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How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail: Beginner Advice

Lost Pond, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail
Lost Pond, New Hampshire Appalachian Trail

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.

Question:

I am a high school teacher/photographer and I want to hike a section of the A.T. this summer during my break. 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. 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. 

Response:

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!

Ladder on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail
Ladder on the Vermont Appalachian Trail

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. If you carry an iPhone or Android, Guthook’s Guides are also rapidly becoming a must-have purchase and have even more recent trail data than the AT Guide, since Guthook hikes the trail and collects all the data personally. Guthook also has guides for the CDT and PCT if you’re aiming for the Triple Crown.

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.

Vermont Appalachian Trail
Vermont Appalachian Trail

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.

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17 comments

  1. Hi my name is Tami, I so want to do a section hike starting northbound from Georgia. I’ve got two concerns, so please give me your opinions. My first one is I am a female and will be hiking alone and I prefer to see some people along the way hopefully because I know everybody starts there around March and April for the Thru-hikers. Secondly, what’s the weather going to be like? How hot? I’m from Dallas, Texas and I can handle hot. Help!!!!!

    • tami, I too am doing my first section hike in June. i’ve read the comments and if you look at weather underground, you should be able to grasp weather conditions. When I’m going, the weather should be 70 day time and around 40 at night. Being from Louisiana, it’s always hell here. I’m looking forward to the coolness of the forest. However, I would much rather be hot than cold…cause I’m old!

  2. Hiking on the AT trail can be a great adventure.just like when the pioneers went west in the 1800’s but it dose require some planning to make a successful trip. However one of the most important things to remember is to have fun and don’t push yourself too hard because that is what leads to injuries most of the time. However with enough time, food, money and equipment and motivation anyone can hike the AT trail. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time or money to take off four to six months to do a thru hike. However a section hike is possible for anyone. For a beginner I would personally recommend a tent over the hammock. Sleeping in a hammock is more comfortable then a tent or shelter but occasionally it can be challenging find trees spaced the right distance apart to put up a hammock. Then there are the issues of where to store your gear and cooking in the rain when using a hammock. Most small dome tents are simple to pitch and don’t require skill plus you can share with your buddy and split the weight between you to lighten you load if you want. A cheap tent from Walmart can be bought for thirty dollars and serve this purpose. Of course it won’t hold up to the abuse of camping daily for a through hike but for section hiking it should last a while. Then you can save your money over time for a much nicer tent that is lighter weight and more durable. Weight is one of the biggest factors I find when you backpack for multiple days however with some planning you can do food drops in certain areas or go into town for resupply so you do not have to carry as much weight. I found that I could drop off packages at some locations rather than mail them because it was cheaper for me and my daughter just call ahead and ask if you can drop off the packages for them to hold. That is something to keep in mind. However one of the most valuable resources I found for trail info was the AT hiking guide. It gives locations of water, campsites, shelters and locations to mail drops. This book serves as a map and guide which is very important because there are some sections of the trail where water is hard to find and knowing in advance can be a life saver and Water purifier I have found the sawyer mini works the best and is under 20.00. I met a few hikers that did not purify their water in any way but I do not want to take the chance and get sick. As far as animals go the biggest thing for me was fear of bears but you get over that. Just learn to make noise and if you encounter a bear stand still for a bit giving them room to move on never challenge them they will win but typically they don’t bother people unless you do something stupid like surprise them, get between a mother and cub or having food in your sleeping area. Remember to put all smell-ables including personal hygiene items in your bear bag that you hang in a tree.

  3. How abundant is water on the trail and what is the suggested amount I should carry?

    • Very abundant except where it’s not. 2 Liters max, most of the time. Buy the AT Guide. It lists every water source on a mile by mile basis so you’ll know for sure.

