Authors have written time and again about their adventures, challenges, and triumphs along the Appalachian Trail (AT). Stretching 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine, the AT beckons the most determined hikers to attempt to thru-hike it, requiring careful planning, investment in gear and time, and dedication to removing yourself from your everyday routine. Thru-hiking isn’t the only option to enjoy this National Scenic Trail though. For those who may not want to follow the famed white blazes for 5 to 7 months straight, splitting up the trail into sections is a popular alternative. And if you’re just looking for a taste of the AT, the trail passes through every state in AMC’s region, offering enjoyable day or multi-day hikes for all levels. Time your hike right, and you’ll likely cross paths with thru-hikers working to reach their goal.
Thru-Hiking the AT
If you’ve decided to thru-hike the entire AT, there’s a number of factors you’ll need to consider during your planning stages:
When are you planning to hike? Most northbound thru-hikers begin in Georgia in late March or early April so they can take advantage of the warmer months as they head further north, while southbound hikers begin a little later, usually in May or June. Some hikers realize that they will not make it to Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes on Oct. 15, so will often leave the trail, take some mode of transportation up to Katahdin, and then hike south back to where they got off the trail. This is a good option for those who are behind schedule but still want to hike the entire trail. Once you’ve made this decision, you will need to register your hike with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, so they can add you to their register.
What direction will you thru-hike? Do you plan to hike northbound (Georgia to Maine), southbound (Maine to Georgia), or flip-flop (starting at the half way point of the trail and hiking either north or south to the terminus, then returning to your starting point to complete the other half of the trail)?
How much will the hike cost? The average cost of a thru-hike is $3,000, averaging $1.50 per day. This usually doesn’t include gear, which depending on your preferences can increase that cost even more.
What resources should I use to plan my hike? The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) publishes a complete set of 11 guidebooks and map sets covering the entire Appalachian Trail. The ATC also publishes the Appalachian Trail Databook, which gives the mileage from point to point along the trail and notes availability of campsites and water sources. All of these publications can be purchased online at the AMC Store, at many outdoor retailers, at some local bookstores, and directly from the ATC.
What gear will you need? Because you will hike through all forms of weather, it’s important to pack smart—remember the 10 essentials, plus pack enough layers, shelter, food, and water to assure you will be safe and comfortable on your journey.
What are the camping options and regulations on the trail? You’ll need to carefully plan out every possibility as rules change as you cross state and property borders. Most thru-hikers carry a tent and stay in the many tentsites and shelters spaced about a day’s hike apart along the trail. In areas of heavy use, such as the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire and Baxter State Park in Maine, there may be a fee assessed to stay at the shelters and backcountry tentsites. Many thru-hikers stop in at AMC’s centers located on the trail: Mohican Outdoor Center in New Jersey, and the Highland Center and Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in New Hampshire. AMC also offers eleven backcountry campsites and eight high mountain huts along the AT in the White Mountains. Reservations are required for stays at the huts and a fee is charged. There is a work-for-stay option at the huts available only for thru-hikers on a first-come, first-serve basis, and space is limited.
For more information on what to expect while thru-hiking the White Mountains, read here.
What towns will I pass through? It’s also important to consider parts of the trail take you through towns where you can stay at hostels, hotels, motels, or just restock your supplies. Many thru-hikers set up a series of maildrops, sending packages to themselves in predetermined towns along the route. These packages, on average, contain about a week’s worth of food and supplies to last until the next town where one can resupply.
What about wild animals? Although there are many wild animals on the trail including bears, snakes, and wild boars, the fear of these animals is unnecessary. All hikers should take certain precautions to protect themselves and their food, such as hanging food in bear bags, but there is little worry of these animals causing any serious harm.
Are you physically and mentally prepared? Hiking every day for months takes a lofty toll on your body and your mind. Before you hit the trail, it’s recommended that you prepare yourself for the journey by exercising/hiking ahead of time, and preparing yourself for long periods of time alone on the trail.
Section Hiking and Day Hikes
Planning a hike on a section of the AT, whether for a day, a weekend, or a whole week, still requires the above considerations, just at a reduced level. You may not have to worry about restocking supplies for a day hike, but it’s still important to pack the 10 essentials, including enough food, water, and layers to make it an enjoyable experience.