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Hiking the Appalachian Trail

This land contains many marvelous things, from the natural beauties of the Amazon to the handmade 7 Wonders of the World. Every corner of this planet has something to offer. 

When you get a bunch of fitness junkies in the same room discussing these wonders two items in particular tend to come up: What peaks have you summitted? And what long-distance trails have you completed? 

Optional third question: have you completed either yet? 

Today, we are going to focus in on question number 2. The topic of our guide is a trail that only ¾ of people who set out to do it actually complete the full thing. A trail that is nicknamed “The Footpath of the People” and crosses through 14 different states in the United States of America. Our topic of interest in none other than the Appalachian Trail. 

The Trail

The Appalachian Trail is a long-distance scenic trail kept up by the United States National Park Service. This trail was first complete in 1937, is roughly 2,184 miles long (the actual distances changes slightly each year depending on trail and weather conditions) and spans 14 states in the Eastern U.S from Georgia to Maine. 

The aim was to take hikers into the wilderness and expose the beauty of nature. Keeping true to this the Appalachian Train avoids developed areas, passing though only a handful of small mountain towns, BUT travels through eight national forests, six national parks and numerous state recreational areas2. 

With the vast expanses covered by this trail, hikers will experience dense forests, woodland slopes, ridgelines and exposed ridges, swamp, bogs, and alpine peaks. If you plan on tackling this trail and are attempting a thru-hike (completing all 2,184 miles in one attempt) be ready for serious elevation changes. From the alpine peaks to grassy farmlands, you’ll constantly be traveling up and down the hillsides. 

To thoroughly discuss what the Appalachian Trail has to offer we’ve broken it down into four defining section of travel. Each with their own unique terrains, weather and opportunities to experience true beauty. 

Southern Mountains2

This section of the trail traverses through the Chattahoochee, Nantahala, Pisgah and Cherokee National forests. Starting in Georgia and expanding across North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the suggested starting point for thru-hikers. The peaks you’ll climb while passing through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are rivaled in beauty and climb only by the peaks pulling up the end of this trail in Maine. 

Those looking to get everything they can from this hike should note these monumental locations:

  • Springer Mountain (starting point)
  • Blood Mountain
  • Nantahala Outdoor Center
  • Fontana Dam
  • Great Smoky Mountain National Park
  • Clingmans Dome
  • Max Patch
  • Hot Springs, NC
  • Big Bald
  • The Roan Highlands 

The Virginias2

Rightly named for this section passes through the states of Virginia and West Virginia, only barely though. This 550 mile stretch, only 4 of which pass through West Virginia, is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, WV. Prior to making a stop there though you’ll be able to explore the Spine of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, find wild ponies in the highest summits of the Grayson Highlands State Park and climb side-by-side with the famed Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park. 

When traveling through the Virginias take plenty of pictures as you visit these notable locations:

  • Damascus, VA
  • Mount Rogers
  • Grayson Highlands State Park
  • McAfees Knob
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Skyline Drive
  • Shenandoah National Park
  • Harpers Ferry, WV
  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters 

The Mid-Atlantic2

If you aren’t so gung-ho on the entire trail yet, the Mid-Atlantic- spanning Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts- is home to the lowest elevations found along the trail. It is also a great section to train for a full thru-hike but we can discuss that more later. This section of the hike Is filled with farmlands and wetlands as you descend down the southern mountain range and head towards the northern ranges. 

The Mid-Atlantic stretch is the most user friendly portion, passing a mere 34 miles from New York City, winding through residential areas and over interstate freeways. Don’t let it’s proximity to civilization fool you though. This may be the easiest part of the Appalachian Trail to access it is filled with sharp rocky terrain forcing hikers to climb over large boulders and trudge through the wetlands during the hottest months of the year. 

Being this close to the rest of civilization means there are plenty of historic sites to visit. Make sure there’s time to see the following:

  • Washington Monument
  • Pine Grove Furnace State Park
  • Lehigh Gap
  • Pochuck Boardwalk
  • Bear Mountain
  • Trailside Museum & Zoo
  • Great Falls
  • Upper Goose Pond
  • Mount Greylock 

New England2

Starting in the south leaves the most stunning sites for last, but you must earn your way up the treacherous mountains to see these awe-inspiring landscapes. Are you tough enough? 

This final section of the Appalachian Trail passes through Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine but are often referred to as Vermud, No Hope and Pain. Vermont touts some of the muddiest terrain along the trail while New Hampshire’s peaks will likely be white by the time you reach them. Make it through these two and you’ll be faced with the final 300 mile stretch through Maine’s remote wildernesses and Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine finishing the hike off with a 5,267 foot summit. 

This will be the most physically and mentally challenging leg of the nearly 2,200 mile trail but you will experience truly unique scenery, including:

  • Stratton Mountain
  • Mount Killington
  • Hanover, NH
  • White Mountains national Forest
  • Mount Moosilauke
  • Mount Washington
  • Mahoosuc Notch
  • Kennebec River
  • Monson, ME
  • 100 Mile Wilderness
  • Baxter State Park
  • The peak of Mount Katahdin 

You do not have to complete all 2,184 miles at once, you don’t even need to finish all 2,184 miles, to experience some of the beauty the Appalachian Trail has to offer. The Wilderness Society has created a list of 12 easily accessible and worthwhile stretches to traverse for those who don’t have the time, money or interest to do a thru-hike3:

