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How To Plan For An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

The plaque at the top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

The plaque at the top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

Things To Keep In Mind Before You Take That First Step on the A.T.

When I finally made the decision that it was my year to go for it -- to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, from the beginning of April to sometime in the Fall -- I set out the pens and notebooks, books and calendar. I made lists and more lists and began scheduling to the max. I'd hike 14 miles this day and stay at that campsite or lean-to. I'd send a maildrop with food to such-n-such a town, where I'd arrive on a particular date.

Then, one day, I tossed the whole thing.

Typically, I'm a big planner. Anal you could say. This time, though, I had an epiphany one night as I lay in bed, dreaming of white painted blazes and the "long, green tunnel." I decided that I'd read enough about the Appalachian Trail, that I'd chatted with enough former thru-hikers and had hiked enough in the past to feel fairly certain I'd be fine out there.

And I was right. I basically just started walking and tweaked and adjusted as I went along -- adjusted my gear, my pack weight and organization system, my menus, my hiking "style," and my attitude. In hindsight, though, I'd like to share my advice to future Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in regards to planning.

Ready? Okay....

Plan To Be Spontaneous on the Appalachian Trail

Follow your heart and sometimes your whims.

You're walking along and spot the most inviting, sunny rock, overlooking a gorgeous view. Or you see a pristine lake just begging you to come in for a dip (and maybe even a hair-washing). You arrive at a country road crossing and know -- thanks to your Appalachian Trail Data Book -- that there's a restaurant not far away where you can get a treat that's not dehydrated or formed into a bar.

So drop your pack and lie on that warm, sunny rock and take in the view for ten or fifteen. Make that dip. Go get that hamburger and big salad you've been salivating over. Don't pass up the chance to do what tickles your fancy just to stay on some predetermined schedule.

Thru-hiking should be as fun as it is challenging, so don't deny yourself, at least not too often. Follow those impulses.

Making a spontaneous stop to wash my hair in a cold lake along the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Making a spontaneous stop to wash my hair in a cold lake along the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Plan To Be Flexible

Change plans, sometimes on a dime.

That's an awfully dark cloud looming above the peak. And you'd have to go up and over, above treeline, to get to that shelter you've been aiming for. So perhaps waiting out the storm or maybe even making camp right where you are and stopping for the day would be the best bet.

Maybe your sore knee is really acting up. Another day's rest could go a long way, even though you'd planned to be at the halfway point by July 1st and another "zero day" would put you off schedule.

Whatever it may be -- something physical, the weather, someone you're hiking with and want to stay with who maybe doesn't want to go as far on a particular day, a stretch of trail more difficult than you'd expected -- it's okay to bend. Do fewer miles than you may have wanted to cover for the day or maybe none at all. Or, occasionally, a few more if you're up to it.

Though you do need to keep moving up the trail if you want to finish before it gets too cold or snowy, trying to follow a rigid schedule would not only be very challenging but frustrating and possibly detrimental as well.

Instead of pressing on, a group of us decided to spend the rest of a beautiful afternoon, evening and night on the summit of mountain on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont.

Instead of pressing on, a group of us decided to spend the rest of a beautiful afternoon, evening and night on the summit of mountain on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont.

Plan To Be Cold

Just be prepared to get warm.

It's sunny and mild one day, then you go to sleep and wake up to an ice storm. Or you hike for hours in the rain and cold wind, warmed only by the heat created by your constantly moving feet, then have to stop and freeze your buns off while setting up your tent and scrambling to get into dry clothes. And there will be those early mornings when bitterly cold air takes your breath away until you get moving again.

Yes, you'll get chilled out there on the Appalachian Trail, at least until you can retreat to your sleeping bag or get those extra layers of clothing on. As long as you're prepared for it, though, and don't leave out vital insulation because you're trying to go ultralight and it happens to be warm while you're packing, you should be able to handle the cold weather just fine.

The aftermath of an ice storm in the Smokey Mountains

The aftermath of an ice storm in the Smokey Mountains

Plan To Be Hot

And expect to stay that way for days at a time.

Sweat dripping down your face and into your eyes. That lovely eau-de-hiker after days of heavy perspiration. Hot, humid, sticky, icky hours upon hours of walking up and down those Appalachian mountains. Gotta love it!

So don't short yourself on water. Hike early and hike late and take a siesta and long lunch during the hottest part of the day. Keep that spare set of clothes set aside to wear around camp, so you can get out of what you sweat in all day. Take a bandanna bath or clean up with a refreshing wet wipe.

Just think about how cold you've sometimes been and enjoy the heat!

