When and Where to Start

Should I Start in Georgia, Maine, or Somewhere in Between?


Georgia
Starting at Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the A.T. in Georgia, has long been the most popular place to start a thru-hike. As more and more people learn about the amazing journey a thru-hike offers, a growing number of hikers from around the world have attempted thru-hikes. But "popular" has led to "crowded." 

In 2014, approximately 2500 hikers set off from Georgia, mostly between March 1 and April 15. During this peak starting period, the southern end of the A.T. becomes a continuous stream of hikers during the day. Each night hikers are clustered around trail shelters or campsites, which have become overcrowded on peak days. In 2015 and beyond, the numbers are expected to climb even higher with two major films about long-distance hiking appearing nationwide this year. One is a movie version of A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's best selling book about an Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt, starring well-known actors.

To help even the flow of an ever growing number of hikers, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is working on a voluntary registration system. Watch this site for more information in the coming weeks. We are also promoting innovative, non-traditional thru-hike itineraries. More about those, below.

Maine
Maine has never been a popular place to start a thru-hike, and may never be. It's simply too wild and rugged. Katahdin, the northern terminus and the first mountain a hiker must scale, is the most difficult on the entire A.T. The route through this northernmost state is, in places, not so much a path as a climb or scramble over rocks and roots. It's no place for anyone who is inexperienced or out of shape to start a long-distance hike.

The Middle
Starting in the middle, where the mountains are lowest and terrain the easiest, in some ways makes more sense. People have traditionally preferred the simplicity of hiking the entire Trail in one direction, but in doing so have overlooked a more logical sequence for hiking the Trail. Spring comes to the middle earlier than the South's highest mountains. Towns are more frequent in the mid-Atlantic, so resupply is more frequent too. That means you can carry less food and have a lighter pack (you won't need heavy serious cold-weather gear either). And if you time it right, the northbound crowds will be a long way off.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is considered the psychological halfway point of the A.T., and makes a natural starting point. It's home to the headquarters of the Trail, is located in one of the most scenic and historic spots on the entire A.T., and is the only place on the entire Trail with train service seven days a week.

More information about all three options is below. But first, there is something else you need to be aware of.

Weather

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 March or the first half 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. Good winter gear is a must and should be carried beyond Mt. Rogers, Virginia (a little more than 500 miles). Starting in March and the first half of April also guarantees large numbers of hikers at overnight sites. Approximately 2500 start out each year, most within a six-week period. Already the numbers on some days are above sustainable amounts.

Starting in February means hiking in colder temperatures longer and hiking in deeper snow, with far fewer hikers around. A February start is recommended only for those with experience backpacking in winter conditions in mountainous terrain.

Please avoid starting April 1, the most popular starting date, with as many as a 100 starting that day. When these large number of hikers reaches the campsites at night, the end result is trampled vegetation, sanitation issues, and a crowded party atmosphere. This is not what the Appalachian Trail was designed for. Other days with especially crowded conditions are March 1 and often March 15, March 17 or the first day of spring. Weekends are usually more crowded than weekdays. The least-crowded days are usually mid-week, except when they fall on one of the dates noted above.

A typical northbounder, starting in March or April and finishing in September, can expect:
  • Starting among crowds of other thru-hikers—fifty or more a day.
  • Cold weather to start, with some snow or ice, but occasional warmer weather in Georgia that can give a misleading impression of hiking conditions.
  • 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.
  • Higher likelihood of being exposed to norovirus as a result of camping in crowded conditions in the backcountry.
  • 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.

To avoid crowds and winter conditions, the optimal time to start a northbound thru-hike is after April 15. As long as you do not anticipate a slower-than-average hike, the window between April 15 and the first week of May can be a good time to start. Hikers do need to plan on reaching Baxter State Park in Maine before October 15 due to severe weather conditions that typically occur starting the increasing frequency in early October. You can always be prepared to "flip."

If you are hiking northbound and you reach Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, after July 15, it's a good idea to consider a “leapfrog” or a “flip-flop” (see below) 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. 

Southbound—Maine To Georgia

A word of caution: A southbound thru-hike is recommended only for experienced and fit backpackers who are looking for an extreme physical challenge right at the start. A southbound thru-hike starts with the most difficult climb on the entire A.T. (Katahdin). Ascending this mile-high mountain requires scrambling and climbing with handholds above treeline. Shortly after, you enter the "100-mile wilderness" which has no resupply--the longest distance between paved roads and civilization on the entire A.T. This means your pack will be at its heaviest at the beginning of your hike, when you may be carrying 10 days worth of food. In many ways, a southbound thru-hike is significantly tougher than a northbound thru-hike. As of mid-2014, only about 1,250 people have reported completion of the A.T. southbound. Many of those who opted for a southbound hike did so only because of dictates of their schedule. A few intentionally choose this route to avoid the crowds and the party atmosphere that characters the northbound thru-hike.

