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How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail: FAQ

Section Hike the Appalachian Trail FAQ
How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail

People who section hike the Appalachian Trail, hike it a segment at a time, on weekends or whenever it’s convenient for them to get away for a few days. There’s no need to quit your job or school. While it’s not as glamorous or social as a thru-hike, you can still relish in the joy of hiking the trail and face many of the same challenges that thru-hikers face.

Section Hiking has many advantages for those who have families they can’t abandon for the 6 months required to complete a thru-hike. You can hike the trail in whatever direction you want, mixing northbound and southbound sections as needed. You can day hike portions and backpack others. You can hike sections out of sequence or hike the trail during the times of year when its less crowded and the weather is better. The only requirement is that you complete hiking the 2000 miles of trail required by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (click for application) to be recognized as an AT finisher.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the best section of the Appalachian Trail to hike first?

The best section is the one that’s easiest for you to get to. If you’re still trying to decide whether section hiking the Appalachian Trail is a good idea or you’re a beginner backpacker, ease into it by planning a few short one or two night backpacking trips covering 10-15 miles to try it out and get used to using your camping gear before you tackle a big section hike. Planning a long trip to a distant but scenic section of the Appalachian Trail puts too much pressure on yourself. Plan a section hike you can drive to or that’s located near friends or extended family members, so you can bail out without financial ruin if things don’t go as planned.

How expensive is it to section hike the Appalachian Trail?

The biggest expense for section hikers are shuttle driver fees when you drop a car at one end of a section and take a shuttle to the other end so you can hike back. After that, hostel and motel fees will probably be your next biggest expense depending on how frequently you go to town for a shower and a clean bed.

How do you find shuttle drivers and how much do shuttles cost?

The best place to find the shuttle drivers and their phone numbers/email addresses is in David Miller’s AT Guide. Different drivers charge different fees so it’s best to ask how much the fare will be before you get in their vehicle. Some charge $1 a mile, some $2 a mile, but it varies.

Is it safe to park at Appalachian Trail Head parking lots?

It used to be safer. Your best bet is to stay with a hostel or B&B in town and ask them if you can leave you car there for a few days while you go hike your section. You might have to pay them for shuttles at both ends, but it’s one way to keep your car safe. You can also park in municipal lots and garages if towns have them or in Walmarts and grocery store lots, although it’s best to ask permission to avoid getting towed. Wherever you do park, don’t leave anything valuable in your car and don’t make it obvious that you’re a hiker by plastering bumperstickers all over it.

How much advance planning is required to hike a section of trail?

Some people take planning to an extreme and chart out a day by day itinerary when section hiking the trail. But the trail and the weather have a tendency to derail rigid schedules. Your best bet is to plan out your travel arrangements to and from the trail including shuttles and to make sure you know where and when you need to visit towns to resupply. Other than that you can largely wing it when hiking the trail and take it as it comes. (See also – Different Styles of Section Hiking.)

Can you day hike the Appalachian Trail?

Absolutely. You can day hike sections or mix and match, day hiking some and backpacking others.

Do you need maps to hike the Appalachian Trail?

Most thru-hikers and section hikers don’t carry maps on the Appalachian Trail anymore because the trail is so well blazed and signed. Navigating trail towns to find grocery stores, hostels, and restaurants that are hiker friendly is a different matter entirely.  Everyone carries pages torn from David Miller’s AT Guide with them (not the entire book), which lists all of the services, campsites, shelters, water sources and road crossings mile-by-mile on the trail. If you want to carry a map, your best bet is to use Guthook’s AT Guide which is a GPS cell phone app that runs on iPhone and Android phones.

Do you need a tent to hike the Appalachian Trail?

It’s a good idea to bring a tent, hammock, or tarp shelter when hiking the AT, just in case the shelters are full or they’re full of snoring obnoxious people you’d rather not sleep with. Bringing your own shelter also means you can stop when you want and set up camp without having to hike to the next shelter or when you’re tired and want to rest. The best shelter for the AT is probably a hammock because you can sent it up just about anywhere, especially when all of the campsites at shelters are already taken. See What is the Best Tent for the Appalachian Trail for a discussion about the pros and cons of each tent and shelter type.

How many days of food do you need to carry on the Appalachian Trail?

It varies, but most people carry three or four days max to keep their pack weight comfortable, popping into town more frequently to resupply. There are some longer sections like the 100 mile Wilderness where you have to pack more food, but the Appalachian Trail is close to many towns so you need to carry less food than you would for a true wilderness hike.

How prevalent is Lyme Disease on the Appalachian Trail?

