How To Plan For An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
Things To Keep In Mind Before You Take That First Step on the A.T.
When I finally made the decision that it was my year to go for it -- to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, from the beginning of April to sometime in the Fall -- I set out the pens and notebooks, books and calendar. I made lists and more lists and began scheduling to the max. I'd hike 14 miles this day and stay at that campsite or lean-to. I'd send a maildrop with food to such-n-such a town, where I'd arrive on a particular date.
Then, one day, I tossed the whole thing.
Typically, I'm a big planner. Anal you could say. This time, though, I had an epiphany one night as I lay in bed, dreaming of white painted blazes and the "long, green tunnel." I decided that I'd read enough about the Appalachian Trail, that I'd chatted with enough former thru-hikers and had hiked enough in the past to feel fairly certain I'd be fine out there.
And I was right. I basically just started walking and tweaked and adjusted as I went along -- adjusted my gear, my pack weight and organization system, my menus, my hiking "style," and my attitude. In hindsight, though, I'd like to share my advice to future Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in regards to planning.
Plan To Be Spontaneous on the Appalachian Trail
Follow your heart and sometimes your whims.
You're walking along and spot the most inviting, sunny rock, overlooking a gorgeous view. Or you see a pristine lake just begging you to come in for a dip (and maybe even a hair-washing). You arrive at a country road crossing and know -- thanks to your -- that there's a restaurant not far away where you can get a treat that's not dehydrated or formed into a bar. Appalachian Trail Data Book
So drop your pack and lie on that warm, sunny rock and take in the view for ten or fifteen. Make that dip. Go get that hamburger and big salad you've been salivating over. Don't pass up the chance to do what tickles your fancy just to stay on some predetermined schedule.
Thru-hiking should be as fun as it is challenging, so don't deny yourself, at least not too often. Follow those impulses.
Plan To Be Flexible
Change plans, sometimes on a dime.
That's an awfully dark cloud looming above the peak. And you'd have to go up and over, above treeline, to get to that shelter you've been aiming for. So perhaps waiting out the storm or maybe even making camp right where you are and stopping for the day would be the best bet.
Maybe your sore knee is really acting up. Another day's rest could go a long way, even though you'd planned to be at the halfway point by July 1st and another "zero day" would put you off schedule.
Whatever it may be -- something physical, the weather, someone you're hiking with and want to stay with who maybe doesn't want to go as far on a particular day, a stretch of trail more difficult than you'd expected -- it's okay to bend. Do fewer miles than you may have wanted to cover for the day or maybe none at all. Or, occasionally, a few more if you're up to it.
Though you do need to keep moving up the trail if you want to finish before it gets too cold or snowy, trying to follow a rigid schedule would not only be very challenging but frustrating and possibly detrimental as well.
Plan To Be Cold
Just be prepared to get warm.
It's sunny and mild one day, then you go to sleep and wake up to an ice storm. Or you hike for hours in the rain and cold wind, warmed only by the heat created by your constantly moving feet, then have to stop and freeze your buns off while setting up your tent and scrambling to get into dry clothes. And there will be those early mornings when bitterly cold air takes your breath away until you get moving again.
Yes, you'll get chilled out there on the Appalachian Trail, at least until you can retreat to your sleeping bag or get those extra layers of clothing on. As long as you're prepared for it, though, and don't leave out vital insulation because you're trying to go ultralight and it happens to be warm while you're packing, you should be able to handle the cold weather just fine.
Plan To Be Hot
And expect to stay that way for days at a time.
Sweat dripping down your face and into your eyes. That lovely eau-de-hiker after days of heavy perspiration. Hot, humid, sticky, icky hours upon hours of walking up and down those Appalachian mountains. Gotta love it!
So don't short yourself on water. Hike early and hike late and take a siesta and long lunch during the hottest part of the day. Keep that spare set of clothes set aside to wear around camp, so you can get out of what you sweat in all day. Take a bandanna bath or clean up with a refreshing wet wipe.
Just think about how cold you've sometimes been and enjoy the heat!
Plan To Be Wet And Dirty on the Appalachian Trail
And don't forget to wash off the mud caked on your calves.
Squish, squish, splat! Squish, squish, slip, squish.
The mud sometimes seems to go on forever. And don't you love it when it nearly sucks your hiking shoe right off your foot when you sink in to your ankle?
Ooh, and there's nothing like hiking in a downpour, soaked to the skin with your feet swimming in your boots. I don't care if they're "waterproof" and treated with too, and you're wearing gaiters and your expensive, new rain gear. If it's raining hard enough, you and your feet are going to get wet. Nikwax
One thing I personally found out about myself on my thru-hike was that I could laugh at times like that. I mean, it was hilarious how hard it sometimes rained and for how long, and how sopping wet and muddy I got. So I guarantee, if you can find the funnies in that kind of situation, you'll have a better time out there on the trail.
