In a series about the nation’s best thru-hikes, it seems obvious to start with what is possibly the country’s most well-known hiking destination — the Appalachian Trail.

One of America’s most iconic footpaths, the Appalachian Trail travels nearly 2,200 miles between Georgia and Maine. Completing the entirety of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in one trip is a mammoth undertaking. Each year thousands of people head north from the trail’s southern-most point in an attempt to hike the whole trail in one year, but only one-fourth of them finish the journey, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For many hikers, the 2,189-mile journey along the Appalachian Trail takes almost six months*.

*Some hikers put their physical fitness to the test and hike the trail much quicker. Check out this Eagle Scout who completed the trail in 94 days.

The Great Smoky Mountains

Appalachian Trail by the Numbers

Distance: 2,190 miles

States: (14) Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine

Year Established: 1968

Average Time-Commitment: 5-7 months

Shelters: The AT has more than 250 backcountry shelters along the trail. They are an average of about 8 miles apart.

Pace: Most hikers start at about 8 miles a day. Once your body adjusts to the rigors of spending days on the trail carrying a full pack, you can increase your pace, but do so gradually to avoid injury.

Altitude loss/gain: Over the course of the AT, thru-hikers gain and lose over 464,464 ft. in elevation, or more than 89 miles. That would be like climbing Mt. Everest 16 times.

Calorie Intake: A hiker* would have to intake 5,500 calories a day to maintain his or her body weight during a typical day of backpacking. In other words, a hiker could eat 11 Big Macs throughout the day and still be at an energy deficiency. Typically, after a few weeks on the trail, many thru-hikers achieve the celebrated “hiker hunger,” a near-inability to be sated by any amount of food.

*Assuming 8 hours of backpacking for a 25-year-old male hiker weighing 155 lbs.

Notable Spots Along the Trail 

  • Grayson Highlands, Virginia, is the only place on the AT where you can view wild ponies.
  • McAfee Knob, Virginia, is the most photographed spot on the entire AT, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. 
  • Mount Moosilauke, New Hampshire, offers stunning panoramic views of New England.  

Packing and Preparation

If you are considering undertaking the AT, the following advice from REI Knoxville camp/climb specialist Tim Bird, who thru hiked in 2014 and teaches classes and hosts forums for aspiring AT hikers, is a great place to start.

Many factors will influence your gear planning and preparation, including the time of year you start your trip, direction you travel and length of time it takes for you to finish the trail.T

Route planning: “The vast majority of thru hikers travel south to north, starting at Georgia’s Springer Mountain, leaving between late February and mid April. Avoiding the snowy north in early spring is one reason, but culminating the journey atop Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park is also a big motivator.”

Your plan is an initial projection: “Hiking thousands of miles through wilderness over many months is an unpredictable endeavor. Check the ATC trail conditions and closures page before you go and when you have online access. Talk to hikers along the way. Make contingency plans ahead of time and assess conditions throughout the trip.”

Food and resupply planning: “These are the nuts and bolts of your trip plan, and the details will take substantial research. You can find a wealth of information in guidebooks and online, including ATC pages that discuss resupply strategies. Except for Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, the AT offers resupply options roughly every 4 or 5 days. So you have lots of flexibility for your initial plan and to change things up along the trail.”

Gear know-how: “The AT is not the place for a maiden equipment voyage. Take trips to familiarize yourself with your gear and take classes to ensure your backcountry skills are honed for the challenge.”

For an AT trail packing list, click HERE.

And, check out a printer-friendly PDF version of this advice from the REI Journal.

Mt. Katahdin, ME, The final summit of the AT. Image by newengland.com

On the Trail

The AT winds its way through stark wilderness and crosses more than 500 public roads. Terrain ranges from forest paths to precipitous scrambles. Conditions for thru hikers vary from the possibility of snow flurries in spring and fall to the sweltering heat of summer.

Throughout the length of the trail, thru-hikers can find their way by following white paint blazes most commonly found on trees and posts. Having good maps is important, but you’ll find that the A.T. is generally well marked. Because the trail gets altered from time to time, you need to learn how to recognize the distinctive white blaze that marks the trail: a two- by six-inch vertical paint rectangle in a prominent place along the trail. (Two blazes are sometimes used where the trail changes directions.) When blazing differs from your map, follow the blazes. Above the treeline, rock cairns are used to mark the route.

The trail crosses many roads, providing ample and necessary opportunity for hikers to hitchhike into town for food and other supplies. Many trail towns are accustomed to hikers passing through, and thus many have hotels and hiker-oriented accommodations. In the areas of the trail closer to trail towns, many hikers have experienced what is sometimes called “trail magic,” or the assistance from strangers through kind actions, gifts, and other forms of encouragement – all things that lift spirits and keep hikers going.

Most hikers carry a lightweight tent, hammock or tarp. Although, the trail has more than 250 shelters and campsites available for hikers. They are usually spaced a day’s hike or less apart, most often near a water source and outhouse. They generally have spaces for tent sites in the vicinity as the shelters are usually first-come first-serve and may be full. A hiker favorite is the Fontana Dam Shelter in North Carolina, fondly referred to as the Fontana Hilton by hikers, because of the amenities (like flush toilets) and its proximity to an all-you-can-eat buffet and post office. 

The trail is one of America’s most iconic footpaths and is becoming more popular every year, for good reason. Some of the country’s best hiking and breathtaking views can be found on the trail.

There is an abundance of resources available about the Appalachian Trail. If your wanderlust gets the best of you and you find yourself setting out on a journey to hike the 2,190 miles of the AT, make sure you are prepared. This article should only serve as a starting point. You should always do substantial research before taking any backpacking trip.

A classic white blaze found on the Appalachian Trail

Do you have experiences on the Appalachian Trail? Share with us in the comments below!

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Madison Austin
studies Public Relations at Brigham Young University and is a marketing specialist at the Utah National Parks Council. She is an avid hiker and enjoys being outdoors. Growing up in the mountainous regions of Colorado and Virginia enabled her to follow these passions. After moving to Utah to attend college, she has spent her time fostering both a career in Communications and a love for Utah's National Parks.

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