/r/AppalachianTrail FAQ

(Note: This is an on-going community effort at an FAQ. If you’d like to make an edit you can do so by going here )

What is the Appalachian Trail?

   

NOBO, SOBO, “thru-hiker”, “section hiker”, White Blaze? You guys throw around a lot of terminology...what does all that mean?

What is like to thru-hike the AT? What should a future thru-hiker be expecting the trail experience to be like?

        -The Weather

        -How many people to set off to thru-hike the trail actually finish it?

        -Thru-hiker weight loss

        -The “Trail Blues”

        

Any etiquette I should know about as a beginner?

How long does a thru-hike take?

When do people generally start?

How many miles a day can I plan on covering? 

How do you get food?  What do you eat for 6 months in the woods? 

-Buy-as-you-go versus Maildrops

-What kind of food does a thru-hiker live on?

How do you get water?

What does a thru-hike cost?

Will I get eaten by a bear, or bit by a rattlesnake?

I’ve seen Deliverance. Should I be carrying a gun? 

I want to plan a thru-hike.  Where can I get more information? 

What gear do I need for a trip on the AT?

        -Basic Gear Checklist

        -Footwear

What is the Appalachian Trail?

From the ATC website: 

                The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, measuring roughly 2,180 miles (3515km) in length. The Trail goes through fourteen states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the Trail’s northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine.

Known as the “AT,” it has been estimated that 2-3 million people visit the Trail every year and about 1,800–2,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the Trail. People from across the globe are drawn to the AT for a variety of reasons: to reconnect with nature, to escape the stress of city life, to meet new people or deepen old friendships, or to experience a simpler life.

The AT was completed in 1937 and is a unit of the National Park System. The AT is managed under a unique partnership between the public and private sectors that includes, among others, the National Park Service (NPS), the USDA Forest Service (USFS), an array of state agencies, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and 31 local Trail-maintaining clubs.

Hiker Terminology:

AT--Short for “Appalachian Trail.” Each letter should be pronounced.

Thru-Hiker--A “thru-hiker” is someone who has, or is in the process of attempting to hike the entire trail, and is generally defined as completing the entire trail within a calendar year.

NOBO--Short for “Northbound,” describes the direction of the thru-hiker as they begin at the southern terminus at Springer Mountain and head north to finish their journey at Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Also known as GA-ME

SOBO--Short for “Southbound,” describes the direction of the thru-hiker as they begin at Mt. Katahdin in Maine and worth their way south toward Springer Mountain in Georgia. Also known as ME-GA.

Flip-Flop--This describes thru-hikers heading any direction who choose to stop at some point along the way, travel to a terminus and head the opposite direction to complete their thru-hike. For example, a northbound thru-hiker leaves from Springer Mountain and makes it to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. For any number of reasons, the thru-hiker then jumps ahead to Mt. Katahdin and travels south in order to complete their thru-hike back in Harper’s Ferry.

Yo-yo--Describes a hiker who hikesmediately begins hiking the trail in the other direction. For example, one who st the entire trail in one direction, and imarts in GA, hikes to ME, then hikes back to GA.

Section Hiker--Many hikers complete the entire AT in sections, hiking portions of the trail separately over the course of individual trips. Not all section hikers may have the intention of completing the entire AT. A “section” has no defined length - it can be half the trail, or just a few days. In thru-hiker parlance, a “section hiker” usually denotes someone hiking for a longer period of time than a “Weekender”.

Weekender--A hiker on t

Purist--A thru-hiker determined to hikhe AT who will be on the Trail for only a short period of time, most often a weekend.

e every inch of the white-blazed Trail and not skip any part, no matter how short. The purity can go as far as backtracking across roads to compensate for being picked up on one curb and dropped off on the other, thus “skipping” the width of the roadway, or making sure to re-enter the trail from the same point when leaving the trail to use the bathroom. There is no “right way” to hike the trail, the matter of “purity” is up to the individual hiker.

White Blaze-- The entire AT length is marked by periodic 2”x6” white rectangular paint blazes on tree, posts, rocks, etc along the trail. Generally the trail is so well marked and traveled that maps are not necessary to follow it.

