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8 Things I’ve Learned by Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Hiking the Appalachian Trail, bit by bit, or section hiking, has taught me many lessons. Here are of few of the most important ones I’ve learned over the years.

Tweet, Pack Mule, and Yo-Yo on the Virginia Appalachian Trail
Tweet, Pack Mule, and Yo-Yo on the Virginia Appalachian Trail

1. The people make the Appalachian Trail.

While the hiking and scenery along the Appalachian Trail are epic, the people you meet on your hike and in town are an even greater inspiration. Take the time to talk to them and listen to their stories. When the memory of your hike fades, you’ll still remember them and what they taught you.

Check into a cheap motel for a night and get cleaned up
Check into a cheap motel for a night and get cleaned up

2. When things look their worst, take a zero day.

Terrible weather, bad blisters, fatigue, or crappy food can wear down any hiker. When you’re feeling tired or discouraged, take a day off, go into town, and clean up. Have a good meal and a few beers, sleep in a bed, and get away from the trail for a day or two. You’ll soon miss the simplicity of trail life and the excitement of hiking, returning to the trail with renewed enthusiasm.

Wilderness Areas in National Forest and Parks are our country's treasures.
Wilderness Areas in National Forest and Parks are our country’s treasures.

3. The wilderness areas in our national forests and parks are our nation’s true treasures.

The Appalachian Trail wouldn’t exist without the public lands set aside and preserved in the wilderness areas of our national forests and parks. The trail, the forests, and animals that they protect are the greatest legacy we can leave our children. The United States is one of the few countries with such a vast and well-developed National Forest and Park system. Without it, there would be no AT.

Trail resupply
Trail resupply

4. You don’t have to carry or eat as much food as thru-hikers.

If you’re only going to be on the trail for a week or two, there’s no need for you to carry or eat as much food as a thru-hiker. Instead of carrying 1.5 to 2 pounds of food per day like a thru-hiker, you can carry less since you’re probably hiking fewer miles per day and for a shorter duration. Aim to eat as much as you normally do off-trail and you’ll be fine. You’ll appreciate the lighter load.

Section hike in the spring when the weather is cool and the trail isn't crowded
Section hike in the spring when the weather is cool and the trail isn’t crowded

5. Section hiking lets you pick the best times of year to hike.

Section hiking lets me cherry pick the best times of year to hike and lets me take things at my own pace, without the added time pressure of winter park closings. I’m really not interested in hiking a long trail for 6 month continuously or in summer when the heat and humidity are unbearable along the east coast.

Section hiking the Vermont AT in 2008
Section hiking the Vermont AT in 2008

6. The first two weeks of any section hike suck while you get into hiking shape

Even if you hike every weekend, it’s going to take you about two weeks to get back into hiking shape to backpack the Appalachian Trail and do 20 mile days. Of course, by that time, you’ll probably finish your section and be home again. That’s one of the downsides of section hiking. It gets worse as you get older, so get out there now!

Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club Volunteers clear a blow down on with a cross cut saw.
Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club Volunteers clear a blow down on with a cross-cut saw.

7. The Appalachian Trail exists because of the dedication of local trail clubs along the route.

Most of the trail, shelter and privy maintenance along the Appalachian Trail is performed by volunteers who belong to local trail clubs and maintenance organizations. You can’t truly appreciate the magnitude of the work they do until you hike the trail. Thank trail maintainers when you see them working and figure out a way that you give back to them, even if it just means becoming a member or donating money.

Don't take selfies with Black Bears
Don’t take selfies with Black Bears

8. The most important skill you need to hike the Appalachian Trail is common sense.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail doesn’t require a lot of previous backpacking experience. In fact, most of the thru-hikers you meet never backpacked before they got on the trail. As long as you don’t hike in winter, there are enough other hikers on the Appalachian Trail and you’re close enough to roads and towns that you can learn what you need to know from others, without killing yourself.

What have you learned?


  1. Milton Beauregard

    I appreciate your AT comments and have one for you. If you ever come to Alaska, you will find that taking a bowel movement in -40F is much more preferable than having 40-50 mosquitoes bite your exposed nether regions the instant your pull your pants down; all at the same time! I learned to put a handful of DEET in one palm, release pants down and then rub hands together quickly. Apply wet hands to nether region thoroughly. Enjoy evacuation process except the ones that fly in your ears and nose. AT tips deserve karma from Alaska. Thanks.

    • I’ll keep that in mind. :-)

    • I cannot agree with you more regarding your comments. We have been section hiking for 4 years and leave this weekend for another 10 day hike along the AT. My daughter and I talk continually about the incredible people we have met, the stories we have heard and the views we have taken the time to enjoy Section Hiking has given us the advantage of enjoying each section and taking the time to appreciate the beautiful sunsets and sunrises. if there is a downside it is the conditioning or lack of. Although I train (I am much older than my daughter) continually for hiking, there is nothing like starting your morning with a 5 mile uphill challenge. We have learned many lessons along the way – I think our packs were closer to 50 lbs the first year with inexpensive and bulky stuff. We both now carry 50L packs and that weigh closer to 30 lbs. and have purchased much lighter and small stuff. We always said we were going to write a book called “Backpacking for Dummies”. the stories we could tell.

  2. This is an interesting fact. I published Jennifer Pharr Davis’ book “Called Again” about her record 46 day thru hike (north to south) in 2011. On the other hand I began section hiking the trail in 1967 (New Hampshire) finishing in late September 2011. We both finished the same year but she did it in an astonishing 46 days and I did it in an astonishing 44 years! (Most of my hike came after 2007 and the section Philip traveled from near Roanoke to the major highway beyond the James River was done in 2011. Anyway, I am a big fan of section hiking. I tell people that the advantage is that almost no section is a blur. Each one is different, with different adventures and different people, not to mention season and weather. So I have really appreciated these blogs. They bring back fond memories.

