Are you dreaming of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but not sure if it’s right for you? Maybe it’s on your bucket list, but you don’t know where to start? As a 2022 AT thru-hiker and owner of Wildwood Hiking Company, I’m here to help you get started! I believe anyone can thru-hike the Appalachian Trail with the right preparation and planning, whether you are new to backpacking or an experienced outdoor traveler. Over the next few months, I’ll be putting together a series of posts to help outline how to plan your thru-hike, including an overview of the thru-hiking, gear and logistics, physical and mental preparation, and the ins and outs of long-distance hiking. Check back frequently for more tips, tools, and tricks for your Appalachian Trail adventures!
Part I: An Overview of Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail
What is the Appalachian Trail?
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, often referred to as the AT, is the longest hiker-only footpath in the world, at nearly 2200 miles and traveling through 14 states along the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. In 2022, when I thru-hiked the AT, it was 2,194.3 miles long, although that distance changes from year to year due to re-routes and trail changes. The trail spans from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia to the northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine. The AT traverses through some of the most beautiful peaks and valleys of the Appalachians, passing through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The entire trail is maintained by volunteer organizations and is blazed with the iconic 2”x6” white blazes on trees and rocks to lead the way. The AT was designed to provide hikers with a respite from everyday life and to include gathering places with shelters, water sources, picnic tables, and sometimes privies. These shelters are placed every 5-10 miles on the entire trail, and include anything from traditional wooden lean-to style shelters to fully enclosed stone buildings. The AT passes in and out of the mountain woodlands, crossing many roads and small towns along the way. Many of these towns pride themselves on their relationship with the hiker community and provide amenities such as hostels, shuttle services, restaurants, and outfitters to meet the needs of hikers that travel through.
What does it mean to thru-hike the AT?
The AT is a popular destination for many hikers in the U.S. and across the globe. Each year, more than 3 million people visit different parts of the AT and around 3,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the entire length of the trail.
There’s a lot of disagreement in online forums and communities about what actually constitutes a thru-hike. Generally, it means to hike the entire length of the trail in a 12 month span. But what if a hiker misses a few miles here and there? What if they take an alternate route or side trail for a portion, known as a “blue blaze”? What if they “aqua blaze” a section by paddling on a river or lake instead of hiking? What if a hiker chooses to “yellow blaze” or ride by car for a small portion to catch up with friends? Some hikers are determined to hike every single step of the AT and pass every white blaze marked along the way. These hikers are known as “purists” and will even backtrack to be sure they don’t miss a step. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is part of a cooperative system of local, state, and federal agencies aimed at managing and protecting the AT, defines a thru-hike as hiking the entire trail in 12 months, but they register hikers as “2,000 milers” because the distance of the trail varies each year.
But nobody is officially tracking your hike and there is no trophy or prize at the end. I’m of the belief that you should hike your own hike, and your thru-hike is whatever you make it out to be. So whether you touch every single white blaze or decide to take a few alternate routes, your thru-hike is a journey that is just for you and nobody else. If you make it from Georgia to Maine (or tackle the states in any order), and feel that you’ve thru-hiked the whole AT, then good for you! You’re a thru-hiker!
Who are thru-hikers?
The Appalachian Trail wasn’t originally designed to be hiked from one end to the other. Benton MacKaye, known as the founder of the AT, envisioned the AT as a hiking trail that would weave together communities where people could enjoy the wilderness for recreation and recuperation. The AT was completed in 1937 and the very first attempt to thru-hike didn’t occur until 1948 when World War II Veteran, Earl Schaffer, wanted to “walk the army out” of his system. In 1954, the famous “Grandma” Gatewood, was the first woman to thru-hike the AT alone, at 67 years old with a handmade knapsack and a pair of Keds on her feet. Since then, attempts to thru-hike the AT have increased steadily, now with around 3,000 hikers attempting the journey each year.
