When I started to seriously consider a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), there were so many details that I was unsure about, and so many (needless) anxieties that kept me up at night. I had been backpacking a few times in my life, but never for more than five days at a time, and those trips were few and far between. I was going to quit my (amazing) job to venture out into the wild, having no idea if I was going to love the AT, hate it, make it all the way from Georgia to Maine, or quit somewhere in between. It was scary, nerve-racking, and exciting. Spoiler: I loved every second of that trail, and finished all 2,190.9 miles of it.
I was lucky in that I had a buddy to figure things out with, and plenty of time to do so. My study abroad friend Ibex and I loosely committed to doing the trail together about seven months before we actually stepped foot at Amicalola Falls. We spent a weekend together backpacking on the AT in Pennsylvania the fall prior to our target start date in order to “make sure” we still liked hiking together, years after our study abroad semester. That weekend was inspiring and lit a fire under us, and at the end of it, we agreed that our grand plan to quit our jobs and thru-hike the AT was a go. The timing of this little trip gave us ample time to research for our thru-hike, and still there were things we questioned up until it was time to go. I recognize that everyone’s timeline is different, and not everyone will have this amount of time to prepare, so I wanted to put together this little guide on how to prepare for your Appalachian Trail thru-hike. My hope is that it will help inspire you to take the leap to follow your own dream if this is something you are interested in and help prepare you before you go.
Here are several things you can do to prepare to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Note: I thru-hiked the traditional northbound route from Georgia to Maine, so this guide is written from that perspective.
Save your pennies
If you haven’t done much research on the cost of a thru-hike, you might be surprised to learn that it can be fairly costly. How expensive could it truly be to live in the woods for five to seven months? The typical cost of a thru-hike is about $6,000, according to REI. From speaking to other thru-hikers and researching prior to starting the trail, I agree that this is the norm. There are certainly outliers – I spoke with people who spent as little as $3,500 and upwards of $10,000, but $6,000 seems reasonable to me. Personally, I spent about $7,500, not including gear that I bought before getting on trail. Before you go thinking that I was some bourgeois hiker (I was not – I ate Knorr sides and shared hotel rooms and did not have fancy gear!), let me clarify. This included all of my on-trail expenses, such as travel insurance, my car and cell phone payments each month, food, fuel, town stops (which usually meant splitting hotel rooms with my tramily in order to get a shower and do laundry, restaurant meals, and brewery beer), transportation to the trail, gear replacements (such as buying a lightweight summer sleeping bag), and side excursions to the Bonnaroo Music Festival (excluding the ticket, which I bought that months in advance) and the Finger Lakes Wine Festival.
There are certainly ways to cut down on costs, such as committing to only eating grocery store foods while in town, passing on town beers, only staying in town when it is absolutely necessary, taking advantage of the food and fuel left in hiker boxes (hikers leave behind food and supplies that they no longer want in “hiker boxes,” which are usually found at hostels and occasionally at outfitters), and buying only the cheapest foods. For me though, after spending several days freezing or soaking wet or sweating my *ss off in the wilderness, a hot meal at a restaurant, a couple of craft beers, and a hot shower went a long way in keeping me mentally healthy and happy.
One of the biggest reasons that people quit a thru-hike is that they run out of money, according to The Trek. So do yourself a favor if you’d like to see yourself finish the trail and save more money than you think you need. I have another post that outlines 10 ways that you can save for your next adventure, and that includes a thru-hike. Take a look for several ideas on how to do so, such as cashing in on your creativity, asking for discounts, cutting down on entertainment costs, donating your eggs (if you are a young woman who meets a very specific set of criteria), and more.
Obtain (and test) your gear
Ahhhh gear, every backpacker’s favorite topic! If you’re not already a gear nerd, you will be by the time you finish your thru-hike. I can’t tell you what gear to buy, as that is a personal choice based on preference, budget, and more, but what I can say is that you will benefit from heavily researching gear before you begin the trail. I did not do a ton of research. I did not really know what I was looking for or how backpacking gear differed, so I used a combination of gear I already owned and a few new pieces based on the recommendations of thru-hikers gone before me. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and have replaced multiple pieces of gear. Had I done more research, I could have saved myself a lot of weight on the trail and some money by not having to buy certain types of gear twice. There are so many resources out there available to you to learn about gear ahead of time, from YouTube to The Trek to individual blogs and Instagram pages. Take advantage of these and figure out what will really work for you.
I’ve heard multiple people (who have not thru-hiked the AT) comment on how the trail can’t be that hard given it is on the East Coast. Friends, this is not true. There is PLENTY of elevation gain and loss on the AT. Over the course of the entire trail, thru-hikers gain and lose over 464,464 feet, which is about the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 16 times. You know what will make it easier? Having lighter gear. Trust me, I did not have lightweight gear, and I paid for it at times. Despite being just as fit as my tramily by the end of the trail, I was consistently slower than them. Yes, I have short legs, but I also had a heavy pack, which I KNOW was a contributer. Don’t be like me – find the lightest weight gear you can afford, and don’t bring along extra items that you don’t use consistently or need.
Once you have said gear, test it ahead of time, in cold, heat, and rain if you can. What works in the middle of summer may not work in March in Georgia (which is much colder than you may think. Temperatures can get down into the single digits at night, and I personally hiked and camped in snow). Ask a friend who loves to backpack or a former thru-hiker to give you a shakedown of gear you may not need. While you can figure all of this out on trail, it will save you money and stress to get it dialed in ahead of time.
