Thru-hiking the AT is a challenging experience, but there are things you can do to make it a bit easier. It’s important to plan ahead before stepping on trail to maximize your chances of success. Here are some tips and things to know for anyone planning to thru-hike the AT next year.
Scrapes and bruises happen on trail, and for the most part, they’re nothing to worry about. However, it’s worth bringing band-aids, alcohol wipes, and Neosporin to ward off any infections and for bigger cuts. It’s also worth carrying tweezers to pluck out any splinters or ticks that latch on for a ride.
For the first few weeks, also consider adding Icy Hot, leukotape, and sunscreen to your kit. Your body takes time to transition to trail, and you’ll likely develop a few blisters and muscle aches in the process. Icy Hot and leukotape were my saving graces. Together, they made Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee bearable.
And while people talk about the green tunnel, most of the trees will be bare when you start your hike. That means you’ll have very little shade to protect you from the sun, and after the winter your skin probably isn’t ready for that full sun exposure without sunscreen. Some people in my tramily developed really bad blisters in the first week just from sunburn, so consider popping sunscreen in your kit as well.
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As your body adjusts to trail and you’re no longer in pain with every step, feel free to ditch what you don’t use, but I’d highly recommend those additional three in your first aid kit for the beginning.
You learn your food priorities on trail, and when they don’t fit in your pack, you learn to make it work.
Before my hike, I was stressed out trying to plan where and when to send my resupply boxes. I bought a ton of freeze-dried meals and snacks for my parents to send to me along my hike. But resupplies ended up being so easy that I only used about half of what I’d bought beforehand.
You can resupply at almost every gap, either by hitching into town or paying for a shuttle. Even when there isn’t a convenient grocery store nearby, you’ll learn pretty quickly how to make do with a gas station resupply. Of course, the more dietary restrictions you have the more difficult resupplies become, and if you are concerned about your options you may want to look into sending boxes. But coming from a vegetarian, I always found what I needed.
READ NEXT – A Comprehensive List of Resupply Points on the Appalachian Trail
The resupply boxes I’d planned before trail were a total waste of time and money. It ended up being so much easier to make do with whatever resupply was available than to plan when and where to send boxes.
Trail guides are necessary for looking ahead at water sources, shelters, and alpine zones. I brought my AWOL guide with me, but you can get everything you need from the GutHook smartphone app (which was recently rebranded to FarOut). The AT pack on Guthook is more expensive than the AWOL PDF, but it will save you weight, and I’ve found that Guthook is more accurate with water supplies.
The comments from hikers are also very helpful for updates on water and shelter conditions, but take the comments about the climbs’ difficulties with a grain of salt. There is a lot of fearmongering on the app, and the warnings about tough climbs can definitely psych you out. Just remember how many people have hiked the trail before you and remember that you can do it, too!
Everyone on the trail is hiking because they love the outdoors, but not everyone takes care of the trail as they should. Be an example of how to conduct yourself on trail by learning the LNT principles and leaving the trail better than you found it. Even when you’re feeling lazy, dig your catholes and secure your food at night, for your own safety, for other hikers, and for the wildlife who can be hurt by human carelessness.
The Leave No Trace principles are:
Sleeping with your food in your tent/hammock is becoming a dangerous norm on trail. It’s disappointing to see since it’s dangerous for yourself, other nearby hikers, and animals. When hikers sleep with their food, bears can start to associate campsites with food. If they continually approach hikers for their food, they may eventually be relocated or put down for aggressiveness. It’s not fair to cause that fate for a bear or other wildlife, so it’s best to secure your food in a bear canister or bear bag.
READ NEXT – The Case for Bear Canisters on the AT
Personally, I love bear canisters. They’re a bit heavy and bulky, but they’re so easy to just plop down when you get to camp at night. Other hikers love to hate on bear canisters, but I went my entire thru-hike with my bear canister and don’t regret it for a second.
