A Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Aug. 14, 2012, marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail. See more pictures of national parks.
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There is a plaque at Springer Mountain in Georgia -- the southernmost point of the Appalachian Trail -- that describes the trail as "a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness." Ever since a continuous wilderness trail from Maine to Georgia was formed in 1937, it has meant different things to the people who have walked it, but most people who find themselves on the Appalachian Trail do so to get closer to the nature [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].

Early on in Bill Bryson's book, "A Walk in the Woods," one of the most popular first-hand accounts of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson's friend and hiking partner Katz arrives at the airport with a bag full of Snickers bars and pepperoni sausages. After only a few miles of hiking, Katz opens his pack and begins flinging food -- everything from coffee filters to cans of Spam -- over a cliff out of frustration (but he wisely spared the Snickers bars). The lesson? Poor planning can cause big problems on the Appalachian Trail [source: Bryson].

Along with the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide, the Appalachian Trail forms the Triple Crown of long distance hikes in the U.S., "but [the AT] will always be the first and greatest," as Bryson puts it, and many hikers share the sentiment. The trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, spanning 14 states and about 2,180 miles. Every year, thousands of people visit the Appalachian Trail; some set out to hike the entire thing, while others visit the trail for day hikes.

Hiking the entire trail is an enormous, often life-changing event, and since the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began keeping records in the 1930s, more than 10,000 people have hiked it. Some people hike it for speed, like Jennifer Pharr Davis, the record holder for the fastest-ever thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, who hiked it in 46 days, 11 hours [source: Horan]. For others, like Warren Doyle, who has hiked the entire trail an astounding 16 times, it's a way of life [source: Gifford]. But for most normal folks who hike the trail, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Whether you plan to join the 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) club or just want to go for a leisurely walk in the woods, the Appalachian Trail is one of the U.S.'s great treasures. In this article we'll walk you through the basics of hiking the trail, from what you put on your feet to where you sleep.

Appalachian Trail Hiking: Preparation for the Trek

Whether you're just going out for a day hike with the family or trekking from Georgia to Maine, you want to be ready for whatever you might encounter out in the woods. Every year, thousands of people abandon their dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail because of one thing: They were unprepared for it. Injuries can derail even the strongest hiker's trip, and financial issues have also stopped many thru-hikers in their tracks.

There are many occasions in life where a sense of spontaneity will work to your advantage, but long-distance hiking isn't one of them. Being well prepared for the hike is the best insurance you can have that you'll be able to reach the end of the trail.

Preparation for the AT begins with getting yourself psychologically ready for the hike. "It's just walking," you might tell yourself. "Just put one foot in front of the other." True, but it's walking up and down steep, sometimes forbidding terrain, often with blisters on your feet. It's carrying everything you'll need on your back and sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. And don't even get us started on the heat and humidity you're sure to encounter in the summer months.

A long hike will test your determination, and it requires some serious mental fortitude. The best way to get mentally prepared for the hike is to be as well informed about it as possible. That means heading to the library and checking out every book you can find on thru-hiking in general and the Appalachian Trail specifically. The two must-read books for anyone who is thinking about hiking the AT are "The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion," which is a guide produced by The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, and the "Appalachian Trail Data Book," which is a bible of information about the trail that is updated every year. It's also a good idea to read personal Web sites and blogs, and to talk to as many people who have already hiked the trail as you can in order to glean trail wisdom from them.

Being properly prepared for Appalachian Trail Hiking also means having the proper gear (we'll get to that later), and budgeting enough money to cover travel expenses and any unforeseeable events. And whether you're hiking from Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain, or just going for a short day hike, every visitor to the Appalachian Trail should go with a map and compass -- and should know how to use them before hitting the trail. You should also be sure to go equipped with enough food and water, and for long-distance hikers, a way to purify water (the Appalachian Trail doesn't have many drinking fountains). You should also remember to pack a well-stocked first-aid kit, sunglasses and sunscreen, and a trash bag to pack out your waste [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].