Soaking up the sun and taking time for some R&R along the Appalachian Trail in the Grayson Highlands

Soaking up the sun and taking time for some R&R along the Appalachian Trail in the Grayson Highlands

Plan To Be Wet And Dirty on the Appalachian Trail

And don't forget to wash off the mud caked on your calves.

Squish, squish, splat! Squish, squish, slip, squish.

Scroll to Continue

The mud sometimes seems to go on forever. And don't you love it when it nearly sucks your hiking shoe right off your foot when you sink in to your ankle?

Ooh, and there's nothing like hiking in a downpour, soaked to the skin with your feet swimming in your boots. I don't care if they're "waterproof" and treated with Nikwax too, and you're wearing gaiters and your expensive, new rain gear. If it's raining hard enough, you and your feet are going to get wet.

One thing I personally found out about myself on my thru-hike was that I could laugh at times like that. I mean, it was hilarious how hard it sometimes rained and for how long, and how sopping wet and muddy I got. So I guarantee, if you can find the funnies in that kind of situation, you'll have a better time out there on the trail.

Do remember, though, to keep that spare set of clothing deep in your pack in a big Zip-Loc baggie and/or garbage bag and/or Sil-nylon stuff sack so you know you'll have something dry to put on when you're through hiking for the day. It's mentally comforting to know the dry and at least somewhat cleaner clothes are in there, not to mention a physical relief when it's time to put them on.

A very muddy Appalachian Trail in the Smokey Mountains

A very muddy Appalachian Trail in the Smokey Mountains

Plan To Have Sore Feet

Blisters and multi-colored toenails are common on the Appalachian Trail.

Have you heard of the infamous Pennsylvania rocks, that go on for miles upon miles upon miles? Some say that's where hiking boots go to die. And they aren't kiddin'!

But I'm guessing you'll experience painfully sore feet well before you get to Pennsylvania, whether you're hiking northbound or south. If that doesn't happen to you, then yay! You're one of the lucky ones.

There are things, though, that can lessen the severity of sore feet, like taking short breaks with your feet up every hour or so. Using trekking poles can help. Airing out your tootsies in camp and soaking them in a cool creek when the opportunity arises. Tending to a hot spot as soon as you feel it rather than waiting for the gnarly blister to form. Oh, and break in your boots or trail runners before starting the hike, and maybe even a second or third pair to leave at home, that can be mail-dropped to you if ... that is, when ... the first pair starts to poop out.

Despite all that, however, sore feet may be unavoidable. I hobbled for much of the first 800 miles. And, believe me, it was sometimes really difficult to find the funnies in that.

A very rocky Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania -- "Where hiking boots go to die"

A very rocky Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania -- "Where hiking boots go to die"

Plan To Have New Aches And Pains

You'll get well acquainted with various body parts when they start to hurt.

It's not just the feet. You may very well get some nice chafing from your backpack or clothing or even skin rubbing against skin. Your back and your neck might ache, especially if you're not used to carrying a full pack for eight, ten, twelve hours a day and sleeping on hard and uneven ground or the not-so-cushy planks of a shelter floor.

Not to mention the knees. Even with trekking poles -- which really helped me -- your knees are really put to the test out there. I ran into people who'd never had a knee issue in their lives who maybe stepped funny and tweaked one a bit, and then it bothered them for days or more.

And I'm sure you'll find out firsthand what the "hiker hobble" is. In fact, most A.T. thru-hikers become pros at the move right off the bat. So put your own style into it and, when you get up in the morning and crawl out of your tent to make your way to the privy or that bush over yonder only to find that you can barely move, enjoy the knowledge that, hey, you must have really done something yesterday!

A thru-hiker called Joker is too tired and sore to do much about cooking dinner. Instead, he just lies there and stares at his gear and uncooked food.

A thru-hiker called Joker is too tired and sore to do much about cooking dinner. Instead, he just lies there and stares at his gear and uncooked food.

Plan To Be At Least A Little Scared

Life on the Appalachian Trail can really get the adrenaline going.

For me, seeing a flash and then hearing the loud clap of thunder a second later is quite the adrenaline rush. Lightning is not my favorite thing, unless I'm watching it from a vehicle or some nice, cozy building. Mountains, forests, fields and valleys are wonderful places to be ... but not for me during thunderstorms.

And, on the trail, I found myself right in the middle of them, day after day for more than a month. I even had to "assume the position" on a couple of occasions--crouched down, hugging my knees--when the lightning was way too close for comfort.

Then there were the loud snaps of branches during the night. And other, sometimes undetermined sounds out there in the dark, beyond the thin nylon walls of my tent. Some folks don't bat an eye about that stuff, but me ... I bat. A lot.

