February 15, 2017

Appalachian Trail Frequently Asked Questions Answered By an AT Thru-Hiker

Thinking of taking a journey to the Appalachian Trail? We’ve got an AT thru-hiker to answer common questions and give you an inside look at the trail!

Hiking the Appalachian Trail will lead you on a more than 2,000-mile journey through more than a dozen states. And if you’re thru-hiking (hiking the entire trail in a single year), you’ll likely invest half of your year walking the trail. Before you can make such a commitment, you probably have some questions. I thru-hiked the AT in 2012, and I know I did. Below, you’ll find Appalachian Trail facts that will offer answers to many of the questions you may have about the wondrous trek.

Appalachian Trail Basics

What is the Appalachian Trail?

The first fact to know about the Appalachian Trail is its length. The AT is a continuous footpath of roughly 2,190 miles that passes through 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

How long does it take to hike the Appalachian Trail?

When a hiker completes the entire Appalachian Trail in a 12-month time span it is referred to as a “thru-hike.” A thru-hike takes anywhere from four to seven months to complete, with five to six months being the average timeframe. Ultra runner Karl Meltzer holds the record for the fastest thru-hike, completing the long trek in 45 days 22 hours 38 minutes in 2016. Many people also choose to complete the Appalachian Trail in sections. Section hikers will go out for a few days, weeks, or months at a time with the eventual goal of completing the entire trail over the course of several years or even decades.

Where does the Appalachian Trail start and end?

The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is in Springer Mountain, Georgia and the northern terminus is in Mount Katahdin, Maine.

 

Planning a thru-hike

How much planning is necessary for a thru-hike?

Plan to set aside an adequate amount of time to research, acquire gear, prep physically, and take a look at the logistics. As far as research goes, read several books or blogs written by thru-hikers to get an idea of what to expect from the trail. Also, research what type of gear you might want, read reviews on everything you want to buy, and make a projected spreadsheet of what your pack will weigh.

For physical preparation, I would suggest doing local hikes or using the StairMaster at the gym. Generally, trying to stay in shape while at home will help set you up for a less difficult time during the first few weeks of your hike. Once you have all of your gear, do a weekend trip close to home in order to test everything out and see if it works for you.

As far as logistical planning goes, I would suggest booking arrangements ahead of time to get from your home to the trailhead. This may include flights, bus tickets, getting a shuttle to the trailhead or getting a ride from friends. If you are planning on doing drop boxes of food (see the “How much food do you carry?” section below for more info), then prepare those ahead of time and have an idea of where you might like to send them.

Making a day-by-day itinerary is not necessary. Plans change and hikers often do not make the miles they originally thought they would. It is unlikely that a long-term projection of where you will be each day will align with what actually happens. And that’s OK! Listen to your body and never push yourself to the point of danger just to try and keep up with your internal goals.

While these are my suggestions, I’ve known hikers who had never been camping a day in their life, did little to prepare, and made it the whole way. Others get enjoyment from the logistical organization and going over any and all details. For them, the planning stage may be half the fun. The amount of preparation you can and should put in is up to you.

When should you start a thru-hike?

Hikers tackling a northbound thru-hike, referred to as “NoBo,” typically start in Georgia in March or April. Southbound, “SoBo,” hikers begin in Maine in late-May to early-June. Some hikers choose to start at a middle point, hike to one end of the trail, then return to the middle point and hike the other direction. This is called a “flip-flop.” Winter thru-hikes are less common, but have been completed.

How much does it cost to hike the Appalachian Trail?

This is a difficult question to answer, as it largely depends on the individual person’s spending habits and preferences. The majority of your thru-hike budget will be spent in towns on food resupplies, restaurants, shared motel rooms or hostels, gear repairs, and the occasional beer.

You will also have to factor in transportation to the trail at the beginning of your hike and transportation home at the end. The initial cost of gear can range from $1,000 to $2,000, depending on desired quality and price range, before your boots even hit the trail.

I already owned most of my gear from years of section hiking, so I didn’t have to spend much money in preparation for the trail. I was a recent college graduate, and I managed to save $2,000 for my hike. With careful spending and not indulging too often in towns, I was able to make my money last for the entire trail. I did meet people who hiked with less money, and I met people who spent quite a bit more.

