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Planning an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Thinking about planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike — that 2,174-mile footpath between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Maine's Mt. Katahdin?

Great! I highly recommend the journey, which was one of the most soul-satisfying, difficult, wonderful, uncomfortable, inspiring, tiring, exhilarating, challenging, and fun experiences of my life.

Appalachian Trail bridge (photo: Jonathan Kemper)
Bridge (photo: Jonathan Kemper)

Me, I'm quite the anal planner, and I started my Appalachian Trail thru-hike adventure well before passing the first white blaze by attempting to plan every day of it.

Once I decided to fulfill my dream, I set out the pens and notebooks and books and calendar.

I made lists and more lists and began scheduling to the max. I'd hike 15 miles this day and stay at that campsite or lean-to.

I'd send a maildrop with pre-purchased food to such-n-such a town, where I'd arrive on a particular date.

Then one day, I tossed the whole thing. Sure, planning is good practice even if you do scrap the entire kit and kaboodle before you ever put any of those best-laid plans to the test.

After all, the process can teach you a lot about what you're setting out to do and help avoid potential problems just by the knowledge and awareness you'll gain.

     See also: Walking Nepal's Great Himalaya Trail

At the same time, it's almost impossible to plan for every situation, every whim, every factor that's beyond your control, especially when you're talking about roughly six months of backpacking through 14 states, six national parks, and eight national forests and over more than 400 named peaks.

Most people who do try to stick to a schedule on the Appalachian Trail fail to do so or find it too confining and illogical within the first few weeks, if not the first few days.

And many thru-hikers who pre-pack maildrops find they're sick of certain foods in no time and leave much of their maildrop contents in hiker donation boxes or, unfortunately, trash cans.

There are, however, certain things you can plan for and count on when setting out for an end-to-end Appalachian Trail thru-hike (or even a long section), regardless of which direction you hike, your experience level, or what Mother Nature and other forces lay in your path.

Appalachian Trail marker (photo: Steve Raubenstine)
Appalachian Trail marker (photo: Steve Raubenstine)

Tips for an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Plan to be spontaneous

Follow your heart and sometimes your whims. Drop your pack and sun yourself on that warm slab of rock.

Take ten to take in the view. Make that dip in the cool mountain stream.

Get that burger and big salad you've been daydreaming about for the past few days as you've been rehydrating your dinners.

Don't pass up the chance to do what tickles your fancy to stay on some predetermined schedule.

Plan to be flexible

A change in the weather? A sore foot that's giving you grief that day?

Whatever it may be–something physical that's bugging you, someone you want to continue hiking with 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 expected to cover or maybe no miles at all. Or, occasionally, hike a few more miles if you're up to it.

Plan to be cold

Yes, you'll get chilled, at least for short periods, till you can retreat to your sleeping bag or put on those extra layers. 

As long as you're prepared for it, though, and don't leave out vital insulation because it happens to be warm while you're packing and you're trying to go ultra-light, you should be able to handle the cold just fine.

Plan to be hot

And plan to be that way for days at a time. Embrace the sweat dripping into your eyes and off the tip of your nose.

Be one with your body odor and that of other thru-hikers who come anywhere near. Just don't short yourself on water. 

Take a siesta during the hottest part of the day, and hike early and hike late.

Take a bandanna bath or use a refreshing wet wipe when you get to where you'll camp.

Just think about how cold you've sometimes been and enjoy the heat!

Plan to be wet and dirty

There's nothing like hiking in a downpour or sloshing through the mud for miles, and you'll undoubtedly do both on an A.T. thru-hike.

So, keep a spare set of clothing deep in your pack in a big Zip-Lock baggie or a garbage bag or Sil-nylon stuff sack, so you know you'll have something dry to put on when you're finished hiking for the day.

It's 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

Breaking in boots before hitting the trail will certainly help, but I haven't met a single thru-hiker who never experienced blisters, bunions, at least a multi-colored toenail or two (if not the whole set) and just plain ol' foot pain during the trek. 

But, hey, sore feet show-and-tell is a great way to bond with your fellow hikers.

Plan to have new aches and pains

It's not just the feet. Maybe you'll get some cool chafing from your backpack or clothing or even skin rubbing against skin for hours on end.

Your back and your neck might ache, especially if you're not used to carrying a full pack for eight or twelve hours a day and sleeping on hard, uneven ground or the planks of a shelter floor.