If you’re looking for a list of gear that you may need, check out my previous post on “how to take your first backpacking trip.” In it, I discuss what gear I use and why, and what I’ve changed up from the Appalachian Trail until now.
Prepare for injury and illness
One of the biggest reasons that people get off the AT is that they get injured. While this would be completely devastating, it is a possibility, especially given that the trail is rocky, rooty, and often wet. I would recommend preparing for this possibility in two ways: making sure you have some form of health insurance, and by having an “emergency fund” beyond the money the save up for on-trail expenses. Because I quit my job in order to thru-hike, I lost my health insurance. The best option I found for myself in order to cover my bases in case something happened was to buy travel insurance in its place. I looked into several different companies, and the one I determined had the most affordable plan with the coverage I needed was a company called Allianz. The cost of coverage was based on the cost of the trip, and I literally paid only $51 for seven months of coverage, which included $50,000 of emergency medical and dental. The only catch was that I could only use the coverage if I was at least 100 miles from home. I had been living in Washington, D.C., at the time, so my fingers were crossed that I would not get injured in the Mid-Atlantic (or at all)! Travel insurance may be a solid option for you if you’re like me and lose your normal coverage before starting the trail. Again, do your research on the company and policy that will work best for you.
Another very real possibility along the AT is that you could become ill while out there. I was lucky in that I did not experience serious illness (though I did have two bouts of a stomach flu and a mystery bug that completely took me out for two days in Pennsylvania), but I had friends who were not so lucky. I knew at least three people on the AT who got Lyme disease, including one of my tramily members. I’ve also heard of someone getting West Nile virus, and of plenty of people getting norovirus. This isn’t meant to scare you, just to make you aware of what could happen. While there’s not a ton you can do to prepare, there are a few precautions you can take.
Number one, I’d recommend spraying you gear, such as your boots, backpack, tent, and socks, with permethrin before you go and then every few weeks while on the trail. This stuff keeps Lyme disease-spreading ticks away. Two, check yourself for ticks each night. Ibex and I had a nightly ritual where we would check each other’s hairline, where they like to hide, for ticks. According to the CDC, ticks have to attach for 36 to 48 hours in order to spread Lyme. Catch them early, and you’ll hopefully avoid this monster illness. Three, check in with your doctor before you go. I went to see my doctor and she offered a few helpful pieces of advice, along with some prescriptions for medicines I might need while I was out there. She recommended that I get an updated tetanus vaccine as well as a hepatitis A and B vaccine, advised me to bring a small container of biodegradable soap along with me so that I could wash my hands, as hand sanitizer is not as effective as soap and water, and she gave me prescriptions for an antibiotic that could treat several infections such as a sinus or ear infection, an antibiotic that would treat a urinary tract infection, a course of medicine in case I got Giardia, and more. She was extremely helpful, as I’m sure your doctor will be if you talk to him or her!
Figure out where you’re going
While the Appalachian Trail is fairly easy to follow – you’re just walking (mostly) north by way of the white blazes – it is extremely helpful to have a guide along to let you know where you can find shelters, campsites, water sources, roads to town, and more. The two most popular guides out there are The A.T. Guide by David “Awol” Miller and Guthook Guides. The A.T. Guide comes in book or digital form, while Guthook is an app that you download on your phone. Personally, I used The A.T. Guide and loved it, but Guthook is the more modern spin where hikers can leave comments on conditions and commentary, and I’ll probably use that one on my next thru-hike as it offers more up-to-date information.
What to consider when it comes to food
Unless you have specific dietary needs, such as plant-based or gluten-free, I wouldn’t worry too much about food ahead of time. Most of the towns you hit along the way, with just a few exceptions, have pretty decent-sized grocery stores with a variety of backpacker-friendly foods in stock. These stores are used to hikers, and plenty of options are usually available. Resupply boxes can be a pain, because generally, you either send them to a post office ahead of time, which tend to have limited hours and days that you can pick up a package, or you must send them to a hostel or hotel, which generally require that you stay there or pay a pickup fee. I did not send myself resupply boxes, but did have friends and family send care packages to me from time to time, and while it was incredibly kind and generous of them to do so, picking these boxes up tended to be a hassle and sometimes forced me to go to certain towns that I might have otherwise skipped. That being said, if you do have serious dietary restrictions and feel strongly that you would like to send along resupply boxes, The Trek has a handy guide of the best places to send them and how to go about doing so.
In regard to food on trail though, do your best to treat your body well while you’re out there. I came off the trail anemic, with high cholesterol, and my hair falling out. I skimped on the little things that I could have controlled that would have helped keep me in better health. For example, I should have been taking vitamin and iron supplements, but I was careless and did not do so. I’m also pretty certain I was not getting nearly the amount of protein that I needed. Trail food is not nutrient dense, especially when you are a vegetarian, athletes need more protein than the average daywalker, and not getting enough can have serious consequences. My friend Chef began smelling like straight ammonia in Maine as his muscles wasted away. Don’t be like Chef!
I’m not a nutritionist or medical professional, but based on what I’ve experienced and seen, I simply implore you to do some research on trail nutrition and treat your body the best way you can while you are out there. You’re putting it through a lot!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the things you need to think about before beginning a thru-hike, but it is a pretty decent start and I hope it was helpful! If you have specific questions on anything at all, please feel free to reach out. And as always, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow me on Instagram and subscribe to my e-mail list!