles-per-day. By doing this, it will automatically readjust your schedule so that it fits into the total number of days you plan on being on the trail. Remember to take into account terrain difficulty when planning. Steeper climbs and tricky terrain conditions have a tendency to hinder your progress.

    It should be noted here that an accurate average miles-per-day is something that should not be taken lightly. Planning to walk a certain number of miles in a day is a lot different than walking that number of miles in a day. Experience plays a major role here. The more hiking you have under your belt, the more you know your own capabilities and limitations.

    STEP 4. Since you have to carry everything on your back, weight becomes your primary concern. From here on, you should plan your destinations around town visits. Trail towns are a hiker lifeline because they provide a re-supply point. A thru-hiker can pick up more food, and thus more weight on his back, from each town. It is important that you do not carry more food than is needed. On the same token, you need to carry enough food so as not to go hungry.

    STEP 5. Be sure to allow for enough flexibility in your schedule for adjustments that may have to be made along the way. Adjustments may be necessary due to the following circumstances:

     Days spent in town, often labeled as zero-mile days. Allow for adequate rest periods so that your body may have time to relax.
     Time needed for hitching rides to and from towns. Most drivers on roadways near trail towns are used to giving hikers a free ride. Unless under special conditions, there is no need for prior shuttling arrangements.
     Hiking long mileage days when arriving into town due to the draw of hot food. Hiking short mileage days when leaving town because of the ever-present desire to linger.
     Post Office Hours. If you arrive into town on Saturday afternoon, it will be Monday morning until you can use postal services. Check data books for individual post office hours.
     If planning to use the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) huts in White National Forest (New Hampshire), plan for delays because of overuse and perhaps work-for-stay negotiations.
     Terrain. Some terrain, such as along the New Hampshire/Maine border demands great respect. Plan for less than 10 miles a day in these areas.

    STEP 6. The last step involves filling in your itinerary with food and gear re-supply points. Because this step involves demanding logistical reasoning, discussion merits an entire chapter.

    In-depth discussion on planning for food supply points, maildrop locations, town visits, and other similar activities is withheld here. Try to focus on only one task at a time so planning is enjoyable and does not become a chore. Planning for a six-month adventure can often times take longer than the trip itself.

    A sample itinerary can be seen in Appendix A. A blank itinerary has also been provided for you to fill out in Appendix B.


    Although some hikers do not use them as frequently as others, maildrops tend to be the backbone for many thru-hikers. A maildrop is simply food, gear, and other materials that a dependable friend or family member sends to a post office along the trail, thus re-supplying the thru-hiker. The number of maildrops you plan to use will dictate your frequency into town for visits, the weight you carry between stops, and your overall hiking pace.

    Food re-supply is something that should be coordinated on the onset of your hike. Many hikers like to plan for every single meal before it is eaten. Doing this allows for strict budgeting and eases logistical planning. However, while on the trail hikers find themselves tiring of food they packed for themselves some five months prior. For this reason, many hikers opt to be more flexible when planning for food re-supply. More flexibility in your menu is certainly appealing, but hikers must be careful. Unless you have an unlimited money stash, the trail town lure can seriously put a dent in your wallet. Most thru-hikers find themselves using a combination a food maildrops and grocery re-supply combination. Trail towns typically have grocers that provide adequate foodstuffs for hikers. Check a data book for specifics.

    Just like equipment, when purchasing food, the hiker must remain weight conscious. Many a hiker whose eyes were bigger than his stomach will find himself lugging a heavily-laden pack out from trail towns, climbing back up to the ridgeline several thousands of feet higher. More than once I have seen people trying to give food away because they realize after-the-fact they could not possibly eat all the food they bought in town. Two sample menus are given below.

