When and Where to Start

Weather Considerations

Weather is the one of the most critical factors in determining when to start a thru-hike. Virtually every part of the Appalachian Trail has the potential to receive snowfall through early April. Mountains in the South, especially those above 5000 feet, can receive snowfall—sometimes deep—well into April. The highest peaks in Tennessee, North Carolina, and southwest Virginia receive an average of close to 100 inches of snowfall a year. That's more than the lower elevations of New England. In Maine and New Hampshire, snow can linger until June. The locations that receive the most snow are often the most remote. Be prepared for the conditions you may encounter, or consider an alternative itinerary!

The following websites can help you become acquainted with weather patterns along the Appalachian Trail:

Northbound—Georgia to Maine

Most thru-hikers start their trips in early March or April at Springer Mountain in Georgia and finish at Katahdin in September. Starting at Springer in March guarantees hiking in winter conditions for much of the first several weeks and also guarantees a crowd of fellow northbounders—approximately 1500 start out each year, most within a six-week period.

A typical northbounder, starting in March or April and finishing in September, can expect:
  • Starting among crowds of other thru-hikers—thirty or more a day.
  • Cold weather to start, with some snow or ice, but occasional warmer weather in Georgia.
  • Snow, sometimes deep, at high elevations throughout North Carolina and Tennessee.
  • Bare trees and winter conditions at high elevations for the first month or two. Cold-weather gear is usually advised until you have hiked beyond the Mt. Rogers high country in southwest Virginia.
  • Hot, humid weather though the mid-Atlantic states.
  • Favorable temperatures through most of southern New England.
  • Periods of cold weather in New Hampshire and Maine in September and October.
  • A dramatic ending: Katahdin.

To avoid crowds, the optimal time to start a northbound thru-hike is after April 15; however, since the average thru-hiker takes six months to finish, this can mean cutting it close: Baxter State Park in Maine is closed from October 15 to May 15, and the Appalachian Trail up Katahdin is closed on any day when the weather makes hiking there dangerous.

If you are hiking northbound and you reach Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, after July 15, you should consider a “leapfrog” or a “flip-flop” hike, unless you have covered the first thousand miles in two months or less. From Harpers Ferry, you still have almost 1,200 miles to go, and, once you reach the White Mountains in New Hampshire, your mileage from there north through most of Maine will drop by a third. If you continue northward from Harpers Ferry after July 15, you may have to hike faster than you'd like or face having to finish your hike another year.

Southbound—Maine To Georgia

Southbound thru-hikers start in June or July at Katahdin and finish in Georgia in November or December. A southbound hike will allow you much more solitude, but you will be “breaking in” on the most rugged part of the Trail. A Maine-to-Georgia hike also requires that you traverse long distances between resupply points in the early part of your trek. In many ways it's a tougher hike than a northbound thru-hike. Fewer than 1,000 people have reported completion of the A.T. southbound.

A typical southbounder, starting in June or July and finishing in December, can expect:
  • A small number of other southbound thru-hikers for companionship
  • Starting with Katahdin, the most difficult climb on the entire A.T., and the two most challenging states of the entire Trail—Maine and New Hampshire
  • Swarms of black flies in Maine in June
  • Muddy trail and difficult stream crossings in Maine in June
  • Four weeks of hot, humid weather in the mid-Atlantic states
  • Fall colors in Virginia
  • Hiking through hunting season from late October onward
  • Cold weather during last month or two of hike, snow likely

There is a narrow window of favorable weather in which to complete a southbound thru-hike. Most years, the A.T. up Katahdin does not open until the very end of May or the beginning of June. Although better conditions in Maine come later in the summer, most southbound thru-hikers start in June so they do not lose precious summer days.  Ferocious black flies, high water at stream crossings, wet and muddy trail characterize the A.T. are the challenges thru-hikers face in Maine in June. But, waiting for better conditions means trading a day of summer at the beginning of your hike for a day of winter conditions at the end of your hike. Cold temperatures, snow, and ice come early to the high mountains of the southern Appalachians.