Do remember, though, to keep that spare set of clothing deep in your pack in a big Zip-Loc baggie and/or garbage bag and/or Sil-nylon stuff sack so you know you'll have something dry to put on when you're through hiking for the day. It's mentally comforting to know the dry and at least somewhat cleaner clothes are in there, not to mention a physical relief when it's time to put them on.
Plan To Have Sore Feet
Blisters and multi-colored toenails are common on the Appalachian Trail.
Have you heard of the infamous Pennsylvania rocks, that go on for miles upon miles upon miles? Some say that's where hiking boots go to die. And they aren't kiddin'!
But I'm guessing you'll experience painfully sore feet well before you get to Pennsylvania, whether you're hiking northbound or south. If that doesn't happen to you, then yay! You're one of the lucky ones.
There are things, though, that can lessen the severity of sore feet, like taking short breaks with your feet up every hour or so. Using trekking poles can help. Airing out your tootsies in camp and soaking them in a cool creek when the opportunity arises. Tending to a hot spot as soon as you feel it rather than waiting for the gnarly blister to form. Oh, and break in your boots or trail runners before starting the hike, and maybe even a second or third pair to leave at home, that can be mail-dropped to you if ... that is, when ... the first pair starts to poop out.
Despite all that, however, sore feet may be unavoidable. I hobbled for much of the first 800 miles. And, believe me, it was sometimes really difficult to find the funnies in that.
Plan To Have New Aches And Pains
You'll get well acquainted with various body parts when they start to hurt.
It's not just the feet. You may very well get some nice chafing from your backpack or clothing or even skin rubbing against skin. Your back and your neck might ache, especially if you're not used to carrying a full pack for eight, ten, twelve hours a day and sleeping on hard and uneven ground or the not-so-cushy planks of a shelter floor.
Not to mention the knees. Even with trekking poles -- which really helped me -- your knees are really put to the test out there. I ran into people who'd never had a knee issue in their lives who maybe stepped funny and tweaked one a bit, and then it bothered them for days or more.
And I'm sure you'll find out firsthand what the "hiker hobble" is. In fact, most A.T. thru-hikers become pros at the move right off the bat. So put your own style into it and, when you get up in the morning and crawl out of your tent to make your way to the privy or that bush over yonder only to find that you can barely move, enjoy the knowledge that, hey, you must have really done something yesterday!
Plan To Be At Least A Little Scared
Life on the Appalachian Trail can really get the adrenaline going.
For me, seeing a flash and then hearing the loud clap of thunder a second later is quite the adrenaline rush. Lightning is not my favorite thing, unless I'm watching it from a vehicle or some nice, cozy building. Mountains, forests, fields and valleys are wonderful places to be ... but not for me during thunderstorms.
And, on the trail, I found myself right in the middle of them, day after day for more than a month. I even had to "assume the position" on a couple of occasions--crouched down, hugging my knees--when the lightning was way too close for comfort.
Then there were the loud snaps of branches during the night. And other, sometimes undetermined sounds out there in the dark, beyond the thin nylon walls of my tent. Some folks don't bat an eye about that stuff, but me ... I bat. A lot.
And there are the sketchy spots. Boy, I found a lot of spots to be sketchy. One of my hiking buddies on the trail would sometimes say, "This ain't nuttin' nice." Me, I'd swear, sometimes loudly, and whine, "THIS isn't a trail! Why'd they make us go this way? Help."
Yep, I definitely had to face some fears out there. And unless you're much braver than I am, you may very well, too.
Plan To Be Really Tired
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is hard work.
But it's a good tired. It's an "I really lived today" kind of tired. It's a twenty-miles-on-my-feet-up-and-down-four-mountains-today kind of tired.
To me, that felt great. And I didn't seem to need as much sleep as I do at home, because when I did sleep (which I always did unless there was a nighttime thunderstorm or some huge creature with fangs lurking in the darkness outside my tent or I had to pee in the middle of the night, which was always when it was raining for some reason) it was really productive sleep.
There were some days, though--most of which were in New Hampshire's White Mountains or southern Maine--when I'd be so spent when I'd get into camp that I almost didn't have the energy to set up my tent, go filter water, clean up a bit and cook dinner.
And I loved it! So if you enjoy physically putting yourself to the test like I do, you'll love it, too.
Plan To Laugh Along the Appalachian Trail
Find the funnies in everyday life on the trail.
Hopefully, you'll meet some really funny people on the trail, like I did. (Like this young man here, wearing a Z-rest sleeping pad.)
