Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail can be one of the most rewarding and powerful things you do in life – completing my AT thru-hike certainly was the biggest accomplishment of mine. Overcoming the challenges of a thru-hike requires a lot of research, planning and dedication, so we put together this guide to help get you started. Below, you’ll find tips about choosing when and where to start, buying gear, what to expect on the trail, and so much more.
Have you completed an AT thru-hike or are you planning to go for it? Let us know in the comments below!
WHAT IS THE AT?
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a long-distance hiking trail that goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine on the U.S. East Coast. Every year, thousands of people attempt a “thru-hike” on the AT, but only hundreds finish. Thru-hiking means to hike the entirety of an established long-distance trail (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, etc.) in a 12 month period. Here’s a snapshot of the AT by the numbers:
- 2,190 – Approximate length in miles of the AT (it changes slightly almost every year due to things like changing trail corridor boundaries and rerouting for revegetation in high-traffic areas)
- 14 – Number of states the AT traverses through
- 2 – Number of National Parks the AT passes through
- 165 – Average number of days it takes to complete an AT thru-hike
- 465,000 – Approximate elevation gain and loss in feet of the AT
- 16 – Amount of times an AT hiker would have climbed Mt. Everest after finishing a thru-hike
- $5,500 – Average on-trail expenses, plan to spend $2 – $3 per mile
- 4-5 – Average pairs of shoes an AT hiker will go through
- 31 – Number of volunteer trail clubs that maintain the trails, shelters, and privies along the AT
- 20% – Average percentage of people who complete a thru-hike on the AT out of those that attempt it
WHAT TO EXPECT ON AN AT THRU-HIKE
Thru-hiking can be one of the most impactful things you do in life. If this is going to be your first thru-hike, check out our 21 Tips for the First Time Thru-Hiker post – it’s packed with good information to help make your first trek a success!It’s really hard to prepare for the type of lifestyle you will have on a long distance trail, but here are some common things you’re likely to experience:
- Crowds – The AT can be very crowded, especially in the first 200 or so miles of a northbound (NOBO) thru-hike. Out of the three National Scenic Trails in the U.S., the AT has the largest number of people attempting a thru-hike every year. The AT also passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the number one most visited national park in the country.
- Steep climbs – There’s a common misconception that the AT is flat because the Appalachian Mountains don’t look as epic as the Sierras or Rockies. Truth be told, the AT is much steeper than almost anything you’d encounter on the Pacific Crest (PCT) or Continental Divide (CDT) Trails because it’s not switchbacked, not graded for pack animals, and you summit a huge number of peaks instead of ridge walking around them.
- Repetitive meals – Thru-hikers eat A LOT of food. Hiker hunger, the insatiable appetite of thru-hikers, typically sets in about two weeks in to a long distance hike. At that point, it’s nearly impossible to eat enough food to replace the calories you burn while hiking, let alone eat enough to feel satisfied. Thru-hikers must choose calorie and protein-rich foods that are lightweight (and affordable), and typically you will be eating the same stuff nearly every day. For some ideas of great hiker foods, check out our Best Backpacking Food Guide, our guide to making your own backpacking meals, and our Best Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals list.
- Most challenges are mental, not physical – Hiking the AT is most certainly physically challenging, but generally the mental mountains are harder to clear than the physical ones. Only about 20% of people who attempt an AT thru-hike actually finish, which is due to many factors, but a gloomy outlook, homesickness, and worries over money are some pretty common reasons why people jump ship. Make sure you surround yourself with good people who lift you up out there, do some solid logistical planning before you hit the trail, and never EVER quit on a bad day.
- Hiker family – Thru-hiking often leads to life-long friendships. It’s pretty amazing how quickly you become best friends with your fellow hikers. You’ll meet people from all walks of life, but y’all will always have one major thing in common – you’re all brave enough to leave average life behind and spend five months walking across the country and sleeping in the woods.
Good planning can help relieve a good amount of stress you and your loved ones will likely experience regarding your thru-hike. In some cases, friends and family won’t understand your decision to abandon worldly comforts and live out of a backpack, and you will probably have your own apprehensions. These tips will help you feel more prepared, and if you involve your loved ones they can gain a better understanding of the journey you’re about to embark on, as well.
Picking a start date and direction – Unlike on the PCT, AT thru-hikers are not required to apply for a permit ahead of time or stagger starting dates. This means you can start on any day you like, but it also means that you can experience intense overcrowding if you start on a popular date. Most NOBOs will start in March and April; NOBO hikers will generally want to reach Mt. Katahdin in Maine before October 15 when Baxter State Park usually stops giving permits to summit. For NOBO hikers, the most popular date to start is April 1. SOBO hikers usually start in June or July which will avoid most of the bad weather in Maine.
