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Appalachian Trail

Cheat Sheet: Prep For a Thru-Hike

Start planning and training for next year’s long trail now.

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The expert: Justin “Trauma” Lichter has logged more than 35,000 trail miles since 2002, including the triple crown (PCT, AT, and CDT). Earlier this year, he was a part of the first successful winter thru-hike of the PCT. He is the author of the backpacking and hiking guide Trail Tested.

Get fit first

Avoid injury and enjoy your first few weeks on the trail. Make dayhiking with a loaded pack part of your training routine (starting at least three months before your trip). Begin with an empty pack and work up to your planned weight and daily distance. Increase mileage gradually and vary weight to help your body break in. If you go heavy one day, lighten up the next to allow for recovery. Wear the type of shoes you plan to hike in to prep your feet, as well.

4,800 calories/day = 2.5 lbs. of food/day

“Hiker hunger” kicks in after a few weeks. For efficiency, make sure there is no water weight in your food and shoot for at least 120 calories per ounce (such as with nuts, chocolate, and dried coconut).

Protect your food

Bears get all the press, but mice do most of the thieving. Tips: Use the odor-proof LOKSAK OPSAK ($9 and up), avoid cooking and eating where you camp, and hang your food.

Make an itinerary

Everyone will tell you that you won’t stick to it, and that’s true. But for safety, you should have a general idea of where you will be at any given time. Share your itinerary with a friend or family member.

Don’t plan all your food

Common rookie mistake: planning, packaging, and mailing your food for the whole hike before you leave. But after two months of apple cinnamon oatmeal, you’ll want something else, and it’s hard to predict what might sound appetizing when you’re on the trail. Every few hundred miles, at resupply towns, shop for food you’re craving and mail it to your next two to three stops.

Think about weather (but not too much)

Being over-prepared is not always a good thing. Don’t carry a sleeping bag that’s 20 degrees warmer than necessary “just in case.”

The magic number: 10 pounds

Plan a base weight (all gear minus food, water, and fuel) of 10 pounds or less. Consult a gear shop near your intended long trail—or one with specific know-how on long-distance hiking—for advice. “I’ve encountered many hikers who bought from big-box stores and ended up buying all new gear while on the trail,” Lichter says. If you don’t live near the trail, it’s still worth calling a regional store for tips.

Plan on cell service weekly

On most major U.S. long trails, cell service is likely every four to 10 days. If you’re using your phone as a camera, make sure to leave it in airplane mode.

Set small goals

Don’t start hiking with your mind on a point 2,000 miles ahead. View the trail as a bunch of short sections between resupply stations, and each town as its own success.

By the number:

  • The average cost of a thru-hike after purchasing gear: $2/mile.
  • Budget at least $15 per day on food (that’s included in total).
  • Save money by limiting or sharing town lodging.