Thousands of people set out each year to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. At more than 2,100 miles, the trail runs from central Maine to northern Georgia.
The vast majority of backpackers who start a thru-hike never finish. The average hiker that does takes between 5 and 7 months to complete their journey. Knowing what it takes to finish before you start is the key to success.
What to know before hiking the Appalachian Trail? Even experienced hikers fail to complete thru-hikes. If you want to be among the hundreds of people each year who get to say they completed the Appalachian Trail, you need to know the reasons why people fail to finish and what you can to avoid those problems during your hike.
There is a lot of advice out there for people who want tips on a successful thru-hike, but not all of it is good. Like most things in life, overcoming the challenge presented by the Appalachian Trail takes planning and preparation.
If you know what has caused others to fail, you’ll know what to focus on when you’re planning and preparing for your thru-hike. Read on for the 14 most important tips.
14 Things to Know Before Hiking the Appalachian Trail
For most of the people who set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It should be an unforgettable mix of challenges and rewards marked by meeting interesting people, seeing beautiful scenery, and accomplishing something that most people wouldn’t even attempt.
It’s easy to enjoy time on the trail without completing a thru-hike, but if that goal is on your bucket list, you’ll need to steer clear of the most common problems that cause hikers to give up before they reach the end.
#1 – Plan Your Start Time and Jumping Off Point Carefully
The very first things that you need to decide when you’re planning on doing a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail is which end of the trail you will begin (NOBO or SOBO) your journey and what time of year you will or can get started. These two factors will work together to determine the conditions that you will have to be prepared for throughout your hike.
For Example: If you know that you’re going to have the time to get started in the early spring, then it makes sense to start at the southern end of the trail and head North (NOBO).
The weather will already be warming up there. If you were to start in Maine at the same time of year, you would likely be hiking through snow. On the other hand, if you’re starting in the summer, you would probably want to start on the northern end (SOBO) and hike your way into the cooler temperatures of a southern fall.
You not only need to plan for the weather that you’ll face in the place and at the time that you get started. You’ll need to consider what things will be like six months from that date at the other end of the trail. Knowing this will help you figure out what to pack and what to include in your scheduled drops.
#2 – How Long Does It Take to Hike the Trail?
As we’ve already pointed out above, a thru-hike will usually take 5 to 7 months to complete in its entirety. An extreme long-distance runner recently completed the journey in just over 41 days(source), but you probably shouldn’t plan on keeping up with that pace.
If you can average 12 miles per day, you would complete your journey in right around six months, this also counts Zeros and Neros.Josh
That might not sound like much of a pace to keep up but when you consider the multitude of ascents and descents as well as the toll that doing it every day for six months can take, you begin to realize why so few people succeed.
#3 – How Much Does It Cost?
You might not think that it costs very much money to spend six months walking through the woods. Though, when you begin to think deeper you will realize that you will need six months’ worth of food and other supplies to complete your journey, you begin to see how the costs add up quickly.
A good rule of thumb for estimating the cost of your time on the trail is to plan for $2-3 per mile. Over 2,100 miles that ends up being somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000.
Another expense that you will need to factor into your plans is the investment that you will need to make in quality gear and clothing. Depending on what you already have in your backpacking supplies, the lightweight pack, sleeping bag, tent, and other essential items can set you back between $1,500 and $3,000.
There is one more financial aspect that you need to factor in when you’re planning your trip. There are monthly bills and other ongoing expenses that you need to plan for. You can do this by either eliminating them, paying ahead, or saving up in a special account.
Things like utility bills, car payments, insurance premiums, and other recurring bills need to be accounted for or, when possible, eliminated for the time that you’ll be on the trail. If you quit your job then look into travel insurance to ensure you have coverage should you need medical help!
#4 – Dangers to Be Aware of On the Trail
There are many dangers to consider as you prepare to spend up to six months in the wilderness. Fortunately, most of them are from things that you can control and reduce if not eliminate entirely.
Things to pay attention to on the trail:
- Wild Animals (Snakes, Bears, etc)
- Unsavory People (Not the hiker trash, more like bad people)
- Extreme Weather (Snowstorms in Feb and March!)
- Simple, standard human error and misjudgment (Pushing miles, hiking in dangerous conditions, etc)
Each of these is a danger that can result in an injury, illness, or worse, and any of those things can end your journey and spoil your memories.
Bears, coyotes, wild boar, and venomous snakes are the animals that are most likely to cause problems for hikers on the trail. By using bear bags to store your food, you can keep your camps relatively safe from unwanted visitors.
