For many avid hikers, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a life-long goal. Many spend countless days testing their mettle on trails far and wide before they set off on the journey of a lifetime from Georgia to Maine. But, can a beginner hike the AT, or is it just for experts?
It is possible to hike the Appalachian Trail as a relatively new hiker, but it’s important that you’re thoroughly prepared before you set out. Having the right gear, a high level of fitness, and a good understanding of outdoor living skills is a must for any AT thru-hiker. While you don’t necessarily need to have thru-hiked another major trail before, a bit of experience can go a long way on the AT.
Up next, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about hiking the Appalachian Trail as a relative beginner. We’ll discuss training, gear, and other resources you should check out before you start packing your bags for the AT.
Hiking The Appalachian Trail With NO Experience?
At 2,190 miles (3,524 km), the Appalachian Trail is no joke. Many people spend countless nights out in the backcountry and take on years training to be able to complete the trail in one go. However, while it is possible to complete the AT with minimal experience, it’s not necessarily recommended.
If you’re considering making the AT your first-ever hiking and camping experience, we’d strongly advise against it. Hiking for that long takes skill, dedication, and mental fortitude that can only come from experience.
That being said if you’re relatively new to hiking and have a few longer backpacking trips under your belt, the AT is certainly within arms-reach. You don’t need to be a seasoned thru-hiking veteran to hike the AT, but a familiarity with outdoor living skills and a love of camping are a must before you set out.
Additionally, if you really want to hike the AT but aren’t sure that you’re ready, consider a section hike instead. There’s no shame in hiking sections of the trail to see if you enjoy it before you commit to the entire hike. Plus, hiking a section of the AT takes considerably less time than walking from Georgia to Maine, so it’s more accessible and more affordable for the vast majority of hikers.
Our advice? If you’ve spent less than about 60 nights camping under the stars, we’d highly recommend hiking a section or two of the AT first before committing to a thru-hike. Go out and see how you feel after hiking for a couple of weeks before you decide that you want to walk for 5-7 months in a row.
Preparing For The Appalachian Trail
Once you decide that you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s time to start getting prepared. Whether you’re setting out on your first AT thru-hike, or your testing the waters with a section hike, here are some top things to keep in mind:
Training For The Trail
Bill Bryon’s A Walk In The Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild are two great examples of what not to do when prepping for a long-distance hike, if you want to enjoy yourself along the way. If you’re young and relatively healthy, then, sure, you probably can hike the AT without training, just like Bryson and Strayed did, but your body will not thank you for your lack of preparation and you won’t be thanking yourself, either, after a few days on the trail.
Unless you’re particularly fond of discomfort, training is a must before stepping on the AT. Sure, your fitness will certainly improve as you’re on the trail and your body adjusts to living outdoors, but setting yourself up for success with some dedicated training is a solid choice.
The fact of the matter is that hiking with a heavy pack is the best way to train your body to be comfortable with hiking with a heavy pack. But, many of us don’t get to hike with a hefty pack each day, so we’re left to find alternative methods of training.
If you aren’t able to spend most of your days hiking in the mountains before heading out to the AT, then create a training plan that can help prepare your body for the rigors of a thru-hike. Keep the following in mind while you’re planning your pre-hike training:
- Endurance Is Key – Focus on different cross-training options, such as running, biking, and swimming, for building up a solid base of cardiovascular endurance 3-5 times a week, building up to the point where you can sustain moderate exercise for at least an hour without a break. Try to get out on a longer hike at least once a week, whenever possible.
- Don’t Neglect Your Muscles – You’ll also want to integrate strength training into your routine to ensure that your muscles are strong enough to carry a heavy pack. Focus mostly on lower body and core strength, but don’t neglect your upper body in the process.
- Take Rest Days – Be careful not to overtrain and be sure to take rest days every once in a while. You will take rest days on the trail, so there’s no reason to think that you need to prep your body to hike non-stop for 5-7 months in a row. Plus, overtraining is a great way to stop your thru-hiking ambitions in their tracks before you ever get to the trail.
Dial In Your Gear Systems
As you gain experience in hiking and camping, your backpacking gear will invariably shift and change. What you decided to buy when you first started out might not have been the most practical choice, but that’s the sort of knowledge that comes with experience and miles of walking in the mountains, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. The key is to find a gear system that works for your needs.