  • Springer Mountain, Georgia- 75 miles, 8 days. Springer Mountain is the coming starting location for those choosing to go south to north. This range stretches from northern Georgia into the southern tips of Northern Carolina and exposes foresty mountains, grassy peaks and shady valleys. There’s a little bit of everything in this mini trip.
  • Nantahala Mountains, North Carolina- 29 miles, 3 days. Starting from the Nantahala Outdoor Center outside of Fontana Lake, this is a series of smaller trails through the Southern Nantahala Wilderness. Use it as a 3 day training hike or a day hike with its sub-trails of Lower Ridge (4.1 miles), Big Indian Loop (8 miles), and Beech Gap (2.8 miles) trails.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee- 4 days. The miles you traverse are up to you but plan ahead because this is a backpacking area that requires permits. Routes in this park travel along ridges, streams, icy swim holes and Clingman’s Dome. Prepare for any weather conditions for the spring brings rain, snow and hail.
  • Iron Mountain Gap to Cross Mountain, Tennessee- 17 miles, overnight. This ridgeline provides wonderous views of the Cherokee National Forest. Make it to the Roan High Knob Shelter by nightfall to stay at the highest elevation shelter along the Appalachian Trail. On the way down, stop in on the apple orchards by Weedy Gap to pick up a nutritious and delicious snack.
  • Mau-Har Loop, Virginia- 14 miles, overnight. To see the beauty of this section you must first climb through 7,000 feet of rocky terrain; make it up this and you’ll be rewarded with 40-foot waterfalls, swimming holes and the perfect place for an overnight stay.
  • Shenandoah National Park, Virginia- 100 miles, 10 days. The longest but easiest of the 12 sections to hike. This section will show you the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley as it runs parallel to Skyline Drive. Hop on where you want and hop back off when you’re ready. There are plenty of side trails, nearby shops and locations, making it the most easily accessible and flattest part of the Appalachian Trail
  • Blue Mountains, Pennsylvania- 40 miles, 4 days. The Blue Mountains ridge is a stunning view of Pennsylvania; make sure you coordinate a ride before leaving though because this on is 40 miles one-way. If you desire to go out and back that is doable as well. Five shelters and campsites can be found between Port Clinton and Lehigh GapBreak along this trek.
  • Delaware River, New Jersey/Pennsylvania- 15.9 miles one way, 2 days. To get a slice of the trail magic hike this section in June to hear adventures of the thru-hikers that are starting to pass by. If you want to enjoy the experience for yourself head over to the Delaware River for a dip in the Sunfish Pond, the southernmost glacial lake on the Appalachian Trail. There are over a dozen side trails to explore if you have the time and aren’t concerned about reaching the end of this magnificent trail.
  • Anthony’s Nose, New York- 2.2 miles, 1 day. With a name like Anthony’s Nose how can you not be intrigued? This is the point in the Appalachian Trail that crosses the Hudson River before taking a steep turn up ward. It’s short, but steep. Add on an extra 3.7 miles to make it to Camp Smit Trail to get a panoramic view of the New York City skyline.
  • Taconic Highlands, Massachusetts- 16.9 miles, 2 days. Trek over Mount Everett and stay at one of the either designated shelters along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail. This section stretches through old-growth forest and pictures stunning waterfalls.
  • Presidential Range, New Hampshire- 88 miles, 9 days. Proper preparation is vital to tackle this portion of the Appalachian Trail. You will be asked to traverse tundra areas as you trek from Kinsman Notch to Gorham. This section is known for its difficult but also the view you will be rewarded with for sticking it out.
  • Best 30 of the 100 mile Wilderness, Maine- 30miles one way, 3 days. Immerse yourself in the ending, or beginning, of the Appalachian Trail by starting at Monson, Maine, hiking out 30 miles and then returning home. Once you’ve entered the 100 mile Wilderness there is no access to a paved road, so whenever you’re ready to head back just make a sharp U-turn. The first 30 miles won’t disappoint though. With Lower Wilson Falls, sugar maple forests, rocky rivers and a panoramic view of the Barren-Chairback Range you’ll wish you had time to explore the whole stretch of wilderness.

Well those are the most easily access 12 sections of the hike. If you are training for a thru-hike, and are able to get to these smaller portions, start with a short 4 or 8 day-er to test your readiness along the Appalachian Trail. 

Once you’re ready to do the full thing its time to start putting your plans on paper.

Timing

For the remainder of our guide we will be focusing on planning for a thru-hike. For those getting ready to take on the entire trail there is a lot of preparation ahead. Those only completing particular sections will still find valuable information in the sections to come. 

Hikers can start in the north or the south, but starting in Georgia is the more popular option due to the prolonged winters at the norther termini. To start down south hikers depart anytime from late-March to mid-April. The caveat with starting here is that you are on a predetermined schedule. 

Mount Katahdin, the final climb of the Appalachian Trail (from this direction), is located in Baxter State Park of Main which closes yearly on October 15 for the upcoming winters4. Coming from the other direction though this stipulation will not be hanging over your head. 

Those choosing to start up north generally have to wait until late May or mid-June for the New England portion of the trail to be cleared and open. Once open, the trail is yours to conquer. 

Aside from choosing your start date and direction the other necessary piece of time information is: How long does it take to complete a thru-hike? 

The current record for the fastest thru-hike is 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes set by Karel Sabbe in 20181. Most “speed hikers” push to finish in 50 days or less, but if you’re like us- someone who enjoys smelling the flowers and travelling at a humane pace- it can take anywhere from 5 to 7 months. The average pace is to traverse 12-15 miles a day; take advantage of the low lands where you can to keep this average up. 

Finding the appropriate time to complete the trail is only the first obstacle to overcome if you wish to complete this in one pass. Once you have found the time, chosen a direction and set a start date there are several other trail related topics to overcome and educate yourself on. 

Routes

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not as easy as being dropped off at one end, walking for 6 months and then getting picked up at the other. This vast expanse of land crosses over numerous other trails, through state parks, into national forests…it can be quite easy to get side tracked. 

To stay on task, and to understand where you are, make sure you pack the proper maps and guidebooks! 

Here are some additional things to consider when mapping out your route. 

