Planning an Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Maine State Line - Appalachian Trail

I'm going for a 150 mile section hike along the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine, this autumn. By the time I'm there, the last of the thru-hikers will have past, but the Kennebec ferry will still be running so I can get across the river.

Since I just finished planning the route, resupply points and shuttles, I thought I'd share my AT planning routine with you and some of the information sources I use.

Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker's Companion

When planning a section, the first thing I do is to consult a ragged 2006 copy of the AT Thru-Hikers' Companion that I use to keep track of all of the miles I've hiked. I provides a mile by mile account of all of the shelters, water sources, resupply points and roads crossings on the trail in a liner fashion that I find easy to digest. If you don't want to buy the book, you can also access the latest copy online in PDF.

ATC Maps

Elevation Profile

After I decide on the section I want to hike, I like to look at detailed topographic maps to get a feel for the difficulty of the route in terms of elevation gain. I always buy these from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy online store. I'm a member of the ATC, and if you hike the trail, I'd recommend that you become one too.

Their section maps are sold by state and come with a guide book. They are printed on thick waterproof paper so they can stand up to a lot of abuse. I carry the relevant ones with me on all of my hikes and refer to them often.

Each bundle of maps (there are 7 for Maine) is produced by different regional trail maintenance organizations and the currency of the maps can vary quite a bit. For example, the AT maps for New York and New Jersey were published in 2007, the maps for Maine were published in 2004, and the maps for New Hampshire and Vermont were published in 2001.

In the period between their publication and "today", the route of the trail may have changed or the level of urban development around the AT may have increased. The resulting Map Drift between "the now" and a map's publication date can be confusing sometimes. You just need to be aware of it and trust your compass. Repeat after me: trust your compass.

In addition to elevation changes, the maps help me chunk out rough daily mileage estimates. In Maine, which is the toughest section of the AT, I plan on 10-12 miles per day and look to see what the camping and water supply options are like at those approximate end points. I rarely stick to this exact plan during a hike, but it gives me a baseline level of comfort knowing that I have some good alternatives available.

Resupply Points

The next step in my planning process is to locate resupply points every 3-5 days along my intended route. The Thru-Hikers Companion is a good resource for this, as is The Resupply Book (2007) at Whiteblaze.net. Unfortunately, the latter is a bit dated, but you can always post a query at WhiteBlaze and you're sure to get a very accurate and up-to-date response.

Shuttles and Parking

Since I usually backpack solo, except in winter, I need to run a shuttle to get back to my car. As a rule of thumb, I try to hike to my parked car, so I can drive home when I emerge from the trail without having to hitch out or run a reverse shuttle.

For parking, you need to decide whether you want to park at a trail head or someplace less remote. When I hike 30-50 mile sections, I usually just park at the trail head. However, if I'm going to be away longer than that, I like to park someplace less remote to prevent the chance that my car will be broken into. Lodgings near the trail will often let you leave your car out back for a nominal fee.

Finding section hiker shuttles along the Appalachian Trail is usually pretty easy, but it may take a little detective work. While I can sometimes get a friend who lives near the trail to drive a shuttle, I often have to spring for a rural taxi. These can be a difficult to locate online in rural parts of New England, but persistence does eventually pay off. I use Yahoo Maps to find possible cab services and then start calling the listings. It can be pretty hit or miss.

You can also post a query on WhiteBlaze or call a local outfitter or hostel to get a lead on someone who will drive you to the other end of the section. Hiker friendly hostels and B&B's will often pick you up at a road crossing if you stay the night, but they won't do a really long 50+ mile shuttle unless you pay some serious coin.

Hike Direction

As a solo section hiker, shuttle availability and cost are usually the determining factor in deciding which direction I hike the AT, either as a NOBO (northbounder) or a SOBO (southbounder)

For example, on this upcoming hike, a friend of mine is driving me up to Monson, at the southern end of the 100 mile Wilderness. From there, I'll be hiking south, all the way to Grafton Notch (150 miles). Lucky for me, he has family he wants to visit up that way.

Otherwise, this would have been a brutally expensive shuttle (like $150+) or I'd have had to break my route into 2 or 3 sections and shuttle my car to each resupply point, as I headed south. The logistics of that would have sucked.

The weather Underground Almanac

Weather

The last important stage of planning is to check the seasonal weather conditions and how long the days will be.

The best place to look up this information is in The Almanac Section of The Weather Underground which lists average high and low temperatures for a given region. Reading the chart, I see that the average daytime temperature for mid-October is between 50-60 degrees F with average nighttime lows near 20 degrees F. That's a bit colder than I expected, so I going to add a fleece to my gear list and bring along an isobutane stove instead of an alcohol one, because it doesn't require priming in colder weather.

Daylight also going to be a big factor, with days down to 12 hours in length. That means I'm going to want to bring a book and some extra headlamp batteries to pass the time. Plus, I'm going to be getting a lot of sleep.

Summary

This is the route planning process I use for planning any long distance backpacking trip on a well-marked trail.

Do you do anything differently?

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23 Responses to Planning an Appalachian Trail Section Hike

  1. Wystiria September 7, 2010 at 3:32 am #

    Sounds much like how I plan our sections! Another source for shuttles is the AMC website, I know some don't like to patronize the club but they are a good source of info and the shuttlers aren't on the AMC payroll :)

  2. Ken September 7, 2010 at 4:31 am #

    Have fun. This is one if the few sections I've nit done yet. I'm jealous.

