Thru hiking, or even long ass section hiking, the Appalachian Trail can seem like a huge undertaking…. because it is! But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and it definitely doesn’t have to sit on the back burner of your bucket list for years to come.
The reason and timing for setting out on the Appalachian Trail will be different for every hiker, but I’m determined to help you make this dream a reality whether you’re in search of self-discovery, the greatest physical challenge you’ll ever face, or simply the adventure of a lifetime.
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Here are 22 tips to set you up for a successful Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
Set your mind to it: First things first, you need to have your mind made up that you do actually want to hike the Appalachian Trail. No room for wishy-washy-ness here. If you want to do it, do it! If you’re not sure you want this, honestly, don’t do it, go invest your time in something you really want. Then be sure to thank me later 😉 If you decide this is something you really want, start to change the way you think and speak about the AT. Change “if I hike the AT” to “When I hike the AT.” Change “I want to hike the AT but….” to “I’m going to hike the AT when…” Your words and thoughts matter, make them work for you instead of against you.
Know your why: Why do you want to hike the AT?? Or go on any long distance backpacking trip?? ‘Because you like hiking’ isn’t going to cut it here. I promise, on a long distance hike, there will be times when you do not like hiking, so what then? Are you just going to quit because you don’t like hiking that day? Or week? When things aren’t going so well on the trail, and the thought of quitting crosses your mind – that is the time to revisit your why, your real why. And consider is all the crappy stuff worth it? Which would you regret more, quitting or pushing through? That all comes back to the reason that you’re out there in the first place.
Set a date: There are 7 days in a week and someday isn’t one of them. Set a specific date you will start hiking so you can start sorting out all the other logistics and really start preparing for your hike. If you have the mentality that you will hike ‘someday’ you’re probably not going to take any action today, or tomorrow or next week to make your hike a dream come true, because it will always happen someday, right? But if you set a date, and you have 6 months to get ready for this thing, you’ll be much more likely to start getting back in shape, to start ordering gear, to start looking at ways to get to the trailhead, etc.
Prepare your body: Okay, for most people, nothing you do to train or get in shape before your hike will actually prepare your body for the craziness that is about to ensue. BUT that doesn’t mean you should just give up on the idea, be a total couch potato and rely on getting in shape as you go along. Anything you can do physically to train and work out ahead of time will benefit you and your body will thank you for it! Do the best you can here. Move as much as you can each day. Do at home workouts, do body weight workouts, go on practice hikes with some weight in your pack. That will make the first few days (or weeks) out on the trail a little less painful.
Build up your gear: Make sure you have all the gear you need, hopefully this is a given. If you’re brand new to backpacking and don’t have much or any gear, you might get a little sticker shock at first. That’s why I say build up your stash over time, if you have time to prepare. Don’t feel like you need to go out and spend thousands all at once. Just get a pack to begin with. Then when you can afford to, get a tent. Then when you can afford to, get a sleeping bag and pad, and so on.
Go as light as possible: I mean, go as light as you possibly can afford to. Your body will thank you, I promise. Keeping your pack weight in check will enable you to hike longer miles, more comfortably, which is the ultimate goal. I know sometimes lighter gear is more expensive, but if you can afford to buy good quality, light gear the first time, it will prevent you from replacing big, heavy gear items in just a couple years down the line when you decide you need an upgrade.
Create a budget to save for the trail: Too many hikers worry about things like what if a bear attacks? What if I run out of food? What if I freeze in the middle of the night? But not enough hikers worry about what if I run out of money?? You’ll need to have a pretty hefty savings ready to go before you start your hike to cover costs like food, town stays/rest days, gear/shoe replacement, transportation and any emergency health care if you get sick or injured on the trail which is totally in the realm of possibility. You may be a badass backpacker, but you are not invincible. I recommend having anywhere between $5,000-10,000 in the bank before you start hiking, and that’s after you’ve purchased all your gear. That may be a little on the generous side, but one of my biggest ‘expenses’ was actually just the cost of living, unemployed, while searching for a job after I got off the trail – be sure to include that in your plans.
