Home / Appalachian Trail / How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail: Beginner Advice

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.


[quote]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. [/quote]


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.

Written: 2012
Updated: 2014

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  1. Phillip, Snickers are not real food :) In the backwoods, food becomes the new politics.

  2. That is some great advice. I’ve seen too many people run out to REI and buy a few hundred dollars of gear that they didn’t really need or end up using. And end up going out on their own and getting hurt or having a miserable time.
    For the guy with the questions about that stretch of trail, there are some great sections through PA and MD for beginners. I’ve taken many friends through the southern half of PA to give them a taste of backpacking and its most always worked out for them to have a great first backpacking trip.

  3. Isn’t that ladder in Vermont? Right after the Stony Brook Shelter?

    Good advice—I haven’t tried the backpacking meals by Mary Jane’s Farm—but they might be more ‘real’, I think mostly because I think they try to be organic.

  4. I cannot agree more on the food and gear issues. I find that most rookies to the trail (myself included at that time) tend to rely on their fancy gear more than their own skills. I prefer the simple meals as well. I even dehydrate some of my own meals. $8-$10 a pop for a pre-packaged meal that doesn’t even taste good is beyond my ability to handle.
    Simple food, simple gear, and simple enjoyment. Makes life good.

  5. How about a followup post for those more experienced with multi-day trips on logistics of how to break it up into 3-4 week sections assuming you don’t live really close? Do you fly in and out (hitch to/from airports?), drive to one end and try to get a shuttle back to your car, etc.

    • Check out my Long Trail page and trip reports. I drove from Boston to Vermont for each section and figured out a different shuttle each time. I’d leave my car along the trail, get a shuttle to my start point, and hike back to my car.

  6. Also Meetup.com is a good resource for local hiking groups that organize local section hikes. If you live near the AT there’s probably a fair amount of them.

    In my opinion, tents are a simple and reliable shelter to get some experience with. I did my first AT sections in Boy Scouts with no experienced leaders and we made a ton of mistakes. Look at every trip as a learning experience/experiment and try to write down what you did right and wrong.

    • I run Outdoor Club South and we regularly host both weekend trips and extended (3-5 nights) trips on the AT. We also host a backpacking 101 event in the late summer to prep for Fall trips.
      Our largest chapter is in Atlanta but we have chapters in 14 cities now.

      Here are the 4 chapters closer to the AT.


  7. Lost Pond looks amazing btw great pic!

  8. Great piece with soild advise about the things *** that are controllable. *** I esp. like Ray’s comment about not relying solely on great gear but also our skills – critical. However, so the full story is told, there are nasty uncontrollables that infrequently pop up on any trail, not just the AT, that a rookie, all of us really MUST be aware of. Properly deployed bear cannisters or bags and a happy ‘take your condoms’ mindset don’t protect us effectively when we run into feral hogs or VERY strange folk running from the law. Those aren’t ‘rookie mistakes’ & it does happen. You do what you like, but another 40 oz of dependable & legal protection against the likes of Hogzilla & Meredith Emerson’s killer are vital when the absolute worst happens. Very low statistics about these sorts of things are great from the safety of our computers, but when you’re staring at a freak at 2am who has invited himself into your tent & is clearly intent on malice or a pig that has his eyes on your leg, you’ll be very happy you’ve got 13 in the clip.

    • I prefer a light saber over a glock. It’s a better fire starter.

      • Unfortunately, I can’t camp in your universe, but only have access to John’s. That being the case, his comment is sound advice to anyone starting out.

      • You’re entitled to your opinion. I’m not prepared to kill people on vacation and think there are better ways to avoid Jason.

      • When someone is getting ready to take your head off your shoulders it will be too late to prepare. Going through life depending on dumb luck is not a very sound strategy. Besides, you don’t need protection for what you can avoid…you need protection from what you can’t avoid.

      • do you also need protection from werewolves and vampires? cant be too safe, y’know!

      • …and the GoLite Chrome Dome hiking umbrella offers no protection whatsoever against meteorites or crashing alien spacecraft, however, the aluminized coating might offer some resistance to their mind probes… but you’d have to verify that the warranty covers it.

      • an elegant weapon of a more civilized age….


    • i think a boar spear by cold steel would be best, and it doubles as a strong hiking stick. seriously in my thur hike i never saw a wild hog or raping hillbilly. ray jardines book took me from newb to pro in very short time….

