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The Pros and Cons of Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Vermont Appalachian Trail Sign
Vermont Appalachian Trail Sign

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says that 20% of the people who claim to hiking the Appalachian Trail each year are section hikers, although I suspect that the actual number is much higher. While some section hikers complete the trail in just a few years, many others take a decade or more to hike all 2180 miles from Springer Mountain to Katahdin.

If you have a passion to hike the Appalachian Trail, which is still arguably one of the greatest adventures one can undertake in the United States, section hiking the trail has many advantages worth considering.

Hanging Out with other Section Hikers on White Cap Mountain in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness
Hanging Out with other Section Hikers on White Cap Mountain in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness

Advantages of Section Hiking

Keep Your Job

If you’re willing the hike the AT on weekends and during your vacation, you can keep you job and keep you career on track without having to quit or take a long unpaid leave of absence with no guarantee of a job at the end.

Hike in Good Weather

There’s no need to hike the AT in March when they’re still snow down south or during the heat and humidity of mid-summer. You can schedule your hikes during the best weather months, in late spring and early autumn when there are less bugs and cooler weather. As a section hiker, you have the option of quitting a section early if you run into a period of bad weather and come back later when the weather is more favorable.

Less Crowded

As a section hiker, there’s no need to hike with the huge crowd of northbound thru-hikers. You can hike your section after all the thru-hikers have passed through and on weekdays when the trail is less crowded. I’ve spent many nights in AT shelters on section hikes either ahead of the wave or behind it, where I had the entire shelter to myself, without other snoring hikers. Even the shelter mice leave you alone!

Fewer Miles Per Day

Section hikers can hike fewer miles per day because they don’t have to rush north before the Kennebec Ferry stops in October or Baxter State Park closes for the season. As long as you have the time, you can hike your miles at a comfortable pace, take as many side trails as you want, and learn more about the history and customs of the area you’re hiking through. This is one of the key differences that can make a section hike better than a through hike.

Easier on Your Body

Hiking for one or two weeks at a time as a section hiker is a lot easier on your body than thru-hiking for five months in a row. As a section hiker, you can avoid many of the overuse injuries that thru-hikers experience including plantar fasciitis. You also won’t have the same weight loss and dietary issues that thru-hikers have because you’re on the trail for a much shorter amount of time.

You Can Take as Long as You Want to Finish the Trail

As a section hiker, you can take as much time as you need to finish the trail as you want. If you hike the AT for a few years, but find you need to stay at home more while your kids are growing, it’s no big deal. You can pick up where you left off when they become more independent or when they want to come with you on your hikes.

Learn How to Backpack Better

As the years pass by, and you do more and more backpacking, and more section hikes, you’ll pick up a lot of skills and backpacking techniques that thru-hikers never learn. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail is a fairly narrow skill set compared to all the different styles of backpacking and hiking that people do in other parts of the country and learning more skills will set you up for your next big adventure after you complete the AT.

Bring Lighter Weight Gear

Backpacking gear gets lighter and lighter weight every year, and as backpacking technology evolves you can use improvements in gear to your advantage. For example, if you started hiking the AT ten years ago, chances are you’d have been hiking in heavy backpacking boots and carrying a lot more gear weight. Since the gear available during your hike will evolve with time, you can upgrade to newer and lighter weight gear as it is developed, instead of being stuck with the same gear for six straight months like most thru-hikers. This will matter more than your realize as you get older.

Section Hikers can spend more time learning the hostory of the areas they hike through. Shay's rebllion, a local tax revolt, occurred at this spot in Massachusetts in 1787.
Section Hikers can spend more time learning the history of the areas they hike through. Shay’s Rebellion, a local tax revolt, occurred at this spot in Massachusetts in 1787.

Disadvantages of Section Hiking

No Glory

Unlike thru-hikers, there’s not a lot of glory in being a section hiker. Gear manufacturers won’t sponsor you and newspapers are unlikely to write stories about you.

Hard on Your Loved Ones

If you only get three weeks of vacation at your job and you spend two of them hiking the Appalachian Trail every year, your spouse and children can grow to hate the AT. Make sure you mix things up a little and spend as much time with them as they need. The Appalachian Trail is not going anywhere and you can come back to hike it when family circumstances make it possible.

