Are you ready for your Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
You need special shoes for hiking — and a bit of a special soul as well.
~ Terri Guillemets
So you want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?
First off, congratulations and good luck. As I have written many times, if all you do is to fully prepare for the trail and make it three days to Mountain Crossings, you’ve done a bigger adventure than most other people will do in their entire lives. Given that reality, the first thing I will tell you to do is relax and stop feeling any pressure about your hike, what you’re about to do will be amazing in ways you can’t even imagine. So let’s get into.
How should you prepare for your Appalachian Thru-hike?
The annoying and very true answer to how to prepare for a thru-hike really is to hike. There’s no exercise that does a good job of preparing you for the combined walking stresses and weight carrying that you’ll be doing. Unfortunately, pre-hike, few people are ever really able to go out and hike everyday with a full pack on.
So what’s the most sensible way to get ready, first, don’t do what I did for my thru-hike attempt in 2015, sit on your ass for six weeks pre-hike. Unfortunately I had a sick family member and needed to take care of them. So what should you do? For most folks the answer is going to be the gym during the week and hopefully hike (weather permitting} on the weekends. Obviously we’re talking about doing a lot of cardio, but don’t forget to work on strengthening your quads, those muscles protect your knees. Also, some work on your glutes and hip adductors is not a bad idea. One thing I learned after my hike was that if you pedal backwards on the elliptical you actually hit all the muscles in your legs you activate on downhills. This is great because most of us don’t have steep downhills to workout on, or don’t want to look like a total dork walking up and down the same hill in the local park.
So I recommend working out four days a week, heavy cardio (treadmill, stair master) including doing some reverse time on the elliptical. Also, doing quad, glute and hip adductor exercises twice a week, and you don’t have to go nuts, an hour a night consistently pre-hike will help get you ready. Then on the weekends, if you can, do a 7-10 mile hike with your pack on. If not, do a long session in the gym with the goal not of going hard but going long. Spend a couple of hours alternating between the treadmill, elliptical and the stair master. You’re trying to get your body used to going for a long time, trust me, on the trail, you’re going to end up going slower than you believe you will pre-hike.
I remember before my hike looking at people doing 8-10 mile a day averages and thinking how lame. I was sure I’d end up averaging 12-15 miles per day. Sure, I expected some short days in the beginning but c’mon. Well, my hike, pre and post injury, ended up lasting 100 days and I did 1002 miles, almost exactly 10 miles a day. Now, that included days where I did over 20 miles and a lot of days early on where I did 10 or less.
The most important thing about training physically for the hike is to do something consistently almost every day. You’re training for endurance, not for speed and that first day, no matter what you will do, will make you feel like you didn’t do enough. That’s ok, that’s how everybody feels.
Finally, test hikes, if at all possible get out and do some test hikes, a couple of overnighters at least or better yet a couple of 3 day/2 night hikes. If you can’t at least fill your pack, take it out into the back yard a few nights, set camp, eat trail food and sleep outside. This will give you and idea of how well things will work, and after a few times, that thing you never used at all, leave it home.
What’s a thru-hike really like?
There’s an old tag line for the Peace Corps, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” That’s what a thru-hike on the AT is like. It’s amazing, the people are fantastic, the AT trail community is the best I’ve ever encountered. It will be physically hard as hell, hiking through Georgia in the late-winter, early spring is just plain hard. Wet, slippery, rocky and root filled trails, shitty weather, you’ll be wet a lot of the time no matter how good your gear is that you’re using. It can be really cold as well and when it’s super cold and wet you just need to embrace the suck, put your head down and push on.
The best book out there in my opinion to give you a nice picture of what a full thru-hike to Maine is like is AWOL on the Appalachian Trail. Yes, the same AWOL who writes the trail guide you should be carrying, he’s a great guy, his book is a good read and gives you a good picture of what it’s like. There are tons of good trail books but AWOL’s book does the best job of hitting the day-to-day reality of the trail. I’m also completely biased in thinking my book, Appalachian Trail Happiness does a good job of this as well, with a little more discussion of trail characters and the community. Read them both, you won’t be sorry.
What should you carry on your hike?
I’ll link out to my Appalachian Trail Resource Page and let you look at some of the gear lists out there. Of course, pack size, what you carry will always be an individual decision but here are some good basic rules. First, even with your winter bag, your pack should never exceed 45 pounds. Now, I knew a guy who carried 70 pounds and finished, but I wouldn’t go that route. If your bag is over 45 pounds, shake that bad boy down again and again.
Ok, so you packed your pack and it’s like mine was, 52 pounds, now what. First, you have too much food. You are really only doing a series of three-day hikes, yes, you’ll be hungry at times like you’ve never ever been before. However, towns are accessible, especially early on, everyone is carrying too much food, hikers are awesome and will share and you can make it up to them in town. Cut down on how much food you’re carrying and get rid of things that aren’t dehydrated or have high calorie/weight ratios.