Northbound

If you have chosen to start in Georgia and head north, congratulations you are a “NOBO”; the pleasantly simple term used to refer to hikers of this orientation. This is the more popular end to start at, in 2014, 87% of the registered 2,500 thru-hikers started from Springer Mountain to end at Mount Katahdin2. 

Starting here may mean you can start sooner (March/April as opposed to May/June), you will definitely experience an uptick of hikers you meet along the trail. This may be fun to find a new travel companion but can also lead to excess wear and tear of on the trail, damaging some of the surrounding environment on the southern portion of the trail. 

It doesn’t matter if you start from the south and go up, or from the north and come down, but if you are going to begin in Georgia here are a few things to consider:

  • The trail is starting at Springer Mountain, a grueling physical and mental challenge. Don’t give in just because of this initial obstacle
  • The hike ends at Mount Katahdin which is considered the most beautiful view the trail has to offer, but you must make another grueling climb to get there AND you must make it before the Baxter State Park closes for winter. Don’t slack off in the middle and miss out on this stunning view
  • With the influx of hikers starting from this end, shelters, hostels and campsites can become overcrowded. Staying in large crowds, and experiencing a higher volume of people on the trail can lead to an increased risk of contracting norovirus and other transmitted diseases. The norovirus spreads easily in crowd settings and the lack of publicly accessible sanitation in the wilderness can enhance this.
  • You will be starting at the tail end of winter. Though you are in the south you will still be in the mountains. Be prepared to face winter conditions as far as Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic will bring plenty of heat during the summer months and through the wetlands, but passing back into the New Englads brings back the snow. Be ready for all conditions from the get-go so you aren’t caught in a storm without the proper accommodations. 

Go with the grain or go against the grain? 

Let’s look at the southbound conditions in a little more detail so you can determine if you would like to be part of the 13% that starts from the north. 

Southbound

Winter has come and most of the northern trail is closed off. You won’t be able to leave until later in the year, but you will be one of few who starts from this end. The SOBO’s get to start their journey with the most magnificent part of the Appalachian Trail- Mount Katahdin. Seeing this might be the highlight of scenic views, but stopping now means missing out on the experiences the rest of the trail has to offer. 

If you are new to backpacking and have not done extensive trips before this may be a little out of reach. The hike begins with the most difficult terrain or rocky boulders then is followed by a 100 mile stretch of wilderness with no road access points. If you find yourself missing gear or needing assistance in this section you’re best hope is one of the other few that are as bold as you. 

If you are an experienced backpacker this may be the way to go. With less congestion you can have the trail and views to yourself most of the time. A later start date also means a later end date, allowing you to have some cooler weather across the Mid-Atlantic. You will also get to experience the beauty of fall coming through the Virginias. Best of all, most of the shelters will be open until you start to cross over with the thru-hikers that are still dedicated to the journey, even then the 87% that started out will have thinned in number and spread out along the trail. 

This seclusion can offer some magic of it’s own. When hiking southbound here are a few other things to consider:

  • Your best view comes first. Most SOBO’s agree that the ending to this one is not nearly as dramatic as heading northbound, but you will get to experience it without the pressure of 2000 other hikers pushing along behind you.
  • Starting in May or June means you’ll still be in the New Englands come rainy season. Be prepare to endure heavy rains, muddy trails (in the already muddy Vermont) and high stream crossings.

Don’t know how to properly cross a stream? Its alright, we cover that too, just a little further one.

  • Appalachians in the fall…there’s a whole other side to beauty in this world and the colors presented in these trees come October and November are breath taking.
  • Being a SOBO you will need to familiarize yourself with hunting etiquette. October is hunting season in the southern states so stay alert and be aware that you’ll be sharing the wild with another type of nature enthusiasts.

All in all the trail is the trail. If you’re a NOBO or SOBO you will be passing the same points and traversing the same miles, but you’re starting point can drastically change the colors, weather and people you encounter. For newbie backpackers, being a NOBO is a no brainer. Those seeking a more secluded experience, explore the SOBO route. Or become one of the new trend setters by taking an alternative option. 

Alternative

We get that not everyone is a people person, and at the same time starting out with the best part of the hike can be demotivating; why should you travel for 6 more months if you just experienced the highlight scenic view? 

Well there are people who are now mixing things up and are calling themselves “Flip Floppers” or “Head Starters”. To avoid the crowds of being a NOBO and to save the view of Mount Katahdin for at least the middle section of the hike, these new rowdy hikers have taken to starting at the halfway point of Harpers Ferry during May and heading north, staying ahead of most NOBO’s. After reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin by August or September, Leap Froggers (another nickname to these ingenious individuals) are shuttled back to their starting position in West Virginia and finish the trail by travel southward to arrive on Springer Mountain by November. 

This may seem like a deceiving way to pull off a thru-hike, who else gets to be shuttled around half-way through their trip? But for the true enthusiasts, walking the Appalachian Trail is not about getting to say you have completed the trail in one fell swoop; its about seeing what this world has to offer. Its experiencing the trail magic and getting away from civilization as you explore the back country for half a year of your life. 

If you want to be a Leap Frogging, Flip Flopping, Head Starter to gain the best of both worlds, go right ahead. When planning the trip from this perspective here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You’ll be starting with the easiest terrain there is, the “flatter” lands of Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. After this it’s nothing by hills, and even larger hills, and even larger hills.
  • You will still come across a good flow of hikers. It won’t be as crowded as starting at Springer Mountain, or as secluded as starting at Mount Katahdin. There should be a nice mix of interaction but available rooms at the shelters.
  • The White Mountains of New Hampshire will be traversed in July, one of the best weather months for this state. As the weather starts to warm in the north though be prepared for the bugs. The annoying little things will pester you all the way to the tip top of the mountain and back down again.
  • Saving the southern section for last means seeing the Virginias during fall but climbing the foothills of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia during hunter season and the start of winter. Like the SOBO’s you should be well aware of what hunting season brings and how to act so we can all share the wilderness safely. Don’t forget to pack you parka either because it will snow in the lower Appalachians when you get high enough onto the ridges.

