This Complete Hiking the Appalachian Trail Blog has some of the best Appalachian Trail thru hike tips and information you will need to successfully complete your AT thru hike 2021. It is not an easy trail.
According to some estimates as many as 75% of hikers quit the trail, most within the first week. Will you be one of the 25% that successfully completes that hike?
This Appalachian Trail Blog is dedicated to help you go backpacking the Appalachian Trail. Hopefully, I can tell you everything you need to know about hiking the Appalachian Trail.
It’s the most popular long distance Trail in the United States with about 5000 people attempting to hike the whole Trail end to end in a year. It is estimated that less than 25% successfully finish. This is substantially less than the estimated 2,000,000 plus people that spend at least one day section hiking the Appalachian Trail every year. Hiking the AT is very popular.
The Appalachian Trail was the last trail for me to complete the ‘Hiking Triple Crown‘. Having already hiked the Pacific Crest Trailand Continental Divide Trail I thought this trail would be easy. I was wrong. This 2,190 mile trail is no easy ‘walk in the woods’. At times it is crazy steep and covered in slippery rocks. Bears await to steal food and the Rattlesnakes are rather large. An easy hike, it is not.
1. Do you need to a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail?
The answer is yes and no. Designated sections of the trail such as the Great Smokey National Park, Shenandoah National Park, White Mountains and Baxter State Park require permits. They are easily obtained as the hiker gets closer the the entrance to the National Parks. The Appalachian Trail permit cost varies depending on the park.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Firstly, you should register your hike with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It is not compulsory, however, all hikers should register. For more information from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, click here.
Permits for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Hiking north this is the first place where hikers need permits. Permits to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park cost $20 and can be obtained online before entering the park. The process is quick and simple.
There are rules that hikers must follow when in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park such as no wild camping. Hikers must only stay in shelters but must give up a spot in the shelter to non thru hikers and camp nearby, are you confused? Don’t worry, the permits and more information can be found on their website, click here.
Permits for Shenandoah National Park
Permits to hike through Shenandoah National Park can be obtained at the entrance to the park. They are simple and free to obtain. There are some restrictions on camping in the park, for more information, click here.
Permits for the White Mountains
No permits are required but camping fees apply. There is a Thru Hiker Pass for $10 that includes one night camping and a 50% discount ($5) for every other night of camping. Best of all it includes a bowl of soup and 2 baked goods that can be obtained for free at any of the mountain huts.
These mountain huts also offer ‘work for stay‘. As I had a good weather window in the White Mountains I chose to make miles, which turned out to be a good decision as bad weather hit me on the descent from Mt Washington. If you are hiking in ‘The Whites‘ and there is a good weather window then make the miles and enjoy the awesome scenery. For more information on hiking in the White Mountains, click here.
Permits for Baxter State Park
In the past many thru hikers have abused this park with their bad behaviour and as a result it is a rather regulated place for Appalachian Trail Thru Hikers. But don’t worry, permits are easy and the staff very friendly, just don’t be a dickhead and give every other hiker behind you a bad name!
Free permits can be obtained in person at the Campground Ranger Station, the AT passes it on route to the summit of Mt Katahdin. There are rules and restrictions regarding camping and quotas that all thru hikers should take notice of. They seem to change regularly, for more information go to Baxter State Park website, clickhere.
2. Lightweight Gear is Important
Do not be that hiker that starts the trail with a 55 pound (25kg) backpack filled with a combination of luxury gear and heavy equipment. There are many reasonably priced options to lighten your pack. Also, there is no need to carry 2 weeks worth of food when starting the trail, yes, it is more common than you might think! For southbound hikers you will need to carry a bit more food to make it through the 100 mile wilderness, but not 2 weeks worth of food!
I hiked the Appalachian Trail with a base weight of around 15 lb / 6.5kg. This was lighter than most people but not in the ultra light region. It included 2 cameras, a heavy charging battery (1lb) and other items that many would consider excessive. If I really got serious I could have hiked with a 10lb base weight without too many sacrifices. The best Appalachian Trail tip I can give is lighten your pack weight.
I used commonly available, high quality, lightweight gear from reputable gear companies. Most of the equipment have been used on multiple thru hikes and have withstood the test of 100s of days of hard use. Having a light backpack will enhance your chances to successfully complete the hike.
I encourage you to check out these gear posts below. They will help you choose high quality lightweight gear for the Appalachian Trail.
A bounce box is a small box packed with gear that the hiker continually mails to themselves as they make their way along the trail. On Thru Hikes I have always used a Bounce Box to carry such gear as my Passport, winter hiking clothes (when not needed), extra food, Computer and charging cables, spare hiking gear and more.
At times it was annoying when I would arrive in a town on a Sunday and need to wait for the post office to open the following day.
Buying Food along the way
There are so many trail towns to purchase food that sending food to oneself on the trail is not really necessary. Some hikers have special dietary needs and might need to have their food sent to them as they hike along the trail.