Thru-hiking the AT is a grueling feat, taking an average of 5-7 months and over 5 million steps to complete. The terrain is rocky, rooty, and sometimes very steep, with an elevation gain equivalent to summiting Mount Everest 16 times. Of the 3,000 people that attempt to thru-hike each year, only about 25% make it the whole way, with many quitting due a variety of reasons, including injury, illness, troubles with their personal lives, and running out of time or money.
According to The Trek’s annual thru-hiker survey, here are some quick facts about the 2022 thru-hikers. Note that while over 3,000 attempted to thru-hike, only 403 responded to their survey, so the data is skewed towards finishers.
- Average age is 37, but 50% of hikers were under the age of 30 and the oldest hiker was 71 years old. The majority of thru-hikers tend to be right out of college or in their retirement years.
- 55% of responders identified as male, 42.75% as female, and 2.25% as nonbinary or other.
- 93% of hikers were white, 1% black, 1% Hispanic, 2% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 3% were multiracial.
- Most hikers are college educated, with over 75% of hikers with an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or professional degree.
- 88% of hikers were from the U.S., with others from Canada, Germany, England, Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, France, and Columbia.
- Over 50% of hikers had limited backpacking experience, with only 1-7 nights of overnight backpacking before hitting the AT.
When I thru-hiked in 2022, I met people from all over the world and all walks of life. I met hikers on their 4th thru-hike and hikers that had never backpacked before. I shared meals with teachers, doctors, engineers, carpenters, veterans, college students, retirees, children and grandparents. I crossed paths with section hikers that had been completing the AT for 20 years and hikers that were returning after sustaining an injury in the prior year. I’m a believer that anyone can thru-hike the AT with enough commitment and preparation, and a whole lot of luck.
Why do hikers quit?
If you’re thinking about thru-hiking yourself, remember that the odds are against you. Most hikers don’t make it all the way, with only around 25% completing the entire trail in one year. I don’t say that to discourage you, but to help you understand that it’s not as glamorous as the YouTubers and bloggers make it out to be. They often show the fun parts, the beautiful vistas, and the friendly faces they meet along the way, while leaving out the stark reality of thru-hiking the AT- it’s a brutal, exhausting, soul-sucking physical and mental challenge. I was guilty of doing the same during my hike. I wanted to share the fun with my family and friends, and I really didn’t document all of the times that sucked. Even now, when I look back at my photos from the AT, I can quickly tell when I had a bad day because I didn’t take any pictures at all. My hiking partner and I had a phrase that we used every day to remind us to embrace the suck, “There are no easy days on the AT.” There were more difficult days and less difficult days, but no day was ever really easy. Each day, I endured some kind of aches and pains, battled against the weather and terrain, and spent most of the day thinking about the basic survival necessities: food, water, and shelter. I had to face uncertainties and fears on a regular basis, in between the boredom and monotony of hiking for 10-12 hours a day. I knew the AT would be hard before I started the journey, but I don’t think one can really grasp how challenging it is until they’ve tried it.
So we know it’s not easy, but what really makes people quit when they’ve spent countless hours, or even years, preparing for their epic conquest? Here are my thoughts:
- Their expectations don’t match reality. Just like I mentioned before, hikers that quit may not have been prepared for the realities of the trail. They expect it to be fun and exciting, and are unprepared for the mental and physical challenges that come with thru-hiking. Hiking through the rugged terrain on the AT for 10-12 hours a day, every day, over and over again, takes a huge physical and mental toll. Mental toughness is an absolute requirement to thru-hike, and not everyone comes prepared for that reality. Living outside for five to seven months isn’t easy, and thru-hikers have to deal with being out in rain, snow, extreme heat, freezing cold temperatures, dirt, and mud. They have to live outside with mosquitoes, ticks, bears, snakes, and other wildlife. Thru-hiking is often uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s lonely. It’s common for hikers to leave the trail because they miss their friends, family, and comforts of home. There’s a reason thru-hikers say you have to “embrace the suck,” and that’s because thru-hiking sucks a lot of the time.