You don’t have to play by the conventional rules anymore. Make this hike your unique experience, just make sure you make it possible for others to follow along in your footsteps. 

The National Parks Services does it’s best to maintain the Appalachian Trail, but with 2200 miles spanning 14 states we can’t leave it all to them. Whether you’re NOBO or SOBO (coming down) you must respect the land you are travelling upon. Always aim to leave the trail better than you found it. There have been times where thru-hiking is impossible due to trail closures from damage. This damage mostly occurs from weather conditions but can be exasperated by weakened trail conditions from rowdy hikers. Please do your part to keep this trail up and running, you’re not the only one who wants to experience its magic. 

Speaking of magic: This is the People’s Trail, the Footpath of the People, a magical place that 2,500 thru-hikers traverse each year. You and the other 2,499 hikers are out on your own for a span of 5-7 months! Part of the magic this trail has to offer doesn’t revolve around the wilderness it revolves around you. And you. And you. And…get it? 

As a hiker you may endure some Trail Angels. These angels are often former thru-hikers who are there to afford you the small comforts of life. Trail Angels often come back around to offer random acts of kindness by providing free snacks, a coffee, or even opening up their home as this years pack crosses by. You will love your Angels and in return wish to keep the magic going by becoming an Angel yourself. Finish the Appalachian Trail and then come back in future years to help the next generation traverse this magic span of land. 

When deciding to become a Trail Angel please keep in mind the conservation efforts of our volunteers and park rangers. Foot traffic is foot traffic, whether you’re a hiker or an Angel, always make a concerted effort to keep the trail maintained as best as possible. 

Navigating Obstacles

So you’ve got your maps and guidebooks, and you’ve planned your route- NOBO, SOBO or Flip Flopper- but how can you make sure you are staying on the right path? And what happens when you need to cross a river? Or move around a boulder? Or suddenly need to go to town? 

Walking along the trail for months at a time you are guaranteed to come across at least one of these concerns. Here’s how to handle these situations. 

Trail Markers

Creators and up keepers of the Appalachian Trail understand how simple it would be to get side track or pulled of trail during this extensive hike. This trail crosses over thousands of other small trails, that can lead to some stunning place but are definitely off course. To help keep thru-hikers on track white blazes have been used to thoroughly mark the path.

A white blaze is a 2 x 6 inch swatch of white paint painted on a rocks, tree or sign post signifying the path to take to stay along the Appalachian Trail. There are an estimated 165,000 white blazes to offer you guidance in your travels2. Make sure you are aware of what these blazes communicate though. You will see a variety of orientations, from single blazes to a double blazed stacked and off-center; each orientation indicates something different.  These aren’t the only markers along the trail either. 

More commonly seen in the northern states, or where there is a lack of trees along the ridgelines, rock cairns are used to mark the trail. These will be your primary guide along the White Mountains of New Hampshire. 

If you ever wish to make a detour look for a blue blaze. Blue Blazes, or a blaze of any color other than white, signifies an intersection with small trails that can be used to access water sources, vistas, shelters or many destinations. For destinations of importance, the blue blaze will be accompanied by a sign to indicate what awaits. 

If you do not know where a trail leads, consult your maps and guidebooks before diverting from the Appalachian Trail. When in doubt follow the white. 

Fording

There will be several points in the hike where you will need to cross a stream. With 2,184 miles of trails this is inevitable. The hikers before you have properly prepared these areas though. 

Most streams, creeks and rivers can be forded without issue. Some crossing sites will be equipped with ropes to guide you as you pass through the waters, while others will be small enough to traverse on your own. The danger of fording these water sources comes with the rains and storms though. 

When you experience times of heavy rain, snow, or hail, the rivers will begin to rise and the current increases in strength. In such cases, wait a day or two to cross these areas. The temperature of the water mixed with current strength, water level, and fatigue of travelling, can easily create a series of unfortunate events. 

Other than times of extreme weather most rivers should be easy to ford. There is one river that should never be forded however, and that is the Kennebec River in Maine2. This water source is fueled by a damn located upriver beyond the Appalachian Trail. Water releases are infrequent but will happen with little to no warning. With a natural birth of 200 feet across, unexpected rising water levels make this a dangerous place to traverse on your own. For this reason, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has funded a ferry service to help hikers safely reach the opposing bank. Do us all a favor and take advantage of this act of kindness and safety. 

Hitchhiking

You will need to visit a town at some point during your adventures. Unless you are super wild man who can produce their own food, water and shelter for 6 months of survival you will need to drop off unneeded equipment, pick up the next bout of necessary equipment, and refuel on food and water stores. 

There are places along the trail where you can access a town via walking. In other places, or in times of low energy, hitchhiking will be an option. It is not uncommon for thru-hikers to hitch a ride at least once during their journeys but there are a few things to be aware of when pulling off this maneuver. 

For starter, hitchhiking is illegal in all 14 states you will be crossing through. 

If it’s illegal than how do we do it? 

The laws of these states- excluding Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Maine (we’ll come back to these)- forbid hitchhiking from the roadway. If you happen to walk into a gas station, or wander through a parking lot seeking passage you probably will not be faced will legal charges. The authorities have been lax about these laws in the past and will generally allow these acts as long as the flow of traffic is not impeded and safety is not compromised. 

If you are in one of the three excluded from this (Tennessee, Pennsylvania or Maine) do not hitchhike. In these states it is illegal to participate in any form of hitchhiking, so avoid it all together. 

When in doubt just walk it out. 

When looking at your maps you will find that there are very few places to actually access cities from the trail and it might cause you to wonder: Where do I sleep? 

Sleeping Options

Part of exploring the outdoors is sleeping outdoors. You will have 5 to 7 months to enjoy sleeping under the stars. But again, the creators of the Appalachian Trail have recognized our needs as humans (and in cases our ill preparedness to take on the elements) and have littered the trail with many sleeping accommodations. 

