In 2008, I set off to walk from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. After 1,600 miles, a fractured foot cut my hike short in Massachusetts. Although I didn’t reach my objective, the journey was an adventure that I’ll never forget. We’ve put together a short guide that will get you well on your way to completing your first thru-hike, section-hike, or even your first overnight backpacking trip. With most hikers beginning their treks in late spring, now is the perfect time to start planning your hike and getting in shape to hit the ground running – or rather, walking at a brisk pace.
Maybe you’ve read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods,” Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” or seen the popular film adaptations. Maybe you’ve been craving the solitude and Walt Whitman-esque connection with nature. Whatever your inspiration, the experience itself will be far beyond anything you could ever imagine. In our opinion, it is only when life slows down to placing one foot in front of the other that you can truly appreciate the world around you.
On my hike, I met bears, almost stepped on rattlesnakes, had beers with a former MMA fighter and his pal “Hammer,” slept under bridges, was informed by a bus station porter that I was the “baddest motherf#%&%# alive!,” was stalked by coyotes, slept under the stars, contracted Lyme disease, ate my weight at all-you-can-eat buffets, hitchhiked across counties, had S’Mores for dinner, hiked mountains by moonlight, relied on the kindness of strangers, met the best people, met the worst people, and met what was buried down inside myself. But most importantly, I saw America. One step at a time.
The Appalachian Trail begins on Springer Mountain in northern Georgia (about two hours north of Atlanta) and snakes its way north, through fourteen states, to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. The trail spans over 2,100 miles, and has an elevation gain that is the equivalent of hiking from sea level to the summit of Mt. Everest sixteen times! Given these difficulties, most thru-hikers take 5-6 months to hike the trail in its entirety.
Unless you’ve served in the military, spending six months hiking may be one of the most challenging things you’ll ever accomplish. And perhaps most difficult of all, are the mental struggles: Being away from friends and family, slogging through miles of mud during a downpour, craving the feeling of warmth; all while knowing that you chose this – you can quit anytime you want. But once you’re finished – even if your goal was only a few weeks or a month hiking – you’ll never see the world (or the people in it) the same again.
Weight is key. In the words of our buds at Mount Inspiration: “Everything you carry should be light.” Some thru-hikers are known to remove the handles from their toothbrushes to shave weight, while others carry two-pound wedges of cheese. Most people, however, can find a happy medium, balancing creature comforts with the necessities.
One of the most important items is your everyday clothes; you’ll wear them day after day and mile after mile, so if they’re uncomfortable, you’re in for a long 2,100 miles. As for your what to wear, synthetic (i.e. not cotton) clothing is a must! For your everyday shirt, make sure it’s something that’s light and dries quickly to keep you cool on hot, sticky days and warm on long cold nights. Our pick is the Free Fly Bamboo Motion Tee. It hits all the requirements, plus the bamboo fabric is naturally odor resistant (your hiking friends will thank you) making it the perfect hiking shirt. For bottoms, a pair of lightweight hiking or running shorts will do just fine, provided they have pockets and are durable enough to last for months of everyday abuse.
And maybe most important, for underwear, make sure they’re synthetic, soft against the skin, and for men, they should be *ahem* supportive. For ladies, Knix Wear’s line of active intimates fit the bill with their comfortable, quick-drying, and odor resistant fabrics that can double as swimsuit when you decide to spend a hot afternoon at a swimming hole. Similarly, the Free Fly Men’s Boxer Briefs will serve you so well that you may never want to switch back to your usual choice.
For footwear, we generally eschew traditional hiking boots and choose a trustworthy pair of trail running shoes. They’re light and offer better ventilation, but still provide excellent traction. You’ll move quicker, your feet will be cooler, and you’ll thank us on that umpteenth uphill.
If hiking were sailing, then your backpack (or “pack”) would be your ship. It carries everything you own, protects your belongings, and provides a dry seat when foul weather pins you down. And like a ship, it needs to be big enough to transport your goods, yet not so big as to slow you down. So do a bit of research. Find something that’s light, yet sturdy and durable. Be sure to test them out in person. The pack should fit tightly but comfortably around your hips (yes, you will use that waist buckle) and the shoulder straps should fit snuggly on your shoulders without feeling uncomfortable. When loaded, you should feel the weight of the pack on your hips, rather than pulling on your back or shoulders. We’re big fans of Granite Gear packs, and we use them for just about every outdoors activity. .
As for your camp setup, you’ll need a stove, water, and shelter to get you through the night.
Small and lightweight is the way to go for stoves. Canister gas stoves are most popular amongst thru-hikers, and denatured alcohol stoves perform excellently while saving weight (you can even Google how to make your own stove). We could write an entire book on choosing the right water purification system, so suffice it to say: choose something that’s light, reliable, and easy to clean. For the summer months, a hiking hammock with tarp makes the perfect place to lay your head and keeps you off of the ground during downpours. For the cooler months (or if you’re not a fan of hammocks), there are an abundance of lightweight tents available; we recommend finding a good compromise between weight and interior space. And for your sleeping bag, a synthetic-fill bag is best for long-distance hiking as it will keep you warm when wet– a likely scenario over the course of six months in the mountains. As with any gear, be sure to take it for a test run in the field before committing it to full time use.
And perhaps most importantly, make sure you have one set of clothes strictly designated for wearing around camp and sleeping. Both mentally and physically, there’s nothing better than changing into a (relatively) clean and dry set of clothes before crawling into your sleeping bag every night. As a bonus, you’ll also have a spare set of clothes to wear when doing laundry.