That being said, there is no one perfect gear system that works for everyone, so simply reading someone else’s AT thru-hiking gear list, while a good place to start, is not a one-stop-shop solution. Indeed, the challenge is to find a way to dial in your gear systems before you ever leave home without fully knowing what to expect on the trail.
This is one of the reasons why we recommend completing a section hike before committing to hiking the entire AT if you’re new to camping. That way, you’ll know precisely what works and what doesn’t when you’re outside.
Doing so can save you the endless frustration that comes with having the wrong gear while you’re backpacking. While gear isn’t the only thing that determines your happiness while your outside, having the right equipment is a great way to alleviate unnecessary stress and extraneous new gear expenses when you’re on the AT.
Learn Outdoor Living Skills
Outdoor living skills are perhaps the most important thing you need before setting off on a thru-hike. Although a good level of physical fitness and having the appropriate gear is certainly beneficial, without a solid understanding of how to live and thrive outside, the 2,190 mile (3,524 km) AT will feel like a very uncomfortable, and perhaps dangerous, slog through the woods.
Knowing how to set up camp, cook outside, and navigate through difficult terrain is a must for any thru-hiker, even if you plan to stick to maintained trails the whole time. Some basic wilderness first aid skills can also go a long way for protecting yourself and others on the trail. Here are some good organizations and companies to check out if you’re looking to gain more outdoor living skills before your thru-hike:
- NOLS & Outward Bound – NOLS and Outward Bound are two major outdoor education schools that run outdoor expedition courses for people of all ages. Even a short course with one of these two companies will provide you with some of the basic skills you need to complete a thru-hike.
- SOLO, WMA, & NOLS Wilderness Medicine – There are dozens of wilderness medicine schools out there that teach first aid courses for outdoor recreationalists. SOLO, WMA, and NOLS Wilderness Medicine all teach wilderness first aid (WFA) and wilderness first responder (WFR) courses, which we highly recommend for anyone that spends a lot of time outside.
- Leave No Trace – The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace offer good guidance for outdoor recreationalists when it comes to minimizing one’s impact on the environment. The organization runs short courses for avid hikers and backpackers and you can often get their training through outdoor education programs to help you become a better steward of the land.
- Outdoor Clubs – Outdoor clubs, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, and other local groups, are perhaps the most affordable way to gain skills and experience in a fun, social environment. They often organize camping trips and educational courses to help more people get involved with the outdoors.
- Local Guiding Services – Most outdoor guiding services, even if they primarily offer climbing guiding, will be more than happy to arrange for a navigation or outdoor skills course for you that fits into your schedule. Many companies that offer guided backcountry camping trips are willing to teach you some basic camping skills if you discuss your needs with them beforehand.
- “How To Hike The AT” Courses – The Appalachian Trail Conservancy actually runs a number of “How to Hike the AT Courses” each year, which are worth checking out for some trail-specific info.
If there’s one thing that can derail a thru-hike, it’s a lack of organization. While a weekend camping trip can be a spur-of-the-moment thing, a good thru-hike starts with a lot of planning.
This is particularly true on trails like the Continental Divide Trail, where towns and resources are often very far apart, but it’s also relevant on a less-remote trail, like the AT. Unless you have a pretty hefty budget, it’s generally best to send yourself pre-packed rations to various points along the trail. That way, you’re less likely to overspend when you’re hungry and tired at a grocery store at a trail town.
Doing so takes a whole lot of pre-planning, though, and isn’t something that should be taken lightly. While your plans will certainly change a bit as you start hiking, having a basic concept of how long your hike will take and what food/gear you need before you get started is ideal.
Plan To Start Slow
Many people get a bit over-ambitious when figuring out how long it will take them to hike the Appalachian Trail. While people often think that you’ll be able to cover more miles earlier on, since you’re less tired, that’s rarely the case, especially for newer hikers.
In reality, thru-hiking is a marathon, not a sprint, so starting slow is essential if you want to make it to the end. Your body will actually get stronger over the course of the 5-7 months that you’re on the AT, so there’s no need to burn yourself out in the beginning by pushing yourself too far.
Depending on your experience and fitness levels, plan to hike 5-7 miles (8-11.3km) for the first week or so on the trail. Then, gradually build up your daily mileage over the next few weeks until you get to the point where you feel excessively tired at the end of the day. For many people, this is around 10-15 miles (16.1-24.1km), though this will vary based on personal fitness and the local terrain.