Camping

There are at least 100 designated campsites along the Appalachian Trail2. Most will be situated near water sources for refueling, and these will often be used by more than one thru-hiker, especially towards the start when everyone is in the same proximity. 

Aside from these campsites, dispersed camping (setting up camo in an open area anywhere along the trail) is generally permitted and practices by many. Before heading out though check out the rules and regulations surrounding all forms of camping in state and national parks. Some areas, such as the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, may require permits or have extended guidelines. 

In general, setting up camp will happen more often than not. Be prepared to set up camp and break it back down in a timely manner each day and always remember to leave the space cleaner than you found it. 

Shelters

As you walk along the Appalachian Trail you may notice a small hut or lean-to every 5 to 15 miles. These are shelters, and there are 250 of them spread along the entirety of the trail2. The shelters are large enough to house a few groups of thru-hikers and can be used by any Appalachian Trail traveler, but they operate on a first-come-first-served system. 

Providing a step up from campsites, are often situated near water sources, are equipped with fire pits, picnic tables and outhouses as well as bear-bag systems to keep creatures out of your food. Many are free to stay at but some require a small fee to help volunteer groups keep up the maintenance. ALL shelters require etiquette though. 

These often become the spot to be at when hiking. Be mindful and respectful of other’s, recognizing you are all facing the monumental task of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Take the time to sit down and enjoy a meal with a stranger. Hear some new stories or gain a different perspective on this magnificent journey of a hike. 

Hostels

For those that need a break to refuel, recharge, and reset, hostels have been posted along the Appalachian Trail to provide the comforts of home for a night or two. Make sure you’ve planned, or at least looked at possible stops ahead of time because most hikers cater only to thru-hikers. With a majority of the hikers being NOBOs, the hostels stick to their schedule, shutting down in the off-season, possibly missing the SOBOs or Leap Froggers. 

Hostels have been popping up for years and are an inexpensive in between for sleeping purposes. You will find bends comfier than the shelters, but not have to travel into town or pay for a full hotel room. The average stay ranges from $10 to $50 and will offer a range of services. From bunks to full beds, showers, laundry, warm meals, a shuttling service and more, hostels can be the best place to spend and evening after conquering some of the tougher sections of the Appalachian Trail. 

Sit down, share a meal and some stories with other hikers as you prepare for the rest of your adventures. Keep in mind though these are businesses. It is one of the few places you’ll need money along the trail and you are paying for a service to stay at these places. 

Like any business, the hostels need an income to stay up and running; take their generation of low cost to heart and treat them as Angels. The hostels are here to serve the thru-hikers and do so at a generous price. Treat your hostels stays with the same respect as the trail and be thankful for the shower, hot food, and bed you’ll be given in return. 

The services and accommodations range from hostel to hostel; there is not set standard, but look ahead and plan some stops because these places can double as outfitters or maildrop locations. 

Resupplying

Resupplying is a necessary practice and there are a few ways to go about doing it. 

Outfitters

This is the place to grab all your supplies. When starting out you won’t need to carry every single piece of equipment necessary to finish the trail. Instead plan for the section you are currently facing. What will you need between now and the next outfitter? 

This means planning ahead and recognizing where the outfitters are located. There will be a higher concentration of outfitters in the southern and norther ranges (since these are the starting/ending points of the trail) and a decreased concentration while travelling through the Mid-Atlantic or Virginias. 

Most outfitters will be placed in the towns along the trails making them easily accessible, but don’t rely on each town to have an outfitting station. Look ahead and plan what you will need to get from each. Outfitters offer gear, repairs, fuel and any other needs you may have to get you through this trip. Some will even provide shuttles or accept mail drops. Take advantage of these where you can, understand where the next location is, and be strategic about your trip so you are ready for what lies ahead. 

Maildrops

Outfitters, hostels and mountain towns will commonly double down as maildrop centers. 

What are maildrops? 

Glad you asked. Maildrops are the most common way to refuel yourself along the journey. Most thru-hikers will plan out what maildrop stations they will be visiting well before they leave for the trip. Choosing your maildrop stations allows you to assemble packages and mail them to yourself prior to the trip beginning. Once you reach the desired station there should be a package to you, from you, filled with the supplies you intended to use on the next leg of the hike. 

This is some meta stuff. Think into the future, send a package out today and then receive it sometime 2 to 4 months down the road at a predetermined location. What did you send? Were you accurate in what you thought you would need? 

If not, you can always just use the outfitters, hostels and town to resupply. But try to send your favorite snacks or lucky socks through maildrops as motivation to make it to the next outpost. 

Water

One thing you can never have enough of, but don’t want to carry tons of, is water. This is a vital key to survival. From drinking, to bathing, to cooking; the amount of water you will need for the entire trip is just not viable to pack in your bag. 

If this is the case, how much water should you plan on packing? And how can you get more along the way? 

Water sources are abundant along the Appalachian Trail. It is not uncommon to pass by multiple springs, creaks, rivers or ponds in one day. Because of this it is usually not necessary to carry more than 2 liters of water at a time on your person. Word of caution though! You MUST take into consideration the direction you are hiking, time of year you will be passing by some resources and understand that not every water source marked on the trail will always have sufficient or clean water for you to pull from. 

The mountainous terrain of the northern and southern termini often mean more abundance opportunities to collect water, but during the colder months these sources can be frozen over. In the Virginias and Mid-Atlantic sources can be fewer and further between while temperature, humidity and the need for water rise. The best thing you can do is plan ahead! 

Water is your number one resource for survival, don’t be caught with an empty bottle. 

Since you will need to pull water from its natural source you will also need a reliable water treatment toolkit. Obtaining water from any natural sources poses a risk for contamination, the most common water borne illness experienced along the Appalachian Trail is giardia- a parasite that causes nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue among other symptoms. 

