Do You Have What It Takes To Hike The Appalachian Trail?
The Appalachian Trail is the ultimate hiking trail. It’s the white whale. It is on every hiker’s wish list. Embarking on the Appalachian Trail can be the culmination of a lifetime of hiking or it could be your first-ever hiking trip. Do not think this is impossible. You can hike the Appalachian Trail. It will prove to be the experience of a lifetime.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail will be the hardest, most fun, rewarding, frustrating, painful, and happiest adventure of your life. The planning, the packing, and the hiking will take everything you have. Should you be intimidated? Absolutely. Is it hard? No doubt about it. Can you complete it? Of course.
The only difference between those who can’t finish and those that do is their mindset. If you don’t believe you will finish, then you’re right. But if you wake up every day with the goal of finishing, then you will. As long as this is a dream you want, then you will achieve it.
The following article is a great intro piece for the trail. I will lay out what to expect, what to bring, the best parts of the trail, and sprinkle in some wisdom to make you feel inspired. My hope is that after reading this piece, you will start to plan your own hike. There is plenty of research that can be done. Read as much as you can. Whiteblaze is the ultimate AT hiking forum, check it out for real time trail updates and tips written by real hikers.
Out of all the long distance trails in the world, the Appalachian Trail will be your most memorable experience. Cherish every moment spent thinking, planning, and hiking it.
The Appalachian Mountains
To fully appreciate the trail, let’s take a step back and talk about the Appalachian Mountains. One of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. At one time they were as tall, if not taller than the Rocky Mountains.
Over the course of millions of years, ice ages, precipitation, floods, and wildfires, have slowly worn them down.
If you were to draw a line connecting the tallest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains, it would look like the AT.
When you reach a viewpoint and look over the mountains, you will be reminded of waves on the ocean. Resembling hills, the mountains seemingly roll on forever, their green forests carpeting the horizon.
The Appalachian Mountains may be smaller than most ranges, but they are anything but gentle. Don’t be fooled by their seemingly benign appearance. Because of their age, their topography is incredible extreme. Many hikers who have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail still consider the AT’s topography the hardest.
And because of the trail design, you will be feeling every up and every down. Unlike in the West, the Appalachian Trail features very few switchbacks. This means the trail will go straight up the mountain, and straight back down. You may only be climbing 600 meters in elevation but that’s 600 meters gained in 1 kilometer.
A Mountain Range Shaped by Conquest
The Appalachian Mountains were some of the most important resources for the young United States. Their seemingly limitless forests offered lumber for the fast growing cities on the East Coast. Only 100 years ago the Appalachian Hills were completely clear cut. Farms were built and people had pastures.
Now the forest has grown back and most farms and logging roads are quickly being swallowed up. Along the trail you will walk along old roads, these are scars of the industrial past. Hundreds of rock walls are built along the trail, marking old property lines when the forest used to be farms.
The Deciduous Forest of Eastern North America
The trail will be like walking through a green tunnel for the majority of the time and most mountain peaks will offer no views. With very few old growth forest, most of the trail will take you through second generation forest. The young trees allow for the undergrowth to thrive, making the perfect habitat for deer, ticks, and poison ivy. It is one of the few places on the globe where the forest is larger and healthier now than in the past 200 years. The Appalachian Mountains are a symbol of environmentalism and nature’s ability to heal.
Hiking in such a forest has its benefits. Having a campfire is an easy proposition. If you wanted, you could make a fire every night of the trail. Hiking with so much foliage protects you from the worst of the heat. There will be days on end where the dappled sunshine is so limited, you will not need sunscreen.
Many hikers take advantage of the forest and sleep in a hammock for the entire hike. With so many roots and rocks, using a hammock could prove to be your most comfortable method of camping.
Wildlife on the Trail
The forest is not just one of trees and insects. Large animals live here too and their populations have increased dramatically in the last few decades. Because the Appalachian Trail cuts through the largest undeveloped sections of forest, you will have plenty of wildlife run ins. I listed the most common animals you will encounter and how to prepare for their presence. Most animals are familiar with humans and will stay away from you at all costs. Following some preventative measures will make certain wildlife keep their distance.
- Black Bears. Probably the most feared animal on the trail. Black bears can be large, weighing over 800lbs and standing 8 feet tall. Instead of fearing them, prepare for bears. Hang all your food in bear bags before sleeping. Wash your cooking pots and keep food out of your tent. In most places along the trail, areas with bear populations will have bear boxes. Simply put your food in the metal box provided.
