So you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail southbound? Well below are 7 must-have items I recommend for starting the Appalachian Trail southbound thru-hike, and specifically for hiking the notorious 100 Mile Wilderness, which can punish to would-be thru-hiker.
Each year, a couple thousand people start their thru-hike at Springer Mountain, Georgia and start hiking north. A smaller number, often in the hundreds, begin at Mt. Katahdin, Maine and start hiking south. These are the Southbounders.
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I have published my general tips for successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail based on my experience. However, hiking southbound does present unique terrain and conditions in the 100 Mile Wilderness for which you’ll need to be prepared. I successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail southbound from Maine to Georgia, and I discovered first hand some of the gear you must have for the first hundred miles beginning in Maine. Here are my suggested must have items.
1. Bug Spray (95-100% DEET) – When you start the southbound thru-hike of the Appalachain Trail, you will spend your first week or so in the notorious 100 Mile Wilderness. Chances are you’ll be starting your hike somewhere around June 1 during the summer, which means the forest floor of the 100 Mile Wilderness will likely be soggy and full of mosquitoes and black flies. Much of the 100 Mile Wilderness traverses swamp land, and I found that that the bugs can be absolutely merciless in these lowlands.
When I was hiking in Maine, I met a grown man crying in the woods. The bugs were so pestering and painful that he simply wasn’t having any fun and wanted to get the heck out. Here’s the full story of the man tormented by mosquitoes on the Appalachian Trail. This guy was a little south of 100 Mile Wilderness when I met him and was looking for a way out of the woods. But guess what, there aren’t many exits in the 100 Mile Wilderness, so escape isn’t often an option. I managed in part because of my powerful DEET bug spray. Sure the spray took the paint of my watch, but it kept the bugs away as well. DEET has it’s pros and cons, so determine for yourself if you want to risk the health effects of DEET.
Not all bug spray’s are created equal. Here’s the bug spray that worked for me:
Ben’s 95% DEET Bug Spray @ REI
2. Baseball Cap, Head Net, and Light Gloves – I can’t underestimate how bad the bugs really can be in Maine. Unless you happen to be reading this post in a canoe in the steamy backwoods of the Louisiana bogs, you likely can’t imaging just how bad the mosquitoes can be in Maine. They are maddening. And with so few southbound hikers in the 100 Mile Wilderness in June, there aren’t a whole lot of people for mosquitoes to pester. If they find you, they will follow you for miles.
In these situations, you’ll be glad to have a head net to cover your face. Be sure to wear the head net over a ball cap so you have some space between your face and the mesh, otherwise it’s useless as mosquitoes and black flies will find you’re your skin.
Also, gloves. Gloves? You think I’m crazy right. Who needs gloves in June? I didn’t have gloves at the start of my hike. I wore thick socks over my hands to keep the bugs from ravaging my fleshy hands. Take a pair of lightweight gloves that will keep the mosquitoes and blackflies off your knuckles.
3. Crocs (water shoes) – I consider these lightweight shoes an absolute must-have for the southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker for a variety of reasons. First, when you start your thru-hike at Mt. Katahdin, you will have to cross many rivers and bogs as you travel through the 100 Mile Wilderness to Monson, Maine. If you are hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, make sure you read my cautionary tales about 5 Things that could kill you in the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Northbounders beginning at Springer don’t have to deal with these obstacles. Some of the creeks and rivers you’ll cross could be chest deep because of all the snowmelt rushing off the mountains. Even the Appalachian Trail itself was flooded, and it could be for you as well. I had some crummy flip-flops for the 100 Mile Wilderness and they turned out to be both useless and dangerous. When crossing the rivers, my feet slipped and slid among the rocky river bottoms, and I lost one flip flop in some rapids. I met hikers with Crocs and they worked very well. Your boots will inevitably get wet in the 100 Mile Wilderness, and some hikers I met spent a couple hours in their Crocs hiking each day to let their boots and socks dry out.