    • taking firearms into the woods is no more or less sensible than being armed everywhere else, but personally im glad most people dont do so, nor do i intend to pack my 9mm. besides, it weighs too much and im a gram counter

    • Criminals are lazy by definition. I’ve never seen a shady character anywhere that required walking more than a quarter mile, especially uphill. Just don’t camp by a road.

    • I’ve had a freak or two in my tent before. Definitely recommend the condoms in that case, don’t think a gun would have helped the situation ;)

      Also you forgot to mention Zombies…

  9. I might think a little about your route. There is a fairly steep climb out of Harrisburg and a long section of road after that (if i remember correctly). That might take a bit of the fun out of it if you are not in condition. From Mt Holly Springs south it is very nice and I might think about that. Or could you start in Harper’s ferry?

  10. This is a good primer for people looking to Section Hike. One important aspect of section hiking that isn’t addressed above (even though it doesn’t really apply to the initial query), is the fact that section hikers have the ability–assuming job and other life demands allow for it–to hike sections when they are most desirable (i.e. not when its 100 degrees or when the Black Flies are in full force). This is a tremendous benefit.

  11. One of the greats of any time was George Washington Sears. He wrote: Go light; the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort and enjoyment. – Nessmuk (his pen name.)
    (I was reading Paddlinglight.com this morning so this is fresh in my mind.)

    This was written in the late 1800’s. Though better known as a great paddler for his trips through out the north east and down the Missiissippi, into the Gulf of Mexico in a 9′, <10lb canoe, this is applicable to all forms of camping and hiking, too.

    A typical 10lb pack (base weight) has changed little since that time, as much as we would like to think it has. A tarp, sleeping gear, and tin pot & spoon were enough. Materials have changed. The pack is lighter. Our concerns with poluted water have risen. Wet weather gear is lighter, our concerns with being wet have risen. And so on… Basically the base weight has not changed since that time. Knowing how to handle the outdoors is increasingly being traded for extra gear. Comfortable with being in the outdoors can be a difficult skill to master. Be it for one night, one week one month or one year. Basically, the longer you stay out, the more you need to learn about living outside. The more you learn about being out, the less you need to carry. Many times I have heard the story from beginners that they started with "x" equipment only to drop it all and buy "Y" equipment on the trail. Better to learn by taking short hikes as Phil mentions.

    Training. Your physical condition, is important for enjoying any hike. If all you can think of is the work involved in hiking up a hill, it WILL be a chore, not fun. Training for long distance hikes can be anything from walking with a loaded pack to running. But, you *have* to get out. Hiking an hour per day with a 40lb pack WILL get your back, shoulders and leg muscles in shape. Not something you should plan on for the first month on the trail. It will ruin your fun. Sore hips, sore shoulders and back, well, it just isn't. And it will contribute greatly to your overall depression iff you happen to run into a week of poor weather at the start. Ramp up gradually from 20min per day to an hour per day over two weeks. Then increase your pace for the next two weeks. Then increase the time you spend training. When you hit the trail, it will not bother you. Alternate days with running after the first month. Good for endurance if not strength… Something you need to hike 20mi per day for two or three months.. .

    Learn the skills, both mental and phisical, it takes to be outside. Get in shape for the hike. Drop everything except the bare essentials, because, that is likely what you will do ON the trail anyway. After the half way point, things get MUCH easier.

  12. When I did the 100 miles last summer I passed two young guys on my first afternoon, we were about 6 miles in. I stopped at the next shelter around 10 miles in and they came in about one hour later.

    Just looking at their packs, they did exactly what your instincts tell you to do, what the REI salesman wants you to do, and what Phillip tells you never to do. They had bought all of the things the nice salesman told them to buy and brought a “just in case” backup of everything. Their packs were HUGE, bulging, and had to be 75 pounds each. I felt really bad for those two.

    The next day it started to rain (which wouldn’t stop for two more days) and I hustled out of camp early wanting to get 20 miles or so. As I walked by we talked briefly and I heard them say as I left, “man, he doesn’t have much stuff…” That night I was settling in and the two guys came rolling in, exhausted and looking beat up. I told them that I was happy to see that they made it that far, inside I was shocked to see them. They joked that we would do the 100 miles as a group, I never saw them again.

    I learned the hard way when I started two years ago. I brought “just in case” stuff, too much food, I pushed for way too many miles the first few times I went section hiking. The first time I went out my pak must have weighted 50lbs. Last summer I had the base weight down to around 15lbs, and this summer it will be 8lbs. I have built up my gear, hiking style, and comfort slowly (after my near disastrous first hike!) and know what I need to bring and roughly how long I need. And with eBay, buy/sell forums, and DIY, I haven’t spent a ton of money to get there!

