The Appalachian Trail is a national scenic long-distance trail winding nearly 2,220 miles through the Appalachian Mountain range in the eastern United States. It is more commonly known as the A.T. This trail cuts into the heart of Appalachia, passing through 14 states, 8 national forests, 6 national parks, and lots of local recreational areas. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, it is the longest hiking-only trail in the world and more than 2 million people are said to take a hike on part of the trail at least once every year.
If you’re planning to hike the Appalachian Trail soon and you want to know more information about it to be prepared, you’re in the right place because we are giving you a guide to hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The Four Distinct Sections of the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail can be split into four distinct sections and each of them has its own set of challenges and rewards.
The Southern Mountains
This section is home to the Appalachian Trail’s southern station. It is the first region of the trail experienced by the majority of thru-hikers. This trail takes the hikers up, over, and around the stunning wooded mountains of the Chattahoochee, Nantahala, Pisgah, and Cherokee National Forests. The peaks in the Southern Mountains are considered easier to climb compared to other sections but the climbs here are frequent and considerable in size. It is home to the highest peaks found on the entire trail. In this section, thru-hikers can hike through the Appalachian Trail’s most beautiful areas as well as the high grassy balds which are unique to the region.
This section makes up both the longest and the shortest states on the Appalachian Trail respectively. About a quarter of the entire trail passes through this section alone which more than 550 miles. Within those miles, a crucial landmark is contained which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in historic Harpers Ferry, WV. Through the Jefferson and George Washington National forests, hikers travel along Virginia’s spine. Hikers can see the state’s highest summits along with the open balds of
Grayson Highlands State Park in southern Virginia. From that point, mountains begin to transition from high-rising peaks to more modest ridge lines of Central Virginia. There, hikers will see woodland and farmland collide in the valleys below. Even though elevations start to decline at this point, hikers are not yet free from occasional long, difficult climbs and descents.
Hikers travel through the Shenandoah Mountains side-by-side with the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, and over 100 miles through wondrous Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia.
This region is home to the lowest elevations on the Appalachian Trail. It descends from its northern and southern mountains into low-rising ridge lines, farmland, wetlands, and boulder fields. This region is probably the easiest to travel because of lower and more gradual elevations changes. But it still comes with challenges because some sections of trail in northern Maryland, Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey are infamous for their sharp, rocky terrain. New York, on the other hand, contains a surprising amount of sharp ups and downs on larger stones and boulders.
The Mid-Atlantic region is traveled by many hikers in the summer months. This region passes near residential areas, over interstates and freeways, through numerous state parks, and it comes within a mere 34 miles of New York City. Hikers will find the Mid-Atlantic region’s trail filled with historical sites for them to explore.
For northbound hikers, New England beckons an epic return to the mountains and it provides a challenging start for those who are preparing for a southbound venture. Some of the grandest sights to be seen here are the dense forests of Vermont’s Green Mountains, the alpine peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and the vast lakes of Maine’s wilderness. But to be able to see those rewarding views, hikers must first earn them by going through the final three states which are Vermud, No Hope, and Pain.
Vermont has a muddier-than-usual trail. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on the other hand, will challenge hikers with long, difficult climbs that often require regular hand-over-foot rock climbing. The almost 300 miles of remote wilderness of Maine will put the outdoor skills of hikers to the test. It ranges from rocky climbs to river fords and everything in between.
The Best Time to Hike the Appalachian Trail
Hikers are expected to spend between 4 to 7 months out on their adventure when hiking the Appalachian Trail. This means that they can expect to experience two to three different seasons during their adventure. Most hikers hike the Appalachian Trail between March and December for them to hike in spring, summer, and autumn conditions. It is not impossible to hike during winter months, however, the deep snow, low temperatures, and unpredictable storms make hiking the trail more challenging and sometimes dangerous.
The exact time of the year for a hiker to set out on the Appalachian Trail depends on their hiking route. The hikers’ starting point, ending point, and direction of the hike will determine when they need to start. About 99 percent of the Appalachian Trail is open to the public all year round except Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Part. The Baxter State Park closes to overnight camping by October 15th and only allows visitors to visit the park during the daytime. Vehicular access to the park is usually closed by November 1st. These closures are because Mount Katahdin becomes too dangerous for hikers as winter approaches.
Planning Your Hike
If you are aiming to be an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, you need to be prepared for the challenges. Before you start the hike, you need to ask yourself a few questions first. Are you prepared to climb a height of 4000 feet? Do you have enough outdoor practice? How much quality gear do you have? And are you ready to be away from civilization for a while? If you’ve decided to go through the Appalachian Trail, here are some tips to plan your trip well.
Think About the Season
The number of hikers walking the Appalachian Trail differs depending on the time of the year and the starting point. If you are looking into starting your journey at Mount Katahdin, consider that the trails there are most crowded in June and July. Also, mosquitoes, black flies, and beetles plague the Appalachian Trail from May to August.
Consider the Level of Your Experience
If you are just a beginner, you should not expect to finish the trail fast. Beginners usually have a hiking speed of about 1 mile per hour, even on simple sections.
Plan Your Nights
You need to think about where you’re going to spend nights if you’re planning a long trip for a few days or weeks. There are over 270 shelters on the entire trail and most of them are near water. These shelters are designed for small groups of hikers. If you will be coming in a large group, you can use campsites and set up tents instead. However, camping is not allowed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.