Blue Blaze-- Blue blazes are used to mark ancillary trails. They may lead to water sources, shelters, campsites, scenic overlooks, road access points, or foul-weather bypasses. There is generally signage at the intersection with the AT to explain where the blue blaze trail leads.

Zero Day--A day in which zero trail miles are hiked. Can be a rest day in town or on the trail, or an opportunity to get non-hiking errands completed.

Nero Day--A day in which almost no miles are hiked; usually into or out of town.

Green Tunnel--Trail under tree limbs, with forest or undergrowth on both sides. This is a large majority of the trail, though there are frequent and sometimes spectacular overlooks and rocky arteas. Also the name of a video consisting of thousands of pictures stretching the entire trail.

Yellow Blazing-- Walking along a road, or getting a ride in a vehicle, to bypass a portion of the trail.  “Yellow” refers to the road stripes. Generally a derisive term.

Aqua Blazing-- Similar to Yellow Blazing, but utilizing a waterway and a boat instead of a road and vehicle.  There are a couple of trail portions, most notable Shenandoah National Park, where the option to canoe/raft a river that generally parallels the AT exists.  

Slackpacking--  Hiking without your backpack, or with just day-hiking supplies. (hence having some “slack” in your pack)  Typically accomplished by having someone with a vehicle dropping the hiker off at one place in the morning and picking them further on down the trail later in the day.  Slackpacking is frequently combined with off-trail stays in hostels or trail towns, as it allows trail miles to be covered while still sleeping in civilization at night.  It can be a topic of some debate (see “Purist” above), but since the hiker is still physically hiking all the trail miles, it is much less controversial than Yellow Blazing or Aqua Blazing.

Yogi-ing-- (as in “Yogi the Bear”) Yogi-ing has been defined as “the good-natured art of ‘letting’ food be offered cheerfully by strangers without actually asking them directly”.  It should not be confused with begging.  Yogi-ing is usually a form of informal barter: the thru-hiker trades answers to questions about their hike with day-hikers, picnickers, campers, etc, in exchange for an offer of food or refreshment.  

   

The Thru-Hiking Experience:

Weather--Temperatures at the trail termini can be quite cold in the spring and fall, and snowfall can occur in the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians well into April. Summers in the central portions can be stiflingly hot, with temperatures over 100 degrees F and high humidity. Rain is common throughout the trail; statistics indicate that hikers can expect to be rained upon 1 out of every 3 days.

Difficulty/completion rate--About 1 in 4 people who set out to thru-hike the trail will successfully do so. The reasons people quit certainly vary. It can be injury, difficulty, homesickness, running out of money, or just losing the desire to continue hiking. Many people who do quit, as much as 30% of the entire group of potential thru-hikers, do so very near the beginning of their hike. Reasons include going into the thru-hike with inadequate research and an unrealistic expectation of what the trail would be like. The AT is surprisingly rugged. Hikers who come in expecting to prance through fields of wildflowers are often dismayed when they instead receive days of trudging through mud and bugs.

Body Weight Loss--It is nearly impossible to carry, and eat, as many calories as a backpacker will burn in a day. Weight loss is not uncommon. Men in particular can expect to lose a significant amount of weight, in both fat as well as upper body muscle mass. Women tend to lose less weight than men, partially due to offsetting the fat weight loss with increasing muscle mass.

                

The “Trail Blues”--The “Trail Blues” are something many hikers go through along the way. Eventually, the length and/or difficulty of the journey weighs on them and they lose the passion for thru-hiking. For some, the Trail Blues lasts only a day. For others, much longer. It can lead to quitting the Trail, or it can lead to a further commitment to finish the Trail and complete the goal.

Trail Etiquette:

There are no secret handshakes or anything like that. "Don't be a jerk" would probably be the best etiquette advice--just like in real life, most situations come down to that.

-- Little things that come up with new hikers on the trail:

-- A lot of thruhikers end up acquiring a false sense of entitlement. They think they deserve something out of people because they're thruhikers, and forget that not everybody gives a shit like they do. Be humble and appreciative, and don't get upset when you don't get a freebie from that family of campers with obviously too many burgers and brewskies. And it’s easy to do in places like the Smokies and the Shenandoahs when they're full of stuck-up day hikers and weekenders that fill up the shelters before noon and crowd you out, nor do they want your stinky company ruining their good time.

