A First-Timer's Ultimate Guide To The Appalachian Trail

Getting out into the wilds of nature is the ultimate freedom. There's something transformative about packing a bag and venturing off into the forest, either with a direction and route plan in mind or just to camp for a day or two. The wilderness brings us back to a simple, childlike time of wonder and adventure that's hard to sum up in words. It's perhaps this stroll down a more carefree path that makes hiking such a beloved pastime for close to 60 million Americans.

Among the world's best long-distance hiking trails is the Appalachian Trail (AT), a 2,198.4-mile voyage that brings thru-hikers along an epic adventure from Georgia to Maine (headed northbound). For the average thru-hiker (an Appalachian Trail hiker who will complete the entire stretch within a calendar year), setting aside five to seven months to make the journey is commonplace. 

But hikers looking to tackle the challenge don't have to conform to any stringent timelines or even a standardized starting point or direction. There are plenty of factors that combine to make a successful (or failed) AT hike, and first-timers will want to brush up on the standard practices, key resources, and more before setting off to explore this gem of nature and wildlands.

Know the key terms

Before even thinking about gear or packing lists, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the key terminology and get into the Appalachian Trail mindset. First on the docket is the "thru-hiker." These hikers plan to complete the whole trail in a single calendar year. This doesn't necessarily mean that they'll depart from a selected starting point and continue walking until they reach the other end. A thru-hiker can complete individual segments in any direction and order they choose, so long as the whole trail is covered. Every year, around 3,000 hikers set out to complete the trail in this manner, and around 25% of them succeed. As a result, there's absolutely no shame in finding yourself unable to finish the trail, especially on your first attempt!

Since the trail can be tamed in any direction, "Nobos" and "Sobos" have come to represent a shorthand for northbound and southbound hikers, respectively. While many hikers will start their journey in Georgia (and therefore hiking as "Nobos"), there's no reason why you couldn't start in Maine or even somewhere in the middle, like Virginia. "Lashes" and "Sashes" are another set of monikers that have come to describe hikers. Instead of trekking from the top or bottom in a straight line, these "long-ass" and "short-ass" section hikers tackle preplanned sections of the trail. 

Finally, it's worth noting that not every day will be marked by a mile-eating effort. "Zeroes" and "Neroes" are zero hike days and nearly zero hike days, which help hikers rest and recover. Days like these are often a good idea before tackling hard miles of the trail, such as Maine's Mahoosuc Notch. 

Set a reasonable timeline for your hike's ultimate goals

Trailblazers can start anywhere on the Appalachian Trail and hike either northbound or southbound. There's no limit to what you can explore and when while traversing this natural wilderness. But setting a reasonable plan for your goals is crucial to making the most of this breathtaking scenery. It takes most thru-hikers roughly six months to complete the hike, as a point of reference. Not all hikers will have the physical stamina to complete the entire trail. Likewise, only a sliver of the people who set out to explore this wonderful, open-air site of American heritage will have the time to wander for months on end. Instead, many hikers opt to tackle manageable sections of the Appalachian Trail. 

Some common subsections can take as little as a few days like the Blue Mountains in Pennsylvania, which cover 40 miles of the trail and require roughly four days to hike. The Iron Mountain Gap to Cross Mountain only requires an overnight journey for most hikers, covering 17 miles in the process, and can make for a great weekend away. For a longer journey, however, the Shenandoah Valley National Park section or New Hampshire's Presidential Range span 100 miles and 88 miles, respectively, with a commitment of about nine or ten days to complete. Whatever your goals for the hike, it's important to consider how much time you can spend on the trail and plan accordingly.

Consider when you want to start your hike

In addition to planning your route and setting aside the time required to complete it, you'll need to think about the right start time for your hike. Officially, the hiking season lasts from April to the middle of October, but hikers can tackle segments of the trail any time of the year or begin a thru-hike earlier to try to beat the crowds.

