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Do You Need Maps to Hike the Appalachian Trail?

A collection of "old school"Appalachian Trail Maps and Resources
A collection of “old school”Appalachian Trail Maps and Resources

You do (still) need maps to hike the Appalachian Trail, but they’re probably not the kind that you expect.

There are two halves to every Appalachian Trail experience: backpacking the trail itself and navigating the communities that border the trail. While you don’t need to carry paper maps anymore to follow the trail (because it is so well-marked with blazes and signs), it’s very useful to carry information about the location of road intersections, town resupply options, shuttle drivers, and off-trail lodging. Most thru-hikers and section hikers leave the trail every few days to resupply, grab a meal, and clean-up, and having good intel about where to go and what to expect is important.

The At Guide is available as a PDF or in printer book form

The best information resource to carry is David Miller’s annual AT Guide (available in print or PDF.) While it contains a detailed list of waypoints and descriptions of the trail as well as an elevation profile of its ups and downs, its greatest value is in the comprehensive off-trail reference information and town maps it provides about local businesses, transportation, prices, phone numbers, directions, and hours of operation. (See The AT Guide Review for details about the contents.)

Guthooks AT Hiker App
Guthooks AT Hiker App

I also recommend using Guthook’s AT Hiker App (iOS, Android), which is quite useful if you want to pinpoint your location along the trail with a Smartphone GPS (which can still operate when it’s not connected to cell phone service.) It’s better than carrying a trail map because it’s always up-to-date and the app lets you share information with other nearby hikers (like local Wifi passwords, the location of good campsites, water availability, and shelter conditions) using a virtual trail register capability. While you can carry a paper version of the AT Guide or tear out pages from it, I refer to a PDF version of it and Guthook’s App on my smartphone. Like it or not, a smartphone has become an essential on the Appalachian Trail. (See the Appalachian Trail Cell Phone Guide)

Point the compass in the direction you plan to walk and out red in the shed. Read the number behind the direction of travel arrow – in this case 282.
Point the compass in the direction you plan to walk and put red in the shed. Read the number behind the direction of travel arrow – in this case 282.

While I don’t carry paper maps anymore, it is still useful to carry a small compass so you can pick the right path out of a shelter area (which is not always obvious) and head in the correct direction when the shelter spur reaches the main trail. A compass is also more convenient to use than a phone for reacquiring the trail if you’ve stopped off to the side for a squat or pee, so you don’t end up wandering in a wilderness areas or (cough, suburban neighborhoods) trying to find the trail again. (See How to Find North with a Compass and Take a Pee without Getting Lost.)

While there are still some wilder sections of the Appalachian Trail, especially up in Maine, the trail signage and blazing up and down the trail is quite good, cell phone connectivity is nearly universal up and down the trail, and there are enough people around that you can always ask someone for directions if you’re uncertain where the trail is. The path is pretty beaten down too, so often you just need to follow the obvious groove in the ground.

Written 2018.

Disclosure: The AT Guide and Guthook’s Guides have repeatedly given me free versions of their products over the course of many years. I use them because they are the best. If they weren’t, heck, I’d recommend something else.

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13 comments

  1. If you have Guthooks, you don’t really need a compass as well. Just turn in circles until you’re finally pointing in the right direction.

    I do have Guthooks, but have also managed to walk in the wrong direction from a shelter twice – once 4 miles, and the next time only 2 miles. Incredibly demoralizing. I try not to blithely walk away from anywhere anymore. I’m only sometimes good at that.

    • You can hang a small compass from your shoulder strap and glance at it, even in the rain. Can’t do that conveniently with a phone. Especially one you keep off as much as possible to conserve the battery.

      • I agree with your point on using a compass, but my IPhone touch screen also works just fine through a ziploc sandwich bag covering it.

    • Bob Mason (AKA Tattoo)

      I have a whistle with a small compass on the side. Not good for navigation, but good for general direction.

  2. I’m still a map guy.
    Old habits die hard.

    I like to know the distance between shelters and land marks. I’m a big fan of squinting to try to project elevation changes.

    Don’t your phone batteries die when you use the App?

  3. I will agree with having a basic compass at the ready. Last year I was section hiking some the AT and on this particular day the temps were in the mid-teens and it visibility was very poor due to blowing snow. I left a shelter late in the day after deciding to go 2 or so miles more to get to Overmountain Shelter since it is an old barn with a loft. Two young guys were there and made the same decision and took off ahead of me. Overmountain shelter is on a short side trail and the turn is an intersection with the continuation of the AT and an unmarked trail. I knew from Guthook that the shelter was basically south of the AT, so instead of trying to pull out my phone in the blowing snow, I used the button compass I have on my watch band to verify the correct direction since it was kind of confusing with the weather at the time. I got to the shelter and the two young guys were not there. About a hour later after I was setup, they came in. The problem was that they went north at the intersection, where I used my compass, instead of south and hiked almost a 1/2 mile in the wrong direction (downhill) before realizing the error. I will agree that you can do the AT without much guidance, but in my case a small button compass possibly saved me valuable time in bad weather and allowed my phone to stay put until the next day.

  4. Not carrying a paper map may work for AT through and section hikers following the white blazes, as Phillip specifies. But, it is risky for people using the AT as a highway between connecting trails. The AT is so busy in some areas that there are lots of intersecting established and informal/false trails to campsites, springs, cabins, swimming holes, viewpoints, roadheads, etc. You are unlikely to get lost, but may waste a few hours. Plus, even a through hiker might need to leave the AT if something goes wrong. Another reason why Phillip’s advice on gathering info about areas near the AT, not just the trail itself, makes a ton of sense. I always carry a paper map, though I may copy or print off just the parts I need, blown up to a scale I can read while moving more easily than an electronic screen. Guthooks etc. are great, and weigh nothing since I’m already carrying a smartphone, but I consider them supplements, not replacements, for a conventional map.

  5. For those of us who do not have the cash to have i phones a compass and older maps are still a God send.

  6. Hi, Philip if one had to purchase a compass manufactured since 2017, to use with backpacking trail maps what would you suggest? Seems like the current Suunto A10 Compass has changed.

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