Bear bags work well, too, and they are lighter and less bulky than bear canisters. However, they require more effort to hang at night. Some shelters have bear boxes, which will make your life much easier, but learn how to hang a bear bag before you head out because you will be hanging a lot of them.
Every year norovirus and Lyme disease take hikers off trail, but now we also need to watch out for Covid. At this point, we all know the basics for staying safe from Covid (masking when indoors and getting vaccinated), but Norovirus and Lyme disease take extra precautions.
For norovirus, filter your water and don’t share food. If someone wants some of your chips, pour them out for them. Don’t let them stick their hand in your bag in case they are carrying the illness.
To avoid contracting Lyme disease, think about using permethrin on your clothes and gear before you head out and reapply every six weeks on a zero day. Do nightly tick checks and look everywhere because ticks are sneaky. I used wet wipes to clean my legs at night to expose any ticks that could be camouflaging as flecks of dirt. It’s unlikely that you will contract a disease from a tick that’s only been on for a couple of hours rather than a couple of days, but let your doctor know if you’re ever bitten by one to cover your bases and stay safe and healthy.
READ NEXT – How to Not Mistake Lyme Disease for Coronavirus
Even after taking every precaution necessary, if you experience fever, nausea, or a seriously upset stomach during your hike, get off trail and see a doctor ASAP. Don’t try to muster through, because hiking through norovirus can cause serious dehydration and Lyme disease only gets worse with time. The trail is already tough enough on your body. Don’t risk your health or safety by trying to hike through illness.
You may think that after your trail legs kick in that you’ll be smooth sailing for the rest of the hike, but your mileage will change from state to state. You could be doing consistent 20s in Virginia, 15s in Rocksylvania, 20s once again in New York, and then single digits in the Whites and Southern Maine.
That’s all completely normal. Don’t beat yourself up about your mileage going up and down. You’re just adjusting to the different parts of trail, and your mileage is reflecting the terrain’s difficulty.
My friend with a cute sassafras headband and goggles to keep the bugs away.
I’m not even talking about ticks here. I’m talking about your everyday, commonplace gnats and mosquitoes. They will band together to try and break you, but don’t let them!
I was a fan of bug nets in the beginning, but as it got hotter and harder to breathe while wearing one, I looked into other methods for keeping the gnats at bay. I bought a pair of safety goggles to stop the gnats from plunging into my eyes and I wore headphones to keep them out of my ears. I’ve also heard that sassafras leaves work well at deterring gnats from going in your ears, so feel free to fashion something out of those if you want to go the natural route.
As for the mosquitoes—bug spray all the way. And I’ll be honest, the natural stuff could not handle the job. I was a quick convert to the DEET camp of bug spray since it was the only way to save my skin from erupting in an itchy mess. There are two points in Massachusetts where you walk along rivers at a very low altitude where it’s a full-on mosquito massacre, and you’ll need DEET to get through with your sanity intact.
Throwback to Trail Days and Food City!
I know everyone’s focused on Katahdin, and it’s important to always keep your eye on the prize, but you need to enjoy yourself along the way! As good as big mileage days feel, they’re not when you’re making lasting memories of the trail. In fact, a lot of those happen on rest days and in trail towns.
It’s worth taking it easy every so often and living it up in towns you’d never otherwise visit. Check out the local diners (specifically Damascus Diner – get the pancakes!) and breweries (Kennebec River Brewery is fire and has an arcade in the back!). A lot of the towns are very hiker-friendly, and you’ll meet past hikers and locals with incredible stories about the trail. In the end, you’ll be glad to have enjoyed yourself instead of making it to Katahdin a few days earlier.
The trail is well marked and you shouldn’t have a hard time following it, but the blazes aren’t always properly marked. You’ll often see a double blaze, one right on top of the other, when you need to make a right or left turn. It’s not the end of the world, but worth noting.