Appalachian Trail Hiking: What to Expect on the Trails

Hikers will see all types of terrain and wildlife along the Appalachian Trail, like this unusual tree growing around a boulder in Baxter State Park, Maine.
Hikers will see all types of terrain and wildlife along the Appalachian Trail, like this unusual tree growing around a boulder in Baxter State Park, Maine.
Diane Cook and Len Jenshel/Getty Images

If you hike the entire 2,180-mile (3,508-kilometer) Appalachian Trail, you'll cover a total elevation gain that would be roughly equal to climbing Mount Everest 16 times, but at a much, much gentler grade, of course. The terrain the Appalachian Trail passes through is highly varied, which is good news for thru-hikers, because hiking more than 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) without a change in scenery would be pretty dull. On the contrary, the Appalachian Trail actually weaves through widely diverse terrain, ranging from rocky mountaintops to flat farmland.

It should come as no surprise that the topography you encounter on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia will look a lot different from what you might find at the other end of the trail, in Maine. And because the Appalachian Trail runs through forests that feature a mix of deciduous broad-leaf trees and conifers, the trail tends to look very different from season to season.

If you're lucky, you'll also encounter plenty of wildlife as well. Depending on how much time you spend on the trail, you're likely to see rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, frogs, lizards and a variety of birds. But there are also creatures that you won't want to get too close to, like black bears, mountain lions and moose. Bears are clever animals, and they know that thru-hikers present a moveable feast. Even though people camping along the Appalachian Trail are advised to never keep food in tents and to always hang their food overnight, several incidents in recent years have forced the U.S. Forest to temporarily close some popular stretches of the Appalachian Trail to camping [source: Gilbert].

Most thru-hikers begin their journeys in the spring, typically in March or April, at Springer Mountain, the southernmost tip of the trail in Georgia, and they reach the end terminus in Maine by September. However, that isn't the only way to do it. Other hikers choose to take the southbound route, starting in Maine in June or July and finishing up in Georgia in November or December.

Hiking from Maine to Georgia is a lot less common for a number of reasons. First, you're starting off with what's considered the most difficult leg of the trail (although there's an argument to be made that beginning with the steeper grades will whip you into shape faster). But there are other reasons that the southbound route is less popular: You could encounter muddy streams and difficult creek crossings in Maine and New Hampshire, and it will be hunting season by the time you reach some of the southern states. And if you've ever come across black flies in the summer in Maine, that's probably reason enough to skip the southbound route [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].

If you'd like the hike the entire trail, but don't feel like doing it straight through and all at once, there are a number of different approaches you can take. Many hikers, for example, start at the southernmost point at Springer Mountain and hike as far north as Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Then, they leave the trail and re-enter at the northernmost point, at Katahdin in Maine and hike south to Harpers Ferry. What's the point? By taking the "flip-flop" approach, you can avoid the heaviest crowds and there's a much slighter chance that you'll have to encounter snow or any extreme weather. And you can still say that you hiked the entire trail (although there's something to be said for the continuity of hiking it straight through).

As we mentioned, the most difficult stretches of the trail (by most accounts, at least) are at the northern end, in Maine and New Hampshire, and the southern end has some pretty steep patches as well. If you're a day hiker who's just interested in going for a stroll in the woods, there are access points all along the trail at state and national parks. One of the most popular and scenic places to hop on the trail is at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, as the stretch of trail that runs near Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive is very gentle and easy.

Appalachian Trail Hiking: Lodges and Shelter

Any time you head out into the wilderness for more than a picnic or a day hike, it's a good idea to figure out where you can take shelter. Weather conditions along the trail can be severe, especially in the spring and fall, so it's important to make sure that you have a safe and secure place to rest your head after a long day.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that helps to maintain the trail, provides access to more than 250 backcountry shelters that are located along the trail. The shelters are typically three-sided structures, with a roof and one side that's open to the elements. They're usually located close to a water source, and they're meant for thru-hikers. The shelters are great features, because one of the best parts of hiking the Appalachian Trail for many people is meeting and talking to other hikers, and the shelters provide a natural meeting place at the end of the day.

Sleeping in a shelter is an attractive option for many hikers because it provides a place where you can stay dry during rain without having to set up a tent. And when more hikers sleep in the shelters, it means fewer campsites, which translates to a reduced impact on the natural areas around the trail. However, the shelters aren't perfect; they can often be dirty and rodent-infested, and because they're so popular, they tend to fill up pretty quickly.