--Don't mess with other peoples' stuff. It's pretty common for hikers to stash their packs by the side of the trail while they go down a side trail for water or a view. Just leave their stuff alone. However, if you find a lone item that seems to have been dropped or forgotten, it can be polite to carry it along to the next shelter and see if anyone there recognizes it.

--Remember that you're like a spokesperson for the trail, so try and project the right image when you're on the trail or town. If you're staying in a hostel or hotel, clean up after yourself. The $40 you paid for the room doesn't cover cleaning up your leftover food or bere racns. Make it easy for them to like hikers. There are hotels along that trail that become “hiker unfriendly” because a previous hiker had trashed the place. On other trails, AT hikers do get a bad name for being arrogant or entitled. Just don't be that person and try and point it out when you see it. Some may be at an age where they can't see the damage they're doing and to them they’re just having fun.

--Don't comment on other peoples' stuff as a way of saying what they're carrying is wrong or that they should have made a different gear choice. It's annoying. You'll see people trying to hike with 50 lbs. of stuff, but they'll figure out that it's too much on their own.

--If you snore really loudly, it is polite to tent it instead of sleeping in a crowded shelter (unless it's bad weather).

--A lot of tourists like to give thru-hikers food, which is great, but please don't go up and just ask for it. It makes us thru-hikers out to be homeless bums.  See “Yogi-ing”, under Hiking Terminology.

-- Not everyone wants to hear your music.  Keep it to yourself unless you’ve asked permission of everyone nearby.  

--Hikers go to bed early.  Once the sun goes down bedtime is soon to follow. Please be respectful of that. In thru-hiker parlance, 9:00 pm is referred to as “hiker midnight.”

Thru-Hike Length:

Generally a thru-hike takes 5-7 months, depending on a variety of factors including hiking speed and number of days off taken.

Typical Hiking Dates:

A typical NOBO thru-hike starts in March to early May, and finishes between August and October, with Baxter State Park closing to camping on October 15. Note: depending on the weather, the Rangers may close Mt. Katahdin to hikers earlier than October 15th.

A typical SOBO thru-hike starts in June to July, and finishes in November or December.

Hiking Speed:

Over the course of an entire thru-hike, the average daily mileage hiked is typically around 12 miles (19km)  per day, but that number varies wildly over the course of the entire hike. Hikers generally start slow, achieve their maximum miles per day (as many as 25-30 miles or 40-50km) in the long days of mid-summer, and then see their miles per day come back down as the terrain at the end of the trail becomes more strenuous. It is good advice to resist the temptation to hike big miles every day at the start, since this can bring on stress injuries or knee problems. Keeping your average low at the start will help your body adapt and get your “thru-hiker legs.”

Resupply:

        Typically every 3-7 hiking days the AT passes close enough to, or occasionally directly through, a    

town that will provide an opportunity get off the trail and into civilization. For restocking one’s food supply, there are two basic strategies: “buy-as-you-go” and “maildrops.” These can be used separately, but are more often combined. Flexibility and adaptability are keys to success.

Buy-as-you-go--Buying all of your food at grocery stores and other shops along the way is becoming more and more popular among thru-hikers. It allows you to adjust and tailor your food supply to your changing needs and tastes. There is an uncertainty factor with this strategy: Not every trail town has a well-stocked grocery store. Sometimes a town will have a big grocery, sometimes a small one, and sometimes no grocery at all. One will probably have to resupply with food from a gas station or convenience on at least a few occasions.

Maildrops--The alternative to buy-as-you-go is to have packages of food and supplies, called a “maildrop,” sent to you through USPS to receptive locations along the way (post office branches, hiker hostels, grocery stores, etc). By mailing yourself food you selected ahead of time, you can be

sure of exactly what you will be getting and will not be reliant upon whatever you can find in town. There may even be cost savings from buying in bulk or preparing your own food (just be sure to factor the cost of packaging and shipping into the cost calculations). Maildrops are not without downsides: one must select food months ahead of time without knowing how needs may change along the way; tastes may change along the way and you may find that you no longer want to eat the food you’ve already bought and mailed; and maildrops can tie your hiking schedule to the post office schedules.

Most hikers end up using some combination of Buy-as-you-go and Maildrops. Even if not used for food resupply, the Maildrop system is useful for situations such as receiving care packages from home and swapping out gear as the seasons change.