  3. OceanMountainSky September 7, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    I've already hiked this section but my husband will be hiking from Katahdin to Great Barrington before catching up with me in the south. Maybe you guys will run into each other. Have fun with Mahousic Notch, it was a pain but fun in a strange way. Have fun and take lots of pics, as I'm sure you know, its a pain to go back for those too.

  4. Earlylite September 8, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Wow – that is a tough section! I've done the Notch already, last summer I think. There to Grafton Notch are one of my favorite sections of the AT so far.

  5. Earlylite September 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Good tip Wystiria – never thought of that one.

  6. Rick January 19, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Here is a helpful resource!!!
    http://www.aldha.org/comp_pdf.htm

  7. Timothy March 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    The WhiteBlaze AT Data Base
    http://www.whiteblaze.net/forum/attachment.php?at

    Appalachian Trail Distance Calculator
    http://www.atdist.com/

  8. Earlylite March 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    First one requires a whiteblaze login…I have one, but not everyone. It is free.

    Second one rocks. New to me. Thanks!

  9. Katsal July 26, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Wow! i am planning my first section hike this autumn – checked out the links people recommended and they are good starting points – now to decipher it all! Thanks

  10. RevLee October 13, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    DripDry and I just the Smokies a couple of weeks ago. There were several other sites that we used to plan the trip.

    On WhiteBlaze we found a nice 6 day plan for hiking through the park that someone had posted. WhiteBlaze was also an easy source to check on the status of water along the trail. Some parts of the trail, especially southern VA, have problems in late summer and early fall with unreliable water sources.

    We wanted to get the Smokies out of the way early since it is one of the most restrictive sections of the trail. Unless you are starting your hike more than 50 miles before the park, you must have reservations for the shelters and campsites along the AT, and you must only use the shelters and campsites. We had to use the National Park Service site to identify any shelters closed (typically for aggressive bear activity) and to get the number to call for reservations.

    Another handy site is Appalachian Trail Weather (http://www.sophiaknows.com/atdb/weather.php), which has current trail weather conditions and links to short range forecast by shelter location.

    • Dan Thornton July 7, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      I love the sample Almanac information you show from Weather Underground. But I’m frustrated because I can’t figure out how you get there for any other location. Could someone explain how to start at wunderground.com and get to historical charts for a particular place along the Appalachian Trail? Thanks.

  11. Tiffany July 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    I’m going to hike the Virginia Trail in sections, with my children. Are there any helpful resources for people attempting this will little ones in tow?

    • Earlylite July 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      Google the Appalachian Trail Parking Guide and buy yourself a copy of the AT guide. Not sure what you have in mind in terms of section length, but start slow and work your way up.

    • RevLee July 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      Shenandoah National Park is a great place to start, especially for day hiking. It’s more rolling terrain with easy access to Skyline Drive. When my sons were just starting in scouts, we day hiked most of the park while camping at Big Meadows during Spring Break..

  12. shannon payan October 5, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    Next year my family and I are planning to start sectional hiking the AP with our children who will be 9 & 12. We’ve done a coupe of weekend trips to various mountain areas and they are ready. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

    • Earlylite October 5, 2012 at 8:45 am #

      Go slow. Take lots of snacks. Have them identify all the plants and animals they see along the way. Position a bail out car part way. Bring extra dry clothes for them. Standard parent stuff.

  13. Sharlene Delaney November 19, 2013 at 10:47 pm #

    I have been reading trail journals all summer long. I would love to thru hike the AT but I don’t think “life” is going to let that happen for several years. The next best thing is to do a section hike. There are 4 of us who plan to spend 10 days or so on the trail in June of 2014. We are just starting the planning process and if anyone has some ideas or suggestions or sections that you liked the best please send me an email.

  14. Bill January 15, 2014 at 3:26 am #

    I am planning a section trip with my son this summer I was diagnosed with M.S. a year and half ago when I was in the hospital I was pairalized from the waste down I want to get out there before I end up in a wheelchair again I want to be gone for a month in a half to two months not sure how far I will be able to walk each day any suggestions.

    • Philip Werner January 15, 2014 at 8:19 am #

      Hike with a partner so you don’t put a SAR team at risk for a known condition. If your body gives out, let them run around and arrange for your extraction rather than 911. The AT is not in the wilderness. It’s close to many roads.

      • RevLee January 15, 2014 at 10:06 am #

        Some sections are more remote and rigorous than others, so plan on starting where you are closer to civilization. The middle section isn’t as rugged and has plenty of road crossings. A good place to start would be the southern end of Shenendoah National Park in Virginia, and head north. Shenendoah is often referred to as the superhighway of the AT, it is rolling terrain that parallels Skyline Drive. It’s a great place to get your trail legs without immediately tackling large elevation changes. Heading north from there you stay close to civilization, but avoid the big mountain climbs for the next few hundred miles.

  15. Jennifer April 19, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    I’m trying to figure out where to research sections. I’m wanting to start and Springer Mountain and complete 200 miles. Not sure where I could finish up at and how to get detailed information on the route. Any help would be apprepriciated. :).

    • Philip Werner April 20, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

      Buy the AT Guide by David Miller. It has all of the informatoin you need.

      • Jen September 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

        I just wanted to second this suggestion. I recently got a copy myself to do the same thing next spring and it is fantastic!

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