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November 2008

American Classic: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

In this ultimate guide to the country's favorite footpath, you'll find our picks for the best hiking and camping, and a complete plan for thru-hikers. Plus, meet a man who has made it his job to help AT hikers.

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PLAN A THRU-HIKE

Dreaming of a thru-hike? Prepare for success by learning the obstacles–and how to beat them.

KEEP IT SIMPLE
Don’t let the length of the AT confuse things: It’s a hike, not an Everest expedition. Get started on the right path by dispensing with three common AT myths:

1) Planning: Ignore those who recommend an organizational jump-start six or eight months in advance. Calculating where you’ll camp every night is an exercise in futility, and spending thousands of dollars shipping resupply boxes across 14 states from Maine to Georgia is a waste of time and money (see “Hike Smart”).

2) Gear: There’s no magic product. Sure, you should carry less than 30 pounds total with food and water (check page 53 for help), but remember: Even a one-pound pack can’t walk for you.

3) Mileage: It’s not important to stay “on pace” for the first month. In fact, the opposite is true. Nothing kills a thru-hike faster than going too far, too soon (see “Hike Smart” for how to master the first 40 days).

Hiker to Hiker
What it takes: Essential qualities for a successful thru-hiker include “a sturdy physique, exceptional determination, and ingenious adaptability.” –Earl Shaffer, a World War II veteran who became the world’s first thru-hiker when he walked the AT end-to-end in 1948. He used road maps to navigate.

WHAT TO EXPECT
Unlike other long trails, the 2,175-mile AT is a true mountain path for virtually its entire distance. That makes it both more satisfying–and more difficult–than many hikers expect. Here’s what you’ll encounter on the AT’s four major sections on a northbound hike.

Southern Appalachians 456 miles, about 40 days
There’s no break at the beginning: Georgia’s 75 miles are second only to New Hampshire in terms of vertical gain, and North Carolina’s Nantahala and Stekoah Mountains get mighty steep. Plan on hiking fewer than 10 miles per day as your legs adjust. Expect to cover up to 15 miles in the Smokies, and even more through Tennessee’s balds.

Virginia and West Virginia 554 miles, about 40 days
This is where you’ll hit your stride. The path here is relatively easy, with modest elevation changes and good tread. Plus, you’ll have your trail legs under you after the first month; many thru-hikers crank out 20-mile days here. Stores are frequently accessible (often every few days), so you can keep your load light and really fly.

Mid-Atlantic states 430 miles, about 32 days
Smaller hills here allow 15 to 20 miles a day–except in the rockiest parts of Pennsylvania, where your mileage may be sliced in half. Don’t kill yourself on the rocks–there’s still a lot of trail ahead.

New England 734 miles, about 57 days
Fallen behind? Make up ground on the first part of the home stretch–through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and southern Vermont–which is easy compared to what comes after. In the White Mountains, the AT gets rockier and steeper; even strong hikers might cover only 10 miles a day. In Maine, you can expect fickle autumn weather. If you’re in shape and on schedule for the final kick to Katahdin, take rest days during the worst storms.

Northbound vs. Southbound
The only significant navigation decision you’ll make on the whole AT is whether to walk northbound (NOBO in thru-hiker slang) or southbound (SOBO). Here’s what to consider:

NOBO
The chief reason to hike northward is simply tradition: It’s the direction of travel chosen by some 90 percent of thru-hikers. NOBOs start between mid-March and mid-April and finish in the fall. This itinerary means wintry weather for the first several weeks or more; heat and bugs from the mid-Atlantic states to New England; and a crowd of fellow northbounders, which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Also, slow hikers risk missing the big finale on Katahdin: Baxter State Park closes October 15.

SOBO
Southbounders start later (Baxter opens June 1) and usually finish in November or even December. The downsides: You’ll endure thick black flies and challenging stream crossings in Maine (start after July 1 to avoid the worst); hike during hunting season in the south; and walk into winter instead of out of it. Upsides, according to successful SOBO Francis Tapon: get Maine and New Hampshire–the AT’s hardest section–over with first; enjoy more solitude; walk out of mosquito season instead of into it; pass through Virginia during prime-time fall colors; and hike with no time pressure, since Springer Mountain doesn’t close for the winter.