Reduce your risk of contracting this, or numerous other illnesses, by staying equipped with either a water filter or chemical treatment. Either method is effective for decontamination, and the choice is left to personal preference. Just make sure you have some form of filtration, plus some back up. Stock up when you reach civilization so you can keep clean water with you everywhere you go. 

Equipment

With the abundance of hostels, shelter, outfitters and town along the trail you can pack light. Though they aren’t at every mile marker, they are still available as you travel along the Appalachian Trail. When backing your bag there are some essentials you must keep on you the entire time though. 

The Big 4

Every hiker will need: a backpack, sleep system, shelter and footwear. These are the big 4 of equipment needs. Notice food and water are not listed because these are essential survival items, not equipment, pack sufficient food and water so you can survive. 

Your backpack carries everything you need. The average hiker can get away will filling a 65 liter pack, if you are filling a 75 liter pack you are taking too much. The downside to needing this much equipment though is that your bag will be experiencing accelerated wear and tear. Even if you find the perfect backpack now, be prepared to purchase a new one at an outfitter along the way. 

The sleeping bag you need will be dependent on your route. NOBOs typically can get away with a 15 to 20-degree bag to start off with, switch to a light bag when they hit the lowlands and then snuggle up with their below zero bags to end the hike. SOBOs and Flip Floppers plan ahead to match you bags to average temperatures as well. 

No matter which bag you use opt to have a waterproof down sleeping bag with a liner. The waterproofing will keep condensation out while the down provides a comfier and more durable warmth to weight ratio (you don’t want to haul around a huge heavy bag every day!), and the liner makes for easier washing along the trail. Your bag and you will become very close, choose wisely. 

The shelters is again your choice. Go as simple as a tarp, or intricate as a 5 person tent (why? We aren’t quite sure but it happens). When choosing your shelter consider7: 

  • Capacity: If you are travelling with a companion you will need something larger than a single man’s tent, unless you all want to carry your own shelters. But help a friend out, take turns carrying the tent if there is more than one of you.
  • Seasonality: Like your sleeping bag, your shelter should change with the seasons. Using a tarp of hammock is reasonable come July but April or November will call for something a little sturdier.
  • Weight: You have to carry this thing over 2,000 miles take into consideration light weight options even though they may cost slightly more.
  • Livability: Is it easy to setup? Do you have to crawl to get into it? It may not seem like a big deal now but 2 weeks into hiking you don’t want to be frustrated or hindered by having to set up a shelter, knowing you still have 5 months of this ahead of you. 

You’ve made yourself as comfortable as you can at night; aim for the same during the day by choosing the proper footwear. The proper footwear will be a personal preference but recognize the need to constantly update what you are wearing. The same pair of sneakers aren’t going to be ideal for mud, boulders, bogs, and steep inclines. 

The other word of caution when choosing shoes is size. As you continue along the trail your feet will likely swell due to the immense levels of activity. For this reason, thru-hikers often find themselves going one size up in footwear. 

Other Supplies

The Big 4, along with food and water, and not the only supplies you’ll be in need of. Other common items include8:

  • Clothing for all weather occasions (use maildrops and outfitters to plan ahead)
  • Compactible stove tops and cookware
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellant
  • Toiletries
  • Pocket knife and rope
  • First Aid kit
  • Emergency supplies (whistle or signaling gear; needle, thread, duct tape for gear repair)
  • Navigation
  • Bear can (to store food overnight)
  • Water filtration system
  • Light 

The list is not limited to these items however so do your research and find what you will need to bring along for a successful and enjoyable hike. 

Dangers/Risks

This is no small feat, especially if you have small feet. There is a level of risk and some posing dangers you need to be aware of before starting out. Through all your research and reading (which you should continue to do beyond this guide if you are going to be hiking the trail) you will come across many stories of what hikers have faced while traveling the Appalachian Trail. 

Some stories may scare or deter you, but look further to see if what they are saying is even a possibility. Though it may seem daunting to meet the Yeti in the White Mountains, the likelihood of this happening is slim to none. Here are some other perceived threats you may come across in your readings (or hiking adventures). 

Perceived Threats

Being in the wilderness, and in particular the wooded forests, you are in the home of many different creatures. One such creature that does actually live in these woods is the black bear. 

While hiking along the trail it is possible to come across these furry beasts. We aren’t comparing them to the likeness of the Yeti monster, but we are placing them on the perceived threats list because of the manufactured attitudes attributed to these animals. Contrary to popular conception, black bears are very timid creatures that actively avoid humans. 

The popularity of the Appalachian Trail has made this pathway a major thorough fare for human traffic. The longer we continue to use and keep the trail maintained the more the black bear avoids it. They do not like to confront humans and will stay away from areas known to have high human activity. To ease your mind further, over the past 115 years there have been less than 75 deaths due to black bears2. That’s not even one a year. 

The likelihood of you seeing a black bear is very low, and the likelihood of them approaching you is even lower. 

Another creature placed on this list for a misconception of attitudes is the snack. You will come across one or two during your 2,184 mile hike, but a majority of the snakes found in this area of the country are non-venomous and not aggressive. In the rare case you do come across a copperhead or timber rattlesnake it is unlikely for them to strike or bite. Snakes of this nature will attempt to flee before turning aggressive. Confrontation is a last result as only happens in situations where the snake feels cornered or threatened. 

Always keep a watchful eye, most bikes will occur from a misplaced step. Avoid these by watching where you are walking. If you are bitten by a snake always, always inspect the bite. If it did come from a poisonous snake, seek medical attention. In the event that this does happen, do not panic. 

Venom is a limited resource for poisonous snakes and they prefer to use this to immobilize prey. Since they aren’t trying to eat you, the chances of them using their venom on you decreases. We aren’t saying you’re free and clear, you should still see a doctor, but in the rare chance you find a venomous snake there is an even rare chance it will strike, and if it chooses to strike instead of flee there is a decreased chance it will waste it’s venom on you. 

