A thru-hike is one of the greatest adventures that America has to offer, and is available to anyone who can walk and has the time and desire. But it is a demanding endeavor, and requires preparation as well as some decisions. Here we address the most common questions.
The first few miles of any hike are often the toughest, and you will appreciate any physical edge you can bring to your trip during these first few miles. Don't overlook the basics. Take a few overnight training hikes. Be sure to seek out mountainous terrain or you won't have a clue about what you are getting into for 6 months. Gradually get used to carrying weight on your back. Start out with an empty pack and add weight incrementally until you can carry all the items you plan to take. Then re-evaluate. You'll be surprised to find how unnecessary some items seem after you've carried them uphill for a couple of miles.
Miles Per Day
At the beginning of your thru-hike, start out with a goal of about eight miles a day. Gradually increase distance to avoid injury and enable your body to adjust to the rigors of carrying a full pack all day on rugged terrain. Plan a "zero" (a zero-mileage day) in town, or at least a "nero" (near to zero miles) occasionally to give your body a chance to rest. Allow several weeks on the Trail to get into peak condition. Knee and foot injuries, stress fractures, and shin splints force many hikers off the Trail; the risk of these can be minimized by keeping your pack light and your mileage conservative in the beginning. In very general terms, the terrain of the A.T. is most challenging at the ends and easiest in the middle, although Maine and the northern half of New Hampshire are considerably more rugged than any other part. Northbound thru-hikers do their biggest miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia through Vermont; longer daylight hours also allow for bigger miles.
There's no formal registration system to hike the A.T. But, let friends and family know where you are, what your itinerary is, and your "Trail name" if you acquire one. Although you are free to start a northbound thru-hike whenever you choose, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy asks prospective thru-hikers to help disperse the number of starters more evenly by avoiding the most popular starting dates: March 1, March 15, the first day of spring, St. Patrick's Day, April 1, and weekends.
The A.T. passes through numerous state and national parks, forests and public lands, a few of which require permits, fees, or reservations to stay overnight in shelters or campsites. In some cases, the reservation system is different for long-distance hikers.
The most predictable mistake thru-hikers make when they start is carrying too much stuff. Almost all hikers learn to trim their full pack weight to 20-35 lbs. or less after winter gear is sent home; those who don't end often up going home. Put as much effort into determining what you don't need as what you do. Conversely, thru-hikers starting in Georgia in March and early April often do not have adequate equipment for the snow, ice, and single-digit temperatures they will typically encounter in the high mountains above 5,000 and 6,000 feet in North Carolina and Tennessee. Winter conditions can also prevail on Mt. Rogers in southwest Virginia until mid-May, so northbound thru-hikers should wait to send cold-weather home gear until after reaching that point.
Because of the very subjective nature of equipment decisions, the ATC does not endorse any specific brands or types of equipment, but there is a wealth of information already available to hikers looking for more information. Talk to other hikers, both those who have completed the Trail in the past and can offer a wealth of “lessons learned,” or those who are planning a future trip. Look for an outdoor store with a recent thru-hiker on staff. There are also many books and videos to help you sort through the many choices and decide what kind of equipment is best for you.
In selecting your gear, keep in mind that your A.T. hike of more than 2,000 miles will consist of a long series of shorter hikes. Resupply is frequently available; most hikers will carry only three to six days of food at a time. Except for those hiking in winter, “expedition” size packs are overkill and will tempt you to carry more than you need. When you pack for your thru-hike and head off to Georgia, it’s helpful to focus on what you need for the first 30 miles, not the entire six months. If there is any item you forgot or need to change, in most areas (especially along the southern half of the A.T.) you’ll reach an outfitter along the Trail every week or two. In fact, there’s one just 30 miles north of Springer, which gives you the opportunity to correct any gear mistakes you’ve made. Depending on when and where you start your hike, you may need winter and summer gear at different times.
Food and Supplies
There's no need to carry more than a week's food on most parts of the A.T. T
hru-hikers typically leave the Trail periodically to resupply in nearby towns. Some ship food parcels ahead to post offices, hostels, and businesses near the Trail; others buy food along the way. Many hikers employ a combination of the two methods.
- The A.T. Thru-Hikers’ Companion provides details on Post Offices and businesses that offer resupply and hold packages for hikers close to the A.T.
- Businesses catering to are often open seven days a week during hiker season.
- Resupply points are further apart and further off the Trail in the South and the far North.
How to use Post Offices along the A.T.
- Anyone can have a package sent addressed to their name, c/o General Delivery, city state, zip code.
- Also provide a return address and add “Hold for A.T. hiker” and your expected arrival date. Writing legibly is important!
- Do not use your “trail name” or initials.
- You will need a photo ID to pick up your package.
- Post Offices are only open Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings—hours vary from Post Office to Post Office.
- Priority Mail is recommended for mailing packages—it’s faster, more reliable than parcel post, and you can forward an unopened package at no charge.