Transportation Costs

The cost of getting back to the trail where you last stopped hiking can add up over time if you live far away from it. The Appalachian Trail passes through some fairly remote and rural country and there are few points that are accessible via public transportation. While you can drive to the Appalachian Trail from anywhere along the east coast of the United States, it can eat up a lot of time if you need to drive from New England to the southern states. This may be your only option though since the AT doesn’t run past many major cities with airports or train terminals. Then there’s the issue of shuttles from your car to a remote part of the trail, which may be 100-200 miles away. Shuttle drivers will typically charge you a dollar a mile fo ra shuttle and these fees can add up over time. unless you do fewer and longer section hikes.

Conclusion

While there are disadvantages to section hiking, the advantages far outweigh them, particularly if you’re working and on a career path, or have a growing family. But in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you hike the Appalachian Trail as a thru-hiker or a section hiker. What matters is that you get out and have a life of adventure; an adventure that you can call your own.

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34 comments

  1. As a section hiker, you get to endure the two week conditioning period again and again. That’s a huge con that is hard to avoid, even with “off season” conditioning.

    • Actually, the need for conditioning is on the “pro” side for me. In order to remain conditioned for section hiking, I work out at the gym nearly every day. Also, I backpack other trails as often as possible. My section trips on the AT are five to ten days, but I’ve finished 1200 miles and have not had much trouble with soreness, aches, and pains. Section hiking is a lifetime adventure (if I finish, I’ll start over!) that motivates me to stay conditioned!

      • Me too. I hike all year round, so section hiking the AT is almost like a hiking vacation. Not much planning required. Much easier to hike than my normal stomping grouunds.

  2. I’m thinking for a lot of people, weight loss isn’t a con :)

  3. I would add another benefit of section hiking – the section hiker can research and appreciate the nuances of A.T. more. I talk to a lot of thru-hikers on the trail in Virginia, and they are often weary simply of still being in the state and are kind of numb to anything but continuing to move forward. But if I am out adding 35 miles to my total, I will have spent hours in advance trying to know about every side trail, overlook and historical site, so I don’t miss them when out on the trail. There is no way you can do that as a thru-hiker, as there is too much information to process.

    • I’ve gotten turned on to this aspect of hiking the trail too. I wander into graveyards and check out the VFW memorial at the towns I pass thru and generally try to absorb the “places” I’m hiking through. Plus,doing all that research ahead of time is super fun for my “planning mind.”

  4. Although I haven’t section or thru-hiked anything and my longest backpacking adventure has been five days, I’ll weigh in on an observation about taking time to enjoy the area:

    I backpacked the Grand Canyon with a friend a few years ago. He’s younger than me, in better shape, runs half marathons, lives at 8000′ so he’s used to altitude and has day hiked the Grand R2R hike many times. We descended to the bottom, camped and then climbed back out the next day. Although he’d traversed that route numerous times, he said he saw and appreciated more on the trip with me than on any of the others. The reason was that we were going at a slower pace, allowing him to soak in things he’d always had to blast by in the past.

    I’m not a fast hiker but I do enjoy the journey.

    • I couldn’t agree more! We took 4 days to do that trip – plenty of time to relax and enjoy the scenery, petroglyphs, wildlife, photography, geology, plant life, good food & good company. We repeated the trip a couple of years later & saw lots we had missed the first time.

  5. Glad to see you getting back to your “roots”. I look forward to the adventures!

  6. Good post, Phillip! You left out the cost of cleaning up for the trip home. After transportation, the annual motel room and shower are a big expense. I recall you taking a room at Lake Greenwood, NY one cool Spring. Best wishes for the New Year!

  7. I have had fun sectioning the Maine AT with aid of a 4×4 truck, bicycle, street motorcycle, and an ATV. I might use my kayak this spring on part of the Rainbow Lake AT section. Because I most often go solo, I need a vehicle to get me back to the starting point for each section I do.
    I have had almost as much enjoyment planning these section hikes, as I do doing them.

  8. On advantage of section hiking is that you may be more willing to carry a few more comfort items knowing you’ll only carry them for a few days, rather than a few months.