If you are overly concerned about bears, they don’t like unnatural noises so you could wear a bell on your pack along with carry an air horn for emergency situations will let noises work to your advantage when it comes to warding off animal threats like bears.
With the other threats, control can be much harder to manage. You probably are unable to control the weather, though you can exercise sound judgment to stay safe during a lightning storm or seek shelter when bad adverse weather hits like snow or sleet.
As to people on the trail, you typically won’t have issues with people on the trail in most instances. Though it can be quite difficult to predict who or when the people you encounter on the trail will turn out to be a threat but you can take steps to make yourself less of a target. In the worst-case find your tramily or another hiker to stick with through the area with questionable people.
Proper preparation makes sure that you don’t fall victim to human error, which might be the biggest challenge you face over the 5+ months. Spending each and every day walking over rough terrain for months can make it hard to maintain your focus. Avoiding the problems that can range from a twisted ankle or scraped knees to broken bones or worse.
#5 – Solo Hiking
Maybe you’re thinking that a solo thru-hike will be a great chance to be alone with your thoughts, taking time to expand on your life. Maybe you want the added challenge of doing it on your own. Maybe you just don’t have anybody to do it with you, and you’ve decided to do it anyway.
There are lots of reasons why you may choose to attempt a solo thru-hike and there are lots of people who successfully complete solo journeys. At the same time, there are some things to consider and know beforehand.
I would recommend that only experienced hikers attempt a solo thru-hike in most cases, though you can and will find a tramily that can fill this need. You will need to lean on your tramily as the hike goes on so no one truly hikes alone for the entirety of the trail unless by choice.
There are just too many opportunities for things to go wrong, and mistakes made out of inexperience can make the hike miserable or bring it to an early and unsuccessful resolution if you choose to go it alone.
Personally I would also caution female hikers to think very carefully before setting out on a solo trek, unfortunately, there are bad people in the world. I would also like to point out that many women hike the trail alone without any issues but the obvious additional risks shouldn’t be ignored.
Even if you set out to hike the trail alone, it’s important to realize that you won’t be all by yourself for the entire time that you’re on the trail. You’ll encounter other hikers on the trail and you will pass through towns to pick up dropships and to get from one section of the trail to another.
Sometimes the people you meet, your tramily, from the trail are the source of the best memories you’ll have of the experience.
#6 – Reasons People Give Up Without Finishing
The three most common reasons that people end their journey before they reach the other end are money, injury or illness, and boredom or loneliness. If you follow the tips that we’ve given you up to this point, you will be well on your way to avoiding the most common causes of unsuccessful thru-hike attempts.
The top four three people quit before finishing: money, physical issues, and boredom. Avoid these issues at all costs!
If you control for these three factors, then you’ve given yourself a great shot at getting through your entire hike successfully. Once you’ve done what you can to reduce the threat from these elements, you can focus on your physical conditioning, along with your day-to-day strategy and tactics for the hike so that you enjoy it more and make getting through it the experience of a lifetime.
#7 – What Should You Expect While You’re on the Trail?
Visualizing your successful journey can go a long way toward your ability to achieve success. It helps to know what to expect so that your visualization is closer to the reality that you’ll experience once you hit the trail.
I like to tell people who are getting ready to attempt a thru-hike that there are three things that everyone should be prepared to experience while they’re on the trail.
The first thing that you should expect while hiking the Appalachian Trail is soreness. No matter how great your conditioning is, you’ll get sore. You’ll be using muscles that you haven’t used frequently and for much longer than in your everyday life.
Physically you will experience consistent rubbing from your backpack straps, and you should expect hot spots and blisters even with broken-in boots or trail runners.
The second thing that you should expect while you’re on the trail is to meet cool and diverse people. It takes a certain kind of person to get excited enough about a six-month-long hike to actually pursue that idea all the way to get the journey underway. If you’re still reading this list, you’re that kind of person. The people that you’ll meet on the trail are too.
People on the trail come from a tremendously different set of circumstances, from just graduated HS or college, to retired doctors and more. This is one of the most diverse groups of people on the same trek you will find in the world!
The third thing that everybody should expect while they’re on the trail is breathtakingly beautiful scenery and views. You’ll see amazing views from mountain tops and hike through pristine woodlands.
You’ll stop in quaint little towns and cross historic bridges. It’s more than enough to keep you motivated to get up every day and do a little more.
#8 – Conditioning Is Important to Enjoying the Hike
Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t a race or a competition, so you’ll be able to set your own pace and go along as quickly or slowly as your body tells you that you should. You need to listen to your body and in a major way, your feet, your feet are critical to your ability to last this length of the hike.