Using a “Bounce Box”
A “bounce box” is popular with long-distance hikers. It allows you to continually send ahead items you’ll need periodically but don’t want to carry. Hikers fill them with supplies such as extra batteries, cell phone chargers, “town clothes,” and toiletries. A bounce box also will allow you to send ahead the extra when you have to buy more of something than you need. Also be sure to include mailing tape, labels, and magic markers so you have supplies to send your box ahead.
The Trail is well-marked, so many thru-hikers, who become skilled at following the blazes, choose not to carry maps. But only maps can give you a full picture of the terrain you will be hiking and, in an emergency, are your best source of information on how to describe your location or get off the Trail and find help. Maps and guidebooks also help you get a sense of where you are and how far you've gone and can enrich your Trail experience.
It costs a fair amount of money to hike the A.T. —typically about $1,000 a month (or more, if you treat yourself to motels and restaurant meals at every opportunity) —to undertake a 2,000-mile, five- to seven-month hike, not counting $1,200 to $2,000 or more for gear. Most of your money will be spent in town. Few hikers can resist the temptation of restaurant food, motel beds, and hot showers after days of deprivation. You will also need money for supplies, laundry, postage, equipment repair, and equipment replacement. All in all, it’s a small amount of money to spend for could be the most rewarding and memorable six months of your life.
While physical fitness will certainly give you an edge and make your first weeks on the Trail easier, in the long run, mental attitude is more important. A fierce commitment to the goal of completing the A.T. is one of the most important ingredients of success. People with all sorts of disabilities have completed the A.T., ranging from blind hikers to amputees.
Workshops or classes can offer the opportunity to learn a great deal in a short amount of time and help you avoid common mistakes. Classroom learning is best combined with a shakedown hike of at least three days and two nights in mountainous terrain.
This listing is provided as an information service and does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Workshops are listed geographically south to north.
Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) Several stores in A.T. states offer thru-hiking workshops (800) 828-5533. www.rei.com.
Pinellas Park, FL
Bill Jackson, Inc. –Two-day thru-hiking workshop, usually during winter. 9501 U.S. 19 North, Pinellas Park, FL 33782 (727) 576-4169. www.billjacksons.com.
Dawsonville, GA – March 7-9, 2014
Amicalola Falls State Park – A.T. Kick-Off, includes sessions on gear selection and presentations by thru-hikers. Amicalola Falls State Park, 418 Amicalola Falls State Park Rd., Dawsonville, GA 30534. www.gastateparks.org; on Facebook as “ATKO - Appalachian Trail Kick-Off.”
Bryson City, NC – annually mid-January
"The Southern Ruck." Nantahala Outdoor Center. Informal gathering of trail enthusiasts, past and future thru-hikers; open to all. May include videos, slide shows, packweight reduction assistance, and gear demonstrations. www.soruck.net
Laurel Bloomery, TN – Several five-day sessions from April-November
Appalachian Trail Institute – An in-depth program exploring psychological, physical, and logistical aspects of thru-hiking. Instructor Dr. Warren Doyle has walked the entire A.T. 16 times. Of those who have taken the course and gone on to attempt a thru-hike, 77% have been successful. P.O. Box 264, Laurel Bloomery, TN 37680 (423) 341-1843, [email protected], www.warrendoyle.com.
Damascus, VA – May 16-18, 2014 (tentative)
Trail Days – An A.T.-related festival in the Trail town of Damascus, Virginia, with presentations by former thru-hikers, attended by hundreds of current thru-hikers. Usu. held weekend after Mother’s Day. www.traildays.us.
Bluemont, VA – annually late January
"PA Ruck." Bears Den Trail Center. Informal gathering of trail enthusiasts, past and future thru-hikers; open to all. May include videos, slide shows, packweight reduction assistance, and gear demonstrations. www.paruck.com.
Winchester, VA - July 19 – 26, 2015
Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial Conference. Although geared more for day and overnight hikers, this eight-day event typically includes workshops on thru-hiking, equipment, lightweight hiking, A.T. history, and dozens of other topics. www.appalachiantrail.org/events.
Mohican Outdoor Center, NJ – Annually in late fall/winter
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Some years offers a long-distance hiking workshop covering food, maildrops, gear, reducing pack weight, on-the-trail teaching. Other courses of interest: Introduction to winter hiking. 50 Camp Road, Blairstown, NJ 07825 (908) 362-5670. www.outdoors.org.
Williamstown, MA -- October 10-12, 2014
Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) annual “Gathering.” Weekend event features numerous “how-to” workshops on many aspects of backpacking on the A.T. and other long-distance trails. Usually held Columbus Day weekend. Mailing address: 10 Benning Street, PMB 224, West Lebanon, NH 03784. www.aldha.org.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy strongly encourages prospective thru-hikers to acquire in-depth training in Leave No Trace, often available through local hiking clubs and outfitters, if it is not included in the workshop you attend. Not all Leave No Trace is as simple as picking up trash; some techniques require training and practice. For more information on Leave No Trace, visit www.appalachiantrail.org/lnt and www.lnt.org.