Finally, be willing to take lots of rest days early on. As you build up strength and endurance on the trail, you’ll need fewer and fewer rest days toward the end of your hike. The key is to pace yourself and to enjoy the process instead of trying to rush to Maine.
Recommended Apps And Trail Guides
The last thing you’ll need before thru-hiking the AT is a good set of maps and a trail guide to ensure that you know what to expect on the trail. Here are some of the best options:
- The A.T. Guide – The A.T. Guide provides nearly step-by-step information for every great campsite, water source, summit, and trail town on the AT. A new edition is printed every year and there are versions for both northbound and southbound hikers.
- The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker’s Companion – This book offers a great amount of background knowledge that’s essential for anyone hiking the AT, including elevation profiles, maps, and basic trail information. The Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Associaton actually prints a new version every year, so get the most up-to-date edition for your hike.
- AT Map Bundle – The AT is pretty well marked, but it’s good to have maps on hand for both navigation and planning. National Geographic’s Appalachian Trail Map Pack is a good place to start, while the Official A.T. Guide Set is also a good option.
- Guthook Guides App – Guthook Guides has an iOS and an Android app that offers great off-line hiking information for any thru-hiker. They are becoming more and more popular each year as they allow you to carry an amazing amount of information on your phone. Keep in mind that even if you use one of these apps, you should still have maps of the trail and know how to use them.
Here are our answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about the Appalachian Trail:
What’s the easiest part of the Appalachian Trail?
While hiking any section of the AT can be considered an arduous task, there are a few sections, such as the Potomac Region, Shenandoah, Maryland, and Southern Pennsylvania that offer a bit of reprieve from the constant climbs and descents of the trail.
In these sections, hikers can enjoy trails that are slightly flatter, as well as more heavily populated areas, which means easier access to towns and resources to lighten your pack. That being said, the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine is often considered to be quite easy, due to its flat-ish terrain and relative tranquility, even though it’s far from any towns or cities.
What’s the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail?
Anyone that’s ever thru-hiked the AT will have their own opinions as to which section is the hardest, though there are some parts of the trail that are generally regarded as more difficult than the rest. The White Mountains in New Hampshire and Baxter State Park in Maine are both frequently considered to be tough sections of the trail.
What all these sections have in common is their rugged, steep terrain and seemingly endless series of climbs and descents as you make your way up and over every single bump in the landscape.
That being said, these sections are also some of the most popular parts of the AT because they provide excellent views, particularly for northbound hikers who have, up until these northern sections, spent much of their time below treeline.
Who was the youngest person to hike the Appalachian Trail?
It turns out that this is actually a matter of some debate. Little Ellie Quirin is considered to be the youngest person to ever complete the trail, but at the age of just 1.5 years old, it’s hard to argue that she was really an AT “thru-hiker.” While Ellie was carried most of the length of the trail by her parents, 5-year-old Buddy Backpacker completed the trail on his own two feet.
However, Buddy Backpacker and his family started at Harpers Ferry, WV and went to Katahdin before heading back down to Virginia to finish the first portion of the AT in two separate sections. So, some thru-hiking purists might argue that they didn’t actually “thru-hike” the AT.
On the other hand, 6-year-old Sabina, a.k.a. “Trail Bunny” and her family did thru-hike the entire trail in one go, so one could argue that she is the youngest AT thru-hiker, instead.
Can you camp anywhere along the Appalachian Trail?
Not quite. The Appalachian Trail passes through a patchwork of federally-owned, state-owned, and privately-owned land, so you can’t just “camp anywhere,” depending on where you are on the trail. Here’s how it works:
- National Forests – Most of the National Forests along the trail have designated AT campsites, but they also generally allow dispersed camping anywhere along the way that’s more than 200 feet (60m) from trails, water, and roads.
- National Parks – National Parks are usually a bit more restrictive as to where you can and can’t camp because they often see pretty high visitor numbers. You’ll usually have to camp at designated sites on National Park Lands during your hike.
- State Parks – State Parks can be tricky as some are very strict about campsites while others have few regulations. In these situations, it’s best to stick to a designated campsite, but you can always call the land manager to get more advice.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, there are about 100 designated campsites and 250 shelters along the AT for thru-hikers and section hikers to enjoy. The organization highly recommends that hikers stick to designated sites whenever possible to minimize their impact on the landscape.
When in doubt, check with the local land manager to learn more about local regulations. If you do choose to camp away from a designated campsite, be sure to follow Leave No Trace Principles to minimize your impact.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.