Generally, if you're attempting a thru-hike that begins in Georgia, April is the best time to begin. However, experienced hikers who have trekked in the cold may consider launching their great adventure in March or even February to take advantage of much lighter trail traffic. Sobos will have to begin their voyage later since the far northern starting point is dictated by snowfall and ice buildup. 

A late May cast-off is appropriate for a southbound hike. Sobos are in for a wicked challenge to begin their journey as hiking Maine's punishing landscape can really beat hikers up. But getting the tough terrain out of the way first also comes with another benefit. Sobos will be rewarded with a far lighter volume of hikers around them since hikers beginning here are significantly smaller in number.

The trail is one of the best marked in the world

One thing that new hikers won't need to worry much about is getting lost on a hike. The Appalachian Trail is one of the best-marked hiking trails in the world. In addition to regular signage, white blazes can be found in great abundance throughout the trail's nearly 2,200-mile expanse. As well, volunteers and National Park Service employees constantly work to touch up these markers and care for the trail itself. As a result, the AT is well cared for, well marked, and easily discernible from the background wilderness that surrounds it.

Still, hikers will need to take regular precautions and plan for contingencies while out on the trail. This space is still a natural habitat for dangerous wildlife like bears. Sticking with a group and checking routinely with your maps, compass, and logbook to discern where you are and where the next white blaze should be found can help ensure that you don't get lost, even momentarily.

Plan out your sleeping arrangements and a loose schedule

There are plenty of shelters built along the trail's path. Generally speaking, you'll find one every five to 15 miles. This dispersion means that hikers who plan out their route in advance might get lucky enough to sleep in a shelter every night of their voyage. During peak trail hiking months, there could be thousands of people on the Appalachian Trail at any given time, however. There is generally space for about 20 people in each shelter depending on the size, and sleeping space is first come first served.

A tent is necessary for anyone hiking the Appalachian Trail, and hikers are free to stop really anywhere they desire. It's a good idea to gauge your speed as often as you can. By doing so, you can try to plan out — at least some days — that positions you to arrive at a shelter early enough to claim a spot. Sleeping inside can be a rejuvenating factor that helps you keep going, especially after multiple days of pitching your tent and dozing off in the natural wilds of your surroundings. If you have access to a weather app, you can also pick up the pace to reach the next shelter early if a storm is on the way, giving you protection from the worst of the wind and rain.

It's important to prepare for the physical demands

The physical toll that the Appalachian Trail takes on your body can't be overstated. Whether you intend to hike for a couple of days or you're a seasoned outdoor explorer and want to tackle most or all of the trail, the physical demands will play a big part in your results. It takes many Appalachian Trail hikers years to work their way up to completing a thru-hike, and even those who will spend less time on the AT should plan to start preparing for the physical demands of the adventure at least two to three months in advance.

It's important to get outside and walk a lot before setting out on a hike, but the ability to walk great distances isn't the only physical skill an Appalachian Trail hiker will need to rely on. While you're out exploring America's untamed forest land, you'll be carrying quite a bit of weight. Hikers on the Appalachian Trail often look to keep their pack base weight at about 20 pounds. Whether you achieve this goal or not personally, the pack you carry will feel heavier with each step and every passing day. Strength training is therefore a core component in the preparation for a successful hike. Hitting the gym and walking with a weighted backpack when putting in the work on your distance training can make for a more enjoyable time on the trail.

Packing lists should be built with precision

The 20-pound base weight target means that packing intelligently for a hike on the Appalachian Trail is a serious priority. Base weight doesn't include your food and other things that will fluctuate in weight as you continue on your way. Building your hiking packing list is a big step in the right direction, and it's a good idea to gather all your necessities and weigh the completed bag. This will allow you to make adjustments in the days and weeks leading up to your start date. You might want to repack two or three times to ensure that you have everything you'll need while experimenting to shed as much weight as possible.