    Menu A Menu B

    Breakfast: 2 pkgs. instant oatmeal 2 frosted PopTarts®
    1 fruit bar 1 cup dry granola mix
    1 cup hot cocoa mix 1 cup instant coffee

    Lunch: 1 pack peanut butter crackers 2 slices of pita bread
    1 granola bar 8 tbsp. chicken spread
    1 candy bar 1 small block cheese
    1 cup mixed nuts 1 cup dried fruit
    2 cups Kool-Aid® water

    Dinner: 1 pre-packaged Mac-n-Cheese 1 20-oz freeze-dried meal*
    1 cup tuna (mix with Mac-n-Cheese) 1 pack Ritz® crackers
    1 cup hot apple cider mix 1 cup hot apple cider mix

    *Freeze-dried foods are precooked meals that have been dehydrated and vacuum packed to maintain preservation. Simply add boiling water to a pre-packaged container and reconstitution occurs. Despite the way it sounds, many of these meals are tasty, and provide the high fatty nutrition thru-hikers require. Dozens of entrees can be found in most outfitters stores. The only down side is they tend to be rather expensive ($5-$8 per package). Meals are produced by companies such as Mountain House®, Backpacker’s Pantry®, and Alpine Aire®.

    It should also be noted these are only ideas for menus. Lightweight food availability today allows for endless menu selections. When shopping, be sure to take into account the ravenous appetite you will have on the trail. The average thru-hiker eats two to three times the calories he would at home.

    Just like at home, when purchasing your trail food be sure to incorporate all five food groups (meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products) for a healthy diet. Additionally, monitor your daily calorie intake by calculating nutritional values given on food products.

    Now that you know what types of foods to buy, you need to decide how many meals to purchase. Revisit the itinerary workbook in Appendix B to plan each meal. Proceed with the following instructions:

    1. Using the guide, for each meal slot (B = breakfast, L = lunch, D = dinner) simply mark an “X” for those meals which will come from maildrops, “G” for those which will come from grocery stores, and “R” for those which will come from restaurants.
    2. Decide which towns and/or post office services you wish to implement. It would be wise to contact these establishments prior to sending mail, especially if you decide to use an address other than a U.S. post office, to make sure your plans are in accordance with regulations.
    3. Make sure to allow the correct amount of time between maildrops and re-supply points. The typical thru-hiker will average 5-8 days between stops. Those wishing to carry less weight often cut this number to 3-5 days.
    4. When complete, count the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners individually. This represents the number of meals you will have to purchase.
    5. Prepare each maildrop separately with the exact contents you wish for it to house.
    6. Estimate when you want each box sent, allowing for at least two weeks flexibility due to schedule changes and mail delays.
    7. Print out mailing labels, and estimate postage for each box. Before hitting the trail, give all this information to a reliable friend or family member so they can mail them on the date specified. Be sure to give them extra money for postage where necessary.
    8. When you are on the trail, you can call your friend to tell them to add contents you need to the maildrop box. Next town visit, it will be there waiting on you!

    In addition to food re-supply, maildrops and town visits allow hikers to stock up on the many other trail life necessities. Visits into town allow the hiker the opportunities to a hot shower, laundromat facilities, and stove-fuel purchases. Be sure to include anything needed for such luxuries (e.g., laundry detergent, soap/shampoo, and razor) in your maildrop box.

    Coordinating a maildrop box is easy. Simply mail your box via general delivery to a post office along the trail. Most data books list post offices in close proximity to the trail, including hours, miles from the trail, and number of days they will hold packages. The post offices along the AT are accustomed to dealing with thru-hikers, so there should be no problem with shipping your maildrop. Be sure to include your name and time you will be passing through sometime soon on the mailing label. A sample addressed maildrop may look as follows:



    Be sure to carry some form of identification with you on the trail, whether a driver’s license, military card, or other photo card. Under U.S. law, you must present your ID when you arrive in order to receive your package. The photograph below shows a Maine post office cluttered with 2002 maildrops used by AT thru-hikers.

