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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.