4. Hiking Poles – Maine is full of rocks, roots, flooded trail, and bog bridges through the swamp. These bog bridges can be treacherous and require a great deal of balance. Imaging trees cut in lengthwise into two pieces and stacked end to end for hundreds and hundreds of years. Imagine balancing with a 40 pound pack on your back while walking across these foot bridges, and then image that you slip and go feet first, or worse yet, pack first, into the muddy bog. What a way to ruin a day! Want to read more about the foot bridges: check out my account from my 5th Day in the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Hiking poles can help prevent this disaster. Some hikers might discourage the use of poles, and indeed on a north bound hike I don’t think they are necessary at the start. But for the 100 Mile Wilderness, while you are just getting used to hiking the AT and balancing with a heavy pack on your back, I suggest taking the poles. They saved me more than once from an accident like that described above, and I was certainly glad to have them on the bog bridges, steep climbs, and steep descents.
5. A Watch (Or electronics that tell time) – Have you ever been to Maine in the summer? If not, be prepared for lots of daylight. That far north on the globe as the calendar approaches the Summer Solstice, the sun comes up before 5am and goes down after 930pm. Long days are great for hiking since it gives you lots of time to get started and rest throughout the day. But they can also be confusing if you’re used to life elsewhere.
I started the trail with a watch but lost it a day or two into my hike. Not knowing the time had a number of negative consequences in those early days of the hike, mainly that I didn’t know how fast I was moving, how long I had been hiking, and therefore often didn’t know how much further ahead a particular destination (like a shelter) might be. In the early days and in all of the obstacles of the 100 Mile Wilderness, it’s hard to know how much ground you cover and what pace you keep. A watch helps you make better sense of your progress, and I definitely wouldn’t leave for the 100 Mile Wilderness without one.
6. A Backpack Liner and a Bag for Dry Clothes – When thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail through the 100 Mile Wilderness in June, you will almost always be wet. Either wet from rain, wet from crossing a river, or we from sweat. But after a long day of hiking, when you’re wet from rain, river, or sweat, nothing beats putting on a pair of dry clothes, a dry sleeping bag, and a dry tent. Do whatever you can to keep your gear dry. This advice would of course go for a northbound hiker as well, but the southbound hiker has unique challenges in that they are faced with a lot more water in the first couple of weeks of the trail.
Put a pair of clothes in a large Ziplock freezer bag and only take them out of the pack at the end of the day. Put them back in the bag in the morning. These are your dry clothes, and they are never to get wet. For everything else in your pack, consider keeping everything in durable garbage bags. Garbage bags are light weight and relatively strong, and they can help you keep your sleeping bag, tent, and other items dry, making your 100 Mile Wilderness hike a lot more comfortable.
7. 10 Days of Food – Hikers beginning the trail at Springer Mountain have a number of options for resupply and equipment near the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. The AT runs right through an outfitter at Neel’s Gap where you can buy equipment and food. Starting the AT in the north is a different story, as there is very little option for food resupply in the 100 Mile Wilderness. Most sources will tell you to pack 10 days of food. I agree completely. The 100 Mile Wilderness is tough, and unless you’re a particularly seasoned hiker, you may have trouble averaging more than 10 miles a day. Pack for 10 days in the 100 Mile Wilderness, and aim to get to Monson in 9, giving you a day of food to spare.
By the way, before my trip, I was one of the rare southbound thru-hikers that cached food in the 100 Mile Wilderness. It was at Jo Mary Road, which can be found on a map to cross the Appalachian Trail. It can be done, but I don’t actually advise it because a lot could have gone wrong. A bear could have gotten to the cache, another hiker, who knows. If it hadn’t been hanging in that tree when I cross Jo Mary Road, then I’d have been in big trouble.
When considering a southbound thru-hike, recognize that there are some differences relative to the northbound thru-hike experience. Take into account the broad advice offered by past thru-hikers and experts, but be sure that you are also seeking out advice specific to the southbound thru-hike, especially the first couple hundred miles of it. After that, the peculiarities of north vs. south become much less intense.
Do you know of must have items for the 100 Mile Wilderness at the start of a southbound hike? Have questions about some gear your considering taking? Let me know in the comments.