Six months of daily hiking will definitely whip your body into amazing shape. But starting out in good condition is a great way to make sure that you aren’t miserable right out of the gate. Enjoying the start is a good way to improve your odds of making it to the finish.
#9 – Make Ascents and Descents Part of Your Conditioning and Training
If you’re from the east coast, then you won’t be able to go on a conditioning hike without running into steep hills. If you’re coming to the trail from the plains states, then you probably can’t even imagine the amount of up and down hiking that you’ll be doing.
I’ve heard it said that finishing the Appalachian Trail involves the same amount of climbing and descending hills as six trips up and down Mount Everest. While none of this is straight at one time it is referred to as PUDs, or pointless ups and downs, it will make up a lot of your hike.
#10 – The Importance of Zero Days
I definitely can’t overstate the importance of giving your body the chance and opportunity to rest and recuperate if you want to make it all the way through. If you have time commitments you can consider a Nero day instead, just sometimes you need a down mileage day to recover.
Many hikers plan on hiking six days and taking one off each week. Everybody has to choose their own approach to making progress and taking rest, but the value of a full day off at regular intervals is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
#11 – Bug Management
Another serious issue that folks might not appreciate if they haven’t hiked on the trail before is bug management. Mosquitoes, gnats, biting flies, and other pests are more than just a nuisance when you’re hiking the trail.
If you’re tempted to leave bug sprays, permethrin, and other items that can help combat insects out of your pack to keep your gear lighter, we urge you to reconsider.
There is an awesome service which can pre-treat your clothing for the trail that will last the entire 5-6 months of the trip without need to re-treat. If this strikes your needs take a look at InsectShield. The repellency of Insect Shield apparel is EPA-registered to last through 70 launderings.
The bugs that you’ll encounter and the misery that they can cause if you don’t have any protection at all will do more harm to your thru-hike’s chances of success that a few extra ounces, or even a few extra pounds.
#12 – Pack Light but Not Too Light
You’ll hear a lot of people preaching the singular importance of slicing away every non-essential ounce from your gear before getting started. I do agree that you don’t want to have a whole bunch of excess weight or saddle yourself with totally useless and frivolous items.
In the end, your AT thru-hike is going to be a long trip and over 2100 miles it is worth adding in some valuable luxury items which help make camp life a little more enjoyable, even if they add some weight.
If a slightly larger tent, a slightly more comfortable bedroll or sleeping bag, or a camera are things that will help you enjoy the journey more then you should find a way to make them work when you’re packing your gear.
#13 – Test Your Gear
This is of particular importance when it comes to testing the performance of waterproofing on essential gear like your tent, rain jacket, rain pants, and other gear. Obviously, you won’t want to spend six months getting soaked inside your tent every time it rains while on the trail.
Unfortunately, once you’re underway, it’s much more difficult to do anything effective about this issue. It’s far better to spend the time and effort to make sure everything works the way you’ll need it to on the trail well before you set out on your journey.
#14 – Things You Need
Early we discussed some of the things that you need to make your Appalachian Trail thru-hike a successful one. Those things are planning and preparation, a budget, a schedule, conditioning, quality, lightweight equipment, and reliable waterproofing.
Beyond that, there are certain items that we consider essential to an enjoyable hike:
- I would recommend that anyone who hikes the trail carry an air horn so that they have a way to signal others in an emergency or scare off dangerous animals.
- I would also recommend that everyone carry a Sawyer water filter in case they need to make do with what nature offers when they can’t get to a filling station.
- Additionally, a first aid kit is an obvious essential for your gear, but we recommend that you make sure it contains moleskin or leukotape, sunscreen, and body glide or diaper cream.
One thing that you don’t necessarily need to carry with you on the trail that might surprise you is a tent or shelter. If you choose to leave a tent out of your pack, you can plan to stay in permanent shelters that are spaced out along the trail. You might have to put in as much as thirty miles to get from one stop to another at some points on the trail, but it can be done.
The only downside is you lose out to others in many park areas that section and day or overnight hikers get priority to the shelter areas, just wanted to let you know it is possible to shelter jump without a tent on the AT.
Final Thoughts on What to Know Before Hiking the Appalachian Trail
I’ve tried to give you the best advice that is available on hand to offer if your goal is to successfully complete your thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. I understand how important that goal can be to most who take on this challenge, and we want to help everyone who pursues their goal to experience the rewarding feeling that comes with getting it done.
Post trail recovery has its own set of issues to manage including post-trail depression, please seek help afterward if you have issues adapting back to normal life!
At the same time, we think that any time spent on the trail is a reward in itself and encourage anyone to try out a day hike, a three-day loop, or an extended section of the trail to help whet their appetite for more.
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