The protocol for sending a thru-hiker maildrop is to address the package:

Hiker’s Name ℅ General Delivery

City, State and Zip Code of Post Office

Please hold for AT thru-hiker, estimated ETA __/__/__

Always use the hiker’s real name, NOT their trail name, as the hiker will have to present ID to pick up the box. Typically the package will be held by the post office for up to 10 days to allow time for the hiker to arrive and pick it up.  

Thru-hiker typical menu--

Breakfast Ideas: packages of instant oatmeal with cold water, Pop-Tarts

Lunch Ideas: tortillas, peanut butter, cheese, pepperoni

Dinner Ideas: Lipton Sides (rice or noodles), macaroni and cheese, Ramen noodles

Snack Ideas: GORP, granola bars, candy bars, nuts, dried fruit

 

Water:

Most of the water a thru-hiker drinks comes from naturally occurring sources, such as springs and streams. The guidebooks and maps will typically list available sources along the trail. Most thru-hikers choose to treat the water to reduce the risk of consuming water contaminated with microorganisms such as giardia. Methods of water treatment include boiling, filtering, and chemical treatment.

Money:

The thru-hiker can expect to spend somewhere between $2,500 and $10,000 on the trip, with the $4000 to $6000 range being the most common in recent years. Hiking speed, number of overnight town stops, and personal habits such as drinking alcohol and smoking can all be big factors in how much a thru-hike will ultimately cost.

Animal Encounters:

Probably the first thing every prospective thru-hiker worries about are black bears (no grizzly bears exist in the wild anywhere along the AT). “They’re more afraid of you” applies here as well as other black bear habitats. Most often, the bear will hear you coming and will run away before you ever see it. Sometimes, however, you will encounter a bear that is not so nervous around people, maybe because it has been fed before or because too many humans have been encroaching on its territory. If you come across a bear like this, it is best to clap or bang your hiking poles together and maybe give out a “Get outta here!” Almost always, the bear will then leave your area. If not, look at its feet and not its eyes, and walk backward away from it. Turning your back on any bear can encourage a predatory response.

Proper camping protocol says that you should hang a bear bag every night and sleep a good distance from your food. In practice, this doesn’t often happen. Food is typically hung within the shelter, or only hung at head height when tenting. Even so, it is extremely rare to have any problem with a bear. However, it is best that you never cook in your tent, eat inside your tent, have any food or wrappers on your person when you sleep, and that you do not apply any scented lotions to your body at night. These would encourage any bear to investigate the smell and come too close for your comfort.

But all in all, it is a rare and wonderful experience when you encounter a bear on your thru-hike. You are likely to see enough that you lose any irrational fears about the animal, yet keep your respect for the powerful and beautiful creatures that they are.

Snakes are another animal you will encounter on your hike. Black snakes (also known as Rat Snakes) are almost always black in colour and are not venomous. Do not handle a black snake, however, as they have bad attitudes and their bite stings. You may also see a few garter snakes, which are also harmless.

There are two venomous snakes you may encounter along the way: the rattlesnake (we will use the general ‘rattlesnake’ term instead of specifying the four different kinds) and the copperhead. Both are pit vipers. The “pit” is a special organ in their head to detect heat. Both have a diamond-shaped head, whereas the black and garter snakes do not.

Rattlesnakes are more docile than you may think, and it is extremely rare for a hiker to get bitten. As rare as it is for a rattlesnake to bite in the first place, only 1 in 5 times that a rattlesnake bites a human does it inject venom. If you are bitten, apply light pressure (NOT a tourniquet) just above the wound using a strip of clothing.

Copperhead bites are not typically fatal except to the very young or old, or to anyone with any autoimmune issues. Still, the bite is one of the most painful snakebites around, causing a lot of pain and swelling. It is highly recommended that you seek medical attention for a copperhead bite.