Southbound thru-hikers typically start in June or the first half of July at Katahdin and finish in Georgia in November or December. 

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
  • About 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, in addition to the rigorous climbs that Maine offers in any season. 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 can come as early as the end of October 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 and can offer a number of benefits to hikers while doing a thru-hike in a sustainable manner. The ATC strongly encourages these alternative hikes as a way to reduce crowding by evening out the flow of hikers and minimizing resource damage to the Trail. They generally offer more favorable weather conditions than a northbound thru-hike, a gradual progression from easier to more difficult terrain, and avoidance of crowds and a party atmosphere.

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

To request a list of recent thru-hikers who have followed an alternative itinerary, have shared quotes,  and are willing to correspond with future thru-hikers, click here and include "2,000-miler Correspondence List: Alternative" in the subject line.
Hiker walking in the woods

Alternative Thru-Hike Itineraries (highlights and tips)

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 FROM HARPERS FERRY (Recommended by ATC)

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

Summary: For a two-part flip-flop, this version hits the sweet spot between crowds and loneliness. It begins with the easiest part of the entire A.T., reduces exposure to extremes of weather, and starts in one of the prettiest and easiest-to-get-to spots on the Trail.

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.
  • Start in mild, pleasant weather.
  • Start amid spring wildflowers and walk north with spring.
  • Do not expect to keep pace right away with thru-hikers who started in Georgia.
  • Encounter rocky but mostly flat terrain in Pennsylvania 
  • Hike through the mid-Atlantic before it gets hot, humid and water sources become scarce.
  • If you start earlier than May, make sure you do not reach Vermont before mud season ends (Saturday of Memorial Day weekend). 
  • Reach the White Mountains in July, before the peak crowds; less competition for work-for-stay in huts
  • 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.
  • No advance reservations required for Baxter State Park  (eligible to use The Birches long-distance hiker's site)
  • Wait until after Labor Day to start southbound from Harpers Ferry to give the earliest southbounders time to catch up with you.
  • 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, especially in The Smokies.

HEAD-START FROM DAMASCUS, VIRGINA NORTH 

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

Summary:Allows you to start earlier than some options, but you can expect cold weather much of he first month, and a solitary hike on the final leg southbound from Damascus.

Recommended 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 biggest crowds of thru-hikers, but be assured of companionship from early hikers.
  • Be prepared for snow and frigid temperatures across the 5000-foot-plus Mt. Rogers highlands (a 26-mile high-elevation stretch that starts about 17 miles north of Damascus).
  • Be prepared for the possibility of below-freezing temperatures anytime in April since you'll be in higher mountains
  • 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 expect no fellow travelers (you'll be ahead of the southbound thru-hikers) 

HEAD-START FROM NY/CT NORTH

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.”

Transportation note: Public transportation is available weekends to the Appalachian Trail Stop in New York near the Connecticut border via the Metro North railroad line (between Pawling and Wingdale). More information is available on ATC' shuttle and public transportation list at www.appalachiantrail.org/transportation.

CLASSIC 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.
  • Reduced (but not eliminated) exposure to Lyme disease and tick-borne diseases.
  • Avoid crowds of other thru-hikers.
  • Advance campground reservations required at Baxter State Park (not eligible to uses The Birches Long-Distance Hikers site)
  • No worries about reaching Katahdin in Baxter 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.

LEAPFROG

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

Summary: The timing and amount of thru-hikers around you for almost every areas is terrific, but this option requires more travel.

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

  • 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.
  • Advance campsite reservations required at Baxter State Park; not eligible to stay at The Birches long-distance hiker's site.
  • No worries about Katahdin closure.
  • Avoid extremes of both heat and cold.
  • Additional logistics required.

SOUTHBOUND CIRCUIT, A.K.A. WRAPAROUND

Sample itinerary: Start in Harpers Ferry second or third week 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. 

This version is not strongly encouraged, as it could lead to additional crowding when those walking south pass through the northbound crowds.

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.”

 

  • The first leg of this hike is somewhat challenging and not the best option for hikers who are not in shape.
  • The first day begins with fairly steep, thousand-foot climb out of Harpers Ferry.
  • Seventeen miles out of Harpers Ferry, hike the rugged "Roller Coaster" for 13 miles.
  • To avoid snow and ice do not start before April.
  • Seasonal services in Shenandoah National Park start opening in late March, but not all are open until May.
  • Pass through and meet almost all of the northbound thru-hikers in May, but only briefly.
  • 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 moderate terrain the first six weeks (after  a 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.
  • Advance camping reservations are required at Baxter State Park; you are not eligible to use The Birches Long-Distance Hikers campsite.
  • 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.

 

Male Hiker Reading Map in NJ

Young Female Hiker On A ROck

Young Male Hiker On Top of Rock