Lyme disease carrying ticks remain a serious concern on the Appalachian Trail so it’s best to take precautions. Spraying or soaking your clothing and sleep system gear with Permethrin, wearing gaiters, and rubbing DEET or Picaridan on your skin are good precautions to take.

Are dogs allowed on the Appalachian Trail?

Dogs are not allowed on the Appalachian Trail in three areas:

  • Baxter State Park, Maine
  • Bear Mountain State Park Trailside Museum and Wildlife Center, New York (an alternate road walk is available)
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Leashes are also required for dogs along 40% of the Appalachian Trail. See the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for more information.

Do you have to worry about bears and snakes on the Appalachian Trail?

Black bears are quite active on the trail and while human attacks are rare, it’s best to hang your food at night or store it in the bear boxes that many shelters have to prevent bears from stealing it. If a bear approaches you, wave your arms and scream at it and it should run away (See Eastern Black Bears and Safety.) There are poisonous snakes including copperheads and rattlesnakes on the trail from Georgia thru Massachusetts, but they’re shy and easily avoided if you stay away from their habitat. If you encounter a snake, don’t aggravate it or try to pick it up. This results in more snakebite incidents than any other cause.

Can you get a cell phone signal on the Appalachian Trail?

You can get a cell phone signal almost everywhere on the trail at this point, even in Maine’s 100 mile Wilderness. Verizon, by far, has the best network connectivity (See The Appalachian Trail Cell Phone Guide). People who carry cell phones keep them charged up by carrying battery rechargers.

Do you need a gun to hike the Appalachian Trail?

No. You don’t need to hunt animals to obtain food on the Appalachian Trail and there’s very little danger that wildlife will attack you. The people you meet are generally very friendly and you shouldn’t fear for your personal safety. If you’d still feel safer carrying a gun, be sure to check each state’s local gun laws in advance to make sure you’re properly licensed and permitted before carrying a weapon across state lines.

How crowded is the Appalachian Trail?

The trail can get crowded when the wave of northbound thru-hikers passes through an area or on weekends when local day hikers and backpackers share the resource, particularly in popular recreation areas. Other than that, you’re likely to see other hikers every day and at shelters, but they won’t be crowded.

Should you hike with a partner on the Appalachian Trail?

While hiking with a partner can make shuttle logistics easier, provided you both drive your own vehicles, it’s not strictly necessary. You’ll meet plenty of people on the trail and you may end up hiking with them informally for a few days. If you’re looking for a partner to hike the Appalachian Trail with, your best bet is to meet them on local trail club hikes or backpacking trips where you can assess your backpacking partner compatibility in less trying circumstances.

Written 2017.

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24 comments

  1. “How expensive is it to section hike the Appalachian Trail?”

    I will add airline flights to the list. I live in the southeast, my remaining section(s) are in the northeast, flying is my best option based on travel time and less expensive than driving and hotels. I will still need to hire a shuttle from airport to trailhead.

    • If you come north in the spring or summer, maybe you can get on one of the local MeetUp sites, I use New England over 40, or Random Group of Hikers, all NH, maine and Mass based hiking groups. you may be able to communicate with someone who is heading up the Whites, or Baxter SP and get in on Katahdin, or the Mahoosucs. We get a lot of carpools going on weekends for Overnight backpack trips and such. The Boston based AMC is a good site to jump on too. Join cheap, and get a news letter, and plan accordingly. You may be able to get a pick up and drop off at Logan? A lot of hikers in the Boston area are really good about carpools and ride shares. Just a thought.

  2. I recently used UBER instead of a shuttle to get back to my car during a recent section hike. Worked like a charm.

  3. Hi Phil just got home from an overnight section north of DWG, 12.4 in 12.4 out. Even though it is the same trail you get a different prospective. One comment I have and unfortunately don’t follow do some training before embarking on your hike. Thanks

  4. Section hiked nearly 1,000 miles of AT with my spouse doing the drop off and pick up. Sections got longer the greater the distance from home. Hiked Damascus, VA to mid- NJ in sections, and enjoyed every bit of it. At 70, I am slowing way down on the distance to travel to sections I have have not done. It is still a wish to complete the entire trail before I can’t hike. I have studied your hike from NJ to Conn several times and just have not done it, yet.

  5. Started section hiking the AT in 2013. Made it to Damascus last year, six trips. Twisted my ankle six weeks before my trip this year and had to canx. Getting older and recovery time ain’t what it use to be. I leave my car at my planned destination and shuttle to my starting. This way I don’t have to worry about arriving at a certain time or wait for a ride when my hikes complete. Just put away the gear and hit the road. By the way, Cracker Barrell double bacon cheesed burger is a great road trip meal after a long hike.