Transportation

Getting there and away Private shuttles serve both Springer and Katahdin. Get a list of options here.
On the trail For resupply rides to town, hitchhiking is generally safe and easy, as locals are accustomed to picking up hikers. Or ask about shuttles or “trail angels” (people who freely help AT hikers) at hostels and shelters.

Choosing a Partner

It’s not critical to find a partner pre-trip. Hiking NOBO on the AT, you’ll meet people compatible with your pace and temperament.

  • Women: Many female hikers safely go solo on the AT each year, but start with a companion if that’s more comfortable.
  • Agree on what to do if your partnership fails.
  • Be flexible; you don’t have to walk together every day or stay together every night.
  • Friends from home may want to join you for a few days. Just remember that once you have your trail legs it might be tough to slow your pace.

Resources

Books The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s pocket-size Appalachian Trail Data Book ($6) lists distances between key points like shelters, water sources, and town services; The Thru-Hiker’s Companion ($14) is larger with more details about trail facilities and towns. Get them both at appalachiantrail.org.

Websites The Appalachian Trail Conservancy manages the AT and is a good source of AT-specific info (304-535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). Find mileages between two points on the AT with this online calculator (ragtag.org/dbatdist.html). Also check thru-hiker-centric whiteblaze.net.

Permits No permit is necessary for the AT, but some parks–including Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah–require free registration, shelter fees, or reservations.

Purists might balk, but these alternative itineraries allow more flexibility and optimum trail conditions. Section hiking: Tackle the trail in vacation-size stages over many years. Flip-flopping: Start at Springer in spring and hike to Harpers Ferry, then flip to Katahdin and hike south (or vice versa). Leapfrogging: Divide the trail into thirds, hiking first the southernmost, then northernmost, then middle. Head-starting: Begin at Damascus in April and hike north, then return in the fall and hike to Springer Mountain.

GET FIT

Start in shape, and you’re more likely to enjoy–and finish–your thru-hike.

Don’t let anyone tell you to “just hike yourself into shape.” While it’s true that you’ll inevitably gain trail fitness, that only applies if you don’t quit. A recent study of AT thru-hikers confirmed that people who start with a better fitness level (measured by VO2 max), lower body-fat percentage, and lower weight overall are more likely to be successful. So increase your odds of finishing, decrease your risk of injury, and enjoy that first month much more by starting this training plan three months before your hike.

Strength

Two to three times per week, do muscle-building exercises that incorporate your core. Examples:

  1. Push-ups: Perform them while resting your legs on an exercise ball.
  2. Lunges: While holding a weight or medicine ball, twist your torso to the side of the forward leg, then return to starting position and repeat.
  3. Step-ups: Hold 10-pound dumbbells and pump both arms up and forward with each step.
  4. Bicycle crunches: These are great for building core strength. Do them slowly, with good form (back flat, navel in, neck straight).
  5. Supermans: Lie on your stomach on an exercise ball; lift and extend opposing arms and legs, pause, then switch and repeat.

Prepare your feet

  1. Strengthen ankles by using a balance board at least twice a week.
  2. Condition soles by wearing lightweight shoes on long dayhikes.
  3. Apply tincture of benzoin or soak feet in strong, brewed tea. Both toughen skin. Treat feet daily, starting a few weeks before your hike.

Trail Fitness
Do regular aerobic workouts like running or cycling, but remember that nothing prepares you to hike all day like … hiking all day. Once a week, get in a five-plus-hour hike with a pack load equal to your AT weight. Go on at least one 30-mile shakedown backpacking trip.