Choosing which direction you want to go really depends on your style and what you want to get out of the hike. Here are some things to consider when making your decision:
- Pros: Lots of people to interact with, longer window of good weather to start and finish in, Georgia is easier hiking than Maine, ending in Maine feels a lot more epic
- Cons: Hard to find solitude, shelter/campsite availability can be limited, harder to budget because trail gets more expensive as you go north, less transportation options to get home from Maine
- Pros: Trail is less crowded, you get the hardest parts of the trail out of the way first, you start with much better scenery than NOBOs, trail gets cheaper as you go south, lots of transportation options to get home from Georgia
- Cons: Can be lonely, trail is difficult right out of the gate, shorter good-weather window to complete your hike, Georgia mountains are not as epic as Katahdin
Permits – There is no thru-hiking permit for the AT. There have been rumblings of a permit system in the works, but there aren’t any details on when it might be implemented as of yet. That said, there are a couple of places along the trail where you do need permits (don’t worry, they’re super easy to get!):
- Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia – Okay, so this one is not technically a permit, nor is it technically part of the Appalachian Trail. Amicalola Falls is home to the AT approach trail – an optional 8.8 miles you can hike that leads to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. First off, we highly recommend doing the approach trail, as it was epic, you’ll start off with mad trail cred, and you get to climb 604 stairsteps up a waterfall (WWEEEEEE!!). But also, it’s good to start here so you can register your hike with the ATC. Registration is voluntary, but it helps determine usage data (plus the ATC gives great pointers and they let you use their hanging scale to get your starting pack weight.) Wanna go the extra mile? Pre-register your hike online, so you can avoid dates on which a lot of people plan to start and minimize your environmental impact.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park – You need a GSMNP AT Thru-Hiker Permit to travel through the national park. It costs $20 and can be obtained online, but you must have a printed version with you in the park. For the most up-to-date GSMNP permit info go here.
- Shenandoah National Park – The SNP permits are required (and free) for thru-hikers and can be obtained from a self registration box at the north or south entrance to the park on the AT.
- Baxter State Park, Maine – All AT hikers (NOBO, SOBO, section hikers, flip-floppers, etc.) must obtain an AT Hiker Permit before attempting to summit Katahdin. This permit is only available at the Katahdin Stream Campground and it’s free. Get the most up-to-date info about this permit here.
Familiarize yourself with LNT – As long distance trail hiking becomes more popular, it’s more important now than ever to help minimize your impact on the environment. Make sure you know and practice the Leave No Trace Principles during your hike. For an in-depth look at what the principles mean for backpackers, check out our Leave No Trace video.
Budgeting – We can’t emphasize enough how important budgeting is and how potentially difficult it can be; many people have to end their hikes early due to running out of money. The average thru-hiker spends $2-$3 per mile during a hike on the AT (between $4,400 & $6,600!) for things like hostels, food, drinks, and replacing gear. This does not include the initial investment in gear which can set you back anywhere from $0-$5,000 and up depending on what gear (more on this below) you have/need. For some great tips to make your budget go further, check out our 21 Tips for Backpacking On a Budget post.
Putting your regular life on hold – Leaving “regular life” behind for five or six months is a big commitment and can be a real challenge. Here are some helpful tips to know before you go:
- Quitting your job/taking a leave of absence – This is a big one. Not many people get the privilege of being able to take months off of work for a thru-hike. When I did my AT thru-hike, I was the only person I knew that had a job waiting for me when I got home. Most people quit their jobs before hitting the trail, which means no pay and likely no health insurance. We think it’s best (in most cases) to have a conversation about your thru-hike with your employer as far in advance as possible to explore options (I told my boss two years in advance.) It goes without saying, but you will also need to save, save, save to prepare for trail life with no income and to be able to somewhat quickly and comfortably rejoin society when you finish.
- Autopay your bills – Make sure any obligatory bills – mortgage, insurance, phone, etc – are on auto-pay before you leave. Cell service is certainly not a guarantee on the AT.
- Pets – Make sure you arrange a comfortable accommodation with a friend, family member, or extended-term boarding facility for your furry friend. Have all up-to-date proof of vaccinations and medical documents, as well as any medications your pet needs readily available for their temporary guardian.