Young Female Hiker Crossing River

Flip-flops, leapfrogs, and other alternatives

How can you avoid the crowds and still hike the entire Trail in one year? Increasingly, hikers are choosing to start somewhere in the middle of the Trail. These alternatives to an end-to-end thru-hike are commonly known as "flip-flop" or "leapfrog" hikes. The ATC encourages these alternative hikes as a way to even out the flow of hikers and minimize resource damage to the Trail.

To read an informative article on alternative thru-hikes, click here.

Advantages of an alternative hike include favorable terrain and weather, crowd avoidance, and possible reduced exposure to Lyme disease:

  • Terrain. The easiest terrain on the A.T. is not at either end of the Trail, where thru-hikers normally start, but in the middle of the Trail (from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia north through southern Pennsylvania). In both directions, the Trail gradually gets more difficult as you head north or south. If you want to break in gradually to the rigors of long-distance backpacking, avoid starting south of Virginia, and especially avoid starting in New Hampshire and Maine, the two most difficult states on the Trail. Review sample alternative itineraries with starting points located in moderate terrain.
  • Weather. In predicting weather on the Trail, time of year, elevation, and latitude are the most important variables to consider. Of these, the most frequently overlooked is elevation. For example, Blood Mountain, Georgia, at 4461 feet, has colder temperatures and more snow than Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at about 250 feet, almost a thousand Trail miles to the north.
  • Cold. Because the Trail is often at high elevations, the potential for snow lasts into April in Georgia and the mid-Atlantic states, until early May in the highest mountains of the South and much of New England, and until early June in New Hampshire and Maine. The first snows of autumn fall in late September in Maine and New Hampshire and in October through the rest of New England and highest mountains of the South. In November any part of the Trail can receive snow.
  • Heat. Weather that is uncomfortably hot and humid for backpacking starts to occur intermittently in June in Georgia, Virginia, and the mid-Atlantic states. July and August can be too hot for comfortable backpacking in much of the mid-Atlantic and South, although above five and six thousand feet the temperatures are often pleasant. High temperatures often linger sporadically into September.
  • Avoiding crowds. Leaving Springer in March or early April you will find viewpoints, shelters and campsites crowded, and opportunities for privacy and solitude are substantially reduced. An average of more than 35 thru-hikers a day leaves Springer between March 1 and April 1. Northbound thru-hikers create a large, moving group of people, the majority of whom are concentrated over a 300-400 mile stretch of Trail. Georgia especially is crowded, before the attrition process takes its toll. "Spring break" hikers are also drawn to the southern end of the Trail in March and April. Crowded conditions continue well into Virginia. You can avoid these conditions by following any one of the alternative itineraries.
  • Reducing exposure to Lyme disease. Alternative itineraries that avoid or reduce the time spent in the mid-Atlantic and southern New England from mid-May through July, where elevations are low and incidence of Lyme disease is high, can reduce your exposure to Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Disadvantages of an alternative hike include psychological factors and logistics:

  • Psychological factors. While too many people on the Trail may detract from your experience, so can loneliness. Almost all people find they enjoy their experience more if they have someone with whom they can share both hardships and joys. It also can help to have other thru-hikers around who can encourage you to stick it out when you get bored or discouraged and feel like quitting. For this reason, disadvantages of an alternative hike include psychological factors and logistics. In almost all of these variations you will be ending at a point other than Katahdin, the northern terminus of the A.T. in Maine. Katahdin is a mile-high stand-alone mountain that is hard to beat for a dramatic finish and a powerful draw to spur you on. However, hiking Katahdin earlier in your journey will mean you won't have to race the weather or rush to make Baxter State Park's October 15 deadline. A hiker who is not following the most common approach to thru-hiking is likely to encounter those who insist that the only "right" way to hike the Trail is to walk from Georgia to Maine or vice versa; a few hikers have found this peer pressure has detracted from their ability to enjoy their experience. Some miss the continuity and simplicity of a straight-through trek. On the other hand, you may find satisfaction in knowing that you are not adding to already-crowded conditions caused by the main group of thru-hikers elsewhere on the Trail. By traveling where and when there are fewer people you will minimize your impacts on soils, flora, and fauna, as well as on volunteer-maintained campsites and other Trail resources.
  • Logistics. Some additional logistical planning and expense is required to get to the second leg of your journey. Those who plan to leave the Trail for brief hiatus (i.e. graduation, wedding of a family member, etc.) may find this type of hike fits conveniently into their travel plans.
Hiker walking in the woods