Just be aware that the postage will add to the cost of the hike, so will staying in town waiting for the post office to open. A good option is to post the food or bounce box to a hotel or hostel that is friendly towards thru hikers. The AT Guide(more info in the Guidebook section) will have a list of hiker friendly places.
Most Gas Stations have enough food for you to resupply and get back on trail unless you are extremely fussy about your food. If you are too fussy about your food then there is a chance that will change.
Vegans have turned vegetarian, and vegetarians have turned into omnivores while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Be aware that it is rare to hike more than 50 miles without some sort of option for getting a resupply of food, even the 100 mile wilderness has options for a food drop half way!
For a detailed look at all the resupply options on the Appalachian Trail check out The AT Guide, for more info, click here.
5. Training for the Appalachian Trail
Some hikers train for months and years to get in shape for hiking the Appalachian Trail. Others just keep themselves in reasonable shape and start the trail with little or no training. It takes time for the body to get used to it’s new life of hiking long distances everyday.
There will be pain and fatigue. Experience on the trail will, in time, teach the hiker the difference between an injury and just a bit of soreness. Having said all that there are some things that all hikers will experience.
“Everyone will get sore feet, Everyone will get tired, but not Everyone gets injured.”
This brings me to my next point, rest. Taking a zero day, or rest day is necessary on occasions. It allows the body and mind to rest, and allows time to research and resupply for the trail ahead. The more I hike, the more I dislike taking a zero/rest day. My body seems to shut down and start to repair itself if I do nothing for a day. It makes for a slow day hiking when I eventually get back on trail.
Do you know why so many older hikers finish the Appalachian Trail? Older hikers don’t push too hard and stop before getting completely exhausted. They listen to their body. Younger hikers should follow in the footsteps of their elders, don’t push too hard, your body will adapt to trail life.
6. Gear Shakedowns
A shakedown hike is a great idea. Not so much to get physically fit, only many days and weeks of hiking on the trail can do that, but more so to test out the gear you plan to carry.
“The biggest change a hiker on the Appalachian Trail must undergo is the change from going on a camping trip, to going on a hiking trip.”
Gear that makes ‘camping‘ comfortable must be reduced to make the ‘hiking‘ more comfortable. Let me repeat that in another way. Get rid of the excess crap from your backpack. Do not get rid of the essentials that will keep you safe, warm and dry, just get rid of the luxuries.
“This is not a camping trip, it is a hiking trip.”
Only take what you need to be comfortable when hiking. The sooner you get this into your head, the sooner you will get rid of heavy excess gear and the sooner you will enjoy hiking everyday.
7. How much does it cost to hike the Appalachian Trail?
A good starting point would be $1000 per month for the average budget hiker. Life on the trail can be extremely cheap or extremely expensive. If you live on a tight budget at home then it is likely you will not spend much money on the trail.
One thing is for certain, staying in towns costs money. A couple of meals a day (you will eat much more than normal) and a few beers at night with a stay in a hotel or hostel can quickly add up to $100 per day. Town days can be expensive. Add in resupply and it can be double that!
I spent around $750 per month while hiking. Expensive side trips to Washington DC and New York and the purchase of a new high quality new camera while on trail made for an overall budget of more than $1000 per month. The expensive side trips were worth it for me, I will never return to such places so I had to splurge once in my life, maybe you should too!!
8. Appalachian Trail Guide
The AT Guide is used by almost every hiker on the trail. My Appalachian Trail tip is to buy this guide. All the trail and town information that you will ever need is in the AT Guide
Pocket Earth Pro is a set of offline maps that I have been using for several years now. They do not require access to the internet and are a great resource when in town or when needing to get off the trail in an emergency as all the other hiking trails are shown on this map, not just the Appalachian Trail. Download the App from the Apple Store here.
Appalachian Trail Weather
Not everyone can look at the clouds and see the angry high sirus clouds and know that a storm is coming in the next 24-48 hours, so use a Weather App. Several Weather Apps are available.
I used the free site from the Weather Channel and it worked well to warn me of bad weather. It is always good to know if a winter storm is coming, or what about that wayward hurricane that is heading your way.
9. Hiking solo or in a group
Hiking solo is one of the most scary things for thru hiking novices. It should not be feared and should be embraced. In time you will meet awesome people who hike at the same or similar pace to you and are also wanting company. Hike with them for a while and see if you like hanging out together.
Often I feel sorry for the hikers that attach themselves to groups early on in the trail. They spend so much time and money in trail towns as a group and move very slowly as they make their way along the trail. Many are forced to quit the trail due to lack of money when hiking with a large group and spending too much time in towns. The choice is yours.
If you do hike in a large group then please be considerate of others hiking the trail. Large groups can overrun a shelter and annoy the crap out of others very easily. Don’t be the hiking group everyone wants to hate.
