The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, more commonly known as the Appalachian Trail or just the A.T., is a marked hiking trail in the eastern US. It stretches between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, passing through 14 states in total. An estimated 2-3 million people hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail each year, mostly as day hikes or short backpacking trips. However, this trail is most famous as a thru-hike.
To hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail is a huge undertaking. It requires massive commitment and personal investment, but the payoff is huge. Those who complete the Appalachian Trail are known as “2,000-milers”, which is a coveted title amongst hiking enthusiasts the world over.
What is thru-hiking?
Thru-hiking (or through-hiking) is the practice of hiking an established long-distance trail, from end to end. It’s to be done with continuous footsteps and must be completed within one calendar year in order to qualify.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular thru-hikes in the United States, along with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). These are the trails which thru-hiking is commonly associated with, but the term could be used to describe other end-to-end long-distance hiking as well.
How long is the Appalachian Trail?
On average, the length of the Appalachian Trail is 2,200 miles or 3,500 kilometers. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports its current length as 2,190 miles, but this is subject to change. Every year, trail modifications such as reroutes are made, mainly for preservation reasons.
This means the exact length of the trail is constantly changing, for example in 2015 the A.T. was a total of 2,189 miles. The ACT estimates that 99% of the trail has been rebuilt or relocated since 1937. So, at over 2,000 miles, the A.T. is considered the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
In order from south to north, the A.T. passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Crossing all 14 states via the Appalachian Trail amounts to approximately 5,000,000 steps. During this time, hikers gain and lose elevation of over 89 miles, the equivalent of scaling Everest 16 times. More than a quarter of the trail lies in Virginia, making it the state with the longest segment of the A.T., whereas the portion of the path in West Virginia is only 4 miles long.
Average miles per day on Appalachian Trail
The average miles per day for a hiker on the A.T. is 12-16. Usually starting at a pace of 8-10 miles each day, and then slowly working upwards. Most will hit a few 20-25 mile days towards the end of their hike, but the average miles per day on the Appalachian Trail is 16. Don’t expect to hit your target every day, but make sure you set a goal to reach every month. This way, you’ll reach the end before the winter.
Most thru-hikers will complete the Appalachian Trail in 5 to 7 months, with 165 days being average. This means the majority of those who complete the trail end-to-end finish just before the 6-month mark. The current record for completion of the A.T. is 45 and a half days, set by Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy in 2017, who accomplished an impressive average of 48 miles a day. This was set on the northbound route, which is the most popular choice for the A.T.
Which route to hike the A.T.
By far the most popular choice amongst hikers on the Appalachian Trail is the northbound route. Starting off at Springer Mountain and following the path the whole way to the northern terminus in Maine, 89% of A.T. thru-hikers opt for this traditional path.
However, due to the growing popularity of thru-hiking the A.T., the northbound route becomes very crowded at certain times of the year. The optimal start date for hiking northbound is mid-March to early April, and you can expect to see many other hikers of you decide on this option.
When starting in March, hikers can expect a few weeks of winter weather and sometimes deep snow. After that, hot to mild weather is most likely through to New England, with some more cold weather when reaching New Hampshire and Maine in September and October.
The Appalachian Trail Conservatory has asked aspiring thru-hikers to consider other route options and other times of the year, as the huge amount of traffic the A.T. sees northbound at the start of April is very damaging to the wildlife.
As many as 100 hikers begin the A.T. from Springer Mountain on the first of April, and this leads to trampled vegetation and sanitation issues because of overcrowding. Consider why you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail- if it has anything to do with peace and solitude, you’re better off avoiding these crowds.
You may want to consider hiking the southbound route, from Maine to Georgia. This is a much more challenging way to hike the trail, as it means traversing the hardest part first. On your first day, you’ll have to climb Katahdin, a mountain with an elevation of more than 4000 feet.
This is arguably the hardest climb across the entire A.T., so the southbound route is only recommended for experienced hikers. Southbound hikers are also limited in start dates, as the trails on Katahdin might not open before the first of June.
Increasingly, A.T. hikers are opting for a different approach, foregoing both the northbound and southbound routes. Instead, so-called “flip flop” thru-hikes entail hiking the entirety of the trail in different sections. For example, one could start in the middle and head north, and upon reaching Mount Katahdin in Maine, head back to the middle and do the southern half of the trail.
This route option is a great choice as it means you can avoid the crowds and the bad weather, and it’s much better for the preservation of the trail. For hikers who don’t have 6 months to set aside, section-hiking the A.T. over the course of a few years can also be an option.
Preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail
There’s a lot of preparation which goes into an undertaking of this magnitude, it’s not for the faint of heart. You might wonder if you need a permit to thru-hike this trail, but it’s not necessary for the whole thing. However, some State and National Parks require permits to hike through.
Obtaining these is easy, as the best way is to simply pick one up when you arrive. Permits are required for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee ($20), Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (free), and Baxter State Park in Maine (free). It’s also a good idea to register your through-hike. This isn’t required, but registering for the A.T. can help connect you with other aspiring hikers and also prevent overcrowding.
Because of the magnitude of this undertaking, every hiker should have a designated support person at home. You’ll need to let them know where you’ll be and when to make you easier to locate in case of an emergency. This can also be the person who sends resupply boxes to keep you going on your journey.
Thru-hiking is hard, it requires great physical and mental strength, there’s no point going around it. Before you go, get used to carrying all your gear on your back, test out the weight regularly and have overnight practice hikes. Find some different terrains in different conditions to test out, because in 2000 miles you can expect lots of new and challenging terrains. Make sure your body is ready for the task at hand.
