Successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail requires physical endurance, perseverance, and, of course, a little bit of luck (or at least the absence of bad luck).
I met a thru-hiker in Maine who was the unfortunate victim of bad luck. He had successfully thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and was by all accounts an experienced and able hiker. If anyone could make it, he could, but he broke his ankle in two places when a small boulder rolled onto his foot.
The Appalachian Trail is full of uncertainty. You can’t prevent every accident, but you can adopt practices that help you avoid some of the common reasons that people are forced off the trail. Through many discussions with successful thru-hikers, there are tips that many successful thru-hikers would offer to people attempting to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Here are six pieces of advice that rise to the top.
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- Take Your Time – On my southbound thru-hike, I met a lot of northbound hikers on the tail end of their hike. They were averaging 20 miles a day through rough sections of trail in Maine and New Hampshire. Some southbound hikers around me tried to cover similar mileage per day, and often this led to injury: to rolled ankles, bad blisters, and twisted knees that took hikers off the trail, ending their adventure on the front end. The trail can be unforgiving terrain, take it easy and don’t succumb to passive or active pressures to hike at someone else’s pace.
As they say on the trail, “Hike your own hike.” By the end, you’ll be covering 20 miles per day without problem, so be patient and the miles will come.
- Take Zero Days – In line with the notion of taking your time, be sure you take time off on the trail. On the trail, we call days off Zero Days. A Zero Day is a day in which you hike zero miles. You make no progress towards the far end of the trail. Take a day here and there to rest and recoup in towns. Take long showers, eat well, and read or watch TV all day while you let your joints rest.
- Carry Several Pairs of Socks and Change Them Often – Carry several pairs of socks on your thru-hike. Sometimes you’ll go days without doing laundry. Sometimes socks get wet. Sometimes they just wear out.
Rotate through your socks, wearing a different pair each day. Change socks when you start to feel a hot spot (a soon-to-be blister) on your feet. If you take care of your feet, they will be more likely to take care of you on the 5,000,000 steps from Maine to Georgia.
For men thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I highly recommend 3-4 pairs of SmartWool’s Lightweight Hiker Socks.
There’s probably a comparable model for women (but I’ve never worn them.)
- Cook Hot Dinners– Some people I met subsisted on peanut butter and jelly bagels morning, noon, and night on the Appalachian Trail. Sure it packs the protein, sugar, and carbs you’re body needs to keep going, but sometimes you need to feed morale.
Many days you’ll spend on the Appalachian Trail will be downright depressing. You’ll get cold and wet, lost, and frustrated. There will be days your drained of energy and nothing goes right. There will be days you miss home, a shower, and shave. A hot meal at the end of a long day can wipe away dismal feelings that may creep into your psyche, going a long way to increasing your chances for success.
Most thru-hikers carry cheap pasta options for hot food, such as spaghetti pasta, mac and cheese, or Knorr’s pasta sides (formerly Lipton’s). They provide a lot of calories per dollar. You typically won’t see thru-hikers carrying many freeze dried, commercial meals, such as Mountain House Meals. At $7-9 each, eating a mountain house meal every night on a thru-hike would cost roughly $1,200 depending on the length of the trip. However, to me, one Mountain House Meal every week was worth $9 for the morale boost.
- Don’t Run Out of Money – Your thru-hike will end if you run out of money. Without money you can’t buy food, pay for hostels, replace gear when it wears out. For my six month thru-hike, end to end including gear and airfare to Maine, I budgeted about $4,500. The hike can be completed spending much less or much more money than that. Know how much money you have to spend on the trip and plan your budget accordingly. There aren’t many opportunities to work your way along the Appalachian Trail, though I met a carpenter who was trying, completing odd jobs in towns here or there. I don’t know if he made it.
For more help with Appalachian Trail finances, check out our budgeting tool for planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
- Remember Why You’re Thru-Hiking the Trail – Some people hike the Appalachian Trail for introspection. Some for charity. Some to honor a love one. Some hike the trail simple because they’re in a transitional period in life and it’s now or never. One 63 years old man I met on the trail said that he was hiking because he had double knee replacement last year, and now he had the knees to attempt a thru-hike.
Whatever reasons you have for hiking the Appalachian Trail, keep that reason close to you. Be ready to summon it when times get tough, when mountains seem high and the miles long. Without knowing why you’re doing it, you stand a good chance of throwing in the towel when the going gets tough.
- Bonus Tip #7: Make sure you have the right gear for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. To dial in your backpacking gear, download our backpacking gear checklist with budgeting and weight calculator.
At the end of the day, most anyone can hike the Appalachian Trail. I met thru-hikers as young as 8 years and as old as 63 years. Physically handicapped people have thru-hiked the trail, including the blind and partially paralyzed. However, it’s not easy. It requires patience, determination, and planning.
With these six tips from successful thru-hikers, you can increase your chances for successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.