In March of 2015, I attempted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, but only made it about 60 miles. I know, I suck. I gave up because of a preexisting knee injury that was bothering me, but it probably didn’t help that I had a few too many “extra cookies” around my waist (a.k.a. too fat) and I hadn’t really exercised in the six months prior to hiking. I made some other mistakes, too, but eventually I do want to go back and try to hike it again (I’m foolish like that).
On the Trail
- Maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).
- Starts at Springer Mountain, Georgia (Southern terminus).
- Ends at Katahdin, Maine (Northern terminus).
- Roughly 2,180 miles long (the exact mileage changes each year as trail repairs/relocations are made).
- Passes through 14 states, 6 National Parks, and 8 National Forests.
- Total elevation gain of hiking the entire trail is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times!
- Marked with two inch by six inch vertical white paint blazes. A double blaze, one above the other, is placed before turns, junctions, or other areas that require hikers to be alert.
- There are approximately 165,000 blazes along the Appalachian Trail.
- Most hikers take five to seven months to hike the trail.
- More info here
- Even more info here
There are three basic approaches to hiking the AT:
Northbound, or “NOBO”, is the more common approach because you can start earlier in the year. Like most people, this is the approach I will be taking. In 2014, there were 2,500 people who attempted to thru-hike the entire trail who started in Georgia. Of those 2,500, only 1,130 made it as far as Harpers Ferry and only 644 actually finished it (that’s a 26% success rate).
Southbound, or “SOBO”, hikers are more rare. Not only is it more difficult because you’re starting with the hardest section of the trail, but you can’t start until later in the season, usually around June. In 2014, there were only 242 attempts to hike southbound. Only 168 went as far as Harpers Ferry and 70 people completed the whole trail (29% success rate).
Flip Flopping is the least common with 114 attempts in 2014 and 69 people completing it (57% success rate). The advantage to flip flopping is you can avoid severe weather conditions in the high altitude locations such as New Hampshire/Maine and North Carolina/Tennessee. To me, this method is almost cheating and you might as well be considered just a section hiker.
Obviously you can’t carry enough food to last for six months and hike the entire trail. There are three methods of supplying yourself with food along the way:
- Buy as you go
- Mail drops
Buy as you go has the advantage of you don’t need to rely on anyone to mail you packages and you don’t have to pay for shipping the food. You can also change up your food if you get sick of one thing, just buy something else. The disadvantage is that you rely on the town to have the supplies you need. If there’s not much in the town or other hikers have bought it all out, you might get stuck eating M&Ms for a couple days.
Mailing yourself food drops as you go has the advantage of knowing you’re gonna have the supplies you need/want when you get to your desired location. The big disadvantages are that you not only have to pay to ship the food, but you have to carefully plan ahead as to which towns you’ll be stopping in and making sure you arrive there during Post Office hours. You should mail your packages at least two weeks in advance of when you think you’ll be somewhere when using this method.
You can mail packages to yourself at any Post Office by simply addressing a box as follows:
c/o General Delivery
City, State Zip
Be sure to also label the package with “Hold for A.T. Hiker” and include the expected date of your arrival as well as a return address. They will hold the package for up to 30 days. You will need to present a valid ID to pick up the package.
The combo approach is the most common. Hikers use a mail drops in locations known to be low on supplies or lacking specific things, and they buy most of their food as they need it along the way.
The Appalachian Trail is marked well enough that I don’t care about detailed maps, but I do think it’s nice to have an overview. It took me awhile to come across it, but it turns out the National Park Service provides a free “brochure” which is actually a really great overview map of the entire trail, and includes the locations of many towns and shelters.
The ATC also has a lot of GPS/GIS data available for download or you can get detailed maps by purchasing the guidebooks at a hefty price.
Permits are only required at two locations along the trail:
Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Thru-hikers can purchase a backcountry permit for $20 and it is good for 8 overnight stays in the park, but the permit itself is only good for 38 days from the date it is issued. You are required to have a printed copy of the permit with you at all times while in the park. I plan on purchasing mine about a week before I head out. Permits can be obtained via the National Park Service website, in person, or by phone. Some of the AT books suggest not waiting to try to get a permit in person.
Shenandoah National Park. Permits are free and can be obtained by self-registration at entry points at both the North and South borders of the park. You can also apply for your permit ahead of time by mailing an application to the Park Headquarters (allow two full weeks).
Links and Resources