And there are the sketchy spots. Boy, I found a lot of spots to be sketchy. One of my hiking buddies on the trail would sometimes say, "This ain't nuttin' nice." Me, I'd swear, sometimes loudly, and whine, "THIS isn't a trail! Why'd they make us go this way? Help."

Yep, I definitely had to face some fears out there. And unless you're much braver than I am, you may very well, too.

Foggy McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail

Foggy McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail

Plan To Be Really Tired

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is hard work.

But it's a good tired. It's an "I really lived today" kind of tired. It's a twenty-miles-on-my-feet-up-and-down-four-mountains-today kind of tired.

To me, that felt great. And I didn't seem to need as much sleep as I do at home, because when I did sleep (which I always did unless there was a nighttime thunderstorm or some huge creature with fangs lurking in the darkness outside my tent or I had to pee in the middle of the night, which was always when it was raining for some reason) it was really productive sleep.

There were some days, though--most of which were in New Hampshire's White Mountains or southern Maine--when I'd be so spent when I'd get into camp that I almost didn't have the energy to set up my tent, go filter water, clean up a bit and cook dinner.

And I loved it! So if you enjoy physically putting yourself to the test like I do, you'll love it, too.

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Plan To Laugh Along the Appalachian Trail

Find the funnies in everyday life on the trail.

Hopefully, you'll meet some really funny people on the trail, like I did. (Like this young man here, wearing a Z-rest sleeping pad.)

Even things that aren't normally funny will probably be funny. Like getting soaked and filthy, as I mentioned. A group of us sharing a lean-to in the Smoky Mountains had a hysterical giggle fit one evening as we all sat there in our soggy, grimy misery, trying to muster the energy to dig into our packs and change.

Then there were times like when a bunch of us hikers were sitting around camp and we suddenly fell silent, then looked up to find we were all studying our toenails. And there were the discussions about going potty in the woods that actually started out serious but deteriorated into howling laughter.

Really, there are lots of things to laugh at out there. So laugh and laugh often.

A funny thru-hiker called Straightjacket, "wearing" a foam sleeping pad while he washes his clothes at a laundromat

A funny thru-hiker called Straightjacket, "wearing" a foam sleeping pad while he washes his clothes at a laundromat

Plan To Live For The Moment

Be here, now, on the Appalachian Trail

Thru-hiking is a far different pace than living life on a "normal" basis. On the trail, you'll be traveling through time at an average of about 2.5 miles per hour when you're actually hiking. And much more slowly when you're not.

So stop and check out the vistas. Study the bugs and butterflies and look closely at a rhododendron flower. Enjoy a raindrop about to fall from a leaf and those precious moments at dawn and dusk when the light is like no other time of day.

Yes, the end of the trail--that final white blaze--will always be in your mind, but keep that to the back of it most of the time. When you're resupplying, plan for just the upcoming stretch till the next resupply, but think no further.

When you're climbing a mountain, try not to think about just getting to the top. Keep your mind with you, where you are, rather than letting it rush ahead.

And enjoy your own thoughts and imagination.

Hiking the long-distance trail is a chance to slow down and suck the juice out of life.

Contemplating Mt. Katahdin in the distance, at a campsite along the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Contemplating Mt. Katahdin in the distance, at a campsite along the Appalachian Trail in Maine

Plan To Be Part Of A Great Community

You can be a loner, but the bonds and friendships are out there if you want them.

I know some folks crave solitude and enjoy hiking and camping alone much, if not most, of the time. Me, though, while I like to walk alone with my thoughts for good stretches, I always looked forward to the camaraderie amongst A.T. hikers and being part of the trail community. And I wasn't disappointed!

When you're out there, it doesn't matter where you're from, your age, your background. All long-distance hikers share a common goal, common struggles, common joys. Those around you will have passed by the same sights, climbed up and over the same mountains, negotiated the same terrain that you did, and it's great to share both your common and unique experiences and reactions to those things.

While each person must rely on him- or herself on the trail, I found other hikers to be extremely supportive and helpful, and I tried to do the same for them. It truly was like one, long, moving community on the footpath between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Thru-Hikers on the Appalachian Trail

Thru-Hikers on the Appalachian Trail

Plan To Be Fulfilled

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the most satisfying things I've ever done.

Ten years after I reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin after 178 days on the trail and posed for this photo with some special friends, I still talk about, think about, and write about my Appalachian Trail experience often.

And I remember it in such great detail, unlike other times of my life that have faded in my mind. Those five months and three weeks were truly the most fun, challenging, happy, uncomfortable, wonderful, invigorating, tiring and fulfilling times I've ever spent.