    • Learned the hard way in Damascus. Hike to your car. Scheduled shuttle did not show and had to pay $100 for a ride from Damascus to Groseclose, VA.

  6. Hi Philip,

    I see a lot of Permethrin mentioning on your blog when it comes to bugs. Unfortunately I am allergic to that stuff (the substance is also used in headlice shampoo), are there any alternatives?

  7. I was fortunate enough to be able to get the time off and thru hike the trail a few years ago. There are a few things that make thru hiking better. First off, after a few weeks you get super fit, and can do big miles every day, if you so desire. If you are section hiking, by the time you approach that level of fitness, you are probably headed back to work or school. Second, thru hiking, you get to know about 50 people, that you get to see for weeks. Many of them become life long friends. Some times when you hit a new town, your friends that you haven’t seen lately will be in town and yell your name when you are walking down the sidewalk. If it was a decent sized town, sometimes we would call everybody and all go out to dinner together. Lastly all the scheduling and arrangeing rides, and meeting people at x trailhead are all avoided. You don’t have a car, you don’t need a car, you just keep heading north (or south sometimes).

    • Better for you perhaps.
      I’d feel completely smothered by hiking in a group like that. Too high school for me.
      I’m out there to pay attention to the world, the outdoors, and myself. Not a social soap opera. HYOH.

  8. Philip,
    I enjoy your website and look forward to your weekly updates.
    I am in the midst of hiking the AT in 3 long sections.
    I hiked Springer Approach to Damascus in 2016.
    I hiked Damascus to Pawling this year, and will hike Pawling to Katahdin next year, late April to early July. I am so looking forward to hiking the final third of the trail. I’m looking forward to seeing New England, and am looking forward to the physical challenge. Mark Turner…trail name Bubblehead, Port Orange, Fl.

  9. In 1986ish I read an article in National Geo. about the AT and well, I fell in love with it. The trail that is not on paper. Oh, how I long to be on it. Like the saying goes ” If it ain’t one thing it’s another “. Always something getting in the way. Well, now I’m 74 and STILL in fairly good health and I still long to hike IT!! Thank you so much for this info. Looks like I will be there somewhere? Perhaps Tenn or Georgia in April or May to section hike. I’m geared up and ready. It’s gonna be a leisure stroll – hope it doesn’t rain but if it does – it does. ” If you’re too busy to hike. Then you’re too busy.” – DALLAS, TX

  10. I’ve been section hiking the past several years here in Ga & NC. I agree completely with your advice. Hiking to your car has always been a far more comfortable trek. Shuttlers are great folks, but the best of scheduling can go awry, either by the shuttler, or the hiker. Hiking solo allows a benefit of quietly coming up on wildlife that you might otherwise miss. Be alert, but I’ve never found reason to be fearful.

  11. Hello All

    Transplant from CO to SC and trying to get into hiking with the new climate. Want to start the AT end of June/first week July, either from GA or N.C. thru TN, depending on advice with the weather! Any and all suggestions would be truly appreciated.

  12. Elle and Nicholas June 17, 2018 at 6:36 pm
    My son and I just hiked from Pinkham Notch up Mt Washington Monday, June 11th. It was a gorgeous sunny day with very little wind. The Cog railroad engineer was taking a break looking out from the observation deck. He told us it was the best day he’d seen in years. It took us 6 hours to summit, although my son could have easily done it in 4 as he’s 22 and I’m 63. I must confess that we took the hiker shuttle back down as I didn’t want to be on the trail down in the dark. We’d like to go back and do the entire Presidental range. Since it took me 6 hours to climb MT Washington, I think it will take me more than the 2-3 days you suggest for the entire range. Once we are up on the ridges, is it easier to continue the hike because there isn’t the intense climbing over rock fields? We paln to do it in 3-4 days weather permitting. Thank you for any advice and/or encouragement.

  13. Jeffery Fernandez

    The Appalachian Trail has had many books written about it but they can never give you the true experience. This is life changing!

    Stretching 2184.5 miles I have never struggled and experienced so much in 6 months that has changed my very way of thinking about life, the universe and everything in it. This is tough not only on your body – I lost 20kilos in weight and went from a waist of 39″ to 34″ – but on your endurance, your determination, your stamina.

    You are going to feel things you never expected, see things that other people will not believe, and there is an 80% chance you will fail!

    And your life will be changed forever. When the hike is finished you will go home and nothing will be the same.

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