Where to sleep while thru-hiking the A.T.
There are 260 shelters along the entire Appalachian Trail, which is an average of one every 8.5 miles. They’re spaced from 5 to 15 miles apart, and if there’s a town with lodging nearby then it could be up to 30 miles before you reach the next one.
Shelters along the A.T. are maintained by 31 different trail clubs, who also perform other duties such as painting white blazes. Spaces in these shelters are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Many hikers prefer these shelters to tents as it’s much easier without the setup time and the added weight. A typical shelter on the A.T. is just a floor, three walls, and a roof, accommodating 6-12 people on average.
Shelters are usually near water sources, with fire pits and even bathrooms. They offer an opportunity to socialize with other hikers and are much more convenient than tents when it comes to packing and carrying. The only downsides to sleeping in shelters are the possible presence of mice, and of course the possibility of overcrowding. We recommend carrying a tent or hammock as a backup, as sometimes shelters may be full, or you might want to spend a night somewhere else.
There are also plenty of campsites along the Appalachian Trail, and they make a great option for some nights. For example, our article on the best campgrounds in New England features Beartown State Forest Campground, situated perfectly for a stopover off the A.T.
Food and water on the Appalachian Trail
There is an abundance of water sources on the Appalachian Trail, with one at almost every shelter, and plenty of streams along the path. However, especially with increased traffic on the A.T., these water sources are becoming more likely to be contaminated. You should always treat any water you drink, wash dishes, or cook with, using a water purification filter or tablet.
Thru-hikers burn on average 5,500 calories a day, which could be double what you’re used to eating. Most long-distance hikers eat as much as they can, as often as they can, otherwise, they risk a serious calorie deficit. As the Appalachian Trail passes through plenty of towns, resupplying with food is easy. The most you’ll have to carry is 8 days worth of food when crossing the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine.
Dehydrated backpacking recipes are popular with thru-hikers, as they provide more calories while not being as expensive as shop-bought dehydrated meals. It’s also easy to resupply, just have them sent to your post office stops along the trail.
How much does hiking the A.T. cost?
On average, the total cost of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is $5,000-$7,000. This includes gear, trail resupply, and town expenses. You can expect to spend around $1,000 a month per person, so planning well and budgeting is advised.
Depending on how much gear you already have, you could spend up to $2,000 in this category. You can search for good deals, but don’t compromise on quality; for the Appalachian Trail you need high-quality lightweight equipment, or else you risk not being able to complete it.
Around $15 a day of trail expenses covers buying food and shipping resupply boxes. Over 5 months this amounts to $2250, which may seem like a shocking figure. However, the amount of calories you burn hiking long-distance is huge, so make sure you buy and eat as much food as you need.
There are 70 towns along the Appalachian Trail, but we recommend visiting only a handful. Town visits are very appealing after an extended period on the trail, offering luxurious comfortable beds, plumbing, and television. However, the costs of visits can mount up, so save money by only visiting the best trail towns.
Fun facts and FAQs about the Appalachian Trail
- Since the creation of the Appalachian Trail in 1936, nearly 20,000 people have hiked all 2200 miles end-to-end. 50 of these hikers were age 70 and above.
- About 15% of backpackers give up just a few days into Georgia.
- Only 20% of aspiring thru-hikers actually finish their journey.
- Only 20% of 2,000-milers (people who have successfully completed the trail) are women.
- Dogs are allowed everywhere on the A.T. apart from The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bear Mountain State Park, and Baxter State Park.
- The highest elevation on the trail is Clingmans Dome, 6643 feet above sea level.
- Most backpackers will go through 4 or 5 pairs of hiking boots on the route.
- On average, you can expect to lose 30 pounds during your 6 months on the trail.
What do I need to take on the Appalachian Trail?
One thing we would recommend you take on the Appalachian Trail is a paracord survival bracelet. It’s a strong and durable cord used for parachutes, and it’s vital to carry in case of emergency survival situations. Even section hikers should carry survival gear, as it’s always better to be prepared.
Our favorite is the Savior Survival Gear Paracord Bracelet, which provides 12 feet of extra-hardy 7 strand 550lb paracord. The clasp is stainless steel, meaning it’s strong enough to make it through the entire trail. Your equipment must be durable when hiking the Appalachian trail, so high-quality materials like stainless steel are a good choice.
This bracelet makes an excellent addition to any backpack, helping the trek across the backcountry to be just a little easier. For more information, read our whole review of the best paracord bracelets.
If you want to learn more about the Appalachian Trail, check out the ATC website for some useful information. We think that thru-hiking the A.T. is an honorable undertaking, and encourage all aspiring 2000-milers to aim high, but remember to take a moment to enjoy the beauty of nature.
It takes 5 million steps, an average of 16 miles per day on the Appalachian Trail, for 6 months, to complete the longest hiking-only trail in the world. Maybe you could challenge the current record holder- think you can do it in 45 days? You’ll pass through 14 different states on your journey, so who knows what new experiences the trail has in store.
You could choose to go the traditional northbound route, but risk crowding and damage to nature. Alternatively, a southbound trek would prove much more of a challenge; it’s recommended for experienced hikers only but the benefit is a much reduced environmental impact. Or, you could become a section hiker, and complete the trail in small chunks over a period of years. At least this way you won’t have to take 6 months off work.
Whatever you decide, just respect the trails that we are so lucky to have access to. Park rangers, along with thousands of volunteers, work tirelessly to keep the Appalachian Trail in top condition. Being careful means we’ll be able to enjoy the breathtaking A.T. for longer.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on planning your first thru-hike!