Do you really need a zero degree sleeping bag? I sleep hot, so I brought a 15 degree bag to use in my hammock with no under quilt. The first night it dropped well below freezing and I sweat my ass off, which is a really bad thing. Until I was able to swap it out for my 32 degree back I used it like a blanket and carried too much weight for what I was getting out of it. Now, I sleep hot, for you a 15 degree bag might be what you need. This is where test hikes really can help you figure things out.
You don’t need redundancy! This was one place I really struggled. I’m that guy who has a headlamp and a flashlight, two knives, extra socks, my rain jacket and a poncho. I started out on the trail with two lighters. What’s wrong with that? Well considering I don’t smoke and my Jet Boil has a striker on it I didn’t even need one lighter, much less two. I know, people like me right now are like no, I’m carrying at least one. I get it, but you don’t need it. Worst case, you’re cookpot striker stops working. Early on the trail there are plenty of people around, you can burrow a lighter, or use the matches you also brought, which is a good idea, good alternative and light weight.
Shakedown your pack, again and again and again, every single time get rid of stuff. Ask someone else to shake down your pack. You can do this virtually by laying out the whole pack, taking some close up pictures and sending them to someone, hell, send them to me firstname.lastname@example.org and have that person make suggestions.
What should you eat on your thru-hike?
More than anything else on the trail this is a massive individual decision and you can link to a deeper dive on this issue for a piece on Appalachian Trail Food Resources. For example, I don’t like to cook in the morning, I like to get up, pack up and get walking, I’m not a morning person. So in the mornings I needed something quick, high calorie that I’d be excited about eating. So for me, when it was cold, little chocolate donuts were absolutely perfect. When it warmed up powdered donuts and pop tarts worked. Not the healthiest breakfast but it worked for me. Other folks made oatmeal, or did dehydrated breakfast foods, etc…
For lunch, tortillas with all manner of fillers was really common. Of course there was no set lunch for most of us, you eat when you’re hungry.
At camp at night, I almost exclusively ate dehydrated meals like Mountain House, of course I didn’t have a real restrictive budget. Knorr pasta sides were popular, summer sausage, ets…
For snacks everything you can imagine was on the menu, as long as the calorie to weight ratio was pretty good.
Eventually, you get tired of the same things over and over and people get creative, even at times sacrificing the weight to calorie ratio if it got you excited about it, it was about this point when the babyfood squeezers start to show up on the trail.
What kind of schedule should I keep?
NONE! Look I realize some people have really limited time, but most people aren’t in a bind for time. So my advice to you is forget about pace, just do what is comfortable and works, this is one of those times when you really have to understand the journey is at least as important as the final destination. We had great fun at times reading Second Star’s trail guide, she’d mapped out each day all the way to Maine, needless to say, she was way off schedule and that was just fine. I realize it’s a bit counter intuitive but worry about having good days, worry about staying healthy and taking care of your body and Maine will take care of itself.
What is the hardest part of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?
For most people believe it or not, the hardest part of the a thru-hike is the psychological aspect. It’s incredibly physically hard, sure, but you were mentally ready for that. Plus, your body starts adapting to what you’re doing. But most of us don’t do a great job preparing mentally for a thru-hike. There’s a great book, Appalachian Trials, that really talks about this aspect of doing a thru-hike including some exercises and ways to cope. On the trail I watched a lot of people struggle with being away from partners, spouses and kids, if you’re leaving someone behind, get yourself ready for the separation and prepare a plan on how to deal with it.
What if I decide to quit?
Quitting the Appalachian Trail can be a torturous decision for folks. It’s really hard to give up on something you’ve likely been dreaming about for years, decades, maybe your whole life. I wrote a piece called Quitting the Appalachian Trail that I think addresses the issue really well.
What’s it like finishing the AT?
Unfortunately on this point I have no experience. I’ve got around 1100 miles done, I bunched my first 1000 on my thru-hike attempt in 2015. I’ve done some extra since then but I will need to either keep section hiking or take another big chunk off someday in the future. But what I can say is do a Google image search for AT Kathadin and look at the faces of the people posing at the end of their thru-hike, I think you’ll get a sense of the joy.
How do I prevent the post hike blues?
No matter whether you finish, quit or are forced to get off the trail, returning to regular (default) life can be a huge letdown after being on the trail. You have lost your trail family, the greater AT community, your daily well-defined purpose, that can all really gang up on you and tank your mood. My piece on Post-trail Depression, talks in detail about the feelings and gives some techniques for effectively dealing with them.
Above all, be excited, enjoy your time on the trail, I’m jealous, I wish I was going with you. Have a happy day my friends. ~ Rev Kane