    Choosing Equipment

    In 1956, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, at age 67, wore Keds® sneakers and carried a fourteen-pound burlap sack slung over her shoulder to become the first woman to thru-hike the AT. She went on the hike the entire trail three times. Needless to say, her equipment has been significantly improved upon. An attempt at reviewing the latest gear on the market would merit an entire book in itself. Additionally, clothing, footwear, and the like are too personal to impart an objective description.

    For this manual’s purpose, I will simply review a gear list that could be considered as most needed for the trail. Advantages and disadvantages will be given, as well as an example from each category. Please understand gear selection is a private choice, and what may work for me, may not work for the next hiker. I have done my best to provide an objective sample of “The Big Three” in gear, which includes the backpack, tent, and sleeping bag.


    Many models are available, but the first main decision you will have to face will be to decide between an external or internal frame pack. Just as the name implies, an external frame pack has its support material on the outside of the pack, which is typically constructed with aluminum or reinforced plastic. Internal frames are somewhat hidden and fit closer to the body for a more contoured feel. External frame packs are less popular than they used to be, owing to the newly engineered internal frames.

    Secondly, pack size must be taken into consideration. Hikers usually find that a pack ranging from 3000 cubic inches to 4500 cubic inches provides ample room for storing gear on an AT thru-hike. With the new lightweight craze, however, many people are carrying packs that barely reach 2500 cubic inches. The sample pack in Figure 1 given below is about 3500 cubic inches.


    Shelter from the environment can come in many forms. A three-season tent on the AT should provide you with an adequate buffer from rain, wind, snow and whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at you. A free-standing tent may be nice for those nights which high winds prevail or snow blankets the ground, but most hikers opt to carry only a lighter weight stake-reliant tent.

    Many options exist for backpacking tents. At the least, your tent should have a waterproof rainfly and reliable pole construction. Additional luxuries include: mesh doors to allow for proper ventilation and protection from bugs, a large vestibule to store muddy boots and other gear, headroom to facilitate changing clothes easily, and a large doorway for easy entrance. The tent shown in Figure 2 is a single-walled, one-person model that weighs less than 4-pounds.

    Sleeping Bag

    After hiking for fifteen miles and working to prepare dinner, crawling into a warm, cozy sleeping bag brings great elation. As always, weight should be a major consideration, but the bag’s temperature rating is perhaps the most important. The trail can certainly be hiked with one bag, but many hikers buy both a cold-weather and a warm-weather bag. Starting with a 20ºF bag, and then swapping to a lighter weight 40ºF bag halfway through, provides the most used solution to changing seasons while on the trail.

    Goose down sleeping bags have been the norm since AT hiking had its origins decades ago. Down bags still have the best warmth-to-weight ratio. But new synthetic sleeping bags have somewhat altered this tradition. Synthetic bags still maintain their insulation ability even when wet, a characteristic where down bags often fail. Figure 3 on the following page shows two bags—a 20ºF down bag (3a) and a 40ºF synthetic bag (3b).

    A gear checklist is given below. Each gear type serves a specific purpose and is also listed below. When planning, purchasing, and packing, remember to include:

     Sleeping Pad—insulation from ground; comfort
     Stove—preparing meals
     Fuel Bottle—used with stove
     Cookpot—eating utensil
     Spoon—eating utensil
     Lighter—stove preparation
     Bandana—dish rag
     Water Filter—potable water
     Water Bottles—drinking purposes
     First-Aid Kit—for minor injuries
     Toilet Paper—for obvious reasons
     Knife—many uses
     25’ Nylon Cord—clothes line; food line
     Flashlight w/ Batteries—night vision
     Camera w/ Film—for those great views
     Backpack Raincover—keep contents dry in storm
     Clothing—warmth
     Footwear—protection

    Getting in Shape

    Setting aside logistical planning, in order to maintain a pace at all you must first be in shape. Getting in shape builds both physical and emotional endurance. Join the local gym in order to strengthen your legs and heart. I recommend starting a training program as far in advance as possible from starting your hike. Your workout should include both cardiovascular and aerobic exercise. To supplement this, strength conditioning exercises, either through free weights or self-assisted machines, help prepare your body to trail life rigor. A sample work-out is given in Table 3 below.

