Almost a century ago, one man, Benton MacKaye, envisaged a great hiking trail running down the eastern seaboard of the United States, from New England to the southern Appalachians. His dream became the Appalachian Trail, a hiking route that stretches over 2,180 miles and across 14 states, from the Springer Mountain in Georgia all the way down to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
In the 1920s and 1930s, MacKaye's vision was built by volunteers, who completed it in 1937. Until 1968, when Congress passed the National Trails System Act, large swathes of the trail crossed roads or private land. Now, almost all of the trail crosses over scenic public lands. To this day, a dedicated corps of volunteers works alongside the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Park Service, and many other bodies to ensure that the Trail has a bright future.
The terrain itself is hugely varied. Although most of the trail consists of wooded slopes and ridges, it occasionally crosses through valleys and pastoral land. At its toughest points, it involves near-vertical rock scrambles in the mountains. The trail is very remote, making for a genuine natural hiking experience. That being said, it does pass through several small towns, and at some stages, hikers are only several hours from major East Coast cities.
A grounding in thru-hiking
There are several different types of hiker who attempt the Appalachian Trail. Most people on the trail are day hikers, who want to stretch their legs for a few miles or climb to a viewpoint. Others make a (long) weekend of it and cover a fair distance, having prepared and packed overnight equipment. Section hikers normally hike for a week or more, and they tend to carry more supplies, or resupply along the way. Thru-hikers plan to hike the entire Trail in one stint, an enormous undertaking that typically takes between five to seven months.
Anyone who is in good physical health has the potential to complete a thru-hike; however, having a good mental attitude is as important, if not more so. Owning high-quality, lightweight gear is certainly advantageous, especially in the critical first few weeks of your expedition. A great deal of logistical planning is also key to success. A love of the outdoors, perseverance in the face of adversity, and a strong passion to succeed will definitely help too!
Thru-hikes have been completed by people from all walks of life, with ages ranging from six to 81 and by many people with disabilities. That said, although thousands attempt a thru-hike every year, only about one in four successfully complete the whole thing. The concept has certainly grown more popular in recent years; 830 individuals completed the entire trail in 2014, compared to only 182 in 1990. Those who successfully complete it will be officially recognized as 2,000-milers by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy!
How much does it cost?
It's hard to say. It really depends on how far you're going, your chosen route, and what time of year you're hiking. There's a common misconception that hikers have to buy the latest and most expensive gear if they are to be successful. That said, it's not uncommon for hikers to spend between $1,000 to $2,000 on new equipment.
If you're looking to hike the entire trail, estimate that you will spend between $3,000 and $5,000 on your five to seven months on the road (not including gear). You'll have to factor in a range of other expenses too, including, but not limited to: expenses back home; loss of earnings; and health insurance.
Most of your money will be spent restocking supplies in town. If you're hiking long-term, you'll most likely indulge in eating at restaurants, staying in some awesome glamping accommodations, and taking a hot shower from time to time. You'll also need money for laundry, posting, and replacing or repairing equipment.
How many miles per day?
Your first and last days should always be shorter, as these will be your toughest. As a rough guide, beginner backpackers should walk no more than seven to eight miles per day; however, the distance that you cover will always depend on your surroundings. In northern New England, the tough terrain will slow even the heartiest hiker down. Many hikers become competitive and try to cover as many miles a day as possible. Unfortunately, this will only increase the likelihood of blisters and injury. Our advice is to relax, rest as much as you need to, and take time to absorb the beauty of your natural surroundings.
What to pack?
- Map and compass
- Water (1-3 quarts per day)
- Insect repellent
- Warm clothing
- Food (including high-energy snacks, such as nuts)
- A First Aid kit (with blister treatments)
- Notepad and paper
- Tweezers (to remove ticks)
- A whistle
- A trash bag
- Bright orange hat and vest (during hunting season)
- Trowel (to bury waste)
- Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and resealable bags
- Cell phone
- Cooking pot and utensils
- Gas stove
- Bag cover
- Sleeping pad
- Spare clothing
- Broken-in walking boots
Other items for long-distance hikers
- Flashlight (with spare batteries and bulb)
- Emergency shelter (heavy-duty bag or space blanket)
- Sharp knife
- Fire starter (tinder box, etc.)
- Waterproof, windproof matches
- Bear spray
What food should I bring?
Most hikers carry dried foods with them, which they boil and prepare on their gas stoves. It's rare that you'll have to carry more than a week's worth of food at any given time, as there are frequently stores where travelers can stock up. Some people make use of food packages that they ship ahead of themselves and pick up later.