Still, when you spot a snake give it it’s space and avoid interaction as best as possible. 

The last creature you are guaranteed to encounter along your hike that poses a perceived threat is the human. 

There have been cases of unsavory encounters between two people along the Appalachian Trail but for the most part we are all just people enjoying the trees around us. Be kind to your fellow hikers and they will likely return the favor. 

Now that we have those “threats” cleared up let’s look at some of the actual dangers you will be presented with during your long-distance hike. 

Actual

The first and most practical threat is that of being underprepared. This is an extensive journey that requires extensive research and preparation. Do not travel or pack lightly in hopes of making it to the next outfitter, or finding an Angel, or anything else. You are responsible for you, take it seriously. 

Use common sense. When confronted with a snow storm, set up your shelter and hunker down. When water resources are getting low, refuel at the next available source. Pack clothing for ALL occasions- weather is unpredictable, you can have temperatures above 90 in March and below 60 in July. 

When you have everything lined up in a practical manner then you can turn your attention to the minute details. We’re not talking how many pairs of underwear you have packed, or if 2 extra sets of shoe laces will be enough. We mean setting your sites on the physically smallest but most dangerous creature you will come across while hiking: the tick. 

Ticks are found throughout the entire Appalachian Trail. Make it a habit to check yourself, and any hiking partners you are with, daily! These tiny buggers become more prevelant as the weather heats up but you should be on the lookout from day 1. 

The danger of a tick comes with its small size (making them very hard to see or feel) and it’s powerful bite that is often filled with transmittable diseases. The most common disease to pick up from a tick is Lyme Disease. Though this is rarely a life threatening disease, it is almost always a life changing illness. If you or a partner are bitten by a tick look for the following symptoms over the coming weeks5: 

  • Stage 1: Bulls-eye shaped rash that slowly expands from the bite site- usually appears within 1-4 weeks. Symptoms result in pain or itchiness (common side effects of hiking, don’t get them confused!), constant headaches, neck stiffness and low to medium grade fevers
  • Stage 2: bulls-eye rash appears in other places on the body, signifying a spread of the disease. These usually appear within 1 to 4 months. Symptoms from stage 1 worsen and expand into poor memory or concentration, painful swelling of the joints, pinkeye or damage to the tissues of the eye, numbness in the arms and legs and fatigue. Rare cases even pose a threat to cardiac health and/or loss of control in facial muscles
  • Stage 3: The final stage that will occur several months after the bite includes the most severe, and often permanent, symptoms. These include arthritis in knees and other major joints; tingling and numbness in hands, feet and back; persistent fatigue or exhaustion; intermittent inflammation surrounding the heart; difficulty or full loss of control of the facial muscles; and increasing difficulty with memory, mood, sleep and speaking. 

If caught early Lyme disease can usually be cured. If you experience a tick bite watch it closely and leave the trail to get checked out. Don’t let this tiny creature dominate the remainder of your life. 

The tick is the major nature related threat of the Appalachian Trail. The remaining dangers revolve around your ability to take care of you. These include: 

  • Hypothermia: when your core body temperature drastically decreases bodily functions will shut down to preserve energy. In extreme cases, bodily function can slow down or shut down to the point of death. This threat is most notable when traversing through mountain passes, but can still occur during the summer months or warmer weather. Hypothermia is a result of not keeping the body warm. Even if it is 80 during the day, the temperature will drop at night; if the proper blankets and clothing are not used you can experience hypothermia while sleeping. Keep your warm gear on hand because by the time you notice you are entering into this state it may be too late. If you’re cold or the temperatures have dropped, cover up!
  • Dehydration: this occurs from a lack of water intake. Carrying water along the trail can be cumbersome but not to the extent of dehydration. It is already hard to drink enough water while living in civilization (especially when coffee is your life force), it becomes even harder as you are exerting yourself trekking through the back country. As exertion levels and temperature rise so does the bodies need for water. If you ever reach a point of thirst, you have gone too long without water. Take small sips frequently throughout the day, and refill with clean water sources every chance you get, to keep this risk at bay.
  • Heat Exhaustion or Heat Stroke: the counterpart to hypothermia- being too hot to carry out normal bodily function. Heat exhaustion often begins due to dehydration, increased humidity and increased temperatures. This state is presented in the form of extreme fatigue, headaches and dizziness (just to name a few symptoms). If you do not stop to rest and rehydrate, heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke; a dangerous state where the body can no longer regulate internal temperatures resulting in a need for immediate medical attention. 

Listen to your body. You are going to be experiencing soreness, fatigue, heat and cold but you should know when it is too much. If you are ever uncomfortable with your current state of being, sit down and take a break. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint and it is ok to cover a few less miles today to save yourself for tomorrow. 

Preparation

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not a vacation. It is a physical and mental endeavor that requires hours, weeks, months of preparation and planning. Everything you have read and decided up to this point is just the beginning. Now we put the money, and the training, where your mouth is. 

Registration/Permits

One of your first purchases should be your registration and permits. To thru-hike the Appalachian Trail you should register with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The registration itself is free, but provides the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and other thru-hikers, valuable information about who, when and how many people will be accessing different parts of the trail. 

In conjunction with your registration, you will need to gather a few permits. Technically speaking, permits are not needed to hike along the trail but are necessary to stay at select campsites. If you plan on staying overnight in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Shenandoah National Park, or Baxter State Park (all of which will utilized) you will need a backcountry permit. 

The Great Smoky National Park offers special permits specifically for thru-hikers that can be acquired online prior to starting out, just don’t lose your confirmation along the way. The Shenandoah National Park permit is free and can be obtained through a self-registration point at the northern or southern boundaries to the park along the Appalachian Trail, while the Baxter State Park can be harder to get ahold of. 