I hope, if you go, that your experience will be just as special.

Mt. Katahdin

Mt. Katahdin

How Important Is Planning?

If you were (or are) going on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike for give or take six months, would you plan every detail or just grab your pack and go, just letting the chips fall as they may and making decisions on the fly.

And if you've been there, done that, what would you advise?

So which would it be?

Plan, plan, plan!

anonymous: To keep everyone happy, ( wife of thrity four years) I'll have to plan and have a itenery that she can follow me all the way. Prouble have to carry a satelite phone and one of those safety alerts! There goes the ultra lite theory. All jokes a side plan is the key, hiked many times and planning has keep myself and many scouts that are counting on the leaders. Most of the mail drops will be completed before I leave and the wife will pack and mail what is needed. That's a view from a guy that's close to the retirement age! Slow but sure!

anonymous: I say that planning is important, but so too is knowing the trail. I would never hit a trail like this unless I knew it inside out ~ then to hike it and plan for it would be easy.

anonymous: plan. I don't mean plan a daily schedule. But know what you're in for and plan on how your going to deal with it. i guess i'm a bit of a fence sitter but have a plan with the expectation that it is going to change as you go.

Evelyn Saenz: The Appalachian Trail is not something to take lightly. To be safe, dry, warm and healthy it takes a lot of planning. Then the fun can begin.

anonymous: i say plan and be ready for anything and everything.A good survival book is agraet Idea to take.How to make make hot rock beds and lean to make a manmade shelter etc. I have been in the woods many of times but never hiked the whole thing. Maybe some day.

NC Shepherd: I have always over-planned everything, though the more adventures I go on, the less I stress over the planning. I know everything changes along the way anyhow.

RuthCoffee: I'd plan for sure, the trip would be great, but not if I don't survive.

Bambi Watson: I'm a planner & always end up lugging too much gear...but people are always glad I did when I have all the stuff they forgot...or if someone needs stitches & I've got the gear to take care of it :-)

Ah, just hit the trail and figure it out along the way.

anonymous: I do my best to be open to everything and attached to nothing... It is always about the journey and not the destination in my opinion. Way too much anxiety in trying to keep a schedule and I miss the fun of the moment if I am off in "The Future". Love, peace, joy, serenity even just a good giggle can only be found in the present moment... A 3 - 5 day section hike will work out the kinks in your gear. Then just take it as it comes! Happy Trailz!

anonymous: I planned on paper to Waynesboro so I could schedule mail drops etc. Hit the trail and occasionally used the plan as as reference. For the most part I hated the food I mailed myself after the 3rd box. Luckily my mail drops ended in Waynesboro and it was a relief. From there north, depending on the season you can buy along the way. I was seldom "on" my schedule, but ironically I hit Waynesboro on the day I planned.. I had been really anal about my planning by building a very sophisticated Excel spreadsheet using the average number of miles per day per section from Whiteblaze articles and then picking the closest shelter or camp from the database I linked it. So each day I could project starting and end mileage. It was a great planning tool and help get me psyced. I take directions the same way, write everything done and you never have to look at them. You must research in my opinion but maybe not plan. And if you do plan, do not plan on being tied to it. It is merely a suggestion, kind of like the speed limit.

Gil Hildebrand: I hate planning things in advance. I try to keep all my gear in one spot and hope that everything is there when I go for a hike. If not, it's MacGyver time.

drifter0658 lm: LOL...I couldn't plan on getting up in the morning.

anonymous: You know me, I'd just go.

f You ARE A Planner Planning to Hike the Appalachian Trail....

More Books To Help You Plan An A.T. Hike

The Data Book

This guide gives trail and town information at a glance, including water sources, lean-tos (aka shelters), road crossings and what's available down that road and in what direction and how far, campsites, and other significant mileage and elevations.

The Thru-Hiker's Companion

This really is a great "companion" to the Data Book above. It provides more comprehensive information about the trail and what's around and near it, as well as town, hostel and resupply information and important phone numbers.

All About Hiking the A.T.

This is a great book to read before hiking the trail, whether you'll be hiking sections or doing a continuous thru-hike.

More Than 2,000 Miles on the Appalachian Trail - in less than five minutes....

2005 thru-hiker, Kevin Gallagher, pieced this video together from more than 4,000 slides he took on his journey, averaging 24 images per day.

© 2009 Deb Kingsbury

Comments or Questions about the Trail? - Please post them here.

Cerio on April 21, 2018:

Great information. Hope that I'll be able to explore the Appalachian trail one day. Thanks for sharing, Deb Kingsbury!