Master backpacking skills: This can all be happening simultaneously over the course of many months – shopping for gear, getting in shape, saving money, and the most fun part – learning and practicing backpacking skills. While the trail community is ah-mazing, don’t rely on them to always take care of you. You need to take care of you. That means confidently being able to start your own fires, read a map and compass if you’re lost or confused, respond appropriately to an emergency, plan your meals and miles accordingly, etc. If you don’t feel totally prepared as far as backpacking skills go, you can learn everything you need to know if my Backpacking Essentials Program.
Get first aid trained: I can’t emphasize this enough. Sometimes as backpackers, we hike ourselves hours and hours away from the support and security of having emergency services nearby. If you or another hiker gets sick or injured on the trail, it could be a very long time before medical professionals or search and rescue arrive. Knowing how to keep someone as safe and as comfortable as possible until help does arrive is an invaluable skill. I highly recommend every backpacker take a wilderness first aid course, if you’ll ever be guiding trips professionally, I recommend wilderness first responder. If wilderness first aid isn’t accessible to you right now, the least you could do is take a basic first aid and CPR course, anything is better nothing.
Create a support team: This may be a tricky one for some, especially if your friends and family are more terrified than supportive of your backpacking adventures, but I want you to find at least one person who will be in your corner and support you on this hike. By support you I mean send you a care package or resupply box when you need it, and check in regularly and make sure you’re still alive, track your progress and cheer you on. They will also be the person you can call when something goes wrong. Well, obviously if it’s a life threatening emergency call 911 first, but for other things, like you’ve been hiking through 6 days of rain and sleet and you’re wet and cold and want to quit – call your person for a little support and grounding. Or if a bear takes all your food and gear in the middle of the night and you’re not sure what to do – call your person. Just make sure this person will support you no matter what and not just insist you come back home immediately, that’s the key here.
Plan your resupplies, if needed: Your starting date should be getting closer now. It’s time to start planning your resupplies, if you need a little more than what trail towns can offer. Keep in mind, some small towns may be limited as far as what food and supplies you can get there – some may only have a gas station to ‘resupply’ at! While some, or most, can squeeze by on that, others might not be able to, especially if you have certain dietary needs, need to stock up on a certain medication or other personal items. You could pre-package some resupply boxes with everything you need until the next town and then have your support team send them to you when you’re about a week ahead of any given post office or hostel. Some hikers only do this for a handful of locations where they know the options are limited, others with more specific needs may send out boxes to pretty much every stop along their hike.
Quit your job: Most likely, you’re going to have quit your job to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never been one to storm out of a job and leave on bad terms. Unless shit really hit the fan at your job, give them plenty of notice, explain why you’re leaving and keep it positive. It’s not unheard of that hikers will be offered their job back after their hike is over or work out some sort of leave of absence instead of quitting their job entirely.
Get your affairs in order: I know. Adulting sucks. But before you head out into the woods, do a few things so you don’t have to worry about them your whole hike – like automating any and all bill payments you can, pay off or at least pay ahead any debt/loans you have so you don’t have to make payments while on the trail with no income, cancel or minimize your car insurance plan no sense in paying for accident, medical and liability coverage when you won’t be driving, get health insurance, traveler’s insurance or backpacker’s insurance for your time on the trail, and lease out your apartment if you can.
Ease your anxiety: As your date starts to move closer and closer, you may start to have more and more anxiety about your hike. Self doubt and fear will start to creep in. This is totally normal, but don’t let it stop you. Hone in on exactly what it is that’s making you anxious, nervous or afraid and research the crap out of it. Learn everything you can about it, including how likely the thing is to actually happen to you, and even then prepare for it. Mentally and physically, if you’re scared of bears, pack bear mace. If you’re scared of starving to death, always carry an extra ramen packet and power bar. Get where I’m going with this?