Alternative Thru-Hike Itineraries

These seven scenarios outline possible variations from the typical Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike. Sample itineraries are generally designed for a six and one-half month hike. This allows for the average thru-hike time of six months and two weeks for travel and a little extra time off between legs of the journey. Sample itineraries are designed to optimize terrain, weather, and crowd avoidance. Most also provide opportunities for companionship and camaraderie.

HEAD-START: APRIL

Damascus, Va. north to Katahdin; Damascus south to Springer Mountain.

Sample itinerary: Start in Damascus mid-April, hike north to climb Katahdin mid-September; resume hiking south third week of September, finish on Springer Mountain beginning of November.

  • Start ahead of crowds of thru-hikers, but be assured of companionship from early hikers.
  • Be prepared for snow across the Mt. Rogers highlands (a 26-mile high-elevation stretch that starts about 17 miles north of Damascus).
  • Do not expect to keep up with the pace of thru-hikers who started in Georgia; allow yourself 3-6 weeks to get in optimal shape.
  • Start out in terrain of moderate difficulty.
  • Plenty of time to reach Katahdin before it closes.
  • Enjoy fall colors in the deep South, but with little companionship (you'll be ahead of the southbound thru-hikers)

HEAD-START: MAY

Harpers Ferry, W.Va., north to Katahdin; Harpers Ferry, W.Va., south to Springer Mountain.

Sample itinerary: Start in Harpers Ferry late April or first half of May, reach Katahdin second half of August; return to Harpers Ferry after Labor Day; finish at Springer Mountain the second half of November.

  • Start in easiest part of the Trail that very gradually gets more difficult.
  • When you start do not expect to keep pace right away with thru-hikers who started in Georgia.
  • Start in mild, pleasant weather.
  • Start amidst spring wildflowers and walk north with spring.
  • Hike through the mid-Atlantic before it gets hot, humid and water sources become scarce.
  • If you start earlier than May, plan to reach Vermont after mud season ends (about June 1).
  • Reach the White Mountains in July, before the peak crowds.
  • Reach Maine in August, when black flies are gone (but expect crowds the last hundred miles of Maine).
  • Plenty of time to reach Katahdin before it closes.
  • Walk south with fall colors on the second half of your hike.
  • Companionship with early northbounders the first half, then finish the Trail with early southbounders.
  • Be prepared for hunting season in the South.
  • Be prepared for cold weather and the possibility of snow starting at the end of October.

HEAD-START: JUNE

Southern New England north to Katahdin; southern New England south to Springer Mountain.

Case study: “Scatman” started on the NY/CT line mid-June and hiked northbound, climbing Katahdin mid-August. He returned to starting point in NY and headed south with the southbound thru-hikers, finishing the end of November.

His comments: “I believe that beginning in Connecticut in early June was beneficial. By hiking southbound for most of the trip, we also avoided the crowded shelters and the 'spring break' atmosphere of the early part of a northbound hike. It also allowed me to 'follow autumn' for much of the southbound portion of my hike. We did experience some cold weather at higher elevations and some snow in the Smokies … Doing New England northbound also afforded me the opportunity to approach Katahdin head-on, one of the most exciting sights on the A.T.”

FLIP-FLOP

Springer Mountain north to Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; Katahdin south to Harpers Ferry.

Sample itinerary: Start at Springer Mountain second half of April and hike north, reaching Harpers Ferry, W.Va., middle of July; then flip to Katahdin. Hike south to Harpers Ferry and end first half of November.

