How to Hike the Appalachian TrailPublished on 07/28/2022 · 16 min readThe trail of five million steps requires putting one foot in front of the other, but it also requires so much more! This article will cover a "few” of these steps.
Sign found at the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park, GA. All photos courtesy of Bob Rogers
Intro to the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail (A.T.)—and hiking in general—has its own lingo. Here’s a quick list of definitions:
- Aqua-blaze: To skip a section of the A.T. by watercraft (e.g., canoe, kayak, raft)
- Awol: The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller
- AYCE: “All you can eat”
- Base weight: The weight of all your gear without food or water
- Blue-blaze: To skip a section of the white-blazed A.T. by walking an alternative route
- Bubble: A denser cluster of NoBos leaving in March and SoBos leaving in June
- Cairn: A small tower of rocks used as a trail marker in areas where trees are scarce or used sentimentally as a monument
- CDT: Continental Divide Trail
- Flip-flop: To thru-hike the entire A.T., but in a non-contiguous manner
- Green Tunnel: A nickname for the A.T., referring to tree cover that encloses the trail corridor during the summer/late spring months
- Hiker trash: Long-distance hikers whose absence from civilization has led them to abandon certain social norms/expectations, becoming disheveled in appearance; sometimes an insult, but usually taken as a compliment
- Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH): A motto of sorts that means anything from “To each his own” to “Stay out of my business”
- Hut: In the White Mountains National Forest, it is a fully enclosed lodge with running water, wood stoves, and other amenities; day hikers pay for cooked meals
- Leave No Trace (LNT): A phrase representing the seven principles of outdoor ethics: 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, and 7) be considerate of other visitors
- Logbook: A guest book kept at shelters and visitor centers along the A.T., in which all hikers can write entries; not to be confused with personal trail journals
- Nero: Short for “nearly zero” (very few miles walked)
- Noro: Short for Norovirus, an intestinal virus that spreads easily
- NoBo: A northbound hiker
- PCT: Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,600 miles across the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges in the western United States; see Triple Crown
- Privy: An outhouse or compostable toilet often at shelters
- PUDS: “Pointless ups and downs”; a series of climbs and descents without a view; an A.T. specialty
- Purist: A thru-hiker who endeavors to walk every inch of the A.T., typically also without assistance; can be used condescendingly
- Section hiker: A hiker who is hiking the A.T. in chunks over the years
- Shelter: A three-sided structure for sleeping often with a table and fire ring
- Slack-pack: To hike with just a day pack and then have a hostel or shuttle meet you further down the trail with your backpack
- SoBo: A southbound hiker
- Thru-hiker: Any long-distance hiker who walks the length of a particular trail in one setting or within one year
- Trail angel: Someone who gives trail magic
- Trail magic: An act of kindness or a gift given to hikers (water, meals, a ride, lodging, etc.)
- Trail name: A special nickname adopted by long-distance backpackers, which has become a tradition on the A.T. and many other trails
- “The trail provides”: In emergencies or difficult situations, a hiker’s needs will be met as if the trail itself is looking out for hikers
- Tramily: “Trail family”; generally referred to as the group of people with whom you spend a significant amount of time hiking a trail, lodging in town, or at the same shelters
- Triple Crown: Collectively, three American national scenic trails, over 2,000 miles each, that run, more or less, north to south: the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Continental Divide Trail (CDT)
- Vitamin I: Ibuprofen, the “drug of choice” that reduces inflammation in joints
- Yellow-blaze: To skip a section of the A.T. by vehicle
- Yogi: To indirectly convince locals/day hikers to provide trail magic: "I wish I had some water”
- Yo-yo: To hike the entire A.T. from one terminus to the other and then immediately turn around and hike back again (i.e., two back-to-back thru-hikes)
- Zero: A day off during a long-distance hike in which zero miles are walked
The A.T. is different from the other long trails of the U.S. It’s the shortest of the three known as the Triple Crown (Appalachian Trial, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Contiental Divide Trail). The A.T. also has the lowest overall elevation of the three. But don’t let the mere ~2190 miles and 6600-foot max elevation fool you. After a thru-hike, you’ll have crossed 14 states and had enough elevation change to have climbed Mt. Everest…16 times! Another note: when comparing all three trails, the five steepest sections are all found on the A.T.
Planning & Preparation
What to Leave at Home
If you read the lingo and their definitions, you saw “Green Tunnel.” Even if you skipped it, the Smoky Mountains give you a hint. They aren’t smoky from wildfires like out west (though, there are times when this happens as well). They are hazy from the humidity. So, between cloud cover, haze, and the Green Tunnel, the first thing you should leave at home is solar-powered anything. It’s really not worth the weight. Second is all the survival gear. You don’t need a hatchet, folding spade, etc. You’re hiking, not building a homestead.
Keep it Simple
A couple of my key guidelines on prepping are 1) know your gear’s limit and more importantly 2) know your limit. There is an untold number of books that will tell you what to pack, how to pack it, and more. Some good, some not so good. Read a few, and then pick and choose your gear. The gear isn’t all that important. You’ll figure out how to set up the tent eventually.