10. Camping or staying in shelters on the Appalachian Trail
I have a preference to camp in my tent while hiking. That is one of the main reasons I go hiking. Sleeping in a shelter full of snoring dudes or chatty people staying up all night is not for me, besides, I spend most of time in camp writing up my daily blog posts.
Shelters are well spaced on the Appalachian Trail but can become quite crowded at times. Early on in the trail during the main hiking season they fill up by mid afternoon but most of the shelters also have lots of camping sites.
As people quit the trail, get sick of people snoring or get sick mice eating their food the number of people staying in shelters declines. Staying in a quiet shelter during bad weather is amazing. Just watch out for the mice. I had no problems but most hikers have some sort of issue with ninja mice trying to steal food.
Appalachian trail tip: eat dinner and socialize at the shelter but sleep in your tent.
11. Hanging food or sleeping with it
Bears are a problem on the Appalachian Trail. Many are very skilled at getting food from trees, backpacks and shelters. The solution is to hang your food. Unfortunately, most people fail miserably at hanging a food bag in a tree. The result is stolen food and another problem bear that hangs around humans.
I never hung my food on the Appalachian Trail and there are many other hikers like me on the trail. I slept with my food every night. My food was stored inside Loksac bags which are said to be smell resistant plastic bags. I always smell worse than my food. This is not the recommended method but I feel safe doing this. It is safer than doing a poor job hanging your food.
In conclusion, Do your own research and don’t necessarily do what I do. If in doubt carry a heavy bear proof container.
12. NOBO or SOBO or FLIP FLOP
Appalachian Trail Northbound
According to information posted on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website Northbound hikes are the most popular. The Appalachian Trail best time to start is between 1st March and 15th April for hiking NOBO.
Northbound hikes tend to have lots of people. Early starters will still need to deal with snow and potentially dangerous winter conditions and late starters will need to keep moving to make it north before the onset of winter.
Southbound Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
A Southbound Appalachian Trail thru hike is often more pleasant than the crowded northbound hike. The SOBO Appalachian Trail thru hike generally start between late May and mid July. Baxter State Park is usually not open until late May.
Southbound AT hikers have to deal with the very annoying bugs of Maine and Vermont which is less than most northbound hikers get to experience.
Late finishing southbound hikers will need to deal with snow and potentially very cold weather.
Appalachian Trail Flip Flop
A flip flop hike is becoming very common, specially with the slower hikers and those unable to start their hike at the right time. Common options include starting in Georgia and hiking northbound to Harpers Ferry then flipping up to Maine and hiking southbound to finish in Harper Ferry.
Another option is to start in Harpers Ferry and hike northbound to Maine then flip south to Harpers Ferry and hike southbound to Georgia. The choices are almost unlimited. If you don’t finish the hike in one season then come back another year and finish it as a section hike.
13. Dangerous Animals on the Appalachian Trail
Ticks on the Appalachian Trail
Ticks are by far the most dangerous animal on the Appalachian Trail. Lyme Disease is common on the trail and almost every hiker will have a tick on them at some stage.
Deet repellent and long clothing can help prevent tick bites. I sprayed my clothing with Permethryn before and during my hike but I still got bitten. If bitten a course of Doxycycline can prevent the onset of Lyme Disease.
Read this interesting article about Ticks, Lyme Disease and the Appalachian Trail, click here.
Rattlesnakes on the Appalachian Trail
Several different species of rattlesnake are found on the Appalachian trail, most commonly sighted by hikers in and around Pennsylvania. They make a nice rattle to warn approaching hikers and make for a nice photo opportunity.
Black bears are common on the Appalachian Trail. Much more common than on the Pacific Crest Trail or Continental Divide Trail. Although bears are not dangerous, don’t tempt fate by leaving food around unattended and give them space.
Moon the tourists on the Cog Railway at Mt Washington.
Get your photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Headquarters in Harpers Ferry.
Work for stay in the Mountain Huts in the White Mountains
This is just a start, there are more but you need to thru hike the Appalachian Trail to learn the rest of them.
16. Travel Insurance for Overseas Hikers
Hikers traveling from overseas to hike the AT will need some form of Travel Insurance. I travel a lot, in fact, travel is my life. When I travel I always use travel insurance to protect me from potentially large medical bills. For the last several years I have exclusively used World Nomads as my preferred company for travel insurance. They cover AT Thru Hiking and other adventurous activities that other companies do not cover. Also, they are reasonably priced. Click here to check their prices.
17. Too Much Planning
Maybe you suffering from analysis paralysis? If so, Get out and hike.
Are you planning to hike the AT? Do you have any questions? If so, Ask me in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to help out.
Appalachian Trail Documentary
Before going any further make sure you watch my Appalachian Trail Documentary. And Subscribe to my YouTube Adventure Cycling and Hiking Channel.