Flatrapidsroadrunner on January 15, 2018:

Thanks for your insights. I enjoyed reAding your material more than some others as I sensed less ego and more spirit !! I plan to hike the trail in a couple years upon retirement and sooo look forward to every and all moments of the experience. Sooo happy to hear that's it's possible to survive without "planning the hell out of it" as I find sometimes too much planning can ruin an experience. I realize that planning and knowledge is still necessary. Thanks, can't wait !!

puppyprints on May 17, 2012:

I buy the AT trailbooks to plan and dream for my next adventure

NC Shepherd on March 04, 2012:

Thanks for featuring a couple of my lenses here! Once again, a lens has made me start longing to go...

getmoreinfo on February 08, 2012:

This is really interesting and I appreciate you sharing your experiences, I get much value from knowing what to expect when it comes to something new and the many things you highlighted was a great eye opener to the whole hiking trail experience, although everyone will probably have variations.

Ken Parker from Tacoma, Wa on January 22, 2012:

I always be ready for the cold is a great tip.

Ultralight backpacking

Bernie from Corbin, KY on September 02, 2011:

i wuold like the hike

TravelingRae on June 18, 2011:

Great lens, very inspiring. I'd love to hike this trail one day. I probably couldn't do it thru, though, since I'm Canadian and would not be allowed in the US long enough to complete the hike.

anonymous on December 31, 2010:

Thank you for sharing these great lenses. It is nice to read and take in the trail that you have experienced first hand.

julieannbrady on January 02, 2010:

Wow! This must be THE thing to do as I just came across a couple of these thru-hike lenses this past week alone! My dear, I've dropped by today to wish you the best and hope that you have a remarkable journey this year. It has been wonderful to get to know you thanks to the power of Squidoo. Hugeroonies!

Andy-Po on December 23, 2009:

Great advice.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on November 23, 2009:

@evelynsaenz1: To a degree, sure. Many people who start the trail aren't in tip-top shape (or even close) at the time, but we get into that shape relatively quickly, hiking most or all of the day, day after day. But all that strenuous activity with a pack on is definitely harder on those who weren't active and exercising beforehand, so that sudden level of activity CAN lead to knee and other problems early on for those who were relative "couch potatoes" before hitting the trail. So I'd recommend people do start moving and hiking with a full backpack some before starting a thru-hike. It'll make the experience better on the trail and help prevent injury.

Evelyn Saenz from Royalton on November 23, 2009:

I have thought about hiking the Appalachian Trial for years but life always interferes. Maybe when my youngest goes off to college. Would you recommend the trail for someone who needs to get in shape?

NC Shepherd on September 12, 2009:

It's just amazing how crystal-clear the memories of the trail stay after so many years. It's a magic place...I suspect that even another long trail wouldn't have the same magic.

anonymous on September 02, 2009:

This is awesome thx for all the info!

sarita from Hisar on August 31, 2009:

Fantastic tips.....

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on August 22, 2009:

[in reply to ahikersfriend] Hi... I don't know if you'll be back to check for a response, but....

Seriously, when I got back from my thru-hike, it was like culture shock. I was happy to have a few days of quiet, just me and my husband (who didn't hike with me). Then there was a small, mellow shin-dig with friends--a campfire cookout--which was perfect. They let me "talk trail" to my heart's content as we sat around the fire and ate.

When it comes to your friend, obviously you know him better. If he's someone who might normally shy away from a celebration, I'd think he probably would even more after being on the trail for months. But it IS a big accomplishment, so it's definitely worthy of recognizing, and I'd bet he'd be happy others acknowledged it.

But, hey, thru-hikers LOVE cake. You could always top it with GORP. :) But I'll bet he's had quite enough of those good ol' raisins and peanuts!

Congrats to him from me.

anonymous on August 21, 2009:

I have a friend who will finish soon - about two weeks( /-) . Family & friends at home want to celebrate his return to us. What is an appropriate celebration? Can we post signs and banners? Can we have cake, or do we serve GORP?

Robin S from USA on August 12, 2009:

This is great!

Holley Web on July 19, 2009:

Excellent writing! Introspective as well.

Bambi Watson on July 17, 2009:

Excellent Tips & Advice :-)

drifter0658 lm on July 17, 2009:

As per the norm.......excellent Rammie. Your words bounce around the ear touch the right spots.

bdkz on July 17, 2009:

Love this one!

anonymous on July 16, 2009:

Great! This sounds difficult but it also sounds like so much fun!

Mary from Chicago area on July 15, 2009:

Would absolutely love to do this someday! Nice lens, 5*

Robin S from USA on July 15, 2009:

Very cool!

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