So you want to hike the Appalachian Trail – Tips from a former Thru-Hiker

By Alexander Popp 

info@worldsbestadventures.com 

 

WBA Head Guide Alexander Popp at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine, at the end of his Thru-Hike in 2017.
WBA Head Guide Alexander Popp at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine, at the end of his Thru-Hike in 2017.

When I started hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2017, I didn’t really grasp the true gravity of what I was attempting.

I was partially prepared by years of weekend warrior hiking in my teens and early 20’s, and a lot of good advice from a close relative who successfully hiked the AT in the ‘90s, but nothing can really prepare you for the mental and physical challenges a long-distance trail can throw at you. 

You can only do so much planning and then you’ve got to roll with the punches. 

But that’s the good news too because planning and flexibility can be your greatest tools on a Thru-Hike. When choices are limited, ingenuity prevails. 

In this guide, we’ll talk about the ways that you can plan for success on your Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike, and how to stray from the plan when you need to. 

 

Gear Planning 

Backpacking gear laid out on a bed.
WBA Head Guide Alexander Popp’s starting gear during his 2017 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike.

To say that gear is important for a Thru-Hike would be a vast understatement, to say the least. The clothes, boots, gear, and other items you choose to take with you will have a huge impact on your comfort and success as a Thru-Hiker.

But that advice should be taken with a grain of salt because during the 5 to 6 months Thru-Hikers spend on the Appalachian Trail, most will have a fair number of gear items they discard, swap, or exchange. 

Speaking from personal experience, during my Thru-Hike I changed backpacks, stoves, sleeping pads, water filters, pocket knives, and many other items during my time on the trail. 

That doesn’t mean you should plan your gear willy nilly though. As you prepare for your Thru-Hike, gear prep should start several months before your actual start date, giving you plenty of time to test how things work and feel before you really put them to the test. 

I suggest starting with the footwear you’ve chosen for your hike, so they can get good and broken in by the time you need them. Some hikers with a specific favorite boot or trail runner often buy multiple pairs and wear them all in, to be sent and used down the trail when old pairs wear out. 

Read reviews, Visit gear shops to test things out, Ask for expert advice – these are going to be the best ways to make sure your gear is right for the start of your trip. 

 

Food Planning 

There are two main options when planning the food you’ll eat while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Mail Drop Method and the Buy As You Go Method. Both have pros and cons.

  • Mail Drop Method – Often the most financially friendly food planning method, this method relies on the post offices and mail drop locations you’ll encounter in basically every town along the trail. Simply put, you plan all (or most) of your food (Breakfast, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks, and Extras), pack the food into boxes, and incorporate the resupply boxes into your route plan with prepaid shipping labels.
    • Pros: Sometimes cheaper than buying things on the fly. Consistently get things you like. 
    • Cons: Makes plan deviation harder. Gets more expensive the farther you have to ship boxes. You may get tired of the foods you chose. 
  • Buy As You Go Method – Along the trail you will hike through dozens of little towns and cities where all manner of resupply items can be bought. If you aren’t a fan of planning out your meals for however long it takes you to get from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, then resupplying the best you can in each town you pass might be your best bet.
    • Pros: Tons of flexibility. New and different foods in different regions. No waiting at the post office. 
    • Cons: Inconsistent food choices. Regional food deserts can make resupplying hard sometimes. Sometimes very expensive. 

You might want to consider mixing these two options. I opted to send myself packages at the beginning of the trail, and then switched to buying as I went later on. 

Since you’re likely going to be running on a calorie deficit nearly every day, make sure to take advantage of nutritious (and delicious) foods that you find in towns at restaurants.  

 

Route Planning 

Route planning for the Appalachian Trail is fairly simple, you either go north or south depending on which direction you’re planning to attempt. But you still do need to think about a few things like Start and End Dates, Mail Drop and Resupply Locations, Seasonal Weather, and Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Baxter State Park.

Mouldering Privy Toilet on the Appalachian Trail.
Mouldering Privy Toilet on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

Anyone attempting a Thru-Hike should take some time to think through approximately what they’d like to accomplish on each step of the journey, and have a basic plan for their hike.  

You can use a printed or downloaded guide/map and an Excel Spreadsheet to chart out the rough path and milage that might work for you.

 

Financial Planning 

Most people that successfully complete a Thru-Hike spend between $2-$4 per mile on the trail, or about $4,000 to $8,000. That budget should see you through 6 months of re-supplies, gear replacements, shuttles, occasional hotels and laundry, and much-needed beer and pizza in town.

But as long as you aren’t blowing money constantly in towns, you should be able to finish your hike on a pretty conservative budget. 

Take advantage of every free resource and discount you can on your trip. From thumbing rides and trail magic to pro-deals and hiker discounts, there are tons of ways to save money while getting the Appalachian Trail experience.

Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Learn more here.

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