I would recommend having at least $3,000 at the start of a thru-hike, as this will take away some of the stress to spend frugally. Starting with that budget should mean you’ll have a sufficient amount for food resupplies along the way, new hiking shoes if needed, and the occasional night in a motel. If you like to indulge more frequently, bring $1,000 per month on the trail. That budget will allow you to stay in towns twice a week, go to restaurants more often, replace gear as needed and wanted, and have some leftover fun money for whatever you may want to spend it on.

 

Trail logistics

Where do you sleep along the Appalachian Trail?

There is an extensive system of campsites and shelters along the Appalachian Trail. Shelters are built and maintained by local volunteers and usually have a water source and additional campsites nearby. Shelters are never more than a one-day hike apart and oftentimes hikers pass by multiple shelters in a day. They vary in size and often can fit at least six people. But don’t depend on these shelters being available. It is wise to bring a personal shelter along for your hike, as designated shelters often fill up quickly in bad weather. In addition to tents, tarps and backpacking hammocks are becoming popular shelter options for long-distance hikers.

Every now and then, you will likely want to take a break from the woods and stay in town. There are hostels all along the trail where hikers can get a bed and a shower. Additionally, hikers often split motel rooms with each other. You will typically pass by two or three towns a week, so it is up to you (and possibly your budget) how often you want to sleep in a bed. When I did my thru-hike, I liked to stay in a motel or hostel about once a week. That schedule was enough that I felt rejuvenated and clean, but not so frequent that I spent my money too quickly.

Where do you use the bathroom?

All of the campsites and shelter areas have “privies,” which are basically outhouses. Volunteers typically build and maintain the privies. Oftentimes there is information posted about how to best use the privy. Suggestions may include throwing in a handful of bark after use, not urinating in the privy, and avoiding throwing trash in the privy.

Sometimes nature calls when you are miles away from the nearest privy. In these instances, follow Leave No Trace Guidelines for disposing of waste. First, select a spot that is at least 200 feet away from water sources, the trail, and campsites. Next, dig a hole that is six inches deep. You can use a trowel, a stick, a trekking pole, or your boot to assist you in digging the hole. After you use your cathole, cover it up with dirt and pack out your toilet paper in a plastic bag.

 

How do you navigate along the Appalachian Trail?

As I mentioned above, the Appalachian Trail is a continuous footpath. The trail is marked with white blazes painted on trees and rocks every few hundred feet. In order to get information on shelter sites, water sources, road crossings, and elevation gains and losses, most hikers have a data book they use for reference. The A.T. Guide is one of the most popular guidebook options. For hikers who don’t want to carry a physical book, there is also a PDF version available. The Guthook app is also becoming a popular navigational option.

How much food do you carry?

On average, hikers need to carry enough food for three to five days. Towns with grocery stores are frequent along most of the trail. Some hikers opt to go into every town to resupply, so they would likely only carry two or three days of food at a time. Other hikers like to skip towns and will carry up to five days of food at a time.

There are some stretches where more food needs to be carried. In Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, it is recommended that hikers have 10 days of food when beginning the section.

Some hikers choose to mail themselves drop boxes of food. This is not necessary, as there are ample grocery stores along the way. However, if you have a special diet, are particular about which foods you eat or enjoy dehydrating your own foods and meal planning, then drop boxes might be an option for you. To utilize drop boxes, prepare your packages before leaving home. Then, designate a point person who will be responsible for mailing them out to you during your hike. Research post offices or gear shops along the way where you can have them sent.

Will I have cell phone service?

Oftentimes, yes. I had cell phone service regularly along the trail. I did not have it all of the time in every place, but it was accessible enough. Check with your provider for more details on coverage areas.

I used my phone as my camera as well. I usually left my phone on airplane mode during the day to extend battery life and turned it off at night while I slept. When you go into town to resupply, charge your phone. Outlets are usually located outside of grocery stores and in restaurants.

If you use your phone for multiple purposes (such as camera, guidebook PDF, music, reading, social media, etc.) you may want to have a power bank. These can be purchased for about $20 at most stores. They will usually charge a cell phone two or three times.

