How to hike the Appalachian Trail…
I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015. I’d already hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012 so I had experience. Having already done one big trail, preparation for the AT was easy compared to my first hike.
I’m Lunchbox by the way, at least that’s what people on the trail called me.
I’d had most of my gear already from the previous hike and I just needed to know a few details such as how I was going to get to the start in Georgia, how much food I needed to bring before my first resupply and the last few bits of gear I needed to purchase.
Fast forward to the end of June and I was done! In just under 4 months I had hiked the entire 2,189.2 mile trail. It was an amazing journey and a tough trail.
Now that I was back and easing into a much different routine, I decided to write a guide.
This guide is cheekily called:
“How to Hike the Appalachian Trail with Almost ZERO Planning, Training or Even a Clue”
And so it was born. I’ve decided to put it here, in one big chunk so if I need to edit it for whatever reason, anyone interested in learning how to hike the AT, can have the most updated information.
It’s not too long and to the point that truly can get you from knowing nothing about the trail to being able to hike next season.
From the gear you’d need to the details needed to get started, I share everything I know from my experience.
If you might be interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, this guide can greatly speed up the pre-hike process. Best of all, it’s free! Just keep reading below.
This guide about hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Let’s get started.
Who Am I?
As I said earlier I’m Lunchbox aka Dave and I recently hiked the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. March 3rd to June 28th, 2015 to be exact.
Besides this trail, I’ve also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, cycled across the country twice and did a bunch of other adventures over the years.
I’d like to think I know what I’m doing. I mean successfully finishing two of the longest trails in the United States is pretty good, right? Especially when the success rate is something like 20-30%.
I run NimbleForged.com (where you are reading this), a place where I house all the different things I make.
What Is The Appalachian Trail?
If you don’t really know what the Appalachian Trail is, I’m going to tell you.
It’s a hiking trail about 2,200 (2,189.2 in 2015) miles long, spanning 14 states on the East Coast of the United States. Georgia to Maine.
You’ll hike over 500,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. To put that in perspective, that would be like going up and down Everest 16 times. Yeah…that’s a lot of climbing.
From mountains to marshes, the trail takes you through many different kinds of ecosystems and trail types. From roots and rocks that you have to constantly be on the lookout for, an occasional metal hand and foothold getting you up and over large rocks, to even a few ladders and waist deep water crossings. It’s a pretty rough and wild trail compared to my experience on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Thousands of people attempt to thru-hike the entire trail every year. Even more go out and hike sections, sometimes for weeks at a time.
It’s a trail with rich history, great towns and kind people.
Why This Guide?
This guide is going to help you hike the Appalachian Trail with almost zero planning and training. Just like I did. Seriously! I didn’t do much research before I left. Bare minimum.
It might seem like an impossible undertaking, but when it’s broken down, it’s not that bad.
This guide isn’t the end all for everyone, but I assure you that after you’ve finished reading, you’ll have everything you really need to know to go out and hike it. Honest. If anything, it’s a good starting point I think, which you can build on and learn more as you feel the need.
You don’t need to make things complicated. All you need is some money ($2-8k), be in ok shape and have an open mind on what you think you can or can’t do.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the most accessible trails you could do. You can get into a town almost everyday if you need or wanted to and there are plenty of people around to help if you get into a jam. Most decisions will be made on the trail and there are many things that you’ll need to factor in. Weather, energy, injuries, resupply, etc.
A Little About My Trip
I hiked the entire 2,189.2 miles (2015 official mileage) in just under 4 months. That’s pretty fast, but I had a deadline in July I had to finish by. I was number 13 to finish the trail in 2015, but you don’t or shouldn’t have to go that fast.
Some people I hiked earlier on with finished a month later than me. And that’s fine! One of the most repeated mantras on the trail is “Hike your own hike”. Everyone has different schedules, abilities and ways they hike. It’s all good.
I arrived at the start of the trail in March 2015 with all my gear, about 3.5 days of food and no concrete plans. With the little research I did, I knew I had enough food to get to the next resupply point.
From there I had my guidebooks to show me what the next few towns were up ahead and could decide where I was resting/resupplying next. After those first few days I played it all by ear, adjusting day to day and it worked wonderfully.
I hiked with a few guys for about 300 miles near the beginning before moving on to meet-up with my brother. He joined me in New York and we hiked together for about 4 days before he had to fly back to California.
I also hung out with a few different groups on and off as I headed north, but my schedule was different than theirs so I would eventually have to part ways. I finished alone, no other northbound hikers around me, but that’s not typical. Usually you get into a group that hikes together for weeks or longer. It just turned out that I was between bubbles of hikers.
In all, everything worked out great. I timed everything right, rested when I needed to and crossed another bucket list item off. All with minimal planning ahead of time.
