9 Practical Tips for Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

9 Practical Tips for Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

From March through September of 2022, I spent most of my days lugging a backpack up and down the Appalachian Mountains along the eastern half of the U.S.  For over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, I trudged through mud, climbed over rocks, and waded through waist deep rushing waters.  I froze my ass off and sweat through every inch of my clothing.  I hobbled through a knee injury, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and persistent aches and pains in muscles I didn’t even know existed.  I basked in the sunshine alongside alpine lakes and felt the cool breeze atop mountain summits.  I got drenched and nearly blown over by relentless rain storms and dehydrated by the stifling heat.  With every mile, I learned what it meant to be a thru-hiker and what it took to make it to the end.  I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I learned how to make the best of it and how to keep moving.  Now, I’m sharing my tips and tricks with all of you!  So here is a list of my most practical tips for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Lunch break on the Appalachian Trail
Taking a lunch break in Vermont with a game of chess.

Tips for Thru-Hiking on the Appalachian Trail

  • Take Your Shoes Off- Take your shoes off at least once during the day.  This helps to get rid of foot swelling and gives your feet a chance to breathe, especially if they are wet or sweaty.  When you stop for lunch, kick off your socks and shoes, prop your feet up on a tree, and massage your tootsies while you’re at it. 
Taking a break with shoes off on the Appalachian Trail
Is it really a break if you didn't take your shoes off?
  • Warm Your Clothes-  In the chilly months, it can be hard to coax yourself out of your sleeping bag in the morning.  Give yourself a little boost by tucking your hiking clothes into your sleeping bag to warm up with your body heat before getting dressed.  You can even do this if they are slightly damp as your body heat will help to dry them out. And while you are up and getting ready in the morning, you can tuck cold or damp clothing into your jacket to warm.
Frozen socks on the Appalachian Trail
I woke up one morning to find my hiking socks were frozen solid.  I stuffed them in my jacket and they were good to go in a few minutes.
  • Try Freezer Bag Cooking- Save fuel by cooking in Ziploc freezer bags.  I found that the Ziploc brand quart size freezer bags worked best for my meals.  When you resupply at the grocery store, simply repackage all your hot foods into the freezer bags before leaving town.  On the trail, boil water with your stove and dump a little into the freezer bag, then tuck it into a beanie or a DIY coozie and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to heat up.  When it’s done, just eat out of the bag- no dirty dishes!  This works great with ramen, potatoes, mac n cheese, stuffing…. Just about anything! 
Chow mein cooked in a freezer bag
I cooked a little Chow Mein in this freezer bag.  Yum!
  • Use Bug Shields (A.K.A. Sunglasses)- There’s a good chance you’ll run into a lot of bugs on the AT, especially in the heat of the summer.  I thought the gnats are the absolute worst!  They buzz around your face all day long and then dive straight into your eyeballs!  I saw a lot of hikers buying bug nets to wear over their heads, but those can make it even hotter and harder to breathe under the net.  But I noticed something interesting, the hikers that wore glasses didn’t have issues with the gnats!  So I found if I wore sunglasses while hiking, the gnats would hover around my face, looking for a way in, but none of them would get behind the glasses.  So when the bugs get bad, try wearing sunglasses to keep them out of your peepers.
Wearing sunglasses while hiking
I finally picked up some sunglasses in Boiling Springs, PA to help fend off the gnats.
  • Try Compression Socks for Plantar Fasciitis- By the time I got to Pennsylvania, my feet were pretty used to getting a beating on a regular basis.  They were sore and tender each night, but it mostly subsided with some Ibuprofen and rest.  However, once Pennsylvania turned into Rocksylvania, my sore and tender feet became so swollen and painful that I could hardly sleep at night.  I didn’t see a doctor, but after consulting with some friends and good ol WebMD, I’m pretty sure I was suffering from plantar fasciitis.  At the recommendation of a family friend, I tried wearing compression socks at night, and it made such a huge difference!  I put them on when I got to camp and wore them until I was ready to go to bed.  I combined that with long calf stretches and foot massages and I was finally able to get some relief.  I carried those with me to Katahdin, and I wish I had gotten them sooner!
Compression socks for plantar fasciitis
My compression socks look pretty stylish with freshly painted toenails!
  • Get Superfeet Insoles- I wore a couple of different brands of trail runners during my thru-hike and dealt with the normal aches and pains of walking 15+ miles through rugged terrain every day.  The further north I went, the more rocky the trail got, and I thought I was just doomed to walking on hamburger meat stubs for the rest of my hike.  Until I found Superfeet insoles!  Those things were a total game changer for me!  The plastic inserts gave me some extra arch support for crushing miles and a rock shield to protect my tender feet from the sharp and pointy rocks.  
Superfeet hiking insoles
Superfeet Trailblazer Insoles on the left and my trail runner's included insoles on the right.  Notice the rock plate on the Superfeet!
  • Take Naps- That’s right, take a nap!  You’re not working a 9-5 anymore, so who says you can’t snuggle up under a tree for a little midday snooze?  I discovered napping during the heat of the summer.  My hiking partner and I would get to a shelter or a nice shady spot, roll out our sit pads, take our shoes off, and crash for a couple of hours.  The afternoon nap was a great way to rest and reset and almost felt like I was splitting my hike into two different days.  And during the summer, I’d much rather hike in the cooler evening than in the middle of the day.
Taking a nap while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail
My hiking partner, Suspenders, taught me everything he knows about napping.
  • Stop the Chafing with Aquaphor- There’s a good chance that you’ll need to deal with chafing at some point.  My best fix was Aquaphor.  It’s similar to vaseline and can be found in little tubes in the pharmacy or with chapstick at the store.  Just rub a little bit onto the hot spots before you go to bed and again in the morning to get some relief.  If you catch it early enough, you can put some Leukotape on the spot during the day to prevent the skin from chafing.
Aquaphor for chafing
Aquaphor is great for chafing, dry skin, and chapped lips!
  • Pack Foods That Makes You Smile-  Thru-hikers know that ounces lead to pounds, and pounds lead to pain.  We do everything we can to trim down our pack weights and that includes carrying lightweight food options.  The thru-hiker diet can contain a lot of unappetizing foods like ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes and we tend to eat the same foods over and over again.  Don’t forget that food isn’t just for fuel, but it can really boost your mood, too!  Pack some fun foods even if they are heavy.  Maybe pack out a giant slice of cake to enjoy when you make it to the next summit.  Or a nice beer to celebrate when you cross over the next state line.  
Cinnamon rolls packed while hiking
After a particularly rough stretch in the Whites of New Hampshire, I upped my resupply game.  These cinnamon rolls really hit the spot!

So there ya have it, 9 practical thru-hiking tips to help get you from Georgia to Maine! And if you want to learn more about my 2022 Appalachian Trail thru-hike, you can read about the gear that I packed, see a sample meal plan,  or check out safety tips for solo backpackers. Come back next week to see my Town Day Tips to help with resupplying and town chores!

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