Physical prep – Not much can prepare you for hiking thousands of miles across the country besides just doing it. Many people find that their bodies quickly adapt to conditions on the trail, but if you want to get a little prep in before your big hike to speed the process along, here are a few tips:
- Start small – If you are new to backpacking in general, it’s a good idea to start with shorter trails and a daypack. Gradually work your way up to overnight trips with a light pack, and then to extended trips with a backpacking pack loaded with the weight you plan to carry on your thru-hike. Check out our trip guides page to see some of our favorite backpacking trips that you can use to get your feet wet!
- Practice hiking with trekking poles! – The AT has a lot of STEEP climbs. Trekking poles will save a lot of strain on your muscles and joints. Check out our Pros and Cons of Hiking With Trekking Poles post for more info, and then head over to our Best Trekking Poles list to find the perfect pair for you.
By the numbers, you are generally much more safe on a thru-hiking trail than in a big city. Being prepared and knowing what to look out for is important no matter where you are, though, so here are some things to keep in mind:
Make a rough itinerary – Do your best to plan out goals for miles per day, town stops for zeros (rest days where you don’t hike), and resupplies before you go. This not only allows you to set a goal for finishing and plan logistics, but you can share it with loved ones at home for their peace of mind. In our experience, friends and family really appreciated being included in the planning process.
Consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) – PLBs are a great safety net in case the worst should happen. If you injure yourself or find yourself in a dangerous situation, help is just a button press away. Most PLBs will also allow friends and family back home to follow your hike on a map in real time which is just plain fun. Our favorite PLB is the Garmin InReach Mini – it uses top-notch satellite systems and offers a lot of useful features like on-device mapping and two-way texting. If you’re in the market for something a little more affordable, the less feature-rich Spot Gen3 will also get the job done.
Hitchhiking – Don’t get in the car if it doesn’t feel right. Say you left something in the woods that you need to go back for, tell the car to go on without you, and walk away – you don’t want to take an unnecessary risk. We’ve done a lot of hitchhiking between trail towns and trailheads and have never had a bad experience, but things can happen. Always stay aware of your surroundings and, if possible, have a partner with you if you must hitchhike. Luckily, if the idea of hitchhiking makes you super uncomfortable, trail towns and resupply points are pretty easy to access by foot for pretty much the entire AT. With some planning, you can set yourself up for a hitchhike-free experience.
Wildlife – There is a lot of wildlife on the AT, and most encounters are exciting and enjoyable. You’ll see things like wild turkeys, plentiful deer, some really cool salamanders, and, if you’re lucky, a fisher cat in Maine! Here are some critters to keep a more cautious eye out for:
- Ticks – Small, but mighty – ticks (specifically deer ticks, there are a lot of different types on the AT) are the number one most feared critter for many hikers because they’re carriers of Lyme Disease. It’s rare, but a real concern nonetheless. Know the signs and what to do if you’re bitten by a tick. Pretreat your clothing with Permethrin before hitting the trail and avoid areas with tall grass to reduce your risk of a tick encounter.
- Mosquitos and black flies – These little pests exist in droves on many parts of the AT. Carry a good non-DEET bug repellant (DEET can damage synthetic clothing and gear) with you at all times!
- Timber rattlers/cottonmouths/copperheads – Snakes are plentiful on the AT, and these are just a few that I encountered during my thru-hike. Snakes generally want nothing to do with you, but it’s important to scan the trail as you hike to avoid stepping too close to one of these venomous snakes. Venomous snakes are far more common in Southern Appalachia. For more information on snake encounters, check out our Snake Safety video.
- Mice/raccoons – These little disease-carrying jerks are a common sight, especially at shelters. They will defy gravity and all logic to get to your food bag, so make sure you take proper care to protect your food from disaster.
- Black bears – This is it, the one you’ve all been waiting for. I am sorry to disappoint, but let me be the first to tell you that bears are typically not threatening or scary. Always make sure to properly hang your food and all other scented items, and never approach a bear or get between a mother and her cubs. In reality, you pose a much larger threat to bears than they do to you. Feeding wildlife and attracting them to human-frequented areas can, in extreme cases, lead to a bear’s death. There are large populations of them in GSMNP, Shenandoah, and New Jersey to name a few places, so enjoy any opportunity you get to see these amazing creatures in action. Check out our post on the Facts and Myths of Bear Encounters for more info.
- Grayson Highlands ponies – For real, these things can be kind of scary! Cute. But scary! These ponies are only found in one specific area – the Grayson Highlands in Virginia. They may charge at you, bite at you, or eat your gear. Resist, at all costs, the urge to pet one of these little miracles.