For those reasons, anyone who is planning to spend more than one day on the Appalachian Trail should bring a personal tent. Tent designs vary widely, but if you're planning to hike the entire trail, you probably want something that is both lightweight and that can protect you from the elements through three seasons (spring, summer and fall). But even if you take your own tent, you can't necessarily camp anywhere you please. The trail passes through different types of public land, and they all have rules about camping. Some places, like national forests, for example, permit "dispersed camping," while others allow camping only in designated campgrounds. To stay on the park rangers' good sides, check the local rules before setting up your tent, and always pack out whatever you pack in [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].

Appalachian Trail Hiking: Tips for Thru-hikes

Gearing up for several months on the trail is an exercise that will challenge even the seasoned trip planner. There are dozens of important details that, if overlooked, can cost you precious time and energy, or in a worst-case scenario, derail your trip. One of the most important decisions you'll make is deciding what gear to bring. "Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain," is a common backpacking mantra, reminding those who travel with all of their possessions on their back that trimming your pack weight can greatly affect your livelihood.

Ultralight backpacking is an obsession for many thru-hikers, but it's a difficult balancing act. Don't feel like you have enough thru-hiking experience to achieve that delicate balance between having enough gear to survive on the trail and not being weighed down with a too-heavy pack? It might be worth your while to consult with an expert before heading too far down the trail. For example, Winton Porter, an unofficial Appalachian Trail guru who runs a gear store at Walasi-Yi in northern Georgia, provides an exhaustive, item-by-item analysis of what's in your pack with the aim of helping hikers to trim the weight of their packs [source: Gorman].

When outfitting yourself for any kind of long-distance hike, your feet are one of the most important things to address, because they're the point of impact between you and the trail. And if your feet aren't happy, it's likely that you won't be happy either. People wear all types of different types of footwear on the trail (some even go barefoot), but whatever type of boots you choose, you should make sure they fit properly so that you don't suffer from blisters -- a hiker's worst enemy. When you hike long distances your feet tend to swell, so most experts suggest trying on boots later in the day, when your feet are somewhat swollen. And don't forget to bring the same heavy socks and sock liners that you'll use on the trail. You may even find that you need to buy boots that are half a size too big to account for swelling [source: Gantenbein].

One of the other logistical items that you won't want to forget is food and water. Water spigots are rare along the Appalachian Trail, so you'll need to bring a portable water filter so you can purify fresh water along the trail and avoid dangerous diseases and infections, like giardia. When you're walking all day, you'll burn a lot more calories than you would if you were sitting in an office, and the only way to get that energy back is by eating. But of course you can't carry five months worth of food on your back all at once. If you're hiking at an average rate, you'll pass near a town or business every three to seven days where you can refuel and buy more food. But many thru-hikers like to have more control over their food supply, and they can by mailing themselves (or having someone else send them) packages that they can pick up at post offices along the way.

Author's Note

I was pretty excited about this assignment, because although I've never hiked the Appalachian Trail, I've talked to friends who have, and they all say it changed their lives. It also gave me an opportunity to revisit Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods," one of my favorite books about hiking.

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Sources

  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy. (May 19, 2012) http://www.appalachiantrail.org/
  • Bryson, Bill. "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail." Anchor. Dec. 26, 2006.
  • Gantenbein, Doug. "Q: How Can I Find Hiking Boots That Fit?" Outside Magazine. April 25, 2012. (May 20, 2012) http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-gear/gear-guy/How-Can-I-Find-Hiking-Boots-That-Fit.html
  • Gifford, Bill. "Madman Walking?" Backpacker Magazine. September 2011 (May 20, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/august-2011-warren-down-appalachian-trail/destinations/15824?page=2
  • Gilbert, Debbie. "Bear prompts partial closing on Appalachian Trail." Gainesville Times. April 7, 2009. (May 20, 2012) http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/archives/17178/
  • Gorman, Jim. "Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru." Backpacker Magazine. Sept. 2008. (May 20, 2012) http://www.backpacker.com/november_08_pack_man_/articles/12659?page=2
  • Horan, Jack. "One step at a time for 46 days, 2,181 miles." Charlotte Observer. Aug. 2, 2011 (May 20, 2012) http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/08/02/2497747/one-step-at-a-time-for-46-days.html
  • McClay, Rebecca. "Appalachian Trail hikers enthusiastic about wintertime." The Gazette. Jan. 12, 2006. (May 20, 2012) http://ww2.gazette.net/stories/011206/brunnew190947_31917.shtml