Take Care of Hiking Equipment and Clothes
The gear that you will bring depends on your route, its duration, and the season. If you want to save money, you can rent or buy used equipment.
If you’re going on a day hike, here are the essential things to bring:
- Map and compass
- First-aid kit
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Insect repellent
- Garbage bag
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
On a multi-day hike, here are the things that you can add which are very useful:
- Emergency shelter
- Water purifier or filter
- Waterproof matches
Here are the basic equipment and clothes that you should not forget to bring:
- Raincoat and hat
- Rope or cord
- Pack cover for rainy weather
- Lightweight pot and cooking supplies
- Shelter or tent
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
When choosing clothes, it’s better to choose synthetic ones. It’s because when wet cotton clothes get wet, it can lead to hypothermia. For socks, wool socks are better than cotton socks because cotton when wet can cause blisters. For your shoes, choose a high-quality and comfortable pair to prevent calluses and swollen feet. If you wish to pass rocky trails, it’s better to wear hiking boots for safety.
To be able to hike the Appalachian Trail, you need to take care of necessary permits. Passing through the trail is free and some permits are also issued without charges. But keep in mind that there are some paid campsites on the trail. Here are the permits that hikers need to obtain, as well as the requirements needed to be followed.
1. Tennessee and North Carolina
If you plan an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, you will need to get permission for backcountry camping through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The permit for this costs $20 and it is valid for 38 days from the date of issuance. It also grants up to 8 days of passage through the train in the park. Tourists are required to stay overnight in shelters in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each shelter they offer can hold 12 to 14 people.
All hikers must apply for a permit in Shenandoah National Park no matter how long or short the hike will be. Permits are granted on a free basis and can be acquired at visitor centers. Here, you are not limited to designated campsites. You can use pre-existing campsites or camp on previously undisturbed areas. But make sure that you follow the Leave No Trace policy to maintain the cleanliness.
Only thru-hikers are allowed to camp in Pennsylvania Game Commission lands. You also need to bring orange clothes and head coverings here because in state game lands, hunting is allowed and orange fluorescent clothing will ensure your safety during hunting season.
This section of the Appalachian Trail will not require you any additional fees or permits. But some frequently used camping sites might ask for small fees. They use these fees to equip field facilities and for trail maintenance as well.
Long-distance hikers need to get a mandatory permit card which can be taken personally at Baxter State Park Headquarters or Katahdin Stream Campground. The cards will be stamped at the Katahdin Stream Ranger Station. If you will be camping overnight, the camping fee is charged. For short-distance hikers, they should also make a reservation.
Safety Tips When Hiking the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is a safe place, considering how many people conquer the trail each year. But you should also know how to protect yourself to prevent accidents and dangers. When hiking, you need to be attentive and cautious to stay safe at all times. Here are some safety tips you can follow when hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Go with a hiking buddy and trust him.
Hiking alone is beneficial but if you decide to go with a hiking buddy, he or she can save your life. It’s better to be with someone especially during extreme situations on the trail and potentially dangerous strangers.
Inform your relatives about your planned hike and schedule.
If you’ve already planned your route in detail, be sure to inform your relatives or friends about your planned checkpoints and your schedule. Update them regularly about your location and give them the ATC contact numbers as well.
Pay attention to trail registers.
Trail registers are important because they are required to document your locations in the Appalachian Trail. In the event of a crime or accident, law enforcement agencies will first view the records in trail registers for investigation.
Make sure to wear proper hiking clothes when you go to the Appalachian Trail. Do not wear clothes that may catch unnecessary attention and provocation.
Don’t leave your things unattended.
When hiking the Appalachian Trail, you should remember the possibility of theft. Make sure to always supervise your things and place your money as well as important documents deep in your backpack.
Do not bring firearms.
It’s better to leave your guns at home because some areas of the Appalachian Trail strictly prohibit carrying and using weapons. Aside from that, weapons can also be used against you or accidentally discharged.
Best Practices When Hiking the Appalachian Trail
As a hiker, you should observe best practices when hiking the Appalachian Trail. Since you’ll be spending most of the time out in the woods, you will also be participating in the larger community surrounding the Appalachian Trail. And when you’re out hiking the trail, you are representing the hiker community as a whole. Here are the best practices you can do.
Hike Your Own Hike
Hike Your Own Hike or HYOH is a philosophy embraced by a lot of hikers to improve their personal Appalachian Trail experience and as well as to represent a good attitude for how hikers should interact with each other. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a once in a lifetime experience for most people that’s why it is each hiker’s prerogative to hike in a way that they will not look back on their time at the trail with regrets. This philosophy in hiking imposes that any method of hiking should not negatively impact another hiker’s experience.
Leave No Trace
The Leave No Trace principle helps minimize adverse impacts during outdoor recreation. Aside from protecting, respecting, and conserving the environment, this principle is also designed to respect the experiences of other outdoor enthusiasts. So, when you hike the Appalachian Trail, remember to dispose of your waste properly, leave what you find, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is indeed a great adventure for hikers. With proper preparation and by following the rules, you will be able to successfully conquer the trail and have a great time as well. We hope the guide we shared will be able to help you be prepared on your Appalachian Trail journey.