    • Nice thing about buying all your stuff at REI when you’re starting out… you can return it all for lighter stuff once you realize how heavy it is! I would actually advise to buy all starter gear there if possible. Its a great hedge against not knowing your true gear needs and being stuck with it. Plus if it breaks or gets damaged…

      Once you figure out what you want, return it and shop the sales. Now I get most of my gear online, save a ton, and have a huge REI gift card in my pocket for xmas presents or emergency purchases.

      The sales people aren’t big on promoting lightweight gear. Seems like it would save them a lot of returns if they were.

      Another thing I would add to this is take baby steps. Do an overnight. Figure out what you did wrong. Then do two nights. Rinse and repeat.

  13. section hiker for years. used to carry 40+ , a load and would break down my ankles, knees, and spirits. best advice (gotten from experianced ultralight hiker when healing in Mass) was to purchase a postal scale. years of comparing grams and ounces and I have chiseled down to a 13# base pack inc. tent and alot of luxury items. makes hiking a pleasure. the postal scale

  14. I disagree with the response above. It’s definitely possible to comfortably hike a section of the AT without any experience. An AT Thru-hike was my first overnight backpacking experience at the age of 47 (I’m female) and I finished the trail in 4.5 months and did really well. That said, I did a TON of research and by the time I started, while I lacked hands on experience, I didn’t have the questions this guy is asking. So I guess it all depends on whether you’re willing to do the prep work to educate yourself so that you know what you’re getting yourself in to.

  15. Wish people wouldn’t think about carrying a gun on the trail. I don’t think there’s any need for it, and it can just as easily be used in the wrong circumstances as in the necessary ones (accidentally shooting a fellow hiker doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility). That being said, Philip, how about a post on safety from fellow humans while hiking? Especially for us hiker chicks who worry about being taken advantage of by scary…um…people. I have yet to backpack solo but would like to give it a try without being worried about other members of my own species; they worry me far more than bears, snakes, and other non-human critters.

  16. I love the last two posts. I am 47 and my sister and I will be in GA in July to hike a bit of the AT for the first time. We don’t know how much we will be able to do, but we are doing it anyway. I have done TONS of research as well, and watched countless gear videos, and slowly acquired most of my gear. (entire pack is under 19#) I am not able to afford a Big Agnes $339.00 2# tent, but I have learned we can split the carrying weight. I will not be carrying a gun on the trail! I like the light saber option.
    I do have a question: What will Springer Mountain “feel” like in mid July? Hotter than hell? Or pleasant?

  17. 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.

  18. This is good advice. My biggest problem on the AT was fear of the unknown. If you’ve never hiked/camped you need to get your feet wet. If you have camped, like I had, then the transition to hiking, assuming you camped “low weight”, is not that different. The hard part is carrying everything on your back. So several long weekends hiking and experimenting with your kit are invaluable.

    I was a tent camper but took a hammock on the AT. Had never set it up. (In Canada, eh? It snowed the day I got on the plane for GA). It was nerve wracking for a day or two but it all worked out. A hammock is a great choice. It’s my #1 choice now.

    You can think all you want but don’t over think it. If you’re going into the wilds then you have to be careful. The AT is a great introduction to more technical hiking. You’re never that far from civilization on the AT. The key is to get out there.

    • Great comments Peter and Jim. Glad you got out there!

    • for me hammocks dont work, at least with the models i tried. i suggest anyone considering them do a full test of their sleepability first. thanks to their saggy bucket shape, side-sleeping is impossible and my tight hamstrings are flexed to the point of pain if i lay chest-up!

      • True, hammocks are not for everyone, and they won’t work everywhere. I suggest anyone interested in using a hammock check out hammockforums.net. It’s a fantastic resource with knowledgable people willing to help out. There’s a bit of a curve to learning how to use them.

  19. 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.

  20. The odds of finding a criminal in the woods are really scarce. A thief? Well, I’ve yet to meet one that can tell a 300 dollar tent from a 30 one, or that would spend hours scanning the wilderness when he could make a lot more in the city. Rapists… The idea of a stranger raping you all of a sudden is great for films, but no so much for Real Life, specially when around 70% of rapes are.performed by someone the victim knows. I’ve never felt safer in a city than in the woods.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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

  24. 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:(

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

    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.


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