- Porcupines. These animals have large quills growing off their backs that are extremely painful if they puncture your skin. Every year, hiker’s bring their dogs into veterinary clinics to have large amounts of quills removed. These animals are attracted to salt and will chew on shelters and sweaty backpacks. If there are porcupines in the area, you will want to keep your backpack in the tent with you. If you are hiking with a dog, prevent them from chasing a porcupine. As you can imagine, these animals have very little fear of humans and will walk right into your campsite.
- Mice. Small and cute, these vermin are the most common and hated animal along the trail. Any food in your tent or left on the ground will be eaten by them. Mice have been known to chew holes in tents and backpacks. Living in large numbers by the shelters, take care to hang your food. Most locations have mice hangs inside, featuring an aluminum can with a string on the bottom. These work great to keep mice away.
- Snakes. Most snakes you see will be nonvenomous. These animals feed on mice and if you see one, there is a strong likelihood mice will not be a problem. There are 3 species of venomous snakes along the trail, Copperheads, Cottonmouths, and Timber Rattlesnakes. They tend to stay far away from humans but if you spot a venomous snake, give it a wide berth.
- Coyotes. About the size of a large house dog, Coyotes are quite common. Eating mostly mice and rabbits, they want very little to do with you. If you are lucky enough to see one, it will most likely be running in the other direction.
- Moose. Sightings of moose are rare but they do happen. From Vermont to Maine, you will be walking through prime habitat. Keep a look out for large piles of poop, this marks Moose habitat. Although herbivores, more people are killed by moose than any other animal. Keep your distance and never come between a calf and its mother. Moose are known to be aggressive.
Wet and Muddy
The elevation of the mountains puts them in the wettest part of the atmosphere. Clouds will hang onto the range for days at a time. It is because of this phenomenon that there are so many trees. Water will be plentiful along the trail making it easy to refill water bottles.
All this rain also means there will be many a rainy day. Most hikers experience thunderstorms, drizzles, fog, and wet clothes for days. Becoming conditioned to the climate of the Appalachian Trail is all part of the experience.
With so much rain, the ground quickly becomes saturated. Especially in the northern half, the trail can consist entirely of mud. Learning to live with dirty, wet feet is all part of the fun. Shelters become absolute life savers during the wettest periods. You will be glad there are so many along the trail.
Proximity to Civilization
The Appalachian Trail is located in the backyard of many Americans. The Eastern Seaboard is home to 36% of all Americans. The Appalachian Mountains create the spine of the East Coast. It is these mountains that have kept the suburbs and cities from expanding further west. Major metropolitan areas are within a couple hours’ drive to many trail heads.
Because there are so many towns and cities close to the hike, you will always be close to civilization. Every couple of days it is possible to walk into a trail town. This makes it relatively easy to resupply and find provisions.
If you are looking for a wilderness hike and solitude, you can still find it. Northern areas of the hike have smaller populations. Maine is still very remote and at that point, it is important to carry enough food for many days. There will be areas where you run into very little hikers. For the most part, the social experience of the trail is the highlight of the trip.
People along the Trail
As for the number of people on the trail, there will always be some. This does not mean you will be waiting in line to make summits. In more popular areas like the Smoky Mountains and the White Mountains, there will be throngs of tourists. The good thing about tourists is that they are lazy. Sure, some mountain peaks they can drive to and you may be disappointed at the crowds. But a couple hours down the trail and you will be completely alone again.
At certain spots along the trail, campsites will be crowded. This may force you to set up camp farther into the woods than you would like. But it will never be like walking inside a mall. This is still the woods and those people who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail are just as crazy as you are.
Beating the Crowds
If you are hiking South to North, as most people do, there will be larger crowds. Especially in the beginning, from Georgia to the Smoky Mountains. Thousands of people test themselves on the Appalachian Trail. And in the beginning is where the largest crowds will be.
Early in the season, snowfall is still highly probable. When it does snow, the shelters can become over packed with hikers seeking shelter. Spending a wet and cold night in cramped corners is enough to dampen anybody’s spirits. This is the nature of the Appalachian Trail. People will seek adventure from every corner of the globe. But no matter how popular it becomes, the crowds will dissipate. The trail is rocky, muddy, and full of bugs. This hike is not for everyone, only those that truly want it.
You can be assured that as the trail continues, you will separate yourself from the crowds. Plenty of people will quit within the first 500 miles. I wish everyone could finish but for most, they never will.