    • You make a really good point about meeting different people on each hike.

      Thru-hikers often hike with the same bubble of people (a few dozen) as they hike north from Springer, although that is slowly changing with the increase in sobos, yo-yos, and flip flop hikes.

      As a section hiker you meet a different bubble, every time you do a section. In that sense it’s even more social than a thru-hike. I’m still in touch with people I met on section hikes years ago. It’s really kind of cool.

      44 years – I’m impressed. That’s will-power!

  3. Good List, Philip!

  4. #1 no matter how many rainbows sunrises sunsets wildlife encounters what ive taken away from my trips have been the people I’ve met.there’s no trail in the world quite like the AT

  5. A good reminder that the first few weeks of the hike (or the first few of the season for day hikers) can suck. The thing I learned is that if the hike is sucking, stop and catch my breath, then hike slower. And even slower. At some point on the mountain all my alveoli get in the game and I naturally can go at a better pace but trying to rush them never works.

  6. Thanks for your plug for the trail maintainers. Anyone can be a trail steward. It’s a very rewarding experience. I”m looking forward to a future time when I can work on trails in New Hampshire or Vermont. For the time being, closer to home I work with the finger Lakes trail Conference and maintain 6 miles of trail and am on call as one of the clubs sawyers. I love getting out and making the trail a better experience for everyone. It’s amazing how quickly the forests and fields will take back a trail if it’s neglected. For those of you already helping out with time or funds thank you for the good work. And for everyone else, give us a hand. We are always looking for help! When you come across trail maintenance folks at work tell them you appreciate their efforts.

  7. You are dead on regarding the people you meet. It restores my faith that there are good people out there, and a willingness to help others. I have been the recipient and the giver of that. You are also right about conditioning. I can attest to that as well

    I’m so looking forward to June. I would prefer the fall my favorite time of the year to hike but my occupation does not allow me to do long sections it.

  8. Great article!

    If you tire of the AT, come to Canada and section hike the Bruce Trail!
    There are official “End to End” hikes of each section that one can do as a weekend. You could then extend your stay by hiking another portion, or joining day hikers. Most of the hikes are listed on the web these days.

    • Some years ago, I attended some business workshops north of Toronto and got to hike sections at both ends and the middle of the Bruce Trail. I would love to do the whole thing.

  9. Just today I returned from a 55-mile section in Tennessee SOBO to Uncle Johnny’s. Needless to say I passed dozens of NOBO thru hikers every day and talked about the advantages of section hiking. I told many of them that section hiking allowed me to fine tune my shelter, sleep and cook systems over many trips so that the next trip always benefits from the last, something not feasible in the middle of a thru hike. At this point I have several pack load options based on the expected weather and time of year. This trip – tarp, bug bivy and a Solo wood stove. Light, fast and dry.

  10. Every time I section I meet cool people on the AT. I think the slower pace and lack. Of distractions really let’s you get to know people. I think the worse part is the first few days when everything is sore again.

  11. Hi a group of us are planning to hike the trail Aug 2018 starting in the Maine area. We will be doing this in sections. Can anyone give me a list of things I’ll need for this hike or direct me on how to get it. It will be a 4/5 day trip. Thank you so much

  12. I have always wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail but life interfered. I have however, done crazy adventurous things most of my life. I’ve jumped into a freezing cold Bering Sea, surveyed in the Tennessee mountains, lived at the edge of the Everglades. I spent days alone as I hitch-hiked home to Alabama from Los Angeles. I spent years hiking locally walking as much as 25 miles in a day, 10 miles at a pop speed-walking regularly. I was an athlete in college and high school.

    Having done these things, they cannot compare to what I am researching to begin in a few months. A Special Forces friend and I are looking to do 100 + miles on the AT in a few months. He is a seasoned man who did the mountains of military necessities. I have nothing to compare with that. I am very physical for my age of 68. Almost no one can guess my age. I do intend to err on the edge of caution while preparing.

    Camping is 2nd nature since I was an infant, having caped alone on horseback, or with large groups from Boy Scouts to huge Civil War reenactments. Any suggestions you offer will be greatly appreciated. I write extensively about my life’s adventures, poetry and the 14 near-death moments in my life.

    • I’m your age and did 100+ miles on the AT a little over a year ago and hope to do another 100+ mile section with my buddies as soon as we all get over the effects of Covid. It knocks the stuffings out of you.

      We just got back from a camping trip and planned a 17 mile loop hike that was fairly strenuous (at least to an old guy). My sister recommended a short hike to see if we had gotten our strength back. I loaded backpacks with the weight we’d carry on the longer hike and we did a 5 mile round trip day hike that had about half the elevation gain. It told us we weren’t yet ready for South Rim.

      I hope your adventure goes well. One thing I learned from my section hikes is that anything I put in the pack is a commitment to carrying it the entire stretch of trail. Of course, that’s always the case but it seemed to ‘click’ more on the section hikes. On my first section hike, I brought two small walkie talkies so that my buddy and I could communicate even if we were apart, however, he didn’t want one, so I carried two useless walkie talkies in my pack for the duration. My fault–I should have checked with him first!

  13. I just finished 50+ miles in Maine at age 68. The first time I hiked a section I realized I would never thru hike the whole thing. Since then I have completed 7 sections, taking about a week each time and averaging 10 miles per day. I like to enjoy the scenery, take the side trails to see waterfalls, sit on the mountain tops, read the historical markers, take pictures, etc. As you said, you meet the most interesting people along the way, as well as having time to get to know your companions and yourself. Thru hikers are always under pressure to keep moving and cover the miles.

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