While it’s tempting to use your mobile device for everything it has to offer, keep in mind that a thru-hike is the perfect opportunity to unplug from the outside world. Having a fully charged phone is a useful organizational and emergency tool, but consider staying off of it for most of the journey.

Life on the Appalachian Trail

What is the social aspect of the trail like?

If you’re heading to the AT with solitude in mind, be aware that there are ample hikers on the trail. Unless you are hiking in the winter, it’s unlikely you’ll go a day without seeing anyone else. The good news is, the hiking community is overwhelmingly supportive and friendly. Most hikers that you will encounter say “hello” or stop to chat.

If you enjoy the company of others, it is easy to make friends to hike with along the way. I like both hiking by myself and hiking with others. I had groups of friends along the way whom I would hike with sometimes. Other times, I would branch off by myself and rejoin my friends a week or so later.

Is it dangerous to hike alone?

As a solo hiker myself, I would say the Appalachian Trail is not dangerous. As mentioned before, the trail is full of friendly hikers and everyone looks out for one another. You can always count on a fellow hiker to help you out if you are in trouble or having an emergency.

Another fear that many hikers have is of bears and snakes. If you’re doing a thru-hike, you will likely see several bears and dozens of snakes along the way. The Appalachian Mountains are home to black bears, which can be both exciting and terrifying to encounter. I have seen about a dozen black bears along the Appalachian Trail. Every time (except for one), the bear has run away as soon as it notices my presence. The one time the bear didn’t run away, he just stood there staring at me from 100 feet away. I slowly backed away, and he did not bother me further.

Do you need to have backpacking experience to hike the Appalachian Trail?

In short, I would say “no.” This is an accessible trail for beginners to try out. While the terrain and weather can be challenging, the Appalachian Trail does give more room for error than other long-distance hikes. The trail is clearly marked, so it is difficult to get lost. The path often crosses over several roads a day, so if you do need to get to civilization for something you are not far away. It is a popular trail with lots of hikers, so if you get into trouble someone will usually come along before too long.

If this is your first backpacking trip, I would recommend avoiding the most difficult places like New Hampshire’s White Mountains or Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness, at least to when starting out. However, most other sections of the trail would be appropriate for a first-time hiker.
Basically, the way to get backpacking experience is to go backpacking. The Appalachian Trail is a good place to start.

How difficult is a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?

Completing an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is both draining and rewarding, mentally and physically. For me personally, and many other hikers, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail was one of the most difficult things I have done in my lifetime. The challenges of the trail can be split into two sections, the mental and the physical, which often overlap like a Venn diagram.

Physical difficulty is usually the first of the challenges that people consider. The trail traverses the Appalachian Range, which means it is full of steep mountains with constant elevation gains and losses. Physical discomfort is a daily occurrence, ranging from bigger problems like injuries to smaller annoyances like blisters and chafing.

There is also the physical discomfort that the weather brings. Rain is not only irritating to walk in, it can become hazardous when it’s continuous and there is not an opportunity to dry gear out. Opt for hiking jackets and boots that are waterproof to help combat these weather challenges. Weather conditions can range from snow and freezing temperatures to extreme heat that dries up water sources. The physical challenges of the trail often amplify the emotional and mental challenges.

Hikers walk anywhere from eight to 14 hours a day for months on end. This is a significant amount of time to spend thinking about current trials and reflecting on one’s life, with limited distractions. It is easy to become focused on the end goal of getting to Maine, without making an effort to enjoy the day-to-day things. Other life distractions often come up along the way: missing friends and family members, worrying about money and job prospects, fear of missing out on things that are happening at home. In my experience, the mental aspect of the trail is more significant than the physical difficulty.

Why would anyone want to hike the Appalachian Trail if it is so difficult?

Every hiker has different reasons for attempting the Appalachian Trail. These reasons can include: living in the outdoors and having a nomadic experience, putting your physical capabilities to the test, seeing the eastern United States in a slow and immersive way, meeting new and interesting people on a daily basis, getting away from the distractions of a fast-paced working life, putting yourself in beautiful landscapes to appreciate the natural world, spending time with yourself to find whatever it is you are looking for. The list goes on and on.

What you will get out of a thru-hike largely depends on what you are looking for and the amount of work you are willing to put in.

Check out Megan’s story on mental preparation for the AT.

 

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