When you get into the hiking groove, you will meet hiking partners. When you are hiking for many days with the same people, this is referred to as a “hiking bubble”. Hiking with other people can be rewarding and fun. You can make friends for life. But sometimes, it is nice to be alone, to do your own thing.
You can take steps to avoid the “bubbles” of hikers.
Steps to Avoid a Bubble you don’t want to be in.
- Hike faster. Hiking faster than the people around you will quickly transport you up the trail and away from the crowd.
- Hike slower. Instead of hitting that 20-mile day with the rest of them, stop after 13 miles. Take it easy for a couple days. Let them move on ahead, enjoy the peace and quiet of the Appalachian Mountains.
- Take a zero day. Simply wake up and don’t hike. Hang out at camp, swim in a nearby river, go fishing. Zero days are a classic way to rest your feet and enjoy some solitude.
What to Bring on your Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
Packing for a thru-hike is similar to an overnight hike. You will want to bring enough gear to allow yourself to sleep and cook for many days at a time. Here are the essentials:
- Tent or Hammock. Having a private space to sleep in will be very important. The better you sleep, the better you hike. Some hikers forego any type of sleeping system and sleep in shelters along the way.
- Sleeping bag. Your sleeping bag needs to be lightweight and easy to pack. No need for cold weather sleeping bags, you will be hiking in the summer. A 35F degree bag will be ample for almost every night.
- Comfortable shoes. Many hikers start the trail in hiking boots and end in trail runners. You will soon discover that lightweight materials make up the best hiking shoes. Stay away from any shoe that claims to be waterproof. This is just false advertising. The only thing “waterproof” shoes do is make it harder to dry out your feet when they do become wet.
- Bug Spray and Mosquito Headnet. There will be bugs. Let me say that again, there will be bugs. The Appalachian Trail is notorious for clouds of mosquitos and ticks. Cover your face and head and apply bug spray often. The more deet in the spray, the better. You can even buy 100% deet if you feel you need it.
- Lightweight backpack. Invest in a lightweight overnight backpack. There is no need for any pack larger than 40 liters and even that is large. The smaller and lighter your bag, the easier your hike is going to be.
Reading over this list, you will notice how focused I am on lightweight packing. When you are on a thru-hike, it is more of a marathon than a hike in the woods. Every unnecessary ounce will weigh you down and make it harder. Feel free to take full advantage of the numerous trail towns along the way. If you plan it out correctly, there will never be the need to carry more than two or three days’ worth of food. Minimizing the need to carry food keeps your pack’s weight down.
While you hike, your pack steadily becomes lighter and lighter. Gear and products you thought you needed will soon become extraneous. Focus on keeping your pack as small as possible. Never hesitate to throw something away, it will only make the hiking easier.
The Best Parts of the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is over 3500 kilometers long. Not every section is equal and some parts are better than others. You will fall in love with countless landscapes and maybe you will find an area that you never want to leave. With countless waterfalls, cliffs, and mountains, the trail features some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, this national park features some of the most beautiful deciduous forests in the world. The mountains themselves are among the highest on the trail and you will have dozens of viewpoints. Waterfalls galore, this is one section of the trail that you will lose yourself in.
- Shenandoah National Park. Virginia has some stunning pastoral scenes. Bald mountain tops without trees allow you to see for miles. The trail features some incredible scenery on its way through the park.
- Green Mountain National Forest. Located in Vermont, this section of the trail has been nicknamed “Ver-mud”. The evergreen capped mountains and crystal clear waterfalls will captivate you. The Green Mountains are so inspiring that the very first long distance hike was built along them, The Long Trail. It is because of this trail that the Appalachian Trail was built.
- The White Mountains. Tall, steep, and above the tree line. You will experience tundra like conditions in the Presidential Mountain Range. This is the hardest hiking you will experience and many hikers halve their average distances upon reaching this point. The extreme weather conditions can force even the most serious hiker into shelters.
- The whole state is a highlight? Yes. Rugged, difficult, and diverse, hiking through Maine will be unforgettable. The White Mountains make up the West. It is these cliffs and boulder fields that will be the most formidable challenges of your hike. As the trail winds North, you find yourself surrounded by forest for miles. Northern Maine features the largest stands of forest East of the Mississippi. Animals such as Moose and Bears are common, there are even rumors of Wolves. As you approach Mt. Katahdin, your heart will stop at its beauty. Maine is truly a special place.
Hike Your Own Hike
However you decide to hike, have fun doing it. There will be countless hardships along your journey. There will be days you want to quit, days where you want to return to society. But that feeling of accomplishment you receive when you finish will be like nothing else in the Universe.