Things to Know Before You Hike the Appalachian Trail

Crossing over 14 different states and nearly 2200 miles, the Appalachian Trail may be the longest hiking route that you will find worldwide. Many of the people that are so-called “thru-hikers” will simply tell you that there’s no way to prepare for this type of hiking. Here are some recommendations that you can use if you want to at least try to prepare for this type of trip.

What Is the Best Time for Hiking the Appalachian Trail?

It really depends where you want to go and in what direction you would like to hike. It is best to begin early April, or even back in the middle of March, starting right around Georgia going to the north.

Northbounders

Once you start going north, starting in mid-March would be optimal. The largest issue is having to deal with all of the other people that are going to do the same. This trail, unbelievably, can become very crowded with parties occurring along the way.

Those that want to avoid any type of crowd should begin at the latest around the first week of May. This can be disadvantageous simply because you will be a couple of weeks behind everyone else. To reach the terminus that is located at Mount Katahdin, you will need to arrive before closes in October which means moving much faster. You should always try to be there a few weeks before closes.

The other probability as you could begin early in February, but this is usually hampered by snow and other types of inclement weather.

Pros
  • As you begin to hike, the terrain is relatively easy.
  • It’s a great way to participate with other social butterflies.
  • The weather is definitely going to be more favorable.
Cons
  • The campsite and trail will be crowded.
  • You must go at a specific pace to reach Mount Katahdin by early October.

Southbounders

If you want to go south instead, which is not recommended even for veteran hikers, starting in late May, or perhaps even through the middle of June, you are still going to have enough time to do the trail before winter starts.

You will notice that just over 10% of people on this trail actually go south.

Pros
  • Starting is going to be much more difficult, but finishing will be much easier.
  • You don’t have to rush because parks that are located in the South are still going to be open all the way through December.
Cons
  • Starting your quest up these snowy mountains, plus hiking for probably 100 miles without a way to resupply, is not the best thing to do. There are some supply points on the first leg, but you will likely have more materials to carry with you.
  • You will likely start going through snow, and this may continue for some time as you head south.

Regardless of which way you desire to go, it’s going to be a tough trail. Most people spend about six months traveling from one end to the other.

Hikers will begin somewhat slowly, going only about 10 miles a day. Eventually, once they have the rhythm, 16 miles a day will be quite common. Some days you will do more, and others you will do less; you just need to have a set goal and try to survive all the way until winter comes.

  • The current overall and supported record is from Elgin, a dentist by the name of Karel Sabbe, who did this in just under 42 days in 2018.
  • The unsupported record, of just over 45 days by Joe McConaughy back in 2017. He was said to have gone an average of 48 miles a day.

Flip-Flop Hikes and Section-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail can be approached with a Flip-Flop attitude which is what many people are doing:

They do one half of the trail, and then do the other half the opposite direction, or they may decide to do the same thing but meet in the middle.

People that don’t have the time to do this, section hiking is available and also a very attractive option.

Can You Hike the AT With a Dog?

Most of this trail does allow dogs, but there are a few parks where you cannot bring them:

The Great Smoky Mountains, Bear Mountain State Park, Trailside Museum and Wildlife Center, and Baxter State Park, all of which are located in Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, and Maine, respectively.

Get in Shape Before You Hit the Trail

Simply put, this is an exhausting trail, and it is likely that you will want to sleep a long time after each day. You are going to put your body through quite a bit of exercise, and you will know that you have to do so many miles every single day.

By being in shape, you can avoid the unnecessary suffering that many people experience which is cramping up, or simply being absolutely exhausted at the end of every day. A couple of weeks before you do the hike, you should wear a full pack and do miles of hiking.

Cycling, running, and any activity that builds your cardiovascular system is a good idea, but you should also think about building up your leg muscles as well.

You will be much more prepared for whatever the trail will present to you as you journey up or down the Appalachian Trail whether you are headed north or south on this exceptional trail.

It’s Possible to Hike End to End Without Carrying a Tent

Do you want to not bring too much with you? You may want to consider doing this trail without a tent which has both benefits and drawbacks.

What many people do not know is that there are more than 250 huts that are located along the way, all of which are free. These are positioned about a day’s hike apart, yet these distances can vary significantly.

Calculated out, every 8 miles should be a cabin, but there are cabins about 30 miles apart, plus they are close to freshwater in some cases. You just have to know where the huts are, and once you do, you can plan to stay at them and leave your tent at home.

It is very common for people to prefer these structures, and that is easy enough to understand: it’s just easy to lie down and go to sleep instead of setting up a tent.

Shelters have a very lean-to like appearance, which includes three walls, a roof, and a floor. It is possible that six people could fit into them; there are some that are bigger, newer, and many of which can hold up to a dozen people.

