Stretching for 2,168 miles from Georgia to Maine and crossing through 14 states including North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Trail is one of the most storied hiking adventures in the United States. Thru-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail takes months and training to hike it can take 6 months to a year for hikers who aren’t in ready physical condition.
In addition to the Appalachian Mountains, there’s a variety of natural wonders and landmarks dotting the way and sudden changes in weather can also cause delays. If you attempt to strike out during peak season, you may find the trailhead overcrowded with excited hikers anxious to begin their long-distance hiking trip.
Only about one in four hikers who attempt an Appalachian Trail thru-hike make it the entire way. Failure can be caused by any one of a number of factors or the combination of several, from physical unfitness to a bad attitude to poor planning. Bear in mind that to make it thru-hiking the entire length of the trail, hikers will have to plan their resupply stops, rest stops, and shelter to suit the time they have and, more importantly, the amount of money on hand to fund the journey.
As with other thru-hikes and long-distance hiking, the Appalachian Trail is a tough endurance test that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you’re wondering how long it will take you to complete the entire trail then you’re already on the way to forming a proper plan to tackle it.
There are some dangers on the AT that hikers and campers who have spent lots of time in the backcountry are already familiar with. Black bears have been sighted all along the trail, with a higher concentration in the northern states. Blisters from improper footwear or from overexertion are common, especially for hikers who aren’t sure how to waterproof their gear or get stuck out in bad weather. Some hikers choose to attempt or are forced to attempt hiking the entire Appalachian Trail or sections of it in the winter months, which means they have to carry extra gear and plan their shelter even more carefully to make sure they can keep warm.
Other considerations hikers should make in the planning stages of an attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail are water sources and their caloric intake. A few weeks into the trek hikers usually gain what’s called Hiker Hunger, an insatiable appetite for absolutely anything they can get their hands on. Whatever your energy needs off-trail, once you start this behemoth hike your body will start to need much more in terms of calories just to keep your feet stepping and muscles working to tackle the elevation gains and losses along the way.
Hikers who successfully complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike are called 2,000 milers and there are lots of them in trail clubs and on web forums ready to offer advice about how to tackle the entire trail, when to start, how to stay fed, and things you should look out for. We’ve compiled all the best advice on hiking the Appalachian Trail so you can have a better idea of how long it takes and what ways you can best prepare yourself for this huge undertaking. Read on to get the full rundown and save yourself some time scanning through a hundred different FAQ sections and forum posts with our comprehensive guide.
How long is the Appalachian Trail?
Information on the exact length of the Appalachian Trail is pretty easy to come by, but the length itself has changed many times since the AT was completed in 1937. Sections have been changed and moved around fairly regularly. In fact, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), caretaker of the AT, estimates that almost the entire trail – 99% of it – has been changed since its opening.
Now, that’s not to say that unsuspecting hikers could find their trail maps out of date while they’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, but rather to say that the length does change. It’s increased over 200 miles from its original 2,000-mile length that gave rise to the 2,000 miler moniker for successful thru-hikers. In addition to the length, the direction of travel can also affect how long it takes thru-hikers to complete the entire Appalachian Trail.
Northbound, southbound, or flip-flop?
There are three ways hikers can begin their AT trek. Traditionally, the trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the famed Mount Katahdin in Maine. This is what’s known as the northbound route since it runs north, and it remains the most popular way to hike the AT.
With the increased interest in long-distance hiking and the Appalachian Trail, in particular, the trailhead at Springer Mountain can be frightfully full at peak season, which runs from April 1 to May 15 generally speaking. Many hikers begin a thru-hike on the AT at that time of year because it will give them the nicest possible fair weather to complete the entire trail.
Since the northbound route is so crowded, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has begun to advise prospective hikers to start the trail at Mount Katahdin and hike southbound. This is a wiser choice for hikers who want to get the more difficult hiking out of the way at the beginning of their trek or want to be in the warmer southern states in colder months of the year. There are many reasons to start a thru-hike in Maine rather than Georgia, but the most often cited is the reduced crowd.
Finally, some section hikers have opted to complete the Appalachian Trail on various day hikes and shorter excursions over a period of years. This practice has also led to a tactic called flip-flopping, which involves starting somewhere in the middle of the hiking trail and then doubling back. There is no limit to the number of specific routes you can take, but there are some that are more common.
Harper’s Ferry flip-flop
One of the most common methods for section hikers on the AT is the Harper’s Ferry flip-flop, which involves hikers beginning at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia, moving north to Katahdin, and then hiking south from Harper’s Ferry to Mount Springer in Georgia. This two-part method is popular for already-experienced section hikers and people who may not have an uninterrupted time span to complete the entire trail from start to finish.
Hikers can return to Harper’s Ferry by train, bus, or plane to complete the second half of the trail at a later date. Optimally, long-distance hikers leave Harper’s Ferry and reach Katahdin in August, then leave Harper’s Ferry again around Labor Day to complete the southern half of the AT.
Bear in mind when planning your Harper’s Ferry flip-flop route that mud season in Vermont doesn’t end until Memorial Day and snow in New Hampshire and other northern states won’t melt away until around the same time, so it’s best to start northbound from Harper’s Ferry on or after April 15.
Late August to early September is the ideal time to start southbound from Harper’s Ferry because it will save hikers from having to deal with the high humidity in northern Virginia and points south. Naturally, for either of these routes hikers who prefer to take detours or just move more slowly can always start a couple of weeks early. Always keep an eye on the weather to make sure you won’t be stuck in particularly hot or cold temperatures.
This flip-flop route has long-distance hikers beginning in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, traveling north to Katahdin, and then returning to Shenandoah National Park and hiking south to Springer. Hikers who want more time to complete this long hike can choose this route, which will also allow them to begin their hike on some of the trail’s easiest terrain. There’s also more access to shops and places to resupply in this beginning section, although they close from November to early April and snow sets in during that time of year as well.