    Always remember when working out to push yourself to the limit. Tell yourself: “If I don’t do one last repetition, run one last mile, I won’t summit Katahdin.” With that kind of pressure, you will never slacken your pace.

    Adapting your body to trail living also involves taking shakedown cruises. Take weekend trips, or long day-hikes while lugging a heavily loaded backpack. If you can afford the vacation time to take at least a couple week-long trips before you set foot on the AT, it will not only allow you to field test your gear, but it will also give you a feeling for trail life. Physically, and barring any injury, if you can survive a week or two on the AT, you can probably survive for six months.

    Closing Remarks

    Planning for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most hikers. Throughout this manual, I have tried to give pertinent instruction to the future thru-hiker. This instruction should ease the somewhat burdensome planning phase for the next six months in your life. Planning will be your thru-hike’s cornerstone.

    Proper planning not only ensures that you will have a successful thru-hike, it also helps focus your attention towards the ultimate goal. It prepares your mind for the trail life rigor. After choosing equipment, scheduling a route, and getting in shape, you’re halfway there. Now all you have to do is start walking!


    Alt, Jeff. A Walk for Sunshine. Cincinnati, Ohio: Dreams Shared Publications, 2000.

    Appalachian Trail Conference. “History.” URL: http://www.atconf.org. 18 November 2003.

    Berger, Jeff. Hiking the Triple Crown. Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers Books, 2001.

    Brill, David. As Far as the Eye Can See. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia: Appalachian Trail Conference, 1990.

    Bruce, Dan. The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook. Hot Springs, North Carolina: Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, 2000.

    Bruce, Dan. The Thru-Hiker’s Planning Guide. Hot Springs, North Carolina: Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, 1994.

    Bruce, Dan. Trailplace. “Thru-Hikers.” URL: http://www.trailplace.com. 18 November 2003.

    Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

    Chazin, Daniel D. Appalachian Trail Data Book 2000. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia: Appalachian Trail Conference, 2000.

    Curran, Jan D. The Appalachian Trail: A Journey of Discovery. Highland City, Florida: Rainbow Books, Inc., 1991.

    Curran, Jan D. The Appalachian Trail: How to Prepare For and Hike It. Highland City, Florida: Rainbow Books, Inc., 1995.

    Curran, Jan D. The Appalachian Trail: Onward to Katahdin. Highland City, Florida: Rainbow Books, Inc., 1999.

    Flack, James M. and Hertha E. Flack. Ambling and Scrambling on the Appalachian Trail. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia: Appalachian Trail Conference, 1981.

    Fletcher, Colin and Chip Rawlins. The Complete Walker IV. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

    Gregory. “Anti-Gravity Series.” http://www.gregorypacks.com. 18 November 2003.

    Highsmith, Carol M. and Ted Landphair. Appalachian Trail: A Photographic Tour. New York: Crescent Books, 1999.

    Jardine, Ray. Beyond Backpacking. Arizona City, Arizona: Adventure Lore Press, 2001.

    Miller, Aurthur P. and Marjorie L. Miller. Trails Across America. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996.

    Mountain Hardwear. “Backcountry Tents.” URL: http://www.mtnhardwear.com. 18 November 2003.

    Mueser, Roland. Long-Distance Hiking. Camden, Maine: Ragged Mountain Press, 1998.

    Rubin, Robert Alden. On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage. New York: The Lyons Press, 2000.

    Setzer, Lynn. A Season on the Appalachian Trail. Birmingham, Alabama: Menasha Ridge Press, 1997.

    The North Face. “Products.” URL: http://www.northface.com. 18 November 2003.

    Weihenmayer, Eric. Touch the Top of the World. New York: Dutton, 2001.

    Whalen, Christopher. Appalachian Trail Workbook for Planning Thru-Hikes. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia: Appalachian Trail Conference, 2000.