Resupplying on the AT is generally very easy, as the trail passes right through or within a mile or two of so many towns. For this reason, many hikers opt to shop for most of their resupply food as they go instead of mailing it. It’s still handy to know how to mail a resupply in case you want to send yourself or bounce ahead (sending extra food or gear you will need again later to a point further down the trail) seasonal gear, or if you have special dietary restrictions:
- Diet – If you are vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/etc., don’t expect to find a lot of great healthy options along the AT. You may want to consider mailing ahead some special-diet-friendly foods to yourself. Bonus: this food co-op in Hanover, NH is AWESOME for those with special dietary needs.
- Seasonal gear – Some hikers choose to use different gear in different sections of the AT, and some stick with the same stuff the whole way. If you plan to change your gear up according to the weather, it may be easier to bounce ahead gear you might need again later on the trail rather than sending it home. For example, some people like to send their cold-weather gear ahead to New Hampshire after GSMNP so they only have to carry it for sections that have historically lower temperatures.
- More info – Check out this awesome resource for AT resupply locations, how to address a general delivery box, and info about a service that will handle your resupplies for you.
Thru-hikers put their gear through a lot of abuse – high winds, heavy rain, and rough terrain over thousands of miles. You’ll need gear that’s durable enough to handle those challenges, but light enough to carry comfortably for the long haul. Here are some of our favorite gear items to thru-hike with.
- Top pick: Zpacks Duplex or Triplex
- Best budget-friendly option: REI Co-op Quarter Dome SL 2
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Tents and Best Ultralight Tents lists for more options.
- Top pick: REI Co-op Magma 15 or 30 (men’s 15 & 30/women’s 15 & 30)
- Best budget-friendly option: Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20 or 30 (men’s 20 & 30/women’s 20 & 30)
- Top backpacking quilt pick: Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt 10°
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Sleeping Bags & Quilts list for more options.
- Top pick: Therm-a-Rest UberLite & Xlite
- Best budget-friendly option: Klymit Static V2
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads list for more options.
- Top stove pick: MSR Pocket Rocket 2
- Best budget-friendly stove: BRS Ultralight
- Top cook pot pick: Toaks Titanium 750 ml.
- Top utensil pick: Toaks Titanium Long Spoon
- Top food storage pick: Ursack Major Bear Bag
- Note – At the time of writing, bear canisters are not required on the AT. There has been talk of bear cans being required on the AT for a large chunk of Southern Appalachia and the Green Mountains of Vermont in the future. Always make sure you’re familiar with current trail regulations and conditions.
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Stoves list for more options.
- Top water filter pick: Sawyer Squeeze
- Best water bottles: 1L Smartwater Bottle
- Best purifier/filter backup: Katadyn Micropur Tablets
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Water Filters list for more options.
- Best rain jacket: Outdoor Research Helium II (men’s & women’s)
- Best budget rain jacket: Marmot Precip (men’s & women’s)
- Top down jacket pick: MontBell Plasma 1000 Alpine Down Parka (men’s & women’s)
- Best budget down jacket: REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie 2.0 (men’s & women’s)
- Top hiking pants pick (mens/womens): Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants/The North Face Aphrodite 2.0 Pants
- Top underwear pick (men’s/women’s): ExOfficio Give-N-Go/Ex Officio Give-N-Go Women’s Briefs
- Top hiking shorts pick (men’s/women’s): Nike Challenger Dri-FIT 7”/Nike Dry Tempo Running Shorts
- Top hiking shirt pick (men’s/women’s): Nike Legend Short Sleeve Tee/Nike Dri-FIT Knit Running Tank
- Top hiking long sleeve pick: Nike Dry Element ½ Zip Running Top (men’s & women’s)
- Top long underwear pick: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Base Layer Bottoms (men’s & women’s)
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Jackets, Best Men’s Hiking Pants, and Best Women’s Hiking Pants lists for more options.
- Top trail runner pick: Saucony Peregrine ISO (men’s & women’s)
- Top hiking shoe pick: Salomon X Ultra 3 Low Aero (men’s & women’s)
- Top hiking boot pick: Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator (men’s & women’s)
- Top hiking sock pick: Balega Hidden Comfort
- Top warm sock pick: Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion(men’s & women’s)
- More: Check out our Best Hiking Shoes and Boots and Best Hiking Socks lists for more options.