At this time Baxter State Park is limiting the number of permits granted during the open season6. To obtain a permit you must apply in person for an AT-Hiker Permit Card. For more information on where to obtain you Baxter State Park permit, along with other guidelines for various campgrounds along the trail, visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy permits webpage here. 

Physical

The best way to prepare for this extensive hike it to, well, hike. 

Do a lot of hiking and even more backpacking. Even if you aren’t performing an overnight hike, take a weight backpack with you on day trips to get used to carry a load of equipment over long periods of time. 

Start with shorter 4-5 hour hikes, work into day long treks, and then go for the overnight experience. 

Mix in a variety of terrains. While on the Appalachian Trail you will be confronted with everything short of a desert so climb some hills, walk a spine, explore the bogs and get used to being outdoors. 

Mental

Now is the best time to build the mindset needed for finishing the trail. To begin you must come up with a why. Why are you going to spend the next 6 months traversing from ridgeline to ridgeline in the snow, sleet, mud, and heat? 

The stronger your why, the more motivation you will have to start the journey and the more discipline you can create when the motivation fades. Prepare yourself for this because there will come a point where the motivation slips away and you have to rely on discipline to continue. 

Knowing this upfront and preparing for it now will greatly increase your chance of success. Remember only ¾ of those who start out each year will finish. Will you be part of the 25? 

Final FAQs

How long is the Appalachian Trail?

The trail varies in length year to year due to go arounds or redirections for trail maintenance, but generally speaking the Appalachian Trail covers just under 2,200 miles 

  • How long will it take?
The average hiker takes 5 to 7 months to complete the full trail. 
  • How much does it cost?

Costs will vary depending on the equipment purchased, but the average spend on hiking the Appalachian Trail can come out to $3000-5000 per person.

  • When is the best time of year to hike the trail?

If you leave from the south start in March or April. Those leaving from the north should look at a start date in late May or early June.

  • Should I start in Georgia or Maine?

The choice is yours. Mount Katahdin is said to be the most dramatic view point of the hike and is situation in Baxter State Park of Maine. Starting in Georgia leaves this as the finally, while starting in Maine allows you to get the toughest climbs and terrains out of the way.

  • What is trail magic?

Trail magic is the experience of human kindness. Thru-hikers that have hiked the Appalachian Trail in the past often return to provide free snack or shelter for those going through the experience this season. 

  • Why don’t people use their real names on the trail?

The practice of using a trail name started in the mid 1900s and continues on to this day. You will not be required to make up a trail name, but referring to yourself as “Chipmunk”, “Muggle”, or “Mudflap” adds to the experience and magic of being away from civilization. 

  • Do I have to sleep in a tent the whole time?

The tent is optional, though highly recommending in some areas. You can sleep wherever you come across adequate sleeping space. Whether that’s a hammock hung between two trees, snuggle up close to a stranger under a shelter, or finding a cozy bed in a hostel; sleeping arrangements are what you make of them. 

  • What supplies will I need?

Aside from water and food, the big 4 equipment needs are a backpack (suggested 65-liters), sleeping bag, tent, and footwear. Aside from this, plan to pack some form of water filtration, first aid and emergency supplies, cooking utensils, toiletries and other nick nacks to protect yourself from the outdoors. 

  • Are there bears or other wildlife I need to worry about?

Black bears, snakes, and other creatures do live in the Appalachian Mountain and can be seen periodically throughout the hike. Most creatures are docile or fear humans and will avoid interaction however. The biggest concern in terms of creatures will be the tick. These tiny parasites are hard to find or feel on your body and can infect you with some pretty serious diseases. 

  • What permits will I need?

Permits are only needed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee, North Carolina), Shenandoah National Park (Virginia) and Baxter State Park (Maine). Outside of these areas there are guidelines to be aware of but permits will not be needed. 

  • What is the best thing I can do to prepare mentally and physically?

Start practicing long hikes. Work up to week long back packing trips because they best way to prepare is to gain experience. Know ahead of time why you want to complete this feat and recognize there will be challenges along the way. 

The experiences you gain from hiking the trail will be a once in a lifetime memory- unless you go back and do it again that is. Whether you plan to return or not, while hiking the Appalachian Trail allows remember to follow the seven principles: 

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors 

Enjoy your travels fellow hikers!

 

References: 

1Greenspan, J. (2019 Feb. 6). 10 Things you should know about the Appalachian Trail. History.

Retrieved from: https://www.history.com/.amp/news/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-appalachian-trail 

2The Trek. How to thru hike the Appalachian Trail: A 101 guide. The Trek. Retrieved from: https://thetrek.co/how-to-thru-hike-appalachian-trail-101-guide/

3The Wilderness Society. No time to hike the Appalachian Trail? Try these 12 easy section hikes The Wilderness Society. Retrieved from: https://www.wilderness.org/articles/article/no-time-hike-appalachian-trail-try-these-12-easy-section-hikes 

4Be Outdoors. Appalachian Trail FAQs. Be Outdoors Appalachian Mtn Club. Retrieved from: https://www.outdoors.org/conservation/trails/appalachian-trail-faq

5Bowman, J. (2014 Dec 8). What you need to know about Lyme Disease and Deer Ticks on the Appalachian Trail. The Trek. Retrieved from: https://thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/what-you-need-know-lyme-disease-deer-ticks-appalachian-trail/ 

6ATC. Permits and Regulations. Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Retrieved from:

https://appalachiantrail.org/home/explore-the-trail/multi-day-hiking/permits-and-regulations 

7REI. How to choose a backpacking tent. REI. Retrieved from: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/backpacking-tent.html

8Thomas, L. (2019 Jun 26). The ultimate Appalachian Trail packing list. Backpacker. Retrieved from: https://www.backpacker.com/skills/appalachian-trail-packing-list

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