That said, a little practice doesn’t hurt. The best prep is to go out on weekends and use whatever gear you have. Did it work for you? If not, make changes. That’s knowing your gear.
“Cotton kills” is another hiker phrase. Cotton, when wet, is worse than wearing nothing. It has zero insulation, it is heavy, and it clings. Rain and 45° can kill you due to hypothermia. Wear wool and/or synthetics—wool retains 60% of its insulation, even when wet, and synthetics wick sweat away from you and dry quickly.
Wear multiple thin layers, and remove layers as you start to sweat. Add them when you take a break or quit for the day.
All you’ll likely need for the trip is two sets of clothes and maybe three pairs of socks, along with thermals, rain gear, a puffy, gloves, and a hat. That’s it! Take one set of clothes you will wear while hiking, and another set you wear only at night. These you keep dry at all costs. If that means putting on a half-frozen shirt in the morning, so be it. It will be warm and dry throughout the day’s hike… unless it’s only day three of a five-day rain. There’s more on that below.
Know What Works for You
Now that you have the right gear, what about knowing you? Test your gear in the cold, the rain, and the wind. Is a 30° sleeping bag good enough for 20° or only 40°? It’s not uncommon to see temperatures in the 20s on a thru-hike, and colder still if you start in February or March.
Is your sleeping pad insulated enough, comfortable enough, etc.? Does your rain gear keep you dry when it’s cold? What is good for someone else might not work for you. This is why I preach about field testing. A random Tuesday night in the backyard is often better than a weekend out—you only have to retreat 50 feet if things go bad. I “field test” every new piece of gear I buy before going out on an extended hike with it.
Prep for the Trials
Second in prep, only after knowing your limits, is reading Appalachian Trials by Zack Davis. “Embrace the suck” is a common expression on the trail and throughout his book. What it means is there will be crappy days. You’re hiking for four to seven months, almost 2,200 miles, through all kinds of terrain. They aren’t all going to be sunny and 65° with a spectacular view. There are going to be storms, bugs, mud, possible intestinal viruses, falls, cold days, hot days, and more. That’s ignoring the daily grind of marching out miles. There is going to be a lot of suck! Learning to embrace the bad or at least deal with it on its terms is how to get through the day. Never quit on a bad day (also don’t ignore medical, weather, etc. emergencies). But when you’re cold, wet, bone-tired, and sore all over, stick it out until the weather is good, there’s a nice view, you’re with tramily, and you’re rested. If you’d still rather be home, then you will know for certain that thru-hiking isn’t for you.
For food, most hikers take some version of GORP (Good Ole Raisins and Peanuts). Another trail favorite is tortilla wraps, along with chicken, salmon, tuna, or peanut butter in a pouch. Knorr side dishes are another trail favorite, as they are usually only $1 each and are easily found in Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Walmart—all of which are common in trail towns. Regardless of diet, shoot for 100 calories per ounce as a minimum.
To hike north or to hike south? Maybe a flip-flop? Or are you a section or a LASH (long-ass section hike) hiker? Personally, I’m not going to use “bounce boxes” to mail stuff ahead of myself because I don’t want to be tied to a schedule. However, if you’re on medications or a special diet, this might be an option for you. Remember, many post offices aren’t open on weekends or after 5pm.
The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller is probably the best guide for when you are in a township. It lists the shuttles, phone numbers, hostels, whether the town has a post office, etc. It comes in both paperback and PDF. Personally, I took both—when Phone meets Rock, Rock always wins. Loosely plan your first two or three weeks on 3–5 days between stops and at no more than 10 miles per day. Remember, that it’s only a rough guess. There will be changes. After a month or so, you’ll have your rhythm figured out. You’ll learn as you go, and your miles will gradually get longer.
The best on-trail guide is an app called FarOut (formally Guthook Guides). It lists shelters, road crossings, water sources, etc. You can upload messages about all kinds of things: the water source at Mile 137 is no good, but the one at Mile 143 is running strong; the shelter at Mile 513 is full tonight; or the infamous “There’s a snake in my boot!” Make Woody proud.
Six of the top 10 highest peaks of the A.T. are between Georgia and Tennessee. Roan Mountain in Tennessee as well as the Smokies are not to be trifled with in spring and late fall. My first night on the trail just short of Springer Mountain was on April 21, 2021, and it was 30° that night with a 25mph wind. The second night was 28°. As overheard by the two recently separated Army veterans: “It’s Georgia, it’s not supposed to be this cold in April!” I bought my first A.T. Guide for the 2011 season, so I had been planning, reading, and prepping for a decade. I was ready for 28°; they were not. A good place to mail home and swap gear is after the Virginia Highlands.
Cell signal is getting better every year. The service is not 100% by any means, but it’s not terrible. Verizon has the most coverage. The gaps, valleys, and low spots are often without signal, but it’s getting harder to go a full day without signal at least somewhere on the trail. Phones are a tool—neither good nor bad. It’s the user that makes them good or bad. When a severe thunderstorm rolls in, you’ll be glad to have a heads up. One place to get that is AT Weather. If it gets so bad that everyone is getting off the trail, use the phone to book a hostel or hotel. Remember to use more than The A.T Guide and FarOut. You can book a hotel the same as you would on vacation or at home using the internet.