Guidebooks will tell you that a turn will be indicated by a double blaze where the top mark is to the left or right of the bottom one, but that’s not always the case. So, when you see a double blaze with one on top of the other, don’t assume it means go straight. Take a moment to look for the next blaze just to make sure you go the right way in case a turn is coming up.
The crowd on Mt. Washington. Definitely the most touristy place on trail, and took me 20 minutes to get my photo with the sign.
If you’re going on the AT to be alone for six months, be aware that there are almost always people around. The trail gets about 5,000 thru-hike attempts every year, and that isn’t even counting people who go out for day hikes and shorter backpacking trips. You may be able to avoid people by stealth camping, but there are states where that’s illegal and you need to stay in designated shelters (aka the Smokies). Even when I wasn’t traveling with a tramily, I was alone at campsites only twice.
I loved this aspect of the AT because it made getting on the trail alone a bit less intimidating, and I had a lot of fun meeting other hikers. But have your expectations in check so aren’t heading on trail with the intention to have a solo experience, because you won’t have one (unless you start very early in the year, well before the bubble).
Don’t believe the smile, I was freaking miserable that day.
I started my hike on April 1st, and you better believe I still dealt with snow. When I was in the Smokies, temperatures reached the teens with wind chill. I’m not telling you this to scare you, but to remind you that you’ll experience cold weather even though you’re in the south in spring. Bring gloves, a sleeping bag with a low-temperature rating (mine had a lower limit of 11 degrees and I used a liner), and warm base layers. And if you’re paranoid like me, may as well throw in an emergency blanket while you’re at it.
Once the weather warms up and you’re consistently at lower altitudes, you can send your cold-weather gear home for the summer. You will, however, need it back as you head farther north and the weather cools again. Don’t send home your puffy though! Always keep that on you for emergencies.
Do not skip the trekking poles! I understand that everyone’s different and that some people don’t use them, but I was in love with mine. There were times when my legs were like jelly and I dragged myself up mountains by my poles. They relieve some of the weight and pressure of your climbs from your joints and can help save your knees when going downhill.
Also, learn how to stash your poles for rock scrambles. Especially in Southern Maine, there will be times when you need your hands to climbs, and it’s much easier putting your trekking poles in your pack rather than tossing them and climbing up after them.
There’s a lot of pressure to keep to a schedule and hike as much as you can on the AT, but there’s really no need to hike on bad weather days. It rarely rains for an entire day, usually just for an hour or so (obviously your mileage may vary on this front from year to year), but if you don’t feel like hiking through that, I give you permission to sit those days out. Don’t make yourself miserable just to get to Katahdin a day early. If you take the trail seriously enough and put in the effort, you’ll still make it even if you sit out a rainstorm.
Please take this advice to heart for alpine zones and more treacherous hikes (looking at you, Mahoosuc Notch!). It can be dangerous to head into certain portions of the AT during storms or torrential rain. Factor in what type of tree cover you’ll have when you decide whether or not to hike on a rainy and windy day. The rocks can also get very slippery, so if you’re planning on doing a very technical and steep climb, maybe wait out a day if there’s rain in the forecast. Trust me, you have plenty of time.
Burnout is very real on the trail. You’re putting your body through extreme conditions every day, and the trail takes its toll. I loved a zero day because it gave my body time to rest and recover a bit before heading back out.
Mental health days are just as important as resting for your body. The trail is just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one, and one of the best ways to avoid fatigue and giving up is by taking a break when you’re not feeling up to hiking.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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2021 AT thru-hike attempt is a go! Catch me singing, sweating, and crying on the trails. I'll be somewhere between Georgia and Maine if you're looking for me.
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Excellent list! I didn’t find the bugs too bad except for a couple of places. Permethrin everything by Woods Hole/Pearisburg. Keep a small spray can of Deet in your hip pack.. Tick checks daily va to new York. You forgot the raining caterpillar poop?Thanks for the post. I’m Missing the excitement of trail prep.
I didn’t find the bugs to be that bad, I imagine it varies heavily where and when you are. Was really anticipating that mosquito cloud.