  9. Another advantage of section hiking is that it allows hikers to include others – others who could not swing a thru hike. With proper planning, be it with hiking buddies or family, no one misses school or gives up their job, presuming all can coordinate vacation time.

  10. I really enjoy section hiking, but I like to do my sections in state form.

    State hiking allows me to really become more enveloped with where I am. I start to become aware and mindful of the state I am walking in and all it has to offer. One example is CT, a state that most thru hikers will blow through. I spent 6 days hiking it, and I got to get to know the Housatonic River really well. I swam in it, I sat by it and even did a little fishing in it. It was with me for most of the hike and I think that if I knew I had to get to Maine, I’d probably wouldn’t have spent as much time with it as I did.

    As I am very proud of thru hikers and think that what they are doing is real gutsy, I feel like sometimes they are going to fast. I understand why. I’d probably would too.

    My biggest question is, when will we start talking about the slowest thru hike of the AT? haha.

  11. I’ve done a couple of State hikes, all in one go: CT and NY – mainly because it was easy to bang them out. I can appreciate going slower too. I often stop to write during the day in a litle notebook. Fishing is next.

  12. As a thru hiker named “Bob” explained to me thru hikers are funnier & smarter than section hikers. I asked how so. Bob stated it’s because they can say their name backwards.

  13. Thanks for the AT section hike callout Philip – it helps me validate my efforts as an east coaster and appreciate all the posts. Even if I don’t reply often – I still check you nearly every day and get a lot from the forum.

    I agree with the points here; mostly the time commitment and family sacrifice.

    The question I have is why folks long distance hike (advantages and disadvantages alike); whether you thru hike or section hike. Growing up in NoVa and visiting SNP as a kid, always wanted to hike that section all at once (maybe nostalgia). When I had a health scare a few years back (at 39), I finally did it-gotta do it while you can. I’ve been working out every week with the goal of hiking about 200 miles a year (ongoing and recurring exercise-advantage). This last year when I visited my cardiologist, he thought I was joking…good for me….the rest is history I guess.

    I’ve met lots of folks from all walks of life from all over the world and all walks of life on my AT section hikes (advantage) including a couple who worked at SNP, who have come to my house for dinner, met up with them again on a section in VA for salmon and burbon, and talk frequently (new life-long frienships–double advantage); to a guy from Australia who flew here just to hike the AT (penpals – advantage); to a pastor from KS (additional prayers from above – triple advantage); and brothers (from CO, VT, NC) who connected to hike a section in VA that thier grandfather did on his way to court thier grandmother many decades ago (brothers/family connecting-another advantage)…I think we all have these stories…even our own…(all advantages I would argue).

    Leaving the trail; leaving the family (disadvantage)…hum…

    Sorry for the long post-thx again.

    • A great comment – really. I have a good friend who did a 500 mile hike after a quadruple bypass. Don’t let the doctors keep you down!

      I was just thinking about the different people you meet on the trail myself: postal workers, plumbers, management consultants, airplane pilots, accountants, graphic designers, professors, carpenters, software engineers, – a full swath of people with very different backgrounds. Except for the complete absence of black people, Bill Bryson was spot on when he said hiking the AT was a way to rediscover America.

  14. Phil, I have to disagree with your “Easier on the Body” advantage. I’ve section-hiked 1,000 miles over a 6-year period and suffer the aches and sore muscles of the first few days out, every single time I go. By the time I’ve gained strength and built some endurance it’s time to head home. Then start over again next time. One could argue that, because of this, section hiking the AT is harder. If my working life permitted I’d love to go more than a week at a time, say, 3 weeks, so that I could “etmy legs” and cruise the last 2 weeks. Even so, section hiking the AT is my preferred way to go because of all the other reasons you mention.

    • Are you the ‘Old School’ I met just north of Pearisburg in the pouring rain carrying a domed umbrella heading north in Oct? Knowing there a lot of us out there…(Possible small world-advantage). Pearisburg wasn’t that bad after all-DQ was a steal.

  15. Interesting points about the differences between section and thru hikers, but the truth is that I’ve was a thru hiker for only 6 months during my AT hike, but I’ve been a section hiker most of my life. Started section hiking at age 15 some many years ago. It’s not often most of us can thru hike. However over the years I’ve section hiked parts of the AT & the PCT. If the opportunity to thru hike the PCT or any other long trail should present itself, I’ll be a thru hiker again. Until then its back to section hiking.

