These come based on personal experience and from studies on what are the top reasons why people get off trail. The number one rule is to hike your own hike!
To be successful on the Appalachian Trail you need to commit a large amount of time, this number is commonly put between 5-7 months for the average thru hiker. People usually know this going in but most people don’t visualize what that actual length of time means. It means this can be a three-season time commitment, it means you won’t see friends, family, and pets for most of this period, and it also means you’ll be doing the same thing every day, hiking. A good way to prepare mentally for this time commitment is to think of times that you’ve been away from home for an extended period of time and multiply that out in your mind. Things like summer camp, a study abroad, or a work assignment abroad. This can help you put the hike in perspective and be a better way of what the time away will feel like to you rather than saying 5-7 months.
A bigger budget does not mean someone will be more successful. Many people with budgets that are infinite will realize quickly that this hike is not for them and proceed to go take a real vacation. On the other hand, someone with a budget coming up short may find every way possible to limit expenses and complete their thru hike.
The best thing to know about budget is to know yourself. If you’re more than okay working for stay at hostels, limiting time in town, and are familiar with associated costs of hiking like shuttles, shower, laundry, etc. then head off with under the recommended budget. That said ‘recommended’ budget for hiking the trail is $1,000 per month.
This budget works out to paying for bunks at hostels, all your resupply and incidentals, and a good amount of restaurant meals. From here you can adjust higher or lower, say if you’re solo and plan to spend nights in private cabins or hotel rooms you’d need a higher budget. Regardless if you have a few thousand to your name and are dead set on hiking the trail don’t let budget stop you but do know the limitations you’ll face.
Take a Hike
Majority of people hiking the Appalachian Trail have taken a shakedown hike, this is a hike before you leave for the trail and test out carrying all your gear, food, and water. This is crucial but it shouldn’t be the only training prep before leaving for a trail that you’ll be hiking everyday on.
If you’ve been climbing mountains for years then you probably have a good idea of what you may be getting yourself into, if not, then definitely find some mountains to climb. If there are no mountains to climb gym exercises focused on weights and strength building of legs can help prevent early injury as well.
It’s true you’ll condition yourself when you start hiking the trail but it’s getting in the mindset beforehand and strengthening to prevent injury in your first couple weeks. A quarter of all northbound hikers quit by Neel’s Gap and it’s better to not sensationalize the hiking experience of the Appalachian Trail before starting.
This is one of the biggest tips for being successful that I have because it’s hard to keep doing something that you’re not enjoying. This is a type 2 fun vacation anyways so there should at least be some fun and enjoyment going on. The best ways to do this are to make friends, play games, take zeros, and limit stress. The less you worry about the hike and more you go with the flow, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
During my hike a few of us slept at a shelter in Georgia where is rained all night and then had the temperatures drop to freezing. Most of the shelter was clearing out to get off trail or continue on but a few of us stayed, did a shelter zero and spent the day chatting and playing Monopoly Deal and it was one of the most memorable days on trail.
Celebrating milestones big and small is another way to keep the enthusiasm going throughout the trail.
Be Independent and Be Able to Work Together
You really need both these qualities on the trail so thinking you’re one type of person and that will be a benefit may not always be so. Many hikers form tramilies that stick together for long periods but when something happens and people are separated it can feel like your entire hike has been ruined.
The trail at the beginning is infinitely long and if it doesn’t look like you may catch up to people in the short term you should know someone is almost guaranteed to slow down or be taking time off trail later on and you can likely see people that were separated down the road. During this time be independent but also chat with others and you’ll likely fall into a new group to go forward with.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people are doing a hike to be alone with nature and not interested in meeting others. This is fine but you will want balance to this and knowing people on the trail will come in handy when you need something.
I’d recommended staying at shelters at least partially and focus on meeting a few people because you never know whose you’re going to run into down the road. It’s one of the best experiences on trail not seeing a hiker for a thousand miles and then reconnecting. Hiking around a group that you know is also better for safety, helpful for shuttles, sharing hotels, and other cost splitting activities.
Recognize That The Trail Gets Harder
Many people, myself included come into the trail with the idea that the beginning will probably be the tougher section because you’re not in peak hiking shape, you have a heavy pack, and will be dealing with the cold.
This is all true but it’s easy to forget that even with a lighter pack and trail legs, the mountains in the north have tougher trails, not as many switchbacks, and will be doing more elevation per day.
Other factors that come in on the later half of a hike are heat waves, mosquitoes, and fatigue. These factors weigh heavily on people in the Mid-Atlantic states and can make something that was already tough to do become unbearable.
During my hike in 2021 it was the third wettest July on record. Vermont was referred to as 'Vermud' and we walked through sloshy mud in the rain for a week straight. This was pretty much everyone's breaking point but we felt to close then to give up but wish we had known to expect the difficultness.
The best advice is to know that once you overcome one challenge, there will always be a new challenge all the way until Katahdin.
Wishing any future thru hikers the best of luck on their Appalachian Trail journey and much success! Thru hiking is a rewarding experience that will leave you with a lifetime of memories and unmatched outdoor trekking experience.
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