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Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Must-Have Information & Tips

Hiking across some or all of the Appalachian Trail (or AT for short) is an undertaking that thousands attempt every year.

The Appalachian Trail is located on the eastern side of the United States. It stretches down from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The AT is just under 2,200 miles long. It has been an attraction for hikers, backpackers, and nature lovers for generations.

Chimney Rock State Park

Those who decide to try and cross the entire expanse of the AT are called thru-hikers. While many people try to accomplish this, only about one in four actually complete the adventure. It can take up to 7-months to cross the Appalachian Trail.

Regardless of if you intend on hiking the entire trail or only hiking a section, there are some things you need to know. Before you head toward your Appalachian Trail destination, you need to consider:

  • How Should I prepare for the AT?
  • What kind of cost will I incur?
  • When are you going?
  • Where will you start?
  • If planning a thru-hike, have you registered?
  • Once registered:
  • Where are your resupply points?
  • If camping, do you know the regulations?
  • What are the expectations for hikers?
  • What should I pack?

All of these questions should be asked and answered before you start your journey. It’s essential to consider your health (both mental and physical) before you start. This is especially true when you plan on hiking the whole trail. Many people are surprised at how much it takes to get through such a task.

Things to Consider Before Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail Sign

If you were to talk to someone who has accomplished a thru-hike, they would tell you that you will never be fully prepared and ready for what the trail is going to throw at you. The fact that it goes through 14 different states means you will be facing a variety of climate, terrain, and weather conditions.

One of the cool things about hiking the AT is that you will have easy access to towns when you need supplies. The trail is not full wilderness. Taking the time to plot your stopping points along the way does make it a bit easier than deciding on the fly. There is a 100-mile stretch in Maine that will require you to carry enough supplies for a minimum of 8-days. Other than that, you should have no problem finding towns to resupply in along the way.

You have choices when it comes to shelter while hiking the trail. There are almost 300 shelters spread along the Appalachian Trail. They can sometimes be crowded, so having a tent with you is advantageous. Additionally, you may find yourself in a place where shelter is not easily accessible, so a tent or hammock is a great thing to have along on this adventure.

Getting a map of the AT is going to be critical. While some hikers don’t take them because the trail is relatively well marked, they always regret it. Getting turned around or lost is entirely possible. A map takes up little space and can help keep you on track and in the know when it comes to the towns you will be passing by.

When hiking through the woods, you will encounter wildlife. Knowing what you may face and what to do if you face an animal will help ensure your safety as you travel. For the most part, there’s not too much to worry about.

You’ll want to make sure you invest in Bear cans or boxes, as black bears are standard on the AT. You should also keep these containers away from your campsite. The boxes will prevent them from smelling your food and, in turn, ensure you still have groceries the following day.

If you come across a Black Bear, know that they are not usually aggressive toward humans at all. They are even considered shy. If you speak loudly in a calm fashion while backing away from the bear, it will likely move on about its day. If it does attack you for some reason, you will need to fight back or try and get away. When fighting back, focus on the bear’s face and snout.

You should also be looking out for Copperheads and Rattlesnakes. While there are other snakes on the trail, these are the most common types. Most of the venomous snakes are found between Georgia and Massachusetts. If you do come across these slithery critters, do not aggravate them. You should slowly back away or stay still as the snake moves past.

There’s not much to worry about in terms of cell services. Pretty much all of the trail has a signal. There may be points where it’s in and out, but it will not stay out for long. With that being said, you still need to bring a map. If something happens to your phone, you don’t want to lose track of where you are.

10 Essential Items for Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Hiking backpack

Each hiker will end up with a variety of items that they feel are essential when going on a long hiking adventure. After reviewing what other thru-hikers have taken, here are ten items you will absolutely want to make sure you make room for.

Appalachian Trail Map/Guide

We have mentioned a map several times because it’s critical. Getting lost on the trail is not something you want to experience. A map or guidebook will keep you heading in the right direction, and it will also give you information on water sources, amenities, and elevation.

Headlamps and Flashlights

 

While many people stick to daylight hiking, others will continue to travel shortly after dark. Additionally, you may need to venture out for more wood for the campfire. If you don’t have light, you could succumb to injury, which will cut your hike short. Making sure to have headlamps, flashlights, and batteries will keep you safer after the sun sets.

An Orange Vest or Hat

Wearing a bright orange vest or hat ensures that hunters will not mistake you for an animal. This is going to keep you as safe as possible and allow you to be sighted easily. There are even some places on the Appalachian Trail where it’s required. For example, when working your way through the top two-thirds of Pennsylvania, you will be required to wear an orange vest or hat.