    White Blaze. “Forums.” URL: http://www.whiteblaze.net. 18 November 2003.
    Comments 59 Comments
    1. Dances with Mice's Avatar
      Dances with Mice -
      Very nice! Well done. Only one comment:

      Your workout should include both cardiovascular and aerobic exercise.
      There's a difference?
    1. squirrel bait's Avatar
      squirrel bait -
      ditto...........thanks ya'll
    1. MichaelKey's Avatar
      MichaelKey -
      thank you, I found this post to be very imformative.
    1. Zzzzdyd's Avatar
      Zzzzdyd -
      IMHO Very well written and organized, but most importantly very informative. I am no 'newbie' but found this post very useful.

      Thanks and good hiking to ya'....
    1. simplehiker's Avatar
      simplehiker -
      Great workbook I would love to see the Appendix to see how you set up the itinerary sheets.
    1. mweinstone's Avatar
      mweinstone -
      im not trying to read a book here.too long!
    1. Sly's Avatar
      Sly -
      Lots of info, but...

      "Hiking the Triple Crown" was written by Karen Berger, not Jeff.
    1. ShawnR80's Avatar
      ShawnR80 -
      Thanks very much, very, very good info. ShawnR80
    1. SunnyWalker's Avatar
      SunnyWalker -
      Can someone tell me how much an external pack should weigh? I am not into ultra light, but don't want to lug a heavy pack. I have a Kelti and it weighs about 9 pounds by irself. Thanks. -SunnyWalker
    1. Sly's Avatar
      Sly -
      Sunnywalker, it's not unusual to see pack, tent, sleeping bag, pad, pot and stove weigh less than 9 lbs total.
    1. Jester2000's Avatar
      Jester2000 -
      That's actually longer than my journal from my entire trip. Probably more useful, though.
    1. The Weasel's Avatar
      The Weasel -
      Could you also post this as an attachment, in Word format or as an Adobe PDF? That would make it easier to print (for me at least) and use. And it would have page numbers.

      The Weasel
    1. SunnyWalker's Avatar
      SunnyWalker -
      Well, that is really something. OK, I will go and weight my pack and see actually how much it weighs. Thanks. -SunnyWalker
    1. veteran's Avatar
      veteran -
      Quote Originally Posted by The Weasel View Post
      Could you also post this as an attachment, in Word format or as an Adobe PDF? That would make it easier to print (for me at least) and use. And it would have page numbers.

      The Weasel
      I made a copy in Word for myself, here is a copy.
    1. The Weasel's Avatar
      The Weasel -
      Quote Originally Posted by veteran View Post
      I made a copy in Word for myself, here is a copy.
      That's great. If you'd like it transferred into Adobe PDF, let me know by PM and I'll do it for you and send it back.

      The Weasel
    1. SunnyWalker's Avatar
      SunnyWalker -
      Learned on Outward Bound:

      When you get up from taking a break, walk a few paces and then look behind you. Did you leave anything? This works great in real like too, i. e., in restaurants, etc.

    1. Sly's Avatar
      Sly -
      Quote Originally Posted by SunnyWalker View Post
      Learned on Outward Bound:

      When you get up from taking a break, walk a few paces and then look behind you. Did you leave anything? This works great in real like too, i. e., in restaurants, etc.
      Commonly referred to as the "idiot check" and I've never been to Outward Bound.
    1. rafe's Avatar
      rafe -
      Quote Originally Posted by SunnyWalker View Post
      Learned on Outward Bound:

      When you get up from taking a break, walk a few paces and then look behind you. Did you leave anything? This works great in real like too, i. e., in restaurants, etc.
      I do that instinctively, leaving a shelter, campsite, or any rest stop -- because of the knowledge that I will probably never be at that same spot again. (And of course, remembering the effort it took to get to that spot in the first place.)
    1. SunnyWalker's Avatar
      SunnyWalker -
      Spoken like a true idiot.