    • i’d have to agree with philip: water is indeed abundant except where its not ;)

      i also agree with the 2 liter max, as long as there is a mid-point and an end-point with water available for the day. but be advised there are big exceptions. if hiking a hot dry desert, your consumption could easily more than double, and misjudging could quickly become a life-threatening situation. also note that water consumption differs greatly from person to person. dont just stop to drink when others do, or carry whatever they choose to. its important to drink whenever you are thirsty and plan for your own needs

  4. Hi Philip…some of us appreciate every helpful tidbit we get. Am going to start section hiking the AT very shortly starting at hanover nh…want to bring my puppy…incredibly well behaved choc lab and plan on tenting everynite..don’t wanna piss the other people off…wanna thru hike in 2 years..trying out the sections for a little to see if it fits us..have other options if it doesn’t work out I can’t have my best friend along:(

  5. So glad to find this info. I’ll be hiking the Hunt Trail to Mt Katahdin summit next week to support my nephew in his summit>he’ll have logged about 500 miles at that point. i am fit, but not an experienced hiker. Any advice as to what to pack for this day hike? I am plannign to make a parking reservation at Katahdin Stream lot. Thanks!

  6. Hello all,

    I am taking into consideration hiking all that I am able in 89 days in the summer of 2017,
    starting in early May.

    However,
    having read of the heightened tick proliferation during this time period,
    I wanted to gather feedback from those who have done the trail in May, June, and July,
    about how common tick bites were/if you saw many,
    I’d prefer to hike the trail starting in February or Fall,
    but I haven’t the choice at the moment,
    I appreciate any responses.

    Thanks,
    Max

  7. Totally agree with Phillips assessment and many of the other comments. I did exactly what Phillip suggests by going slow. I joined a local hiking/backpacking club and did the 1-3 nighter trips with people who knew what they were doing. I researched ultra light backpacking a “lot” before purchasing anything… but I did end up replacing most of my gear that way.. However, I do hike safely and do not leave any critical equipment at home. lastly I too wanted to begin hiking the AT in sections.. my first section was the Pen Mar Park back to Harpers Ferry section approximately 40 miles. Prearranged for someone to pick me up at Harpers Ferry where I left my car and shuttle me to Pen Mar Park. Found that persons name and references on the AT website and he was also on and recommended at Whiteblaze.net . I had a safe and great time and met lots of friendly folks on the trail.

  8. My advice, have a plan B. I had two lessons in a week with this. I was going to do a Presi hut to hut, bag a few peaks, enjoy the experience. I had to hike to Washington after Lakes, which I wanted to avoid, because of the pea soup fog and high winds. I took the shuttle back to Pinkham after a cry and some good soul searching. A few days later I did a guided overnight in the Shenadoahs. The next piece of advice is not to underestimate the trail. I had hiked 5 4Ks in the week prior and it kicked my butt, probably because I was not used to carrying everything on my back. About 4 miles into a planned 7 mile hike, we had to stealth camp because Mother Nature was in a bad mood. My first time setting up my own tent was in pouring rain off the side of the AT. I was able to rent the tent, bag, and pad which helped me make some decisions. The leaders did a great job of teaching us essential skills while hiking. I did feel bad for one woman. If I knew she was carrying such a large tent, I would have lent her my car camp one at 4lb. I had the smallest pack at 44L while everyone else had 55L+. It was a great experience and believe me, I am happy it was cut short and just an overnight. My biggest issue was all the noises the animals and bugs make at night. It was deafening.

    Get as much experience as you can. Join some Meetups, the AMC, and/or other local groups. Learn from those around you, ask lots of questions, try some new things. For women, I highly suggest you check out Trail Dames and Roam the Woods. Over time, you will learn how to handle just about anything and make new friends who will hike with you. I am pretty much booked for all of the NH AT next summer.

    And take care of yourself. Exercise often, eat well, and listen to your body when not hiking. Use all your senses. If something seems off, it might be a warning. And after doing 5 miles in MA, watch for strange blazes, or none at all. Map and compass come in handy all the time.

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