About the Author: Aspin is a young writer, who grew up in Michigan. She enjoys hiking, camping, photography, and spending time outdoors with her boyfriend and dog. She has dreams of long distance hiking, with plans to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2019. You can find her on Instagram (@brokeroaming), Facebook (facebook.com/brokeroaming), or her website (brokeroaming.com).
I thought I would compile all the information I have gathered over thousands of hours of research. I also recommend picking up resources such as AWOLS Guide Book, downloading Gut Hooks app, and watching plenty of informational videos from those that have completed the the entire trail.
One of the first things you need to decide when you start planning a thru-hike is which direction you plan to go. This will affect how many people you will be hiking around, your recommended start date, whether or not you have a required end date, and what your first few weeks will be like.
NOBO: North Bound. Those that are going to be NOBO hikers will be starting at Springer Mountain or Amicalola Falls in Georgia, and plan to complete the entire hike going northbound. Going NOBO is by far the most popular option, and therefore you will more than likely be hiking with plenty of other people. Going this direction you can technically start at any point (though the most popular times are between March 1 and April 1, known as the “bubble”), you just need to finish by October 15. October 15 is, on average, the typical date that Baxter State Park closes, and stops allowing thru-hikers to summit Mt Katahdin (the official end to the Appalachian Trail). When going NOBO it is typically pretty forgiving to new hikers, with plenty of places to stop and switch out gear within the first few weeks.
SOBO: South Bound. Those that are going SOBO will be starting at Mt Katahdin summit and will go southbound the entire way. Going this direction ensures that you start with the most difficult part of the trail, including the infamous 100-mile wilderness. Going this direction you will not be allowed until Baxter State Park in Maine opens, which is typically around June 1. However, you will not have any limited end date as you can summit Springer Mountain at any time. Doing this you will be able to avoid the bubble, due to the lack of people who choose to take this direction. Due to immediately going into the 100-mile wilderness and being around fewer people, the trail can be a less forgiving, so it is suggested that only those with experience go southbound.
Flip Flop: Starting one direction and then switching. The most popular way to do a flip flop is to start half-way on the trail, with the bubble, and then go NOBO. Once you reach Katahdin you would head back to where you started and hike the other half of the trail SOBO. While this is the most popular, there are many ways to flip flop. The biggest advantage of a flip flop is flexibility. Depending on your start date and which direction you head you could theoretically have no limited start or finish date. The other advantage is that you are able to avoid the bubble if you wish.
Once you have figured out when you would like to start and which direction you would like to go, you need to start putting together your gear. I would recommend looking at the gear lists of those who have completed thru-hikes to see what they took with them the entire way. One thing I like to do is look at both the pre and post hike gear lists of those that have completed the trail to see what they changed and why.
Make sure you take into account the weather you will be experiencing along the way. A hiker starting NOBO in mid-January will need different gear than one hiking SOBO starting in July.
Ultralight vs Traditional
Many people, once they start gathering their gear, start to identify as a traditional backpacker, lightweight backpacker, or ultralight backpacker. These depend on how much gear you will be taking and how heavy the gear is. Traditional having a base weight over 20lbs, lightweight having a base weight between 10 and 20lbs, and ultralight having a base weight under 10lbs.
With a Partner vs Solo
Another thing to take into account is if you are doing this hike with anyone else. It can be scary to go in alone, but keep in mind that thousands of people step foot on the trail each year with over 2,000 attempting to thru-hike it. If you start with the bubble, it is unlikely you will be completely alone.
Once you have everything set it is time to start getting yourself into shape. It is important to note that there is very little you can do to get yourself used to hiking 8-10 miles a day with 10-20+ pounds of gear on your back other than doing just that. However, you can do things like go to the gym to work on building muscle in your legs, as well as building endurance among your back and arm muscles.
The two most common questions among those that are going to hike the trail are “how much does it cost?” and “how much do I save?”. I would recommend sitting down and making a budget that allows you to save as much as you can each month. It is recommended that hikers save approximately $1,000 per month they plan to be on the trail. It takes most people 5-6 months to complete the trail so it is recommended to have about 5-6K saved. I also recommend putting together a list of all off-trail expenses you will need to continue to pay while you are on the trail. For example a car payment, mortgage, insurance, etc. and make sure that you have enough saved to make all these payments. Another thing to take into account when saving money is how long before and after trail will you be unemployed? Are you taking a month before the trail but have a job lined up for when you get back? Or do you want to take a couple weeks after trail to relax before working again? Have a buffer budget for after the trail so that this isn’t as stressful.
Many people wonder how to get food and needed gear along the way. You can’t carry 6 months of food, so how do you eat? Well, the trail runs along near many towns and people generally hitchhike into town so that they can not only wash their clothes but resupply on things like food and toiletries. There are three general ways to people get food along the trail.
There are some who prefer to have food and resupplies figured out before they get to the trail. They will sit down and plan out mail drops to send themselves along the way filled with food and supplies. Many times these are people with dietary restrictions that would struggle to resupply from the small towns along the way. This is often advised against because there are complications that can come along with this such as not getting to the post office on time, having cravings change along the trail and no longer wanting the food you sent yourself, or sending your self the wrong amount of food so that you are carrying too much or not enough.
Resupplying Along the Trail
As stated before you are often not far from a town, and will be heading into town once every 3-5 days on average. This makes the most popular option to resupply in towns. Since cravings change along the trail this is popular so that hikers don’t get sick of eating the same exact foods every day.
This option is one that many hikers utilize along the trail and ends up being a mix between the previous two options. If you come to a town with good resupply options but the next town you plan to stop in only has a gas station, it may be a good idea to buy an extra resupply and send it forward to yourself in the next town. This is also a popular option to do with gear. If you find a good deal on gear you know you will need down the road you can bounce the box ahead to the next town, and if the box is unopened you can continue to send it ahead for free until it is needed.
A very important thing to figure out before starting such a strenuous journey is the “why?”. Why are you putting your self through so much mental and physical stress? Without a solid “why” it can be easy to back out on a bad day or when your legs are tired. Make sure you have something to keep pushing you forward if your goal is to hike the entire trail
Getting to the Trail
You have your gear, you have the money, you have given your job notice that you are out of there for 6 months, now how do you get to the trail? The easiest way to get to the trail is if you can have friends or family drop you at the trailhead. But for most of us, that isn’t an option. Many people will fly into Atlanta airport, and then a take a shuttle either directly to the trail or to a hostel/hotel. If you stay at the Amicalola Lodge near the trailhead you can hike to the trailhead straight from the lodge. If you find another nearby option there is usually shuttle options to get you to the trailhead from where you are staying.
Hopefully, you have found this helpful, and that it has answered a couple questions for you. Good luck to you on your journey to what is hopefully a successful thru-hike!