Even things that aren't normally funny will probably be funny. Like getting soaked and filthy, as I mentioned. A group of us sharing a lean-to in the Smoky Mountains had a hysterical giggle fit one evening as we all sat there in our soggy, grimy misery, trying to muster the energy to dig into our packs and change.
Then there were times like when a bunch of us hikers were sitting around camp and we suddenly fell silent, then looked up to find we were all studying our toenails. And there were the discussions about going potty in the woods that actually started out serious but deteriorated into howling laughter.
Really, there are lots of things to laugh at out there. So laugh and laugh often.
Plan To Live For The Moment
Be here, now, on the Appalachian Trail
Thru-hiking is a far different pace than living life on a "normal" basis. On the trail, you'll be traveling through time at an average of about 2.5 miles per hour when you're actually hiking. And much more slowly when you're not.
So stop and check out the vistas. Study the bugs and butterflies and look closely at a rhododendron flower. Enjoy a raindrop about to fall from a leaf and those precious moments at dawn and dusk when the light is like no other time of day.
Yes, the end of the trail--that final white blaze--will always be in your mind, but keep that to the back of it most of the time. When you're resupplying, plan for just the upcoming stretch till the next resupply, but think no further.
When you're climbing a mountain, try not to think about just getting to the top. Keep your mind with you, where you are, rather than letting it rush ahead.
And enjoy your own thoughts and imagination.
Hiking the long-distance trail is a chance to slow down and suck the juice out of life.
Plan To Be Part Of A Great Community
You can be a loner, but the bonds and friendships are out there if you want them.
I know some folks crave solitude and enjoy hiking and camping alone much, if not most, of the time. Me, though, while I like to walk alone with my thoughts for good stretches, I always looked forward to the camaraderie amongst A.T. hikers and being part of the trail community. And I wasn't disappointed!
When you're out there, it doesn't matter where you're from, your age, your background. All long-distance hikers share a common goal, common struggles, common joys. Those around you will have passed by the same sights, climbed up and over the same mountains, negotiated the same terrain that you did, and it's great to share both your common and unique experiences and reactions to those things.
While each person must rely on him- or herself on the trail, I found other hikers to be extremely supportive and helpful, and I tried to do the same for them. It truly was like one, long, moving community on the footpath between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
Plan To Be Fulfilled
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done.
Ten years after I reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin after 178 days on the trail and posed for this photo with some special friends, I still talk about, think about, and write about my Appalachian Trail experience often.
And I remember it in such great detail, unlike other times of my life that have faded in my mind. Those five months and three weeks were truly the most fun, challenging, happy, uncomfortable, wonderful, invigorating, tiring and fulfilling times I've ever spent.
I hope, if you go, that your experience will be just as special.
How Important Is Planning?
If you were (or are) going on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike for give or take six months, would you plan every detail or just grab your pack and go, just letting the chips fall as they may and making decisions on the fly.
And if you've been there, done that, what would you advise?
So which would it be?
Plan, plan, plan!
If You ARE A Planner Planning to Hike the Appalachian Trail - Here's a helpful guide to get you going....
This guide gives an overview of many issues that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers will have to deal with, including buying gear and food, potential injuries, sanitation, wildlife and trail etiquette. Also included are appendices with information about post offices along and near the trail, equipment manufacturers, the Appalachian Trail Conference and trail clubs along the way.
More Books To Help You Plan An A.T. Hike
The Data Book
This guide gives trail and town information at a glance, including water sources, lean-tos (aka shelters), road crossings and what's available down that road and in what direction and how far, campsites, and other significant mileage and elevations.
The Data Book is thin and lightweight, and I referred to mine many times each day. It was also helpful when deciding how much food to buy for the stretch to the next resupply.
The Thru-Hiker's Companion
This really is a great "companion" to the Data Book above. It provides more comprehensive information about the trail and what's around and near it, as well as town, hostel and resupply information and important phone numbers.
Since I didn't rely on maildrops, I carried the whole "Companion" with me (minus the extra weight of the spiral binding or front and back covers) and discarded pages as I moved up the trail.
All About Hiking the A.T.
This is a great book to read before hiking the trail, whether you'll be hiking sections or doing a continuous thru-hike.
This book includes many different topics, both practical and inspiring, written by different hikers.
An A.T. Planning Guide
Formerly known as "The Appalachian Trail Workbook for Planning Thru-hikes," this is still the basic rip-out-the-pages-and-really-plan-your-adventure book -- but thoroughly updated to cover new trends in walking almost 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine or vice versa.
This book will help you chart your course, work out a budget, choose gear, plan meals, get in shape, and otherwise inspire you.
More Than 2,000 Miles on the Appalachian Trail - in less than five minutes....
2005 thru-hiker, Kevin Gallagher, pieced this video together from more than 4,000 slides he took on his journey, averaging 24 images per day.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury