Part 1: Planning an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

So, you want to hike the Appalachian Trail? The normal start time is a mere five months away, and you’ve got a million questions about how to do it. This is the first of a series of articles that should allow you to prepare over the next five months. I have broken down planning into five different categories, and there will be dedicated posts each month concentrating on one of the five categories that will get you on your way to hiking the 2,180-mile trail.

The Appalachian Trail is predominately hiked northbound by those beginning somewhere around the first day of spring. About 80 percent to 90 percent of those hiking the trail begin in Georgia, and do so within three weeks on either side of the spring equinox on March 21. As such, these articles are geared for this type of hike, but if your plans deviate a great deal from this start date, the information is still quite relevant.

We can break planning into the following five categories:

1. FINANCIAL

One of the common reasons that hikers abandon their thru-hike is lack of funds. It’s crucial to have the financial means to support yourself for six months of trail life. At this point, you need to develop at least a ballpark amount of required savings while you have time to reach a saving goal. This budget amount will have as much to do with the type of hike that you want to have as anything, so spend some time thinking of your hiking style and necessary town comforts.

I’ve seen hikers sleep under a culvert just outside of a re-supply town, hit town early the next day, grab their box of supplies at the post office, and get back on the trail. I’ve also seen hikers stay at a nice resort-type hotel for two to three days, dine on steak and wine, spoil themselves with other town luxuries, and then hike out of town with packs full of imported cheeses and other gourmet trail foods. And I’ve seen everything between these extremes.

2. GEAR

This is the fun part for most. At some point, most would-be thru-hikers will have at least one spending orgy at the likes of REI, amassing a $1,000 tab on various lightweight Gore-Tex and titanium items. We’ll get into gear in-depth around Christmas time, so Santa can help you as well. At this point, gear is not a critical item. If you’ve backpacked for a weekend and are comfortable with what you have, there’s really not much additional, special gear that you’ll need for your six-month sojourn.

3. LOGISTICAL

These are the details. How do you re-supply? Who will mail you replacement footwear? There are a million questions here. At this point, it’s probably wise to line up at least one person at home to be your support person. This person is vital to your hike, helping with everything from gathering your mail, sending food drops and back-up gear, to just being a contact with whom you can keep abreast of life in your hometown. We’ll get into detailed logistics later, but it’s quite helpful to peg this special support person now. Additionally, if you seek a hiking partner to begin the trail, now is a good time to start looking.

4. PHYSICAL

You’ll certainly enjoy the trail more if you begin the hike in good physical condition, so some degree of exercise at this point, at least to develop flexibility and stamina in the joints and feet, is a good idea. But don’t obsess over physical conditioning. Without devoting several hours of daily exercise, you can still prepare adequately for the rigors of thru-hiking. Ultimately, your body will really begin to adapt during the first few weeks on the trail, and you can develop your conditioning effectively by simply starting off slowly at the beginning.

5. MENTAL

You are considering making a big commitment to a drastic change in lifestyle. Be sure this is something that you want to try, and examine your motives for hiking. The single biggest determining factor in the success of your hike is your mental state entering it. An unwavering desire to complete your journey, no matter the hardship, will make or break it, so consider carefully your reasons for taking on the challenge. Are they worth being hot, cold, wet, thirsty, hungry, mosquito-bitten, dirty and stinky for days and months on end? Can you realistically handle those rigors and is it worth the price? Now that you’re five months out, reflect and examine what is driving you to make this journey. Also, be aware that if you can backpack for a weekend and enjoy yourself, then you can complete a long distance thru-hike – if your mental state is strong.

No doubt, there’s plenty to think about, but rest assured, no matter how overwhelming it might seem, all can be accomplished in five months, even for those with packed schedules. We’ll go into further detail in the coming months:

  • Post 1, November – Introduction and Series Overview
  • Post 2, November – Financial Planning and Budgeting
  • Post 3, December – Gear and Gear Lists
  • Post 4, January – Logistics
  • Post 5, February – Physical Conditioning and Exercise
  • Post 6, March – Mental Planning and Final Words

Andy Somers lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife Karen and two daughters, and works there as a civil engineer. Andy has hiked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, and has ridden a bicycle across the United States. In addition to his long distance hiking and cycling pursuits, he’s climbed the highest mountain in 39 of the 50 United States, including Washington’s Mount Rainier.

 

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