Waterproof or Quick-Drying Clothing & Shoes

You’re going to experience quite a bit of rain as you travel along the AT. If you only pack a raincoat, you will likely regret it. Investing in rain pants and waterproofing your shoes will keep you more comfortable along your journey.

UV Protection

Sunscreen is an absolute must-have before undertaking the Appalachian Trail. While there is a lot of tree coverage, there are still areas where you’ll be exposed to full sunlight. Additionally, depending on the season and where you are on the trail, the trees may be bare, also leaving you exposed to the sun. Long sleeves and a hat can also help reduce the amount of sun is hitting your skin, which enables you to avoid painful sunburns.

Warm Clothing Options

You’ll be going through a variety of different climates, and being prepared is vital. You will want to pack a down-filled jacket or even a synthetic puffy jacket. This will ensure that you stay warm on cold nights or when there’s too much rain to keep a fire going.

Items for Water Purification

Keeping yourself hydrated is critical to your health and your ability to complete your hike down the Appalachian Trail. There are many different available options when it comes to water purification. You can buy simple filters or use purifier tablets. Regardless of your decision, make sure to have plenty to last your entire trip.

Mylar Blanket

Mylar blankets are suitable for a couple of different reasons. First, they don’t take up very much space in your pack, and they are also very lightweight. They are excellent at keeping you warm on a chilly evening or morning. Additionally, they can be used as a signaling mirror if you run into serious trouble during your adventure.

Garbage Bags

Garbage bags are another one of those items that can serve multiple purposes. You’ll need something to carry your trash in, and naturally, a garbage bag will work well for that. In addition, you can keep yourself dry using garbage bags if your waterproof clothing becomes damaged. Garbage bags can also be used to protect your feet from moisture if your shoes become saturated.

Anti-Chafing Cream or Ointment

Anyone that has traveled by foot for long distances will tell you that chafing is a real problem. Not only is it painful, but it can lead to infection. Any place where skin touches skin needs to be considered. Sensitive areas that rub against clothing also need to be protected. There are specific ointments and creams available to alleviate the threat of chaffing. Additionally, some people prefer to use Vaseline.

Making a packing list is a great way to ensure you have everything you need before stepping onto the trail. Along the way, you will likely think of things you wish you would have brought, and that’s ok. With the ability to pop in and out of towns along the trail, you can pick up anything you may have forgotten.

Common Appalachian Trail Questions & Answers

Whether you are heading along the trail for a day or a few months, there are common questions that crop up. Information is key to a successful hike, and taking the time to think about your issues can help prepare you. We have found the answers to the must-know questions pressing on the minds of future Appalachian Trail hikers.

Questions to consider:

Is a permit required when hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Appalachian Trail Sign

There are parts of the Appalachian trail that will require you to have a permit. You won’t need a permit to hike in most areas. When you’re going through Baxter State Park in Maine, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, you will need a permit. These permits can be acquired when you reach the park, and many of them will expire within 30-days. All of the permits are free except for the Great Smoky Mountains Park Permit. It costs twenty dollars.

Is there a need to register if I am making a thru-hike?

If you plan on making a thru-hike, there’s nothing that says you must register. However, it’s not difficult, and it’s strongly encouraged. When you register for the Appalachian Trail, you will be able to connect with others planning on hiking it. With connection, you can make plans for start dates. Additionally, it helps you avoid the trail when it’s crowded so you can have a more serene hike through nature.

How much food will a thru-hiker need?

Woman eating in the mountain

When you are walking all day, you’re going to burn an enormous number of calories. Most people that take on this challenge will double their regular caloric intake for a day. So, if you usually eat 2,000 calories, you will want to eat 4,000 while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Many people will not want to worry about counting their calories. If you fall into that category, you need to remember to eat frequently and eat a decent amount at every sitting.

Is it easy to find water on the Appalachian Trail?

Finding a water source on the AT is an easy thing to do. There is water near most of the shelters, and there are many streams along the hike. You need to remember that the trail is crowded during peak hiking times, and it’s essential to have a way to purify your water. If you skip water filtration, you may end up dealing with Giardia (intestinal parasites that you ingest through water).

Does it matter how much my pack weighs?

Backpacker packing for his trip

Your pack’s weight will play a role in how far you can hike in a day and how comfortably you can travel. Most backpackers try to keep their pack as light as possible. This allows for faster travel and greater distances. More often than not, you’ll want to make sure your pack does not weigh more than 20% of your body weight. This will include all of the supplies you put in it. Your pack weight will vary based on how supplied you are.

Is it better to use a tent or a shelter while on the AT?

