If you’ve ever considered getting out in the wilderness for a while and really reconnecting with nature, then the Appalachian Trail thru-hike could be for you.
Any hiker or long-distance walker worth their salt has dreams of taking a long-distance backpacking trip like this.
It’s one of the ultimate tests and planning an Appalachian Trail thru hike takes a lot of research.
The three most popular trails for such a long hike are the continental Divide Trail (CDT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Appalachian Trail (AT), which goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin, Maine.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail can be a huge commitment. While it can be completed by novice backpackers with enough care and preparation, you’re still looking at around six months on the trail.
No one ends the trail as they started it, if indeed they do manage to reach the end of the trail.
Here’s what you need to know before planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
What Is the Trail Like?
The Appalachian Trail, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or just “The AT” is hiking footpath in the eastern United States.
It spans around a total of 2,200 miles.
The southern end of the trail is in Springer Mountains, Georgia, with the northern end of the trail in Mount Katahdin, Maine.
The trail covers some 14 states and is marked along the way with 2”x6” white blazes painted on trees and rocks to guide hikers.
A “thru-hiker” is someone who hikes an entire trail, all 2,200 miles of it, within any 12 consecutive month period.
To give you an idea of how long that its; hikers on the trail will take some 5 million steps, walk/climb the equivalent of 16 Mount Everest’s, and walk for up to 10 hours a day in rain, heat, and snow.
Thru-hikers make their journey with all their equipment and supplies on their back in a backpack. They sleep in tents and hammocks or – if they can reach them – one of the shelters dotted on the trail.
They stay on the road for up to a week before visiting a trail town for supplies, if necessary.
How Long Does it Take?
A typical trek along the trail can take between five and seven months. Some people can do it faster of course.
The fastest known time for the AT thru-hike was set in 2017. Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy completed the trail in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. Sometimes the trek can take a little longer.
The weather can also be a factor in how long the trek takes.
To put it all down simply, a hiker who needs six months to complete the trail will be hiking for 12 miles each day.
Realistically though, hikers will take a “zero” day once a week where they rest and recover. They make up for this by hiking a little more during the week, averaging in at around 15 miles a day.
How to Physically Prepare for an Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
Let’s keep it simple and say the hike is 2,200 miles. To complete the hike in five months (22 weeks), you’d need to walk an average of 100 miles per week.
Walking 100 miles at 2 miles per hour totals 50 hours of walking. You could add some extra weeks on as a buffer, but hiking is definitely going to become a “full-time job” for you.
Here are some suggestions on how to properly prepare to prevent injuries;
- Start in good physical shape. You should be able to jog at least a mile before you start on the journey. You don’t have to be a gym rat, but you can’t start as a couch potato.
- Start things off slow. Do only a few miles a day to ease into the trail. If you’re feeling good, then you can increase the pace. If not, keep it slow and steady until you do. Don’t push yourself too hard and get injured before you have a chance to begin.
- Listen to your body and rest when you need to.
- Stretch often. Stretch in the mornings and keep your feet propped up at night. This keeps circulation up and prevents muscles from cramping.
How Much Does the Appalachian Trail Thru Hike Cost?
You may be surprised to learn how much it can cost to spend six months in the mountains.
Those on the trail spend around an average of $2-$3 per mile on the trail, or around $1,000 per month.
That money goes towards food on the trails, staying in a hostel/hotel when in town, repairing or replacing equipment, injuries and illnesses, and the other miscellaneous costs of life on the trail.
Other expenses that you should consider when putting together a budget for the trail are the initial costs of your equipment, traveling to and from the trail, and at-home costs.
Hiking gear is expensive if you want the excellent quality gear that will keep you comfortable – and you do. Depending on what you may already have at home, the equipment needed for a thru-trail can cost between $1,500 to $3,000+.
Springer Mountain and Mount Katahdin are both relatively remote locations. As well as having to fly or bus to a nearby area, you then need to arrange for a shuttle and potentially stay in a hotel before setting off.
Finally, you still have to pay other at-home costs while on the trail, such as keeping up with car and health insurance, phone bills, and rent/mortgage.
What are the Common Reasons People Give Up?
The Appalachian Trail is not to be taken lightly. Hiking the trail is a long and grueling task that takes a lot of effort and willpower.
While statistics can change, on average, only 10-25% of people who start the trail complete it.
Here are some of the most common reasons that people don’t complete their hike;
- They run out of money
The trail really is a substantial financial burden to hike. Many people who dream of being able to wander the woods for up to six months aren’t in the financial position necessary to do it.
Most of them are at a transition period in their lives, and they don’t have the best budget going in.
Perhaps they are moving from college to the workforce, from the workforce to unemployment/retirement, or are entering/leaving a marriage.
Spending six months on the trail is also rarely kind to one’s body or gear. Hikers will likely have to get off the trail due to an unexpected injury or illness or general fatigue.
When you consider the costs of replacing broken equipment, it’s easy to understand how breaking a budget can become a reality.
- They are injured or sick
When you spend your whole day going up and down mountains all day for months, there’s a good chance that you’re going to injure yourself.
Common injuries on the trail include blisters and injuries related to overuse of muscles.
Though these injuries don’t mean much in regular life, they can become a severe problem on the trail.
You can also expect to fall over several times while hiking. Any one of those falls could result in a severe injury or strain.
Illnesses are another common part of trail life. Unsanitary bathroom practices can lead to norovirus.
Not properly filtering water before drinking it can lead to Giardia. Both illnesses cause terrible symptoms – including cramping and diarrhea – that last for days.
Both of them are also serious enough to bring an end to a thru-hike.
- They get bored and lonely
As beautiful as the trail may be, doing the same thing day-in-day-out, especially something as difficult as hiking trails – can quickly become monotonous.
Some hikers will give up just because they can’t keep themselves motivated to stay out there.
The AT is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one, and you should prepare yourself properly.
What to Expect From an AT Thru Hike?
One thing to expect from the trek is that you will be sore. A lot. You’re going to push muscles and joints like they’ve never been pushed before.
You can expect to adopt a “hiker hobble”; a particular gait that thru-hikers get. Those aches and pains may last for a few weeks after the trip is over too.
You can also expect to run into some fantastic people. Take a trip on the trail if you ever feel your faith in humanity slipping.
The trail has an incredible support system, and the hikers you’ll meet are super friendly. The community supporting thru-hikers are known as “Trail Angels.”
These Trail Angels provide Trail Magic in the form of a cold soda, a ride into town, or a place to stay.
Last but not least, you can expect stunning wildlife and scenery. Hikers are constantly climbing new mountains on the trail.
One of the best rewards for all the effort is the incredible view. The Appalachian Trail goes through The Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, as well as several other parks and forests.
Taking a thru-hike on the AT is a noble and worthy pursuit. Be sure that you understand the trail and adequately prepare for it to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.
Planning an Appalachian Trail thru hike is quite an endeavor.
Take with you not just the gear you need, but the sense of humor, lust for adventure, and the relentless tenacity you’ll need to get the job done.
It is going to be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, but also one of the greatest.
You definitely don’t want to hike it without having one of the best compasses for hiking in your backpack!