The 20-pound target is categorized as "lightweight," though, and many hikers will haul a 30-pound bag on their back instead — a "traditional" hiking weight. The clothing you select can make or break a hike, especially on longer journeys. Cotton soaks up sweat, so it's not a great option for AT hikers. Moisture-wicking fabrics are essential, and lightweight, puffy jackets can provide just the right amount of warmth without leaving you overheated from the physical output. 

Rain gear, water purification tools, a wealth of socks and underwear, gloves, hats, and blister ointments are also crucial packing staples. Many hikers also carry a small trowel to create makeshift latrines, trekking poles, and a multi-tool. These additional pieces of equipment are fairly lightweight and can function in multiple ways.

Don't forget to budget for the trip

The great outdoors can seem like a place where time stands still and the bank account can be put on hold. When walking through nature takes priority, many people forget that buying gear, maintaining an appropriate stock of rations, and even taking a day or two off to explore a city or stay in a hotel to recharge will cost money. For example, one thing that hikers engaging in a lengthy hike will want to consider is the use of multiple pairs of boots. A good set of hiking boots effectively covers about 1,000 miles. Thru-hikers therefore will want to buy — and break in — two sets of hiking boots before even leaving on this epic adventure. 

All told, hikers braving the wilds of the Appalachian Trail will spend between $5,000 and $7,000 on gear, food, and stopovers in towns along the trail's lengthy span. This works out to a budget of roughly $1,000 per month, but that figure can be cut down a bit for those who already have some or all of the gear they'll need for the hike.

Select your hiking partner(s) carefully

Hikers on the Appalachian Trail will often want to share their experiences with friends or family members. A long-distance hike is a great way to form new bonds and strengthen old ones, especially among like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. However, the constant contact with hiking partners can also be a stressful feature of the experience. 

Spending every minute of every day on the trail will almost certainly change your relationship with anyone you choose to hike with — hopefully, not for the worse. You must prepare yourself to spend all of your time with this person or group, which means learning to accept the quirks and individual tendencies of your partner or partners. Patience and understanding will rule the day, and snap judgments can make for an abysmal experience that carries over into the relationship off-trail.

Relationships built or strengthened on a long trail hike can be a magnificent thing, but it's important to keep perspective. Understanding that hiking partners often get under each other's skin as a result of the lengthy exposure to one another's quirks and eccentricities is the first step to dealing with this natural point of tension. A calm demeanor and an approach that places patience above all else is necessary when opting to hike the Appalachian Trail with others.

Plan your meals with weight in mind

An Appalachian Trail hiker will need to consume between 3,000 and 5,000 calories per day. The constant toll on your body requires a major boost to the amount of food you're eating to sustain the requisite physicality. The increased caloric requirements on the trail dictate substantial planning in two separate aspects. First of all, twice the food you would normally consume can quickly run up an expensive grocery tab. It's worth keeping this in mind. But perhaps more importantly, the amount of food you require creates a daily strain on your ability to efficiently hike by adding substantial weight to your pack. There are three common methods that hikers on the trail use to manage the additional weight of their food. 

Some hikers opt to only bring along cold soak rations. This allows them to ditch the cooking equipment that would add to the base weight. Hikers who use the cold soak method will need to plan meal times diligently. Essentially, at each meal time, you'll start preparing the next ration. Another important feature of your meal preparation is the packaging. Anything that comes in glass, metal, or plastic containers will add something to your pack. To avoid the added weight, many hikers use bounce boxes: Food sent ahead to points along the trail for a quick resupply. Others opt to purchase food every seven to ten days instead, avoiding the potential of wasting their budget on meals they may not reach.

Set your desired pace, but don't kill yourself to keep it

Most hikers tackling the Appalachian Trail will average between 8 and 16 miles per day. Early in your hiking, a slower pace can be useful to get your bearings and ease into the mental and physical demands of the environment. Regardless of what pace you set for yourself, it's important to map out your route and think about how fast you want to finish it. 

For one thing, shelters can be found at an average interval of 8.5 miles, with around 260 existing across the entire trail. This means that even slower hikers should be able to reach the next shelter with a typical day's hike. However, some shelters are closer to one another and others can be as many as 15 miles apart. If you're hoping to make it from shelter to shelter every single day of your hike, you'll want to plan out a variable pace that includes longer and faster days as well as a few leisurely ones.

But, most importantly, no one hiking the Appalachian Trail should beat themselves up over falling behind an idealized pace. The demanding nature of hiking, especially on a lengthy course like the AT, makes planning an important procedural step, but plans will often change with each passing day in an ever-changing environment. A particularly cold morning or a rainy day in the forest can slow you down or even alter your plan to include one or more Neroes or Zeroes.

Consider protection, but don't bring a gun

Protection is potentially a useful item to include on your packing list, especially if you're hiking alone. While most hikers on the Appalachian Trail will be friendly members of the outdoor community, this is by no means universal. Notably, there have been 13 murders documented on the Appalachian Trail since 1974. Even so, certain protective measures absolutely shouldn't factor into your planning process. Hikers might typically carry small axes or other bladed instruments that can perform double duty, but firearms should remain at home, no matter the circumstances of your hiking plans. 

The Appalachian Trail passes through 14 states, and every one of these jurisdictions has its own rules for how to handle the possession and use of firearms. If you are planning a lengthy hike that crosses multiple state boundaries, then it's easier to simply leave your gun at home than get tangled up in the weeds of various legislative decrees. 

Moreover, as a practical matter, it's not a good idea to bring a firearm with you while hiking. Even a smaller handgun will add unnecessary weight to your pack, add the ammunition required to use the implement, and you're looking at a notable addition of bulk to your belt or bag. Safety tools like pepper spray are lightweight and universally accepted as protective devices. These kinds of options are far better for hikers concerned about their safety.

Be courteous with light and sound

When the Sun begins to set, hikers will look to wind down their day. With a good night's sleep, you can start the trail the next morning fresh. The natural wilderness provides an all-encompassing blanket of darkness that can help make this a reality. However, to enjoy the unlit remoteness of the Appalachian Trail in its full glory, hikers need to be courteous of one another. 

"Trail midnight," a sort of self-imposed curfew for light and sound is at 9:00 p.m. For most hikers, this is more than enough time to arrive at a stopping point to set up a tent (or organize your shelter space) to eat and get some sleep. However, there may be times when hikers arrive at their destination after this point. If you reach the next shelter after trail midnight, it's your responsibility to be as quiet as possible and restrict your use of lighting equipment to preserve the serenity and sleeping conditions for other hikers in the area.

With that said, certain portions of the trail might not have great cell coverage, and hikers will often jump at the chance to call loved ones when coverage returns in areas closer to the rest of civilization. Keeping phone call sound to a minimum in the evenings, and avoiding it altogether after 9 p.m., is good practice that helps preserve the environment for everyone.

Leave no trace!

Lastly, the mantra of "leave no trace" is a crucial component of hiking any natural environment. The Appalachian Trail is a gleaming piece of American heritage. The trail runs along an ancient ridge of mountains that separate the East Coast from the interior expanse of the United States. As such, it follows a natural boundary that separated the founding 13 states of the nation from the wilderness beyond that remained alien to the first Americans in those early days. Under British rule, colonists were even prohibited from venturing west of this natural barrier, but that would ultimately change.

Today, hikers setting out to traverse the Appalachian Trail are brave explorers following in the footsteps of U.S. history's earliest pioneers. Preserving the ability to etch one's footprints in the annals of history is the responsibility of everyone who packs their bags and ventures off to discover the Appalachian Trail for themselves. 

To care for the monumental beauty and epic historical significance of the trail, hikers who tame its wilderness must commit to leaving no trace. Honoring the trail requires hikers to take away anything they bring with them. Littering simply isn't tolerated by the hiking community. Anything you bring with you must be taken away, helping to ensure the Appalachian Trail remains a pristine landscape for millions of future visitors who wish to experience it for themselves.