Hiker to Hiker
Fuel up: “Have an electrolyte drink daily, regardless of weather. Several are available at grocery stores: Replenish, Crystal Light to Go [some varieties], and Gatorade, among others.”–Tom “Evil Eye” Tanner, Lawrence, KN, 2007 AT thru-hiker

EAT RIGHT

Don’t run out of steam: Thru-hikers burn 3,500 (women) to 5,000 (men) calories a day.

Stay energized with this fueling plan:

  • Your diet should be slightly higher in fat than normal–about 50 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent fat, and 15 percent protein, according to hiker/nutritionist Brenda Braaten. A study of AT thru-hiker diets found a similarly ideal ratio (49/37/14) after 500 miles on the trail. The reason: Energy-dense fat is more efficient to carry, and a steady supply helps preserve muscle glycogen stores.
  • Don’t pack foods you think you should eat. Pack foods you like.
  • You’ll be tired, so keep meals simple. Stick with easy-prep foods that require no or little cooking (boiled water only).
  • In towns, treat yourself to cravings like fries and milkshakes–it’s a nice reward, and it’s smart to make up the calorie deficit thru-hikers generally run (about 1,700 calories per day for women, 2,200 per day for men, according to one study).
  • Don’t skimp on salt. You need it, and potassium, to prevent cramps.
  • If you’re losing too much weight and depleting your body’s fat reserves and muscle mass–leading to long-term exhaustion–slow your pace and increase your calories. On average, successful thru-hikers lose only about five pounds over the course of the trek.
  • Weigh your food. Carry 1.5 to 2 pounds of food per day, or about 3,500 to 4,000 calories.
  • Minimize weight with energy-dense foods, like nuts roasted in oil (170 calories/oz.), raw almonds (162), peanut butter and squeeze margarine (160), chocolate and cookies (140), and trail mix (130).

CARRY LESS

Turn ultralight into ultra-comfortable.

THE WEIGHT GAME
Zealous gram-counters achieve pack weights that are startlingly low. Don’t join them in a race to the bottom. Winton Porter, who may be responsible for outfitting more successful thru-hikers than anyone else on the planet, says the ideal weight for a fully loaded pack, including food and water, is 25 pounds in the summer, and up to 35 pounds during shoulder seasons. These loads encourage a good balance between on-trail and in-camp comfort.

6 Thru-Hiker Packing Secrets

  1. Carry hand sanitizer and use it before eating and after going to the bathroom. Always. Most hiker illnesses are spread by hand.
  2. Pack extra insect repellent (at least 30 percent DEET) for the gnats, skeeters, and black flies that plague the AT May to August.
  3. Bring ear plugs for noisy shelters, a groundsheet for dirty ones.
  4. Keep a small notebook and pen accessible so you can jot down contact info or tips when you meet people on the trail.
  5. Skip the town clothes; they’re not worth the weight.
  6. Stock your first-aid kit with Imodium, ibuprofen, and cold medicine; you won’t be near a pharmacy when you need them.

Key strategies for cutting pack weight

  • Downsize: If you’re carrying more than you need of anything–excess fuel or sunscreen–you’re carrying dead weight.
  • Eliminate: Trowel, chair kit, pillow, an extra mug or bowl, War and Peace–are they really necessary?

APPALACHIAN TRAIL GEAR ESSENTIALS

Footwear

  • Wear lightweight shoes; add after-market insoles for improved support. Replace worn-out shoes every 250 to 400 miles.
  • Don’t buy replacements in advance. Your shoe size will increase during the trek, and you may want to switch models entirely.
  • Top picks Vasque Velocity VST GTX ($120, vasque.com); Montrail Continental Divide GTX ($120, montrail.com)

Backpack

  • Your pack (empty) should weigh less than four pounds.
  • Capacity should be about 3,000-4,000 cubic inches.
  • Top picks Granite Gear Meridian Vapor ($195; 2 lbs. 14 oz.; granitegear.com); Gregory Z55 ($199; 3 lbs. 5 oz.; gregorypacks.com)