  • Start at Springer Mountain, but without the crowds.
  • Minimal chance of snow or severe cold the entire hike.
  • Avoid heat in most of mid-Atlantic.
  • Avoid crowds of other thru-hikers.
  • No worries about reaching Katahdin before it closes.
  • Hike with late northbounders first half; hike with southbounders the second half and meet northbounders a second time.
  • Hike south with fall colors.

SOUTHBOUND CIRCUIT, A.K.A. WRAPAROUND

Sample itinerary: Start in Harpers Ferry first half of April and hike south, reaching Georgia the first half of July. Flip to Katahdin and hike south, finishing in Harpers Ferry the second half of October.

Case study: “Lonesome Dove” started March 13 in Harpers Ferry. When he reached Shenandoah National Park a week later, he encountered an ice storm that made parts of the Trail impassable and he was forced to walk on Skyline Drive. After completing the southern half of the A.T. a few months later, he took off several weeks and started again southbound in Maine in late summer, finishing his hike in Harpers Ferry the first week of November. His summary of this approach: “A great hike south without bugs and heat of summer. I enjoyed it but it can be lonely.”

  • To avoid snow and ice do not start before April.
  • To take advantages of services in Shenandoah National Park do not start before April.
  • Experience a great deal of solitude.
  • Consider staying at Skyland Lodge in Shenandoah National Park, so you can use it as a mail drop and cut the food you have to carry through the Park in half while you're still getting in shape.
  • Start in mostly gentle terrain and gradually work up to the more challenging terrain of the deep South.
  • Enjoy rhododendron, mountain laurel, and azalea in bloom for several weeks in the south.
  • Expect hot, humid weather in Georgia.
  • No worries about reaching Katahdin in time.
  • Walk south with southbounders and fall color.
  • Because of the loneliness factor, this alternative may be best suited to couples and small groups.
  • Harpers Ferry has direct train access.

LEAPFROG

Springer Mountain north to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., southern New England north to Katahdin, southern New England south to Harpers Ferry.

Sample itinerary: Start at Springer second half of April and hike north, reaching Harpers Ferry middle of July; “leapfrog” to Great Barrington, Mass; hike north to Katahdin, finishing in September. Return to Great Barrington and hike south to Harpers Ferry.

  • Start at Springer Mountain with other hikers, but without the crowds.
  • Minimal chance of snow or severe cold the entire hike.
  • Avoid the worst heat in most of the mid-Atlantic.
  • Hike in New England before severe cold sets in.
  • Walk north toward Katahdin with little or no time pressure.
  • Hike through southern New England and mid-Atlantic in fall colors.
  • Additional logistics required.

COOL BREEZE

Hike the Trail in three equidistant pieces, all southbound. Start with the middle third of Trail, followed by the northern third, ending with the southern third.

Sample itinerary: Start in southern Connecticut late April, hike south, reaching Troutville, Virginia (Roanoke area) late June. Hike from Katahdin south, reaching southern Connecticut end of August/ early September. Hike from Troutville south, ending at Springer early November.

Case study: After completing the Trail twice, “Cool Breeze” designed his third hike to put him in each part of the Trail during optimal weather conditions. “I hit many places in their most clement and beautiful seasons (Pennsylvania in moist May, Maine and Whites in balmy July and August, Smokies in late October peak colors) and finished at Springer before snow fell in early November. It required 2 flips, Virginia to Katahdin, and Connecticut to Virginia, but it allowed me the best weather of any of my A.T. trips.”

  • Hike in mid-Atlantic during spring, before it gets hot and water sources become scarce.
  • Hike first two months in moderate or easy terrain.
  • Hike in New England after bug season, in temperate weather before it gets cold.
  • Expect few other long-distance hikers traveling in the same direction, especially on first leg.
  • Additional logistics required.
  • No worries about Katahdin closure.
  • Avoid extremes of both heat and cold.
Male Hiker Reading Map in NJ

Young Female Hiker On A ROck

Young Male Hiker On Top of Rock