Now that you know a little about my trip, let me share what you can do for yours…
Typically it takes about 6 months to hike the Appalachian Trail and six months to a year of planning and preparation. That’s to figure out logistics, gear, finances, time off and getting in shape.
I made this guide to cut your plan and prep to almost nothing! You’ll probably want to dive deeper than I’m going to go into here and I encourage you to do so.
But by the time you’re done reading this you’ll have a jump on getting this amazing adventure started.
6 months is a big chunk for your employer to deal with. A big obstacle for people. Making the time is challenging. I met a lot of hikers that couldn’t get that large of time off so they would take a week or two every year to hike a section of the trail. Gotta do what you gotta do, right?
Family obligations will need to be sorted out as well and I won’t even begin to get into that! You just have to look at your specific situation and talk with the people close to you.
Another thing that might take some time are the bills. What expenses will you still have while you’re gone? What recurring bills can you get rid of before you leave? How will you deal with the place you’re currently living at? Spend time figuring out these important details.
Saving up to have enough funds to pull off a hike like this is probably the biggest and longest challenge.
You’ll spend about $500-$2,000 on gear. Another couple thousand or more while on the trail. That depends on the type of food you want to eat, hostel stays and motel rooms. I’ve heard of people spending upwards of $5K on food, lodging, etc.
Start figuring out how that’s going to work. Meaning if you’re in a job, how you’ll get that time off? What if you find out you might have to quit? Important decisions to make so don’t take them lightly.
Gear selection is probably the next biggest time sink. At least it can be. In the gear chapter I’m going to share with you a few lists of what you need. Follow it and you could have everything you need by the end of the weekend without having to do much, if any research.
You COULD spend hours, days, weeks researching every piece of gear, trying to find that perfect setup (spending quite a few pennies too) or you could start with a gear list someone has already spent time researching that is good enough and ready for the trail.
There are plenty of gear shops along the trail too. If you find you need to swap or add something, it’s easy. More on gear later though.
When Do I Start?
You’ll need about a 24 week block of time to hike the trail. Now I suggest you go between last week in February and mid March. You could push it back to the end of April at the latest if you really couldn’t figure out any other way, but you run into timing problems near the end of the trail and crowds.
By starting during Feb/Mar you deal with much less people, though more and more are moving their start dates up because it’s so crowded in April. One downside is the weather can still be pretty cold and some park services might not be open when you get to the area.
If you start around the end of march or first few weeks of April, you’re going to be around a lot of people. A lot. Shelters and campsites will be full and towns services can be hit hard when “The Herd” is there. Dozens of people are starting each day during the peak season.
Don’t spend too much time picking a specific date. It doesn’t really matter. I started March 3rd and it worked out just fine. A few others started the same day as me, but it wasn’t a mad rush for campsites or shelter space. The weather was a little rainy and cold a few days during the first week, but not bad enough to halt hiking and wait it out.
In the beginning don’t worry about how many miles a day you need to do or anything like that. Start off your hiking slow and steady, keeping the days short until you get your “trail legs”. The only real important time is when Baxter State Park closes (if heading north to Katahdin). Just remember that you should finish by mid October. Any longer and you could run into the “Finish line” being closed.
To finish the trail in 6 months, you’d have to average 12 miles a day. Piece of cake! That allows plenty of rest days and no need to do big miles…unless you want to! Eventually you could ramp up your hike to 20+ miles a day when you’re legs and endurance get better.
Action Points – Timeframe
- Figure out work, family, expenses
- Hike the trail around the beginning of March +/- a week
- Start saving $$$
Gear is endlessly discussed between people. Just look at the forums and youtube videos on gear and you’ll see what I’m talking about. If you’re really into gear, you could spend a lot of time wading through every single detail for every piece of gear. And that’s fine.
But if you want to make it easy, using other people’s gear list to quickly decide on your own needs will make it as close to zero effort as possible. I’m sharing two different gear lists I put together. A high and low end version. There are many others that put their own lists together. I encourage you to look at those as well.
I’ve created an Appalachian Trail resource page with the two lists I put together would cost you about $500 and $2K respectively. Check it out!
To go all out on gear, getting the best and lightest stuff will be in the $2K range for the high end list. On the low end will be about $500. That’s if you start with nothing.
I think most of us have gear that will already do the job well enough, knocking costs down quite a bit. Think of the stuff you already have. Maybe what you have is good enough. You can always purchase new gear along the way.
One thing I recommend you do is to get the best of the big three you can afford. Don’t skimp on your sleeping bag, backpack or shelter. Those are the most important items you use and the weight, quality and comfort you get from those is worth it in the long run.
You’ll also go through about 3-5 pairs of shoes and it’s best to keep them all the same. A trail runner type shoe is what most people use. Though some use full hiking boots and others more minimalist shoes. Even sandals.
Besides the standard gear setup, there are two things to help you while on the trail.
