Among all, thru-hiking is probably the form of both hiking and backpacking that needs the more prepping. We are not saying is the hardest, the coolest or the best, it’s just the one that will require you to prepare a lot more in advance and has a very restricted leeway for backup solutions and changes.
Indeed, whilst hiking and backpacking can still find a lot of support in the civilized world and backup plans in terms of water, food and gear, when thru-hiking you might spend days and days without getting in touch with any form of civilization whatsoever.
This is true especially if we talk about the Appalachian Trail the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. In fact, 2,190 Miles and crossing 14 different States, its elevation gain and loss is approximately 464,500’ and attracts 3 million visitors each year. Not all visitor hike the whole trail, however, if that is your goal, here are a few things you should know before hiking the Appalachian Trail and a few tips to get ready to do that.
When to hike the Appalachian Trail
Because it is such a long thru-hike and since it will take you several months to hike it all and you will go through different weather conditions because of both the passage of time and the different climates of the different states, it is very important that you plan your thru-hike making sure that you won’t go through any extreme - and wrong - weather condition.
Timing and a good study of your itinerary is very important at this point. According to this, you can decide which way to go: from North to South or vice versa. Generally, the majority of Appalachian thru-hikers start from south, from Springer Mountain in Georgia, and this is because the toughest part of the Appalachian Trail is actually the northernmost section.
Many may think that exactly for this reason you should hike the other way round, however it’s better to get there ready, trained and experienced, exactly because it will ask for your wisdom and skills.
But this can depend a lot on the weather too: if you decide to start your adventure in late winter/early spring, you want to start from Georgia, so you can avoid the cold and snowy weather conditions that you would find in the north. On the contrary, if you want to start in summer, when temperatures are higher and the heat can be an enemy, you want to start from the North and hike your way to the south, where the heat would be excruciating in the summer.
Last but not least: autumn. If that’s your choice, then start in Maine and walk fast south, so you won’t have winter chasing you.
Also, make sure you are ready for all sorts of weather conditions with the right gear: a good pair of sunglasses and snapback for sun and heat, a good hat, thermal clothes and warm clothes in general. Also, remember to get ready for pouring rain: make sure everything can be sealed into waterproof bags and backpacks and that your clothes won’t get soaked. Also, they should be able to dry quickly.
How long does the Appalachian Trail take
Regardless of the season you choose to start with, the Appalachian Trail won’t take you less than six months. At the same time, nothing will forbid you to do it in less time. Indeed, the record for the fastest time is 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes, which means less than 2 months. This means an average of 48 miles per day. It’s entirely up to you, just don’t plan on impossible timings and allow yourself to take as long as you’ll think you need. It’s an incredible experience and you don’t want to ruin it.
What you need to hike the Appalachian Trail
We often spoke about ultralight hiking and ultralight backpacking. However, as much as the weight counts, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail will require you a considerable amount of gear and different clothes. Therefore, the usual “the lighter the better” rule is true only to a certain extent.
Of course you should still pick the lightest gear you can get, but you should never renounce to temperature comfort or waterproof materials, for example. If a tent is heavier, but it will protect you better, then go for it, as far as it won’t make the weight unbearable. And that’s the same for pretty much all gear.
Thanks to ultralight gear it is possible to hike the Appalachian trail with approximately 25/28 pounds on your shoulders, however this depends a lot on your experience. Also, don’t forget some places can get rather cold, so don’t save on warm clothes and jackets. Also, if you think something will morally and mentally help you out a lot during your thru-hike, don’t refrain from bringing it, even if it adds a few ounces to your backpack...it will relieve big weigh off your heart and soul in stressful or struggling moments.
How mentally ready do you have to be to hike the Appalachian Trail
You can train your body as much as you won’t, but if you won’t train your mind there’s nothing you can do when the endeavor seems way too much for you and you want to quit.
The most important thing to understand when you wonder how to stay focused while hiking the Appalachian Trail is to set your expectations right and tune in into gratefulness. It might seem like a useless advice, but if you forget how lucky you are to get the chance to go on such a great adventure in terms of time, money and health, then the first moment of struggle will be fatal.
Also, setting the right tone and the right expectations for your thru-hike is very important: what’s your goal? What does success mean to you? Don’t let anyone question your choices and your pace and hike your own hike!
Hiking the Appalachian Trail without a tent
This is actually possible, with an extra bit of organization and planning. Not all hikers know it and not all hikers decide to “risk it”, considering that to not have a tent means you will not be able to stop wherever you want regardless your plans: to walk more when you are supposed to walk less, or vice versa.
However, there are more than 250 huts along the AT and they can all be used for free. This allows you to sleep there and cut on weight, which can be of great use if you think you will be happier with a lighter backpack. However, you must know exactly where these cabins are, as some of them can also be 30 miles distant from one another. So do your research and plan your route accordingly. They should all be provided with fresh water, however never give it for granted and make sure to always have a water filter with you.
How remote the Appalachian Trail is
Many thru-hikers envision the Appalachian Trail as an example of ultimate, pristine environment, into the wild and away from civilization. We are sorry to say it’s not exactly like this.
Indeed, if on one side it is absolutely true that this Trail crosses some of the most beautiful and remote natural areas of the Eastern United States, on the other hand it also crosses many towns, inhabited areas and busy roads. Looking at the bright side, this means you can find places where to resupply your stock and your energies, or repair a broken piece of gear. As every other thing in life, there are pros and cons.
The importance of Zero Days when thru-hiking
Hike your hike, but regardless of the pace you intend to keep and the goals you are going to have, make sure you will have Zero Days. In hiking language, Zero Days are days off, meant to just rest and do absolutely nothing. You can make them match with days in towns along the Trail, so they can be even more restful. It’s entirely up to you, as far a you take them and don’t expect your body to walk for several months straight every single day.
The importance of seeing for yourself
Plan. This is absolutely vital. Find all the information you need, get to know the Trail as much as you can. But at the same time, test yourself (and your gear!). Pick a rainy, cold day and go hiking a rather hard trail. See how you feel, learn to cope with these sorts of situations and expect many of them during your thru-hike.
You will be the one who is going to hike the AT, not all the other hikers, so you must be ready and know yourself in these occasions.