Other Small Items
- Guide Book: 2020 Northbound AT Guide (Loose Leaf)
- Headlamp:Black Diamond Spot 325
- Hammock: Hummingbird Single & Tree Straps
- Pillow: ZPacks Medium-Plus Dry Bag Pillow
- Stuff Sacks:HMG Waterproof Stuff Sacks
- Stuff Sacks:S2S eVAC Dry Sacks
- Backpacking Seat:Therm-a-Rest Z-Seat
- Gear Repair:Tenacious Tape
- Compass:Suunto M-3 D Leader
- GPS Phone Apps:Gaia GPS,Topo Maps+, andGuthooks
- Trekking Poles:Gossamer Gear LT5S
- Sunglasses:Ray Ban Polarized New Wayfarer
- Multi-tool:Swiss Army Tinker
- First Aid Kit:Ultralight .7 Kit
- Camp Towel:Packtowl Nano
- Bug Repellant:Permethrin &Picardin Lotion
- Cathole Trowel:REI Co-op Snow Stake
- Tent Stakes:Aluminum Reflective Stakes
- Camera:Sony RX100
- Power Bank:Goal Zero Flip 24 Power Bank
- Book:Kindle Paperwhite
- More: Check out our Best Backpacking Pillows, Headlamps, Backpacking Hammocks, and Trekking Pole lists for more options.
AT SECTION QUICK FACTS
The AT goes through 14 states with very diverse landscapes, weather, and challenges. Below, we’ll outline a couple of fun facts about each section.
Georgia – 78.5 mi.
- A lot of hikers quit the AT at Neel Gap where there’s a tree covered in boots out front of the Mountain Crossings gear shop. It’s said that the shoes are thrown up there by hikers who quit at Neel Gap.
- Mountain Crossings is a gear shop at the bottom of Blood Mountain, they are very well known for their pack shakedowns.
- Georgia can be really crowded, especially if you start in early-mid April.
Tennessee/North Carolina – 386.7 mi.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot of bears!
- Clingman’s Dome (6,643 ft./2,025 m.), the highest point on the AT is in GSMNP.
- Weather changes very quickly in the Smokies from lightning storms, to heavy rain, to dense fog. The views in the Smokies are some of the best in Southern Appalachia if you’re lucky enough to get to the viewpoints during clear weather.
Virginia – 554.3 mi. (¼ of the trail!)
- Virginia is truly the “green tunnel” you hear about. The trail here goes up and down steep mountains all day, but viewpoints are rare because of the tree cover.
- Grayson Highlands is home to wild ponies!
- Trail Days is held in Damascus, Va every May.
- McAfee Knob is the most photographed spot on the AT.
West Virginia/Maryland – 44.6 mi.
- Because this section is short, some hikers like to do the four state challenge – wake up in Virginia, hike through West Virginia and Maryland, and end your day in Pennsylvania.
- Stop by The Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harper’s Ferry, WV to get your “halfway” photo taken.
Pennsylvania – 229.3 mi.
- People refer to PA as “rocksylvania,” because it’s very… well, rocky.
- Pine Grove Furnace is the official halfway point, and many hikers attempt the “half gallon challenge” here – eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting.
New Jersey/New York – 164.7 mi.
- There’s a large black bear population in NJ.
- The AT passes through a zoo in New York.
- Food and lodging start to get considerably more expensive from this section on (NOBO).
Connecticut/Massachusetts – 138.3 mi.
- The trail finally starts to feel more mountainous again.
- Upper Goose Pond cabin on the AT in MA is exclusively for AT thru-hikers and section hikers and is a great place to take a zero.
Vermont – 150.1 mi.
- The AT follows the Long Trail for about 100 miles before branching off to head to NH.
- Can be very muddy
- Vermont is home to some of the prettiest forests on the whole trail.
New Hampshire – 160.9 mi.
- Many consider the White Mountains to be the best/most challenging section.
- Mt. Washington can have some pretty intense weather. The world record for the highest wind speed was set on top of this mountain.
Maine – 281.8 mi.
- Maine is the most remote and rugged section of the trail. The 100 mile wilderness is the longest stretch of the AT that doesn’t cross a road.
- The Mahoosuc Notch, a traverse through a gap filled with giant boulders, is considered the slowest mile on the AT. When I hiked the notch, it took me almost three hours to get through!
The AT truly is an amazing footpath, but it didn’t just appear there. Thousands of volunteers organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and their 31 affiliated regional clubs help maintain and protect the trail, shelters, and privies every year. Here are a few ways you can help:
MORE AT PHOTOS
Thru-hiking the AT is a big challenge with big rewards, and we hope this guide helps you plan a successful hike. If we missed anything or you want to share your own AT experience, leave us a comment below!
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