And the knees–even with trekking poles, your knees will be put to the test. You'll perfect the art of the “hiker hobble.”

Plan to be at least a little scared

Lightning, bears, boogie monsters, oh my!

Rattlesnakes and copperheads don't let you know they're there until you almost step on them.

The occasional bit of terrain that gives you the willies. Or maybe that was just me?

Plan to be really tired

But it's a good kind of tired. It's an “I really lived today” tired. It's a twenty-miles-on-my-feet-up-and-down-five-mountains-today kind of tired.

But I loved it! And if you enjoy physically putting yourself to the test as I do, you'll love it, too.

Plan to laugh

Even things that aren't ordinarily funny will probably be funny, like being filthy and soaked and smelling like a very rotten peach.

There are lots of things to laugh at about life on the trail. So laugh and laugh often.

Plan to live for the moment

Be here, now, on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking a long-distance trail is a chance to slow down and suck the juice out of life.

Plan to be part of a great community

If you want to be alone, you can find solitude. But the friendships are out there if you want them.

It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, whether you're shy or outgoing, or your background.

The shared experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail creates a bond that surpasses most differences that otherwise might make a difference off the trail.

A moment of celebration
Author celebrating

And plan to be fulfilled

It just gets under your skin–the fresh air, the sheer physical exertion, the camaraderie with others who walk with packs on their backs.

That 2,174-mile footpath, marked with 165,000 painted white blazes as it winds and climbs and descends its way from Georgia to Maine, has this way of grabbing hold of your psyche and your heart and not letting go.

Further Reading

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About the Author: Deb Lauman, the long-distance backpacker known as “Ramkitten,” is also a writer and a member of a Search & Rescue Team based in Flagstaff, Arizona.

You can read about her SAR experiences on her blog, Deb's Search & Rescue Stories.

Deb will be spending three months in Nepal, learning about the country's only rescue squad so she can write a book about them and the many lives they've touched.

Find out more about the Himalaya Rescue Dog Squad Nepal Book Project on Kickstarter.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Steve Bleau

Sunday 27th of May 2012

I would like to start the trail at the northern end and move south, any comments ar advice you could offer would be appreciated

Mark Wagner

Thursday 5th of January 2012

Nice perspective, and refreshing! I am a thru-hiker in planning. Thanks for taking the time to share.

Walk-on!

Honeybee

Wednesday 28th of December 2011

This is a really great article!! I thru-hiked this past year and it was the best thing I have ever done. It may seem like waking up and hiking everyday would be a predictable life style, but you are right, it is so important for people to realize that they will be faced with the unexpected everyday on the AT. Planning to be spontaneous and flexible is the best planning advice you can give! I love that you talk about the hardships of the trail because they are so important. And Prepare to laugh- I love that. Laughter was what got me through most of the hardest moments on the trail. It's amazing how you can feel miserable yet be so happy in that same moment- that is the beauty of trail life and why you will experience a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment everyday. Really great advice!!

Good luck to those of you planning a Thru hike in the next few years, you will not regret it!!

Also, for future thru-hikers, mail drops can be really helpful especially when it comes to trail towns that don't have many options for resupply- it can get expensive shopping at gas stations and hostels. Check out this new mail drop service and see if its something that would be useful for you're upcoming hike!

Happy Trails :)

Derrick Wilson

Saturday 14th of May 2011

 i am planning to thru hike th trail.My 16 yr old son and i are doin it to support my wife and mother of our three sons.she has a very sever case of SLE, or lupus.she just had her spleen removed an now battles blood clots in her lungs and legs.she is tough but after 8yrs now it is taking its toll.we have been married 16yrs.I want to raise support in hopes of finding a cure.we will hike for her and lupus suffers everywhere.we will document wth photos and jurnals and possibly write a book about the experience.support and sponsors are needed.pleas contact us at ,,[email protected] or [email protected]

Lesli

Wednesday 2nd of February 2011

My favorite line is "Then one day, I tossed the whole thing." There's only so much you can plan for. My husband and I hiked the PCT and the CDT together (2007 and 2010) and he hiked the AT in 2002. I love your "plan to be..." very very true and honest. I love reading about other thru hikers experiences and invite you to visit my blog to! http://thruhikes.blogspot.com/

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