Appalachian Trail FAQ
Thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail, but not sure where to start? Browse our handy FAQ page below to learn the answers to all your AT-related queries.
Table of Contents
1. How long is the Appalachian Trail?
As of 2020, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is 2,193 miles long. The exact distance varies from year to year as sections are rerouted and improvements such as switchbacks are added. The length of the trail has already crept up a little since 2018 when it measured 2,190.9, and 2019 when it measured 2,192 miles. For comparison, the AT was just 2,050 miles in length when Earl Schaffer became the first person to complete a thru-hike in 1948.
The trail runs from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Katahdin, passing through 14 states. It’s said that it takes about five million steps to walk the entire Appalachian Trail and that the elevation change is roughly the equivalent of summiting Mount Everest 16 times. For more fun trail facts, click here. For further reading on the history of the AT, click here.
2. What is the Approach Trail? Do I have to take it?
The Approach Trail is an 8.8-mile blue-blazed trail that connects Georgia’s famed Amicalola Falls to the southern terminus of the AT on Springer Mountain. It’s not technically a part of the Appalachian Trail, and you don’t have to tackle it to be considered a thru-hiker. As a result, whether or not to hike the Approach Trail is a controversial topic.
-Dramatic views of Amicalola Falls, in contrast to the mostly-forested summit of Springer Mountain
-The stone archway that marks the trailhead is deliciously symbolic
-Official thru-hiker tags, pack scale, and gear shakedowns at Amicalola Falls Visitor Center
-Road to the trailhead is much better maintained than the one to Springer
-Trail cred: not everyone does the Approach Trail, and telling your friends that you did it will make you feel extra badass
-8.8 tough miles that won’t officially count toward your total thru-hike mileage
-A grueling climb up 600+ metal steps alongside the waterfall within the first mile of the hike
-For those just starting out, likely an entire day’s effort just to get to the actual starting line
-Friends and family who want to join in on your first day may have a tough time with this trail, in contrast to the relatively easy one-mile hike from the Springer Mountain parking lot to the top of Springer
Whether or not you include Amicalola Falls in your hike is entirely a personal choice. If you’re having trouble deciding, we’ve written up a more detailed list of the pros and cons of the Approach Trail here.
If you want even more advice, resources, and blogs from the trail, subscribe to The Trek’s Newsletter.
3. How long does it take to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, most hikers take between five and seven months to complete the AT end to end. According to our data, that translates to an average pace of 14 to 20 miles per day for most hikers. That being said, any hike of the AT that’s completed within a one-year timeframe is still considered a thru-hike. The fastest known time for a self-supported thru-hike is 45 days, set by Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy in 2017.
4. How many miles a day do I need to average in order to thru-hike?
If you’re thinking about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, you probably know it’s going to take a lot of time, effort, and steps to complete. So just how far will you need to walk each day in order to achieve your goal? Let’s assume you want to walk the trail from end to end in six months (180 days), a fairly average pace. The AT is 2,192 miles long as of 2019. That means you’ll need to walk an average of 12.2 miles per day to meet your goal. Remember, that average also includes any rest days (“zeroes”) you choose to take during the course of your hike.
Your pace will vary over time and region. You’ll start out with fewer miles as you develop your trail legs, then gradually begin to walk farther and farther each day. Many hikers also find that their pace slows when they hit certain challenging sections of the trail—particularly New Hampshire and Maine. Most hikers walk between 14 and 20 miles on any given day of their thru-hike.
5. Is it safe to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Spending months in the solitude of the woods is a tempting prospect, but it can also be a nerve-wracking one. From animals to bad weather to fellow humans, it seems as though a lot can go wrong in the backcountry—so how safe is the Appalachian Trail? Hint: probably a lot safer than you think.
Crime is a common concern for aspiring thru-hikers and their loved ones, and understandably so. In reality, incidents on the AT are few and far between (though they do occur). The crime rate on the Appalachian Trail is lower than most towns, cities, and neighborhoods.
In 2019, a group of thru-hikers were attacked by a fellow hiker wielding a knife. One member of the group was injured in the incident, another killed. When this terrible news broke, it shook the hiking community and left many questioning their safety on the Appalachian Trail. Although nothing can diminish this tragedy, it is important to remember that incidents like this are still few and far between.
Other hazards of the trail, like getting lost or injured, are largely preventable with proper preparation. Make sure you’re carrying the 10 hiking essentials at all times. That includes first aid, navigational tools, and adequate attire/footwear. Situational awareness, appropriate gear, and the help of the tight-knit trail community are the only tools most hikers will need to stay safe and healthy on the AT. Read more Appalachian Trail safety tips here.
6. How can I find a hiking partner for the Appalachian Trail?
According to our 2018 Thru-Hiker Survey, most people begin the trail solo and end up hiking with friends they made on the trail. Some hikers start with a significant other, family member, or pre-existing friend; however, not everyone ends up finishing the trail with the same partner they began with. Differences in pace, interests, and goals can render hiking partnerships unexpectedly short-lived. It’s not bad or uncommon to hike with several different partners or groups over the course of the journey, or to hike solo the whole time. The best approach is to be open-minded and flexible about whom you travel with.
7. What is the best direction to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Your social preferences, timeframe, and goals will help to determine in which direction you should hike the Appalachian Trail. The vast majority of thru-hikers travel northbound (90% of respondents to The Trek’s 2018 Thru-Hiker Survey), while a smaller number hike southbound or follow an unconventional itinerary known as a flip-flop. Here are a few pros and cons of each itinerary:
- Lots of other hikers around. Plenty of opportunities to make friends, but lack of solitude or a true wilderness experience (especially in the first few weeks). Greater ecological impact on the trail corridor.
- Most traditional way to thru-hike.
- Hiking under a deadline: need to reach northern Maine before the onset of winter weather closes the trail to Katahdin.
- Encounter the beauty and difficulty of New Hampshire and Maine toward the very end of your journey—when you’re more experienced but also more fatigued.
- Not as many hikers around, though you’ll pass plenty of nobos along the way. Less-developed social scene and lesser ecological impact on the trail corridor.
- Get the most rugged, remote, and technical sections of the trail out of the way early (but also have to face them before you’ve developed trail legs or significant thru-hiking experience).
- Potentially starting in June or July, when water crossings in Maine can be fearsome and mosquitoes and blackflies are at their peak.
- No hard deadline to reach Springer, though winter snows can make for cold and difficult hiking in the southern states.
- Relatively easy start on the gentler terrain of the mid-Atlantic states. Further, you’ll hit New Hampshire and Maine after gaining plenty of on-trail experience but before reaching peak fatigue.
- You get the best weather: late spring in the mid-Atlantic to summer in New England, then flipping down to the south for the fall.
- Avoid the overcrowding of the bubble—more solitude and less ecological impact on the trail corridor.
- The ATC recommends nontraditional thru-hikes to lessen the impact of high-traffic direction.
- Additional logistical complications and travel expenses involved with flipping.
- Parting ways with tramily when it comes time to flip and not being able to celebrate the same milestones as nobo/sobo friends.
8. What is a trail name? How do I get one?
A trail name is a nickname or alias that a hiker goes by on the trail. Like most things on the AT, there aren’t many hard and fast rules in this department. It’s common for hikers to have their trail names bestowed upon them by fellow hikers. However, some pick their own names or decide to go by nicknames they’ve had all their lives. Some use their real identities and never adopt a trail name at all. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference. And remember, there’s no law saying you have to adopt a name that doesn’t feel quite right to you. The right one will come along in due time, whether that’s on Day One or Day 101. Looking for inspiration? Check out The Trek’s handy trail name generator.
9. How much does a thru-hike cost?
According to our survey, most thru-hikers spend between $1,000-$2,000 on gear and spend more than $6,000 total on their hikes, including gear and all other expenses. A good rule of thumb is to plan for about $1,000 per month spent on trail. For a six-month hike, that’s $6,000 on top of the money you already spent on gear. This money will go towards things like food, lodging, food, showers and laundry, postage for any packages mailed home, food, gear repair, and replacements… and did we mention food?
It’s possible to spend much more or much less than $1,000 per month. You can save money by opting for older gear and buying used. On trail, the best way to save money is to minimize the time spent in town. Hikers who mostly sleep for free out on the trail and avoid lodging, shuttle, and restaurant bills spend significantly less money than the typical thru-hiker. Click here to read our step-by-step guide to budgeting for a thru-hike, and here to see how to save money during your hike.
10. How can I fit a six-month thru-hike into my life?
A thru-hike is the journey of a lifetime, but for many people, it’s hard to imagine setting aside the time or money necessary to embark upon it. Many thru-hikers are recent graduates or recent retirees—people who are already in a transition phase in their lives and may have more flexibility in their schedules. Others are able to negotiate a leave of absence from their jobs or reach an agreement to be rehired upon their return. Some people simply quit, trusting that they’ll find another opportunity once they’ve completed their thru-hikes. Thru-hikes do cost a certain amount of money—much like saving up for a new car or an extended overseas vacation, many people budget carefully for years in order to set aside enough money for the trip.
11. Do I need a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail?
You do not need a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail. However, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) does encourage thru-hikers to participate in their voluntary hiker registration. Registration is not required, but it helps the ATC and fellow hikers to track trail usage.
There are two short sections of the trail—Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and Shenandoah National Park—through which hikers do need to carry permits. The GSMNP permit can be acquired online for $20. The Shenandoah Permit can be picked up from a self-serve kiosk along the trail at no charge.
12. How do thru-hikers get food and supplies?
The Appalachian Trail passes through or near a town with remarkable frequency—often every 30-40 miles or less. That means a hiker averaging 20 miles a day will be able to go to town to resupply as often as every other day if they choose. Some AT hikers rarely carry more than two or three days’ worth of food at a time, investing more time in frequent town stops but significantly reducing their pack weight. Our comprehensive list of Appalachian Trail Resupply Points will help you get a sense of where and how often hikers can get supplies.
Some people pre-plan most of their food and supplies, box it all up and have it mailed to themselves at different points along the trail. One advantage of mail drops is that hikers guarantee themselves regular access hard-to-find treats like dehydrated vegetables and powdered whole milk. This type of resupply is especially valuable for hikers with dietary restrictions or prescription medications that are complicated to fill away from home.
These days, it’s far more common for hikers to resupply at a grocery store or gas station in town. This allows maximum flexibility because hikers don’t need to time their town stops to the arrival of their next package. Also, they’re able to shop for their cravings at that moment, whereas hikers who send themselves boxes often complain that the foods they thought they would crave when they initially planned the food boxes no longer appeal.
13. How will I get water, and how much should I carry?
For the most part, water is abundant on the Appalachian Trail. Shelters are often located near a stream or spring, and the trail usually crosses water several times per day. Talk to other hikers and use a guidebook such as AWOL’s AT Guide to determine when and where you might encounter water throughout the day. Note whether sources are marked as reliable or seasonal (some streams and springs can dry up by late summer and won’t flow again until the following spring). Use that information to decide how much you ought to carry at a given time.
New hikers should play it safe and always carry two liters, but as you become more experienced and confident in your abilities and pace, you may be able to carry less than one liter at a time in sections where water is readily available. Water on the Appalachian Trail should always be treated by filtering, boiling, or purifying before consumption. The Sawyer Squeeze water filter is the most popular water treatment method on the Appalachian Trail. Check out our guide to water treatment systems to find out which option is right for you.
14. Where will I sleep at night?
There are numerous shelters and campsites along the Appalachian Trail. Use The Trek’s interactive map to find out where each one is located. Shelters are three-sided wooden lean-tos with room for (usually) around six-10 hikers. They’re often located near a water source, may have amenities like bear boxes and privies, and generally are spaced out every five to 10 miles. Many hikers choose to either sleep inside the shelter, saving the time and effort needed to pitch their tent, hammock, or tarp.
Shelters are a magnet for hikers and are usually a great place to meet people and exchange information. People who desire a little more privacy can seek out quieter stealth campsites where allowed (local signage and your guidebook will be valuable resources in determining local camping regulations). Many hikers get the best of both worlds by setting up their tents in the vicinity of the shelter. That way they can benefit from the social scene of the shelter and take advantage of the water source, food storage, and privy if available while still being able to enjoy some peace and quiet at bedtime.
15. What kind of clothing should I wear?
Choose lightweight, breathable, durable clothing for a hike of the Appalachian Trail. Look for materials that will breathe well and will dry quickly. Look for wool or synthetic fabrics that will dry quickly and keep you warm when wet: the cardinal rule of the backcountry is that cotton kills, so avoid anything cotton.
Some hikers choose to wear shorts and T-shirts on the trail, while others cover up in long sleeves and pants to protect themselves from poison ivy, sunburn, ticks, and other hazards of the natural world. There are pros and cons to both systems—at the end of the day, it’s largely a matter of personal preference.
When choosing clothes for the AT, keep in mind the importance of layering. In addition to your basic hiking outfit, you’ll want to have a waterproof rain shell, an insulated puffy jacket, warm base layers to wear in camp, and potentially other items—such as a hat, gloves, wind shell, and hiking fleece—depending on the season and personal preference. A good layering system can make all the difference in your comfort and safety. Click here to learn more about the ins and outs of backpacking apparel and layering systems.
16. How much should my pack weigh?
Most hikers’ packs weigh between 20 and 35 pounds on the Appalachian Trail. A good rule of thumb is to keep your pack weight at or below 30% of your body weight to minimize the risk of injury or discomfort on your hike. That said, this guideline is cheerfully broken by thru-hikers with self-explanatory trail names like “Sixty” on a regular basis. From sub-10 pound ultralighters to heavy haulers with 40 pounds or more on their backs, pack weight is largely a matter of personal preference.
Many hikers end up mailing home some of their gear within the first week or two of their hikes as they learn what items they would rather do without. Your pack weight will probably fluctuate over the course of your hike as you hone your gear and swap out different items.
17. Can my dog thru-hike with me?
Yes! Many people successfully thru-hike with a canine companion. Check out these authors’ account of hiking with their dog. Dogs are not allowed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 70-mile stretch of trail through North Carolina and Tennessee, and most hikers kennel their dogs during that stretch. Dogs also aren’t allowed in Baxter State Park, the northernmost 15 miles of trail. The other 2,100+ miles of trail are for the most part dog-friendly, though you should bear in mind that not all establishments in town will welcome your furry friend.
Other considerations: A thru-hike is just as much of a grueling athletic challenge for a dog as for a human hiker. Be sure your dog is in good health and is up to the journey. Also consider the added weight of food, water, and gear you’ll need to carry to keep your dog with you on the trail. If you do choose to bring your dog on the Appalachian Trail, you’re likely to be the delight of many of your fellow hikers—just remember to be a courteous and responsible owner.
If you want even more advice, resources, and blogs from the trail, subscribe to The Trek’s Newsletter.
18. When is the best time of year to start a thru-hike?
It depends on your starting location. Most NOBOs start in March or April. This window typically avoids the worst cold of winter, gets them out of the southern states before the summer heat, and leaves plenty of time to reach Maine before October snowstorms close the trail to Katahdin.
Southbounders wishing to start at Baxter Peak must wait until the trail opens in late May or June. Most SOBOs depart Katahdin in June or July, giving themselves a long hiking window before winter sets in in the southern states. July starts will have a shorter window than June starts, but will likely avoid the peak of mosquito and black fly season and will have relatively easier stream crossings in the 100-Mile Wilderness.
Flip-floppers may start at any physical location on the trail, and by the same token, their start dates can vary widely. Many flip-floppers begin at or near Harper’s Ferry between late April and mid-June. By starting in this window, they’re more likely to meet Northbound hikers, give themselves a head start on the summer heat in the Mid-Atlantic region, and leave a very comfortable window of time to reach Katahdin before October.
Read more about different hiking itineraries here.
19. What’s the hardest / easiest / nicest section of the trail?
Every stretch of the Appalachian Trail poses unique challenges and rewards, from the rolling, rain-sodden hills of Pennsylvania to the high, rocky peaks of New Hampshire. So which parts should you anticipate—or dread—the most? Each hiker’s experience of the AT will be different, of course, but there is a certain amount of consensus regarding the hardest, easiest, and “best” sections of the trail. The Trek surveys AT thru-hikers every year to learn the answers to these and many other questions. Here are some summarized results from our 2018 Thru-Hiker Survey:
- White Mountains, NH
- Southern Maine
- Baxter State Park, Maine
- Northern Pennsylvania
- Harper’s Ferry, WV
- Shendandoah National Park, VA
- Potomac Region
- Baxter State Park, Maine
- White Mountains, NH
- Southern VA
- Northern Maine
As you can see, several of the sections voted the most difficult also ranked among hikers’ favorites. So don’t dread those tough sections—chances are, they’ll be well worth the trouble.
20. What is the most dangerous animal on the Appalachian Trail?
From bears to rattlesnakes, the wildlife of the AT can take on a certain menacing quality in the imaginations of aspiring hikers trying to plan for their safety on the trail. So what’s the most dangerous animal you’ll encounter out there? You might be surprised to know that it’s not a charging bear or a snake coiled to strike. In fact, the most dangerous creatures you’re likely to encounter on the Appalachian Trail are among the smallest: ticks. Ticks are difficult to detect, abundant throughout most of the AT corridor, and can carry serious diseases like Lyme and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Check out our guide to tick safety here.
Although black bears are generally shy of humans and unlikely to be aggressive, they still capture the imagination of many an anxious aspiring hiker. Proper food storage and situational awareness are usually all that’s needed to prevent unhappy bear encounters. Read up on our 11 Black Bear Safety Tips to be extra sure you know what to do if you encounter one on the trail.
21. What does “Hike Your Own Hike” mean?
No two thru-hikes will be identical—and that’s a good thing. You’ll make a thousand different decisions over the course of your journey, from your shoes to your diet to the number of miles you hike each day. And for each decision you make, you’ll meet countless hikers who have taken drastically different approaches to the very same problem. Often abbreviated HYOH, “hike your own hike” is simply a gentle reminder that there is no single “correct” way to hike the AT or any other trail. Everyone has their own unique style, and it’s best to respect each other’s differences.
It’s important to note that HYOH isn’t a substitute for common sense. Everyone has their own unique style, but your preferences shouldn’t supersede basic safety precautions. If you’re planning to set out on a thru-hike in January outfitted with blue jeans and a 40-degree sleeping bag… well, that’s just not a very good idea. HYOH isn’t an excuse to ignore the warnings of all the concerned people who are probably telling you to rethink this plan. By all means, do your own thing out there; just make sure you’re being safe, sensible, and courteous about it. Click here to read more about what HYOH is and isn’t.
22. Is there an Appalachian Trail map I can use to navigate?
The Appalachian Trail is well worn and well-marked, and for that reason, many hikers choose to save weight by carrying a guidebook rather than a map. Guidebooks such as AWOL’s AT Guide provide information about town services, road crossings, shelter, water, terrain, and more, in an easier-to-read form than a map. In the age of the smartphone, navigation apps like the ever-popular Guthook Guides (available for iPhone and Android) are increasingly ubiquitous.
With that in mind, if you do get lost there is no substitute for a hard copy map, a compass, and the navigation skills to use them. Trail maps are available by section from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a map of the entire Appalachian Trail, check out The Trek’s interactive map.
23. How much experience do I need to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a serious undertaking, but you don’t necessarily need lots of hiking or camping experience to be a successful section or thru-hiker. According to The Trek’s 2018 AT Thru-Hiker Survey, about 51% of participants only had between one and seven nights of backpacking experience under their belts before they embarked on their journeys. A further 15 percent had never been backpacking at all but had gone on day hikes and/or gone car camping. And a small handful (0.7% of respondents) had never been camping or hiking at all before hitting the trail.
In general, a little prior experience will go a long way in helping you prepare for a long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail. If you’re able, try to get out into the backcountry for at least one or two shakedown hikes before you start the AT. Test out your gear, get a sense of what it’s like to carry your pack and get a feel for the whole experience. That being said, there’s no reason you can’t be a successful thru-hiker even if you don’t get a chance to try out backpacking before you start the trail. Focus on mentally preparing yourself before you start the trail, and take things slowly the first few weeks you’re out there—you’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn and adapt to this new lifestyle.
24. How do I make a schedule for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?
In a word: don’t! The best-laid plans of mice and hikers often go awry, and over the course of 2,200 miles, you’re likely to encounter a few unexpected twists and turns that throw a wrench in your schedule. Bad weather, injury, and the temptations of town stops are just a few of the many, many, many ways your timetable can get tweaked, altered, thrown off, and eventually tossed out the window altogether. It’s difficult for many hikers to estimate exactly how much progress they’re going to make in their next seven days—to say nothing of trying to predict one’s schedule before even starting the trail.
Some hikers only have a short time window to hike the trail or have medical or other considerations that make careful planning a requirement on a thru-hike. In this case, use a guidebook like AWOL’s AT Guide as a reference while planning your hike. Estimate how many miles per day you’d like to average. Plan to start with eight to 10 miles per day for a week or so, then gradually add more miles as you begin to hit your stride. Use your guidebook or check out The Trek’s handy resupply guide to determine town checkpoints.
25. What are the best books about hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Books are fantastic resources for thru-hikers, full of information, inspiration, and delight. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of literature relating to the Appalachian Trail. According to The Trek’s 2018 Thru-Hiker Survey, thru-hikers loved books including The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis, and, of course, Appalachian Trials by our very own Zach Davis.
What questions didn’t we cover? Let us know in the comments below.