  16. I’ve been weighing the pros and cons myself. i couldn’t afford to do a threw hike myself as still paying off the wrath of irene. but may consider saving enough to complete half a threw hike to harpers ferry and fill the gap between bennington vt and monson me. i also have been self supporting my transportation back to the trail head like seth makes for a great adventure. but for now i got to finish packing my bag and fill the gap. hope to read more on your AT sections philip. always a great read no matter what the topic

  17. “Only” 3 weeks vacation? In five more years… But the spouse and kid hike with me, so that’s not a trade off at least.

  18. I had planned to do a thru hike nobo this March but retiring from my state job became one obstacle after another. Starting in June in Maine would be nice but physically I know I’m not ready for it now so it will be a 2016 thru hike.. So section hiking is a way to prepare to determine what gear works best for me and weight. I just started hiking in June of this year and got a calling from the gods of nature to do more. I joined a hiking meet up group for day hikes but found that lacking. I like to hike and camp out, but most of all I like to chat with thru hikers and learn from them. The biggest problem i have section hiking as a solo hiker is transportion back to my car after a four day hike.

    I have been giving my 16 year old grand daughter (Tiana}a lot of hiking stuff which is just laying around from stupid decision I made buying gear. Now that my backpack weight is down from heavy to lightweight and ultra in some areas the old gear just piles up. Tiana has her licence now and a car but it’s sitting in her driveway till her school grades improve. (lol) and her parents let her drive it. She is excited about going hiking and camping when it warms up and i’m excited too because we will have a car at each end of the trail. I have 11 grandkids 8 boys and 3 girls from 4 to 16 which I would love to take hiking, camping and fishing when i retire and have all the time in the world to share adventures with them. It’s been a long hard road getting to this point in life so I’m ready for a long walk in the woods or a bunch of short ones they both have their advantages.

  19. Meant to say June of last year (lol) time does fly!

  20. Keep taking those kiddos out on the trail! My #1 hiking buddy is my 11 year old grandson, who’s backpacked with me since age four.

  21. Grandpa, I would need a schedule planner to keep up with them, most weekends its soccer, basketball, track, baseball or football. Your grandson is an inspiration most kids now days want to sit on the couch and play pc games or text on the phone after school. I’m glad my sons and their wifes get the kids out of the house all the time doing sports it keeps kids out of trouble when they are actively out having fun with family and like minded friends. But i hope my granddaughter like hiking and camping. I know she like to fish. It would be fun to teach her some outdoor skills and like you have a #1 hiking buddy. There are a lot of nice trails here in Maryland to explore. Happy Hiking Grandpa!

  22. As both a thru-hiker and section hiker I can find merit in both. I love hiking and will do it in any increments possible. I do know my body was physically worn when I completed my thru and that I admire the section hikers who get out every year and tackle a section. Both methods strain the body. To me, the biggest difference – other than the obvious time allocated – is the mental ability to keep on keeping on for the duration of a thru-hike. In my opinion too many people under estimate the mental stamina. Hike on! Scribbles

  23. After 40 years of section hiking the AT I want to pass on to you (and emphasize) that for section hikers, with every hike you are starting from ZERO!!! That is, that it takes time to get acclimated to the rigors of the trail. For me it usually took me 5 days to get into the rhythm of the trail where I could do the high mileage days. As a section hiker, I found, I could not start out doing 20 mile days and was most comfortable doing 12 miles per day. In all my section hiking over the years I have only had maybe 4 days of 20 or more miles with the most, for me, being a 23 mile day in the Smokies ending at Davenport Gap. I should add that my statements above apply only if there is considerable time between hikes. For me, I did maybe one or two section hikes a year so there was a long time between them. However, being in New England I also did a lot of non AT hikes throughout the year to stay in condition. One other consideration is that when I started the AT I was 30 years old and when I finished it I was 69 years old. If you are in your teens or twenties then perhaps in those years your mileages would be better and you would acclimate quicker.
    Gordon

  24. thank you for reconized section hikers all you here about ts thru hikers

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