Guns on the Trail:

Generally speaking, the AT is safer, from both an animal encounter and a human point of view than wherever you are reading this from right now. If you take into account the 3 million people who use the AT yearly and the number of incidents in which a gun would be useful, you have better odds of winning the lottery than of ever needing to use a gun in self-defense. Of course carrying a firearm is a personal decision, to be left up to the individual. A couple of points to be aware of should you decide to carry: The AT passes through 14 states, each of which has different licensing requirements which will make carrying a firearm legally in all those different jurisdictions very difficult. A firearm that’s been hidden to avoid being seen carrying illegally will probably be so inaccessible as to be useless in an actual emergency. Also, generally speaking, the community of thru-hikers tends to be anti-gun. A hiker that is known to be carrying a firearm will find that other hikers are likely to go out of their way to avoid them.  

Planning resources:

-Keep in mind that predictions about gear, mileage, arrival times, campsites/shelters made months in advance when not on the trail are rough estimates at best and likely to be wildly inaccurate- most thru-hikers plan out only the next few days and stay flexible.

-Postholer.com's interactive AT map can be very useful for getting an understanding of where the trail runs.

-The ATC maintains a Parking, Shuttles & Transportation page that lists Shuttle Services, Public Transportation options, as well as information on trailhead vandalism reports.  Very helpful for figuring out the logistics of getting to and fro the trail for section hiking, or in case of emergency.

-For both pre-hike and on-trail planning, be it for a thru-hike next year or where to stop for lunch, the guidebooks are probably the single best resource available. There are currently two options for guidebooks:

-AWOL's The AT Guide, produced by David Miller

-The AT Companion produced by The ALDHA.

-Two good online resources for determining where to resupply along the trail are:

-The 5 part Re-Supply Along the Appalachian Trail article by Jack “Baltimore Jack” Tarlin at Whiteblaze.net.

-The 10, 12 and 15 day Thru-Hike Plans from The AT Guide.

Gear:

Gear selection is as individual as each hiker is, and it’s probably safe to say that no two thru-hikers have ever hiked the trail with the exact same set of gear. Gear is a topic of almost endless discussion amongst backpackers, but there is no “right” answer when it comes to gear selection. There are, however, some basic guidelines to get you started.

Basic Gear Checklist--

Backpack

Sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

Shelter (tent, tarp, hammock)

Headlamp or small flashlight

Water carrying (bladder or bottles)

Water treatment (filter or chemical treatment)

Stove, including fuel and lighter

Cookpot

Eating Utensil

Small knife or scissors

Small first-aid & repair kit

Guidebook, maps

Insect repellant (not needed immediately at the start for a traditionally-timed NOBO hike)

Toiletries (toilet paper, toothbrush, toothpaste)

Sunscreen

Pen and paper (for journaling, trail notes)

CameraTre

kking poles

Backpack rain protection (pack cover or liner)

Stuff sacks (as needed for organizing gear)

Clothing:

T-shirt

Shorts or convertible hiking pants

Base Layer long-sleeve shirt and long underwear (for cold weather)

Socks

Rain jacket

Insulated jacket / fleece (for cold weather)

Wool / fleece hat and gloves (for cold weather)

Footwear--

Fit: Proper footwear should feel good right out of the box. Be sure to wear your selection on the incline available at good hiking stores. Facing the decline, your toes should not hit the front of the shoe, even if you simulate walking. Facing the incline, your foot should not lift much at all out of the heel, but be a pretty snug fit. Even boots should not require any real amount of breaking in before you go hiking, though any amount of breaking in beforehand never really hurts. An aftermarket insole for your shoes is recommended can improve both comfort and stability.

A thru-hiker has several choices for hiking footwear, each with their own pros and cons:

        Boots:

                Pros:        Long lasting

                        High level of foot protection

                        Frequently available as waterproof

                Cons:        Heavy

Expensive

Heavy (this point is worth repeating)

                Trail Runners / Hiking Shoes:

                Pros:        Lightweight

                        Breathable

                Cons:        Less durable (expect to replace a few pair throughout a thru-hike)

                        Cooler

                        Lower level of foot protection

                        Less waterproof

Barefoot Shoes:

Pros:        Very lightweight

Cons        Lower level of foot protection

        Besides footwear to hike in, many hikers carry a pair of “camp shoes” with them, to wear primarily

at shelters/campsite or in town. These can be quite nice to allow your feet to breathe after a long day of hiking, or to allow your hiking footwear to dry. Low weight and comfort are the most important criteria for camp shoes. Crocs, sandals and flip-flops are popular choices.