- Injury and illness. The survey responders on The Trek’s annual thru-hiker survey report injury as the number 1 reason they ended their thru-hike early. Injuries are extremely common on the AT. Some injuries, like overuse injuries, can be prevented with proper preparation and training, while others, like broken bones, may be completely unavoidable. Even athletic and very fit individuals find the AT to be very physically demanding. The mountains are humbling, and will quickly put you in your place. Does that mean you can’t thru-hike if you’re out of shape? Not necessarily, as plenty of hikers go from couch to Katahdin, but they start with very low mileage and increase slowly to get their bodies adjusted to the trail. Illness is another factor that can take hikers off trail. I’ve heard of many hikers that contract Lyme disease or some other ailment and are forced to go home and recover. Some make it back out to finish the trail, but many don’t.
- Running out of time or money. Despite what many people think, thru-hiking is expensive and time consuming. I recommend hikers plan to spend 5-7 months on trail and around $1500 a month for on-trail expenses. That includes resupplies, hostels, shuttles, and gear replacements. It doesn’t include at-home expenses such as a mortgage or rent, car payment, credit cards and other bills. Most hikers have to quit their jobs in order to thru-hike the AT, and will also need to have a cushion in their bank account for when they get home until they are able to find a new job. Many that attempt to thru-hike simply do not have enough money in their budget to account for all of these expenses, and end up leaving the trail early. Or they run out of time because they need to go back to work or school and have to end their thru-hike.
- Problems at home. Being away from home for an extended period of time can be stressful for thru-hikers and their families. I met many thru-hikers that had left a spouse at home to take care of the house, bills, pets, and sometimes children, while they followed their dreams on the AT. This long absence can definitely put a strain on even the best relationships. In addition, there are so many other at-home factors outside of their control that can cause a hiker to stop their thru-hike early, such as a death in the family or needing to take care of business matters. While there are many opportunities along the AT where hikers can get access to the internet and cell phone service to handle some things at home, there are also many sections where they may go days without any connection to the outside world. I met a few hikers that were attempting to work remotely or do schoolwork while on the trail, but I can’t imagine that it was easy. A lot of hikers end up going home early to handle personal problems that come up.
So you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?
Around 3,000 people attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail each year, some of which have been dreaming of it for decades and others who spontaneously decide to take on the challenge. If thru-hiking the AT is a dream of yours, where do you start? Here are some questions you’ll need to consider in order to start planning your hike. I’ll address these topics in upcoming blog posts, so stay tuned!
- When should you start your thru-hike?
- How long will it take you to hike?
- Which direction will you hike- NOBO, SOBO, or Flip-Flop?
- What are the best sections on the AT?
- How do you plan for seasonal changes?
- What gear do you need?
- What gear do not NOT need?
- How will you navigate on the trail?
- How much money should you save?
- What will you eat? And how will you resupply?
- How will you get to the trail?
- What permits do you need?
- How will you handle mail drops?
- How do you physically prepare for a thru-hike?
- What kind of training do you need?
- What trail etiquette do you need to know about?
- How will you handle bears, snakes, ticks, and other wildlife encounters?
- How will you handle emergencies?
- What about health insurance? Or travelers insurance?
- How do shelters work? And privies?
- How do hostels work?
- What towns will you pass through?
- How much water should you carry? How will you treat your water?
- What guides, maps, or resources do you need?
- How will you keep in touch with family and friends?
- How will you get to town? Hitchhike? Shuttle drivers?
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was both the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and the most rewarding. Each day was filled with adventure, new challenges, beautiful views, and a feeling of being connected with myself and with nature. Pushing my limits and reaching my goals every day was empowering, and facing setbacks and fears gave me courage and strength. And there is nothing that compares to the feeling of accomplishment from traveling over 2,000 miles on your own two feet, through blood, sweat, and tears, and reaching that sign atop the last mountain. If I can do it, so can you!