Tent

  • Don’t forgo a tent, but make it minimalist. Many thru-hikers prefer their own wilderness refuge to crowded or loud shelters.
  • Top picks Solo hikers: MontBell Crescent 1 ($229; 2 lbs. 1 oz.; montbell.com); two-person: Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 ($320; 2 lbs. 14 oz.; bigagnes.com)

Sleeping bag

  • Don’t try to hike the whole AT with one bag: It’ll either be too heavy in the summer or not warm enough in the shoulder seasons.
  • Top picks GoLite Adrenaline 20 for spring and fall ($325; 1 lb. 13 oz.; golite.com); Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina 45 for summer ($170; 1 lb. 8 oz.; mountainhardwear.com)

Sleeping pad

  • First, decide what you need to sleep well, then get the lightest version. No sense saving a pound if you’re sleepless at night, exhausted all day.
  • Top picks Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite ($35; 15 oz.; thermarest.com); Big Agnes Insulated Air Core ($65; 1 lb. 6 oz.; bigagnes.com)

Stove

  • Alcohol stoves are popular on the AT, since they’re ultralight, require zero maintenance, and fuel is easily found at hostels, as well as hardware stores and gas stations.
  • Canister stoves are also a good choice, as they burn hotter, are only negligibly heavier, and canister fuel is widely available at hostels and regularly spaced outfitters.
  • Top picks Alcohol: Trangia Westwind ($25, 7 oz.; campsaver.com); canister: MSR PocketRocket ($40; 3 oz.; msrgear.com)

HIKE SMART

Here’s how to master the big–and little–details of life on the Appalachian Trail.

SUPPLIES
Compared to the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, the AT offers easy access to towns and stores along the way. So skip the complicated (and expensive) mail drops. Shopping as you go allows more flexibility (eat what you crave instead of whatever you boxed up months before) and lets you adjust amounts more precisely as you learn real-world needs. In fact, there’s just one mail drop we suggest using: the post office at Fontana Village, North Carolina, where laundry and lodging are available. The village caters to thru-hikers, and the alternatives for resupply are inconvenient. Some hikers also recommend a mail drop at Kincora Hostel, in Dennis Cove, Tennessee; alternatively, Kincora’s owner often drives hikers to the grocery store.

Navigation
Forget the map and compass. The AT is so well-marked and obvious for its entire length, you won’t need them. In fact, if your footpath ever grows faint or overgrown, you’ve taken a wrong turn; double back. The only conditions where navigating can be difficult are after a fresh snowfall or above treeline in heavy fog. It’s better to wait out bad weather than to risk getting far off track.

Shelters
There are more than 250 backcountry shelters along the AT, but veteran thru-hikers recommend tenting over bunking in a crowded or loud shelter. However, even if you’re not spending the night, they’re useful places to stop for trail beta and hiker news (read the shelter’s log), mooch food from short-term hikers (who are often happy to unload extra weight), and minimize impact by using the outhouse. Find a list of AT shelters at tnlandforms.us/at.

Pace
NOBO thru-hikers who begin in mid-April must average 12 to 13 miles per day of hiking (while taking a rest day every week) to reach Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes on October 15. But remember, that’s an average. In some sections you should aim for more miles, in others, less. Here’s a guide.

Start at a comfortable pace This is an ultramarathon, not a sprint; hikers who blast out of the gate often suffer overuse injuries like knee, foot, or iliotibial (IT) band problems, exhaustion, and mental burnout that can end a trip prematurely. But you need to steadily increase your daily mileage to build fitness and prepare your body to crank out the big days when you need them.

The first 40 days Hit the trail at Springer in reasonable shape and plan to hike no more than 10 miles per day for the first two weeks. Start ramping up to 12 miles per day in week three. Set a goal of ticking off some 15-mile days by the end of your first month and reaching Damascus, Virginia, within about 40 days. By then, you’ll have your trail legs and be on pace for reaching Katahdin in September.