Hikers will have the chance to build up their leg muscles and condition the rest of their body before reaching the rockier terrain of some northern states, but there will likely be some very cold temperatures from the outset. While Shenandoah does close for part of the year when snowfall closes Skyline Drive, it’s fairly rare that closing happens later than March. Mount Katahdin also closes for part of the year but using the Shenandoah Start will give hikers plenty of time to reach Katahdin well in advance of its yearly closing.
There are plenty of other ways to tackle the entire trail, including a Georgia late start and beginnings in cities like Pauling, New York, near the Connecticut state line. Depending on your specific goals, the time of year, and what section of the AT you live nearest to, if any, you might find one of these flip-flop methods more convenient than the others.
Planning Appalachian Trail thru-hiking
If you’re concerned about hitting rough weather or you know you’ll have limited time on the Appalachian Trail because of money or other commitments, it might seem like a good idea at first to make an extremely detailed schedule and plan out what mileage you’d like to accomplish each day of the trek.
While it is very helpful to have a rough outline of where you’ll be for resupply purposes and to have care packages mailed to you, you’ll find that giving yourself highly specific goals can often lead to a feeling of self-defeat at the end of a long day on the trail if weather or some other unforeseen condition has led you to come in behind your intended goal. The best way to make your plan is to set reasonable goals for major landmarks, like aiming to cross a certain state line or state park by a certain time to avoid winter weather or mud season.
The most important thing to plan is when you can next resupply. In the northeastern states, it’s much easier to get access to a town or shops to refill your supplies, while the rest of the trail may take a bit more time. You can almost always find someplace to resupply along the AT and there are sure to be some other hikers around who can point you in the right direction, but it’s always best to have some idea before you set out. If you use one of the less common flip-flop routes you could be out hiking without running into any fellow long-distance hikers, so you should prepare all the resupply information you can find before you set out.
Average pace for thru-hikers
Logically, long-distance hikers must have endurance enough to finish multi-thousand-mile hiking trails in no time at all. Perhaps that makes sense in theory, but the fact is actually that most thru-hikers are not seasoned experts. Some people with no hiking background at all feel the urge to get away from it all and decide to train just to complete the entire Appalachian Trail even though they haven’t been hiking very often before.
Realistically, a normal human walking pace on flat ground with no elevation gain is about 3 miles per hour. Many folks walk slower than that, while some may walk a little faster. Well-trained hikers can hope to keep to about this pace on a hiking trail. On the AT, where the terrain changes so often and the elevation gain is so high, that pace can slow down from time to time.
Before you get discouraged, understand that this pace is extremely admirable given the difficulty of the Appalachian Trail. Hikers in their eighties and many hikers with disabilities and medical conditions like insulin-dependent diabetes have all managed to train and successfully complete the trail. It’s not an easy feat by any means, but with the right plan and anywhere from 6 months to one year of physical training and conditioning, the Appalachian Trail can be a fulfilling trek and an accomplishment to be proud of.
Are there bears on the Appalachian Trail?
Short answer: yes, there are native bear species on the AT. Most hikers will experience some kind of bear run-in while hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you don’t have much knowledge of black bears and grizzlies, then rest assured that they are generally shy toward humans.
The most important thing you should know is that for some reason, black bears go crazy for human food. Make sure you have some kind of bear canister in your pack to make sure curious bears won’t get sick or get addicted to human food if they manage to get some of your supplies. Store the bear canister away from your campsite, whether you’re in a tent or have a tarp-and-hammock setup.
So, how long does it take to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Most hikers finish the Appalachian Trail in a little bit less than six months. The best way to get an idea of how long you specifically can finish this long-distance hike is to start a training regimen that includes some overnight backpacking trips on terrain that’s similar to the section of the AT that you’ll be starting on. This will give you a good idea as to the efficacy of your camping gear and the walking pace that you feel most comfortable at. You can also build up leg muscles and important core muscles that are really important for transporting a heavy rucksack along a hiking trail.
If you like backpacking through the backcountry, there’s nothing to match a 6-month thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. For ample time to self-reflect and to mix in with people who sport a welcoming and curious attitude toward the world around them, the various shelters and resupply stations along the AT are great places. Any number of things can cause a delay for those attempting to hike the entire trail in a single season. Physical injuries like a sprained ankle that maybe aren’t severe enough to end the whole hike can add days or weeks to an attempt.
More common reasons for thru-hikers to give up on an attempt at completing the AT is personal disillusionment and running out of cash. Hikers are often discouraged if their mindset is not positive or they haven’t taken the time to train their body for the rough conditions of the trail. Cash for resupply trips and accommodation during town visits is really important to make sure you can stay on the trail. A budget is perhaps the most important thing to pre-plan before you try to tackle the AT.
Your gear should be tested and you should be familiar with it. Remember that you’ll probably go through about 4 pairs of shoes and who knows how many other pieces of hiking equipment. Luckily, everyone you see will either be trying to hike the entire Appalachian Trail or else be aware of it and be able to help you out if a key piece of gear like a sleeping bag or hammock gives out. Training with smaller hiking trips in the six months leading up to your AT attempt will save you lots of grief later on. Sites like Clingman’s Dome and the White Mountains are optimal places to try hiking since they are on the Appalachian Trail. Section-hikers often trail on shorter segments before attempting the entire trail.
Now that you know what you need to know about time constraints when thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, start working on your training program and get your rucksack whipped into shape. Ideally, you can start on the AT with 6 months to a year of planning. Good luck making yourself into a 2,000 miler!
Bonus tip: Interested in getting a taste of the AT? Watch this hiker start the northbound Appalachian Trail from Georgia!