Should I Use a Shelter or a Tent on the AT?

Water will likely be near the shelters, plus there should be a privy and fire pit nearby. If you are a social type of person, it is much more convenient than packing a tent, and is much better than dealing with the rain outside.

Some of the difficulties associated with using a shelter are the fact that mice could be there, and some of them are about a mile from the trail. In some ways, you might believe you would save time by using them, but it may take you more time to locate water, and find the tent, plus walk all the way back to the trail.

You may also wonder if you should bring a hammock or a tent if there really are shelters available since it will save you potential time and you will not be carrying so much equipment.

To be safe, it’s always a good idea to bring a tent with you because there is no guarantee the shelters will have room, and this is very true when you are near the more popular campgrounds.

Packing the Absolute Necessities

  • Map or guidebook
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Navigation
  • Shelter
  • Backpack
  • Pad for sleeping
  • Sleeping bag
  • Mylar blanket
  • Lightweight vest or jacket
  • Blaze orange vest or hat (vital during hunting season to protect against injury and a requirement in the northernmost 2/3 portion of the Pennsylvania trail)
  • Warm, rapid-dry shoes and clothing
  • Gear for rainy weather
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Emergency bag stocked with first aid supplies
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Lotion or vaseline for prevention of chafing
  • Toilet kit
  • Cook kit plus stove
  • Purifying kit for water
  • Bear repellent
  • Garbage bags

Water

It’s simple to find water when hiking the Appalachian Trail. Along the way, you will cross many streams. However, since the trail is packed, you run the risk of contracting giardia.

To prevent this, always use either a chemical purifier or a water filter for purification before you drink any natural flowing water.

On the other hand, you can skip this step and freshen up your water supply by filling up at any of the shelters along the way.

Pack Plenty of Food

If you normally consume 2000 calories a day to maintain your weight, prepare to double that amount while you’re hiking.

If you aren’t a calorie counter, then plan to pack a lot of food and sit down for a good snack whenever you feel hungry. Hiking consumes a lot of calories and you are going to need extra fuel.

Weigh Your Backpack Before Setting Out

If your backpack is overloaded, you are going to tire out quickly during your hike. Start by purchasing a lightweight backpack and add supplies equal only to 20% of your total weight. That includes your water and food.

Keep in mind that you’ll require more consumables along rougher portions of the trail that tax your abilities and ramp up your metabolism.

Backpacks can be found in the following three categories:

  • 10 lbs and under – Ultralight
  • 20 lbs and under – Lightweight
  • 30 lbs and under – Traditional

Tips for Restocking Along the Way

If you are worried that you’ll run out of supplies because you’re limiting the weight you carry, stop. It is very easy to restock along the trail. Cities and towns are located just a few miles from the trail at many points along the way. Restocking is quite convenient.

However, you will need to carry more supplies once you reach the Hundred-Mile Wildnerness in Maine. It’s an 8-day long trek with no amenities along the way.

Test Gear Before Hiking

If you have new gear, make sure to try it out before leaving for the Appalachian Trail. During a local excursion, experiment with the supplies you plan on carrying. If they don’t work, don’t pack them.

It’s not a good idea to experience problems with equipment after you hit the trail. Experienced hikers understand that critical equipment failure can rapidly lead to disaster.

The rain gear, sleeping bag, and tent you select are critical to your comfort. Try them out in a variety of weather conditions before leaving. If you’ve got a leaky tent, you’ll have time to replace it before you leave and ensure a good night’s sleep along the way.

Also, never ever hit the trail in new hiking boots. Spend time in them prior to the start of your long hike to avoid getting blisters. Nothing is worse than blisters which can fester on the trail.

When You Need a Permit

For the majority of the trail, you won’t need a permit to hike. However, three parks along the way do require them. These are Baxter State Park in Maine, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park located in both Tennessee and North Carolina.

The good news is that the permits can be purchases when you arrive at the park entrances. You can purchase in advance but keep in mind that some permits have 30-day expiration dates. You’ll spend $20 in the Great Smoky Mountains Park, but the other permits are free.

Thru-Hike Registration

Registration is encouraged, although it is not a requirement to hike. By registering in advance, the number of people hiking the Appalachian Trail can be limited and overcrowding reduced.

Plan for Traffic Encounters Along the Way

Most hikers think they will spend all of their time moving through wilderness areas. For the most part, this is true.

However, the trail does crossroads regularly, some of which are highways with heavy and fast-moving traffic. First-time hikers are startled to discover this, but you’ll simply have to accept it because that is how it is.

The good news about this short treks out of the wilderness is that they are frequently located near stores or other amenities. Taking advantage of these opportunities to restock, increases future enjoyment along the way. In fact, sometimes there are luxuries available that come as a welcome respite.

The Ups and Downs of  the Appalachian Trail

Clingman’s Dome, located in the Great Smoky Mountains, is a very high point on the Appalachian Trail. It’s over 6600 feet if you climb all the way to the top.

If you are comparing this to the 14,000-foot peaks in the US, it may not seem like a lot, but the Appalachian Trail goes right along the Appalachian mountains, and you are going to going to go up and down quite a bit.

If you do the whole thing, you are going to walk over 500,000 feet, climbing up and down the equivalent of hiking Mount Everest nearly 20 times.

There are not a lot of sections that are very flat, which is because you’re going up and down quite a bit. If you want to train for this, you need to be prepared for this type of hiking.

Familiarize Yourself with LNT

As the phenomena of hiking long distances become much more popular, you can minimize your environmental impact in several ways. You simply want to leave no trace that you were there.

Designating a Support Person

It is so important to let other people know where you are going to be. There are certain checkpoints where they should arrive just to check on you. Support people can be called to put supplies in resupply boxes that are located at specific places along the trail.

Consider Carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

PLBs are a great way to at least plan for problematic events. If you do find yourself to be injured, just press the button. This is going to allow family and friends to find you quickly, following a real-time map, which will likely save you if this does happen.

Wildlife

One thing that you will notice on this trail is that there is a lot of wildlife including salamanders, deer, turkeys, and you may even see a Fisher cat when you travel through the state of Maine! It is important to, however, look out for certain creatures including:

Ticks

Dear ticks, and many others, should be feared because they contain what is called Lyme disease. It is rare that you would get it, but you need to be aware that it is a possibility. You can look for certain signs if you believe that this happens.

Permethrin is a great thing to put on your clothing before you travel to reduce the possibility of encountering any type of tick.

Mosquitos and Black Flies

There are many of these on the trail, all throughout the states. DEET is a great thing to bring with you, but it can damage certain gear that you have, or synthetic clothing, yet you need to have it with you for protection!

Timber Rattlers / Cottonmouths / Copperheads

There are many snakes along this trail, and I have encountered many of these myself. Although they typically do not pursue you, you absolutely need to scan the ground as you go along, making sure that you are avoiding these potentially venomous snakes. The southern Appalachian area will have more of these.

Mice / Raccoons

These animals can also be found in shelters, carrying all sorts of disease. They can get into your food bag, defy gravity, and that’s why you must protect your food even if it is up high.

Black Bears

Bears are almost always non-threatening. If you hang your food properly, just make sure it doesn’t come between a cub and the mother bear. In most cases, you will pose a much larger threat than they ever will. It is important to never try to attract wildlife, or feed it, because this could actually lead to the bear dying.

Grayson Highlands Ponies

These can be very scary! Scary, but cute! In the Grayson Highlands in the state of Virginia, you are likely to see these. They can literally eat the gear that you are bringing with you, bite you, and may even charge you. It is so important to resist the urge to approach these animals.

How Much Does It Cost to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

Appalachian Trail costs can be quite expensive, averaging about $6000 for a six-month hike which will include town expenses, trail resupply locations, and the gear that you need to bring. It will cost about $1000 a month if you do this the right way.

Budgeting and planning are so important so that you can participate in the wilderness without any stress.

Gear Expenses: ~$1,000 to $2,000

It is unlikely that you will spend too much money if you already have some of this gear, but if you don’t, $2000 is probably what it will cost.

The best thing is that, once you have paid the money, you won’t have to pay for it again.

If you do anything, get items that are extremely light. Make sure your sleeping bag is warm and the backpack that you are using will be comfortable at all times.

You could be challenged, or even annoyed, on the trail if you are only investing in heavy gear that is cheap, which is something that you simply want to avoid.

Trail Expenses: ~$15 a day

Shipping and buying food is part of your trail expenses. Five months of hiking, for instance, will cost over $2200 just for the food.

There is absolutely no reason to starve yourself if you just want to save money, and if you do, you probably won’t finish your trip. You need to get as much food as you can and consume at least 4500 cal every day if possible.

Town Time Expenses: ~$50 to $100 a day

You will be adjacent to many locations that will offer you the things of civilization including toilets, hot showers, beds, restaurants, and television. If you do this, it’s going to cost you even more.

You may decide to do this with a friend and share a hostile, but even that is going to cost about $20 a night, plus there will also be the cost of eating at a restaurant. If you decide to stay at a hotel or even a motel, $60 a night is the minimum you will spend.

You may want to avoid them completely, and if you do, do not stop and every single town along the Appalachian Trail, of which there are about 70. Simply choose some of the best ones so that you can experience the cuisine and culture that is there.

If you want to, simply camp near the town – by doing so, you can enjoy the experience of being in the town yet you will not have to pay the high cost of staying at a hotel or paying for any modern convenience.

Brian

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