MOTIVATION
Your biggest challenge on a thru-hike is not fatigue or weather or injury. It’s a mental letdown. Here are five ways to stay motivated when doubt invades:

  1. Make friends. There’s always strength in numbers, and the camaraderie inspires a shared sense of mission.
  2. Plug in. Pack an iPod with motivational music or books. This also combats the boredom you’ll inevitably encounter from time to time.
  3. Laugh. “Without a good sense of humor, you don’t have a prayer,” says eight-time AT thru-hiker “Baltimore Jack” Tarlin.
  4. Take a break. Feeling totally burned out? Treat yourself to something special–a nice hotel and a steak dinner, a visit with family or friends. Alternatively, spend a few days camping without hiking. A tranquil wilderness interlude can help focus your mind on why you’re out there in the first place.
  5. Don’t look 2,000 miles ahead. That can be discouraging, says 2001 thru-hiker Jason “The Goat” Knight. Instead, he advises, “Divide the trail into smaller goals, like where you’ll hike to that day or week.”

TRAIL NAME
Yes, you’ll get one. But tradition dictates that you wait until one is bestowed. Don’t show up calling yourself Walks Like Wind. And while the AT is a famously social trail–you’ll make lifelong friends, maybe even find a spouse–don’t get distracted by shelter parties at the outset. You’ll have time enough to celebrate after you’ve earned it.

Avoid injury and illness

  • According to a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine, trekking poles reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent. They also prevent falls and provide balance for stream crossings.
  • Wash hands and utensils religiously, and always treat water (use lightweight and foolproof chlorine dioxide drops, like McNett’s Aquamira drops, or a chemical-free ultralight filter, like MSR’s Hyperflow). According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, gastrointestinal illness is the number one cause of thru-hiker attrition.
  • Treat open wounds appropriately and immediately, by washing thoroughly and applying antibiotic ointment and a bandage.
  • Let your feet air-dry at rest breaks to prevent blisters.
  • Take rest days (“zero days” in AT parlance), generally one each week, to avoid overuse injuries, exhaustion, and mental burnout.

BOUNCE BACK
This box is repeatedly shipped ahead; it typically contains extra batteries and other items purchased in bulk, as well as extra gear or clothing. Stock the box with packing tape, labels, and markers. And always keep a list of any mail drops sent (where they are and what they contain). For mail-drop locations, check The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook ($23, trailplace.com) or whiteblaze.net.

APPALACHIAN TRAIL ETIQUETTE 
On the trail, as in life, good manners go far. Here’s how to behave:

  1. Don’t lecture Give advice only to those who request it of you.
  2. Be considerate If you snore, travel with a dog, play music loudly, talk on the phone, go to bed really early, wake up really early, smoke, sleep naked, or dislike being around others, consider tenting rather than sleeping at shelters–you’ll be the king of your own castle and you won’t see nasty things written about you in shelter logs.
  3. Share Never spread out in a shelter to prevent others from using it, and never consume the entire contents of a Trail Angel’s cooler by yourself. And remember: There’s always room for one more in a shelter during a storm.
  4. Protect the water Drink upstream, do everything else downstream. Don’t foul the water for your fellow hikers by walking, bathing, or dishwashing at the source of a spring or a stream crossing.
  5. Pack it out You’re not being altruistic by leaving extra food at a shelter for “someone else.” It just invites scavenging animals. Many trail town businesses have “hiker boxes” for this type of sharing.
  6. Be grateful Hitches, hostels, angels, and trail maintenance are just some of the supports built into the AT that rely on the generosity of others. You already smell bad–don’t make it worse.
  7. Respect privacy It’s very hard to lose someone while walking 3 mph on a one-foot-wide trail. Don’t assume that anyone wants to merge itineraries for the next six months, and if you pick up an unwanted tag-along, don’t spend your hike ducking behind logs–just be honest.
  8. Don’t complain Of course it sucks that your boot soles fell off halfway through Pennsylvania. Look at the bright side: You’re not at work!  –Peter “Wicked Lobstah” Rives, 2004 AT thru-hiker

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