Bear in mind that hiking uses a lot of energy. Most backpackers will need a diet of around 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day, with meals interspersed with high-energy snacks.
When should I do it?
Most thru-hikers start their journey between late February and mid-April at Springer Mountain in Georgia. They tend to finish in Mount Katahdin in Maine between August and early October. October 15th is an important cut-off point, as weather conditions tend to significantly worsen and regulations in Baxter Park become more strict. Many are tempted to start early to "beat the crowd," but the risks include cold temperatures, snow, and icy conditions.
How about walking southbound?
Although a far less popular option, some thru-hikers do choose to start in Maine in June or early July and finish in Georgia in November or December. It's a difficult balance to strike. The A.T. in Maine tends to open at the start of June or sometimes even later, and walkers will likely encounter swarms of black flies and high stream crossings in Maine.
Choosing to wait longer, however, will mean extra weeks of winter hiking on the southern end. This is definitely the most difficult way to walk the trail, and hikers should be in excellent physical shape before even considering this. This is, in large part, because the hiker will attempt the hardest mountain and hardest state right at the start of their journey.
Planning and physical preparation
"Fail to prepare, prepare to fail" has never been more true than when you take on the Great Outdoors. To give a brief outline of route planning, you should first identify the region you’ll be hiking in, then the state you’ll start in. Thirdly, decide on a destination or section along the Trail in that state. Fourthly, study your route and plan several alternatives in case of emergency. Make sure you are mentally well-prepared too, and that you have enough well-maintained equipment.
Physical preparation is also really important. Your fitness will be hugely important throughout, but will make all the difference during the first month and its steep terrain. Success at such a critical juncture will help your mental attitude immensely. We recommend taking a few training hikes with a full backpack so that you can get used to your boots and equipment.
Thru-hikers should spend at least a fortnight preparing, but preferably significantly longer. On the first day of the hike, make sure to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you overdo it, you will wake up sore the next morning and make very little progress.
Camping and Leave No Trace
If you're hiking for over a day, you have two basic options of where to sleep the night. You can either stay in a shelter ("lean-to") or pitch your tent. Shelters can be few and far between, so a tent is essential. In addition, campers should make themselves aware of the code of conduct on the trail, known as Leave No Trace, which encompasses every journey, from a rural picnic to a thru-hike. For more information on Leave No Trace, visit http://www.lnt.org/.
- Set a steady pace that you can maintain.
- Stay hydrated to avoid hypothermia and heat exhaustion.
- Only ever drink treated water.
- Always bury excrement at least 70 paces away from water, trails, and shelters.
- If there is lightning, disperse and take cover. If this is not an option, put your hands over your ears and crouch down in a ball.
- Dress in layers of synthetic clothing to avoid hypothermia.
- Make sure that you have a fully waterproof outfit in case of rain.
- In hot weather, be sure to drink plenty of water and replenish electrolytes.
- Consistently check your map and route.
- Don't hike alone.
- Always keep your belongings in sight.
- Leave a copy of your hiking itinerary with a friend or family member.
- Wear bright orange during hunting season.
- Be careful where you walk so as not to antagonize snakes.
- Wear insect repellent to deter ticks and mosquitoes. Carry tweezers and check for ticks daily.
- To avoid unwanted attention from bears, cook and sleep in different areas, and hang your food up or store it in a bear canister.
- In the event of a black bear attack, stand your ground and make a lot of noise, and, if it comes to it, fight back. Do not attempt to climb a tree as black bears are excellent climbers.
- Make sure to carry a First Aid kit with plenty of blister treatments.
The start of the Appalachian Trail runs through Georgia, North Carolina, and along the North Carolina-Tennessee border for 225 miles. The trail climbs to the High Country on the state border, where hikers will tackle some of the highest mountains along the trail, including several that exceed 6,000 feet. After a few days on this tough terrain, you'll be in need of a well-earned break.
Virginia contains the most miles of the trail out of any state at 550. It is particularly challenging for northbound thru-hikers because of the wet conditions caused by the spring thaw and heavy seasonal rainfall. Large portions of the trail parallel Skyline Drive, which runs through Shenandoah National Park. McAfee Knob, a large overhang, is arguably the most photographed section of the entire trail.
The entire Massachusetts section of the Trail crosses through Berkshire County, home to the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires. The state is home to Mount Greylock, the mountain that allegedly inspired Herman Melville to write "Moby Dick." At 3,500 feet, it is the highest point in Massachusetts and affords hikers commanding 90-mile views on a clear day.