Got this question from a reader last night and figured I’d share my response to him with you. It’s the standard advice I give to someone who wants to section hike the Appalachian Trail but doesn’t have much backpacking experience.
Go slow. Learn what you need to be safe and an independent hiker. Backpacking is a skill and it takes a while to pick it up. Doing multi-week section hikes without the requisite experience can endanger you or others, and turn into a miserable nightmare. The Appalachian Trail is quite safe as long as you know what you’re doing. Coming up to speed can be overwhelming, so find a mentor or club to hike with that can teach you the ropes, and help you have a safe and life-changing experience.
I am a high school teacher/photographer and I want to hike a section of the A.T. this summer during my break. I am thinking of starting in Harrisburg, PA, and hike to Harpers Ferry. I have done research on what gear I need, food I should take, and anything else I may need. However, the information that I find is great and informative, but I am finding an overwhelming amount of knowledge, so much that I don’t even know where to begin. I figured I’d take a tent, then I read some of your blogs on hammocks, and I’ve also came across tarps. So, I am back to square one which is not knowing what I will sleep in during my hike. I am writing you to ask if you can give me some basic information for beginners, or provide me with some links, that will help me get started. What should I purchase from the A.T. Conservancy…Thru-hikers Companion, maps, anything else? Should I take a tent, hammock, or tarp as a beginner? Do I need a sleeping bag or a sleeping mat? What foods should I pack? Do I need to pick food up at a resupply point or can I pack that much food with me? Do I have to worry about being safe from people or animals? And if you have any other information that you would like to share I would greatly appreciate it.
Based on your questions, I’d advise you to build up your multi-night backpacking experience before you set out on the Appalachian Trail by yourself. My wife made me do the same thing, and she is always right!
Depending where you live, I’d hook up with a local hiking and backpacking club and take a half dozen 1-2 night trips with them in good weather and bad, so you can get used to new gear and learn the ropes of cooking, hiking in the rain, avoiding hypothermia, and taking care of wet feet. You’ll experience all of these on the AT and it’s best to have more experience ahead of time so you don’t endanger search-and-rescue if you get into trouble or inconvenience other hikers who stop to help you.
If you live on the east coast of the United States, or near it, I’d join the closest Appalachian Mountain Club Chapter and start going on beginner-to-intermediate trips with them. AMC leaders and fellow hikers will teach you the skills you need to be safe, although some extra credit reading is also advised. Try Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiking Gear Guide, Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker, and Rick Curtis’ The Backpacker’s Field Manual. These are three of the best skills books out there. Reading will only take you so far, but it will complement your trip experiences.
You don’t need any protection from any animals on the Appalachian Trail as long as you hang your food at night to prevent bears from getting at it or put it on a bear box at a shelter. You also don’t need protection from people, unless you are very promiscuous. If that’s the case, I’d advise you bring condoms. :-) Sorry to be flip about this, but the biggest danger you’ll face is your ambition and stupid rookie mistakes.
As for maps and reference material. I’d advise you purchase David Miller’s AT Guide which provides mile by mile descriptions of the trail and complete trail town resource guides. It is an AT essential. I like maps but many people don’t bother carrying them for the section they’re hiking because David’s book is so comprehensive – you’d get them from the ATC store though if you want them.
Gear – defer buying anything for as long as possible and try to borrow all your gear instead. If you feel like you must buy a tent, get yourself a Tarptent Rainbow, for the simple reason that you’ll still like it after a year. You will need a sleeping bag, sleeping bag, etc, even if you end up getting the floor in an AT shelter.
Food – really go on some beginner trips. I carry real food, not the dehydrated, chemical laden slop they sell at REI. I carry a stove and cook simple meals. If you are hiking the trail, mail drops do make sense although they can be a bit inconvenient. Unfortunately, many supermarkets in small towns have been replaced by gas station quick marts that have crappy food. Study the AT Guide to see if the section you’re hiking has any good food stores; otherwise send yourself stuff. Don’t bother though if you’re just hiking a week. Carry it.
I hope that helps. I don’t mean to discourage you, but you don’t want to try hiking the AT without any backpacking experience. Sleeping on the trail for four or five nights in a row is a lot different than doing a one night trip. You need to walk before you can run. Ramp up gradually and you’ll be fine.