Another thing unique about the A.T. is how “wet” it is. Ver-mud is the nickname for Vermont. Any six-month hike will have rain, but that’s not what I’m alluding to. The A.T. has a lot of water in the form of springs, creeks, and rivers. So, there isn’t a driving need to carry 3+ liters of water with you at all times. The Maryland-Pennsylvania trails in mid-summer can be a bit dry, but if you’re a NoBo or SoBo, you’ll have enough miles on your feet to know what you’re doing by then.
Knocking out 20-mile days on the weekend is not the same as hiking 20 miles a day every day—even 15 miles every day. Your body has to get used to the constant stress you’re putting it through. If you can’t do 8–10 miles, do what you are comfortable with before getting exhausted. Build slowly. I started with a bunch of fit 20-somethings that ran out of the gate doing 15-mile days. I didn’t see some of them again for three weeks. I stuck to the 8–10 for a week, then 10–12 miles another week. By the end of the third week, I hit 16 miles in a single day. At the end of three weeks at Mile 165 (the start of the Great Smoky Mountains), I caught up to the 20-somethings. They were all nursing sore knees, bad feet, and hip problems. Remember that 2,200 miles is a marathon (almost 85 of them), not a sprint.
Plan on a town and resupply every 3–5 days. The A.T. is a small ribbon through the highly developed East Coast. Resupplies, except in the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, are never all that far away.
The Trail, Trail Communities & Trail Magic
The local communities are great. I don’t think enough can be said about how great the local areas are. You aren’t the first hiker they’ve seen, so if someone offers you a ride, don’t freak out. For the most part, these are simply people who know what hikers do for their local economies. Do listen to your gut though. If it doesn’t feel right, move on. The surrounding towns will likely have everything you need, even if you have a special diet or medication. Check the A.T. Guide if you have any special needs.
The A.T. is the most social trail of the big three as well. If you’re a loner, this may become annoying, but give it a chance at least. You’ll run into the same people at lunch breaks, shelters, and zero days in town. These people will be your tramily. You may never know their given names, but you will share a bond with them that often surpasses the bond you’d have with your real family. That doesn’t mean you are going to be stuck with them. Unlike family back at home, you get to pick your tramily. If someone gets under your skin, hike slower or faster and take a zero or skip it when they do. Often, you’ll float from group to group just based on hiking speeds. Once you do get in a good tramily and things are going well, remember to hike in the now. If someone in the group wants to take an extra zero, don’t say no because you’re on a schedule. Some of the unplanned stops will be the most cherished.
Trail magic... that’s one of those things that the trail provides, as if knowing when and where you need it. There’s nothing better than coming through the 17th gap (valley between mountains) of the day to find some trail angel with nothing better to do than hand out sodas to perfect strangers. A simple pop-up chair, a garbage bag for your trash, and a cold drink can turn a day around. A hot dog and a beer turn a trail angel into a trail god. They aren’t out there for the thanks but give them thanks anyway. And don’t be rude; the soda is worth answering the same questions again.
Veterans, this is not the military! Do not approach this as another mission. This is you time. Do not try to force the trail to fit your schedule. It will bite you in the ass, and you won’t get what you need out of the hike. Be flexible. Earl Shaffer was the first thru-hiker—the first hiker to do both directions, and he hiked it again at almost 80 years old. When he first hiked the trail, he was back from WWII and said he hiked the trail to "walk the war out of [his] system." The trail will do the same for you if you let it.
Do’s / Don'ts
Trail etiquette and Leave No Trace (LNT) kinds of things include:
- If it’s raining, there’s always room for one more in the shelter.
- Shelters are first come, first served. Thru-hikers don’t have a right over day hikers.
- If you pass hikers going in the opposite direction, the person going downhill yields the right of way to the uphill hiker.
- Help other hikers out when you can.
- Feel free to take pictures of the wildlife, but remember that you are their guest.
- Leave it better than you found it.
- Take pictures of the people you meet, not just the terrain.
- Keep a journal.
- Don’t expect the people back home to understand: why you’re out there, the bonds you make with fellow hikers, or why you think nothing of eating M&Ms off the ground.
- Remember, it’s about smiles, not miles.
Before & After the Trail
Thank the people who are supporting you before you leave.
Appalachian Trials suggests making two lists of 8–10 items:
“I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail because…”
- I need some time to re-evaluate the direction of my career.
- I am craving an adventure larger than life.
- Life is short; do awesome shit.
“When I successfully thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I will…”
- have an unshakeable confidence.
- have the story of a lifetime.
- restore a clearer sense of presence.
Check your lists and see how well you did.
Thank the people who supported you before and during your hike again when you finish.
Don’t let any of the above scare you off a hike, long hike, or thru-hike; you have to start somewhere. The Camping & Hiking Experts here on Curated (this author included!) can guide you through the gear choices and why one item is better over another even if it isn’t the lightest, newest, most expensive item on the market. For help dialing in your perfect backpacking setup, reach out to one of us!