Most hikers find that shelters are more convenient. Not only are they typically near a water source, but they also have fire pits and often a bathroom. You will have to travel a bit off the trail to reach them, but they are a lifesaver during inclement weather. There are a couple of pitfalls to the shelters along the Appalachian Trail. It’s common to deal with mice, and in more populated campgrounds, all the accommodations may be taken. Therefore, it’s advantageous to have a tent or hammock with you as a backup.

What will it cost to hike the Appalachian Trail?

Hiker on Appalachian Trail

Between gear, food, and convenience items, you will make a pretty decent investment when deciding to take on the Appalachian Trail. Most hikers end up spending between 5 and 7 thousand dollars on a thru-hike. You must remember that when hiking the entire trail, you may be spending 5 to 7 months doing it. You’ll want to work out a budget to focus on the adventure instead of stressing about the finances.

Gear is going to cost between 1 and 2 thousand dollars per person. This will be for those that are starting from scratch. If you already have hiking gear, it may not cost even close to this much to get ready for your hike. Investing in high-quality gear will save you a headache and ensure that you won’t need to replace your equipment for quite some time. While the investment may be substantial, it will make sure that you are warm and comfortable throughout your entire adventure. Additionally, it will save you aggravation over poorly constructed, heavy equipment that you end up replacing because of a bad experience.

You will also have some expenses while on the trail. For the most part, this consists of food. You will be buying a decent amount of food if you plan on hiking the entire trail. When you start to consider the fact that you’re going to consume double your average calories, you can see how the cost begins to add up. You should allot roughly twenty dollars a day for food to ensure you have enough to make it through the entire trip.

You will also have some expenses when it comes to the time you spend in towns. When you’re in civilization, it’s hard to resist the convenience items that are offered. Whether it’s a hot shower or food from a restraint, you will want to allot some money in the hiking budget for town-related expenses.

Can my dog hike with me on the Appalachian Trail?

Woman with dog hiking

Most of the trail is dog friendly. However, there are locations where you will not be allowed to have your dog. There are restrictions on pets in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Additionally, pets are not permitted in Bear Mountain State Park or Baxter State Park. If you do decide to take an animal, there are guides to help you learn how to safely backpack with your pet, keeping the trip enjoyable for everyone involved.

While these are some of the more popular questions, you may have many more. There is an abundance of resources to help solve all of your questions and concerns about the Appalachian Trail.

Training for a Thru-Hike on the Appalachian Trail

When you start to think about how to train for a hike like this, you’ll need to consider mental and physical preparedness. Hiking the entirety of the trail is a daunting task, and it should not be underestimated.

When first-time hikers are getting ready for their excursion, they should pack their backpack and spend time hiking with it on. This allows you to understand what it will be like to carry a full pack for hours on end. While wearing your backpack, you should face rocky terrains, marshy valleys, and straight tracts of land to know what each situation will be like.

To accomplish a hike like this, you will need to build your strength and endurance. Most people will walk between ten and twenty miles a day, which is a lot on the body. Most of the trail is pretty intense, so being in a good physical condition is imperative.

Physical training is one thing, but mental preparation is another. It’s a good idea to write a list detailing why you want to head out on this adventure. This can help you maintain focus on the goal when you’re exhausted on the trail. In this same list, you should write down your feelings toward accomplishment and failure. Think about the impact it will have if you complete your journey through the Appalachian Trail and write it down. A well thought out list is a great way to prepare mentally for the task at hand.

Each day before you leave for the trail, and while you are on the path, you should review your list. It will help keep you motivated during training. Additionally, it will add determination to your journey once you are on the trail. Finding internal fuel is an essential aspect of the journey. It’s easy to become mentally exhausted when you are away from civilization.

Staying mentally sharp and prepared will help ease this exhaustion.
If you’re going with a friend or partner, you will want to make sure they are training with you. If you travel with someone of similar physical aptitude, it can be more enjoyable. That way, no one will feel as if they are waiting around or continually trying to catch up with the other.

Conclusion

Choosing to hike the Appalachian Trail can be a significant undertaking, depending on how far you plan to go. It offers incredible scenery and an experience that many have only dreamed about. It will be an arduous journey, but it will provide you with a huge sense of accomplishment.

Being prepared and knowing what you’re getting yourself into are the most essential steps in the process. Once you have that figured out, it’s merely a matter of sorting out the best time to fit your hike into your schedule and getting your finances in order to absorb the blow.

There’s no wrong reason to head out into nature and take a hike. Facing a challenge like the Appalachian Trail is rewarding on a variety of levels. You will climb mountains, cross rivers, and see some of the most breathtaking sights that you can imagine. Once you have completed the full hike, you will be left with a sense of pride that you will never forget.

It will give you adventure and drive, which are often things people are lacking. Even if you don’t finish the trail on your first try, don’t give up. Sometimes, it takes people several attempts before they can hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.

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