Book your travel to the trail: If you have to fly to Georgia or Maine (or wherever you’re starting from) you’ll want to plan this out at least a couple months in advance, but if you can take a bus, train or have a friend drive you, that’s even better and will probably save you some money. If you can only get yourself to a nearby major city, then you’ll have to book some sort of shuttle from there to a trailhead. There are usually options here, from trail angels to specific shuttle services, sometimes local hostels will even provide rides. Call around ahead of time to see what’s available, how much it costs and if you can reserve a seat.
Create a budget to live on the trail: It’s too easy to spend too much early on in your hike, especially if you do have a hefty savings fund sitting there. What’s another beer? Only $30 more for a hotel room instead of a hostel? Yes please! But it adds up quick. Be sure to make a plan to ration out your funds over your entire hike, don’t just take it day by day and hope you have enough money leftover. One of my biggest regrets is not spending more zero days or rest days at beautiful spots on the trail. That’s much cheaper than staying in town.
Make a plan for afterward: Have a plan, or at least some idea, of what you will do after your long hike. This is an amazing time to start over fresh and truly create the life you love from scratch. Cliche? Maybe. But not many people get that opportunity just handed to them the way long distance hikers do. This is your chance – where do you want to live? What do you want to do for work? Maybe you want to travel around more and take seasonal jobs as they come? It’s totally up to you! Just promise me you’ll do something, don’t just move back home and settle into a job you don’t love just because that’s what you know and what you’re comfortable with. That is also when post-trail depression starts to sink in, and we want to avoid that.
Pace yourself: Especially in the beginning, pace yourself and make sure your body is comfortably adjusting to hiking miles and miles, day after day, with 30 extra pounds strapped to it. This is key to preventing injury and fatigue and will help you keep you moving forward, slowly but surely, instead of forcing you to take too many zero’s recovering in towns.
Practice self-care: Take care of yourself out there! Brush your teeth twice a day, take your vitamins, pack and use electrolytes – they’re your new best friend, seriously, wash your hands with soap and water as often as you can, use trekking poles and take your time on uneven terrain to prevent falls, keep yourself warm and dry, and most of all, rest when you need it.
Don’t forget the people: Another regret of mine, too many pictures of trees and mountains, and not enough of the people I got to meet and hike with! Unless you’re on a mission for solitude, enjoy the trail community, spend time being ridiculous with other people in nature while you can, before you return to the ‘real world’ again. My husband had a great idea, he’s not too into journaling, but every night he would make a quick note in his AT guide book of the date he stayed at a shelter/campsite and listed out some of the other hikers who were there too. That’s an easy, quick way to help document and remember the different pieces of your hike!
Hike your own hike: It drives me bonkers that this phrase has gotten a negative connotation to it over the last couple years. It’s almost like, when you disagree with another hike and it comes down to “F you – hike your own hike and leave me alone!” Which I do not believe was it’s original intent at all! Let’s embrace hike your own hike in a positive way. If you want to take a nap in the sunshine on top of a summit every day, you do that and hike your own hike! If you want to night hike and sleep all day, you can do that. If you want to wake up at 5am everyday and meditate before hitting the trail early, you can do that too. You can hike fast, hike slow, take breaks every 30 minutes or power through all day. You can stop and set up camp pretty much anywhere you want (within legal limits, not on someone’s private property of course, but you can camp anywhere within the AT corridor on most of the trail, with national or state parks being a big exception.)
Know your limits: This is probably the most important tip to set yourself up for a safe and enjoyable hike. Know your own limits, don’t push yourself too hard and get into a dangerous situation where you need to be dragged out by search and rescue. Rest when you need it. Wait out storms when you need to. Rehydrate when you need to. Know when it’s time to go town and regroup. Know when it’s time to go see a doctor or ask for help. The hardest of all, know when it’s time to call it quits – or at least quits for now 😉
For more tips on hiking the Appalachian Trail, check out:
- How to save up money FOR a thru hike
- How to save money DURING your thru hike
- 5 ways to kickstart your Appalachian Trail thru hike
- How safe is it to hike the Appalachian Trail alone?