Getting In Shape
Nothing prepares you for walking long distances while carrying 30+ pounds quite like walking long distances while carrying 30+ pounds. During the cold winter months, work on building your core, back, and leg muscles and getting plenty of aerobic exercise. As the winter chill fades, head out into the mountains carrying a weighted pack, and preferably the one that you’ll use for your hike. Find a hike with a long, steady uphill, which will simulate much of the rolling mountain sections of Georgia and North Carolina. It’s also smart to carry extra bottles or jugs of water to simulate the weight in your pack. Once you reach the high point of your training hike, dump the water out to save your knees on the descent (but bring those bottles back! Remember: Leave No Trace.). No mountains in the area? Carry your pack on long walks through your neighborhood or bring it to the stairmaster in the gym. You might look a little out of place, but trust us, if you’re planning to spend months hiking across the country, you’re already swimming against the stream.
Food and Logistics
One of the reasons that the Appalachian Trail makes for a great beginner’s long distance hike is that hikers are usually never more than a few days hike from a country road, where – with patience – one can usually hitch a ride into some sort of civilization. Compare this with the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail, where towns are often miles away from the trails and hikers often go weeks without access to a resupply opportunity.
So how do you plan the logistics of hiking for months at a time? The answer is the Thru-Hikers’ Companion, often referred to as the “Hiker’s Bible.” You can pick one up from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and it is more than worth its weight in gold (so save room in your pack!). The book provides an overview for the locations of every shelter, town, road crossing, and other point of interest on the trail (down to the tenth of a mile), and will let you plan your daily mileage goals as well as resupply towns.
As for what to buy, most hikers opt for pre-flavored dry pasta or ramen noodles mixed with vacuum-packed chicken or tuna for dinner. It’s a quick meal that’s packed with calories and protein, and the ingredients can be found at most grocery stores. For lunch and snacks, go with calorie-rich foods that are easy to pack (i.e., won’t be crushed). Our favorites are peanut butter, pita bread, granola, and dried fruit. And since you’ll be burning 6,000-8,000 (or more) calories a day, it’s the perfect time to satisfy your sweet tooth: there’s nothing better than cookies, candy, or a piece of fruit after a long day of hiking.
What I Wish I Would Have Known
1) One of the most important pieces of gear you’ll carry is your pen and notepad. There’s nothing more powerful or insightful than being alone with your thoughts over the miles. You’re also sure to encounter the most beautiful sights in the world, as well as the nicest, craziest, and most eccentric people that you’ll ever meet. Although most of this journey will be ingrained in your memory forever, it’s always nice to reflect upon your thoughts years later or laugh at a detail that you’d since forgotten. And while many journal and pen brands advertise themselves as having waterproof paper or ink, be sure to keep them in a plastic bag. There’s nothing worse than having to recreate journal entries after “waterproof paper” fails to keep its promises during a thunderstorm in the Smokies.
2) Slow down. There’s truth in that old saying “I never knew it was the chase I sought, and not the quarry.” Whether it’s cramming 12 people in a 6 person lean-to shelter during a downpour or sharing a beer that’s been chilled in a mountain stream, you’ll meet some of the best people in the world on the Appalachian Trail. And together, you’ll be spending day-after-day in the some of the most beautiful, pristine wilderness. So, slow down and make the miles count.
3) While mesh pockets in your hiking shorts are great for drainage when you decide to take a dip, make sure they’re made of a durable material! It will certainly ruin your day to discover that your favorite pocket knife has made its escape through a hole in your pocket.
Top Spots for Section Hiking
Below are a few of our favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail; each section covers 2-4 weeks worth of hiking. Of course, you can always tackle a portion of these hikes for a perfect week or weekend hike.
Franklin, NC To Hot Springs, NC (107 Miles)
This section begins in the iconic Great Smoky Mountains National Park, travels the ridgelines along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and pauses briefly atop Max Patch’s grassy expanses before dropping into Hot Springs. Your destination, the aptly-named Hot Springs, NC boasts natural hot springs perfect for soothing weary muscles, and the local Paddler’s Pub serves up the best in local microbrews.
For a done-in-a-weekend hike, shorten this section to hike from Max Patch to Hot Springs, a twenty mile hike covering beautiful countryside and rolling, grassy hilltops.
Daleville, VA to Damascus, VA (255 Miles)
This path will take you through some of the most gorgeous scenery on the trail, including McAfee’s Knob (the most photographed site along the Trail) and the awe-inspiring Grayson Highlands. Reportedly named for their similarity to the Scottish highlands, this area contains broad sweeping views dotted with rocky outcroppings. Your hike ends in Damascus, VA, home to a number of hiker-friendly businesses and site of the annual Trail Days celebration.
Duncannon, PA to Harpers Ferry, WV (125 Miles)
The hike begins in Duncannon, PA home to historic Duncannon Doyle Hotel, one of the original Anheuser-Busch hotels. The Doyle is a regular place of rest for thru-hikers, and not surprisingly, a great trailside stop for a few Budweisers. After climbing out of town, you’ll hike across the state of Maryland and visit the original Washington Monument (built by locals prior to construction of its better-known counterpart) before ending your hike in historic Harpers Ferry, WV. Give yourself an extra day in Harpers Ferry to visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s headquarters and to peruse some of the historic landmarks, including the site of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry.
For additional reading on planning your hike, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and managing the Appalachian Trail and protecting the cultural landmarks and significant ecosystems surrounding the trail. And while you’re there, consider making a donation to help preserve this public treasure for future generations.
And as with any hike, practice Leave No Trace Principles, carry a small bag for picking up trash and other discarded items, and leave the trails better than you found them.
Have questions or tips that we missed? Leave a comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.