The app helped pinpoint exactly where I was, how far things were from me and had photos of water sources, shelters and other important landmarks. Elevation profiles and descriptions too. Guthook guide is available both for iPhone and Android smartphones. It’s well worth the investment. Around $50.
The Guthook app uses your GPS location and shows exactly where you are and where the trail is located in relation to you. You can pre-download all the maps, photos and data so you have it all in your smartphone before you leave.
One thing the app doesn’t have is town info and that’s where the AWOL handbook helps to fill in the gaps. It will aid in planning where you could resupply, stay and eat when in towns or crossing roads with services not too far away. It’s really helpful in making better decisions.
Maps are something you can also buy, but the trail is well marked and there really isn’t a need. If you’re a map person though, there are a bunch of options. Check out the ATC for those.
After you have your gear and guides, you are good to go! Well, almost.
Just a little training and testing before you leave.
Action Points – Gear
- Don’t spend too much time on gear
- $500-2K for all you need (Resources)
- Multiple pairs of shoes (trail runners are most common)
- Don’t skimp on the big three
- AWOL & Guthook Guide App
Training & Testing
My training consisted of running and cycling a few times a week. Also a few day hikes with most of my gear so I could get used to the weight. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to go on backpacking trips or really test myself and gear as much as I liked before I had to leave.
Even still, by the time I hit the trail, I was in good shape. Not great, but I was active and putting miles in one way or another.
The real training is done on the trail though. During the first few weeks of hiking, adjusting to making miles everyday and getting your “trail legs” can be rough. Start with shorter days and slowly build up from there. I pushed a little too hard in the beginning and had to rest my ankle a day before continuing. Don’t do that!
While being in shape is important, knowing your gear is even more so. Take the time before you leave to learn the ins and out of your gear. Setup and tear down your tent, pack and unpack everything a bunch of times, test your stove out, make food in it, spend nights outside in your tent at home to see how well you and your gear work together.
I can’t stress it enough, use all your gear before you go. You’ll quickly find out if there are problems you need to address. Much better to do it at home than when you’re on the trail.
Try and get out on day hikes, overnights and longer backpacking trips. The more comfortable you get being outside, the faster you’ll adjust while on the trail.
Just wearing your loaded down pack around the house will help you become more comfortable. Remember, you’re carrying everything you need to survive outside for an extended period of time and it’s good to be prepared.
Action Points – Training
- Hike, bike, run, overnights
- Test gear repeatedly (setup, teardown, pack, unpack)
- Be comfortable with what gear you have
Buy a one way ticket to Atlanta, Georgia, reserve a spot at the Hiker Hostel and get ready for a trip of a lifetime! The hostel will pick you up from the train station that you take from the airport, give you a bunk, breakfast and shuttle you to Springer Mountain the next morning to start your hike.
When you get dropped off the only thing left is to start walking. Put one foot in front of the other. And another. If you do that just a few more times during the next 6 months, you’ll be an Appalachian Trail Alumni, having walked over 2,200 miles and passed through 14 states experiencing so many sights, sounds, smells, people, highs, lows and challenges that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
There will be rough days along with amazing ones. Times when you hike with a group and also alone. Times when you don’t drink enough water or eat enough calories.
While the trail is difficult, resupply and support isn’t. You can get into a town everyday, so if something isn’t right, you can fix it quickly. You can find food to eat on the trail at any gas station if you’re not picky. I didn’t talk about food, but just wing it and eat a lot. You’ll adjust along the way as your appetite increases.
You’re really just hiking from town to town and looking ahead at the next place to resupply.
By helping you knock out a lot of these details in this guide, you have no excuse to not hike. Unless it’s something you didn’t really want to do in the first place.
If hiking the trail means something to you, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Hopefully this guide helped speed up the process and decision making for you.
Action Points – Start
- Get to Atlanta with all your gear
- Have Hiker Hostel pick you up
- Arrive at the start of the Appalachian Trail with enough food
- Start walking & take it easy until you have your “trail legs” in a few weeks
This was quick and maybe a lot of information to process right away. If you think you need a little more help or some guidance, shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can schedule some time for me to help you one on one.
I value time as should you, so I have to charge something. We’ll chat over Skype or hangouts and I’ll help you anyway I can.
If you want to explore more, check out some of the sites I recommend. Any question you have has been asked before. No need to ask again, just search these to find your answers.
- Whiteblaze.net – A major forum for backpacking and the AT
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy – Association that keeps the trail and everything that goes with it running smoothly
- Facebook Appalachian Trail Groups – Search and you’ll find many different groups you can join
- Youtube – So many videos about specific gear and the trail, just do a search
- NimbleForged.com – Resource page with gear lists
I hope after reading this you now feel like you have a jumpstart on your Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Let me know when you’ve started working on your hike, I’d love to hear how it goes and how this guide helped you get there maybe just a little bit quicker.
Find me on Instagram:@NimbleForged
Dave aka Lunchbox