Every spring, thousands of people flock to Georgia to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail, but only a few hundred successfully complete the entire 2,174 mile trail, from Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The success rate is less than 10 percent, if success can be measured by completion alone. I have felt a deep sense of accomplishment from walking every step of the Appalachian Trail, twice. But success should be based on how many lives the Appalachian Trail has touched, how many lives it has changed, and on the journeys that have ensued, not the destination or completion rate.
The initial shock of setting off on a six month hike is overwhelming. Most people leave completely unprepared for the conditions they are going to face, and have not mentally readied themselves for the challenges that lay ahead. The Appalachian Trail is by no means a walk in the park; it is the hardest thing many people do in their lives. However, if you have the will to appropriately prepare yourself for half a year in America’s original frontier, you will be ready for the expedition of a lifetime.
The three main topics to research are equipment, towns and resupplies, and the trail itself. This will help you leave home and hit the trail prepared, feeling comfortable and confident along each step of the way. If you don’t devote enough time to this, you will be essentially stepping out into something that many people can never complete, even if they’ve been hiking all their lives. Think of it as the equivalent of sitting down to take the BAR exam with the mindset that you’ll just learn all about law during the exam and still pass; it’s not feasible to “wing it” in the case of the Appalachian Trail. Don’t set off in the dark. Browse through stories online, read forums and books, contact people who have hiked long distances and completed the trail already, and get in touch with outfitters along the Appalachian Trail for advice.
The Right Gear
Heading out without properly researching gear is the biggest and most commonly made mistake I see on the Appalachian Trail. There are numerous web sites around the net from which you can gain a good feel for what you’re taking on. Use them as an invaluable resource and bounce questions off of the experienced hikers that frequent web forums and other sites.
Some recommended resources around the web to take a look at are: backpackinglight.com, whiteblaze.net, and the AT-L info page. You can also read journal entries on postholer.net and trailjournals.com. Many experienced long distance hikers also have personal sites that you can glean information from or contact them with questions. Some of the sites are gottawalk.com, krudmeister.blogspot.com, andrewskurka.com, and justinlichter.com.
Simply put, too many people head out with way too much gear on their backs. They think they need an axe, a machete, and every other archaic survival tool to make it through the wilderness. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not about braving dangerous and remote forests like Survivorman or Bear Grylls. It’s about hiking day after day for three to six months as comfortably as possible. In these terms, comfort is not defined by carrying more equipment or items of luxury. It is absolutely critical to carry fewer items and even try to minimize the weight of the items that you do carry. Fifty plus pound loads are the norm to start the Appalachian Trail. If more people prepared properly, they would start out with no more than 35 pound loads, food and water included.
Don’t hesitate to contact a gear shop along the trail when planning your hike. They will help you immensely. There are some incredible outfitters that were founded for the specific purpose of servicing hikers along the Appalachian Trail. These are the people that will know exactly what you’ll need. Mountain Crossings is fantastic. Located on the trail 30 miles from Springer Mountain, they provide “shakedowns” for hikers passing through, helping them lighten their loads after 30 grueling miles of hauling around too much weight. They send thousands of pounds of unnecessary equipment home for people every year.
The hardest situation to watch is when someone has purchased all new equipment to start the trail, only to realize this gear that someone sold them at their local outdoor store is not the right equipment for a long distance hike. When people are saving up and budgeting their lives to undertake a trip of these proportions only to have to buy new gear all over again, they ultimately become utterly frustrated and most likely start the trail on the wrong note.
Here are a few great outfitters along the Appalachian Trail that won’t try to upsell you unnecessary gear and will help you get outfitted with the right equipment: Mt. Rogers Outfitters and Sundog Outfitters in Damascus, VA, Rockfish Gap Outfitters in Waynesboro, VA, and The Outfitter at Harpers Ferry, WV. When making your gear decisions, always remember lightweight gear is often better priced than heavier equipment.
Towns and Resupplies
Buy a good guidebook months before you head out. A great trail guide for the AT doesn’t need to have maps. The trail is very well marked with white blazes and is so well trodden that it is obvious underfoot. A good guidebook will have information about the distances between shelters and hostels, how reliable the water sources are, the distances to road crossings and the available services in the towns that are accessible from those road crossings. Using the guidebook, formulate a loose itinerary. Don’t even bother pinning down dates and ETAs, because on your first long distance hike you won’t know how fast or far you can travel. You can fill those estimations in later, when you are half way up the trail and have a general idea of your traveling pace. Initially, just focus on the towns that you plan to get more supplies from, and mark the distances between them. The Appalachian Trail crosses roads often and gives hikers plenty of chances for resupply. This is a very important thing to keep in mind, because you don’t want your stretches to be unnecessarily long, which would mean that you’d be carrying an excess of food weight. The trail towns along the Appalachian Trail are usually very hiker friendly. Hitch hiking in this area is not a problem to get to towns along the trail. Try to resupply every three to five days to maintain a comfortable pack weight. Depending on your travel pace, this could be every 30 miles or every 200 miles.
Life on the Appalachian Trail
Don’t go into hiking the Appalachian Trail with too many expectations; the trail takes on a life of its own. It is definitely not all beauty and glory. The Appalachian Trail is difficult, disparaging and often uncomfortable. Yet, the lows are tempered by the highs, making the rewards entirely worthwhile despite the hardships you are sure to endure. Your life becomes simple; food, shelter, water; wake up, hike, go to sleep – rinse and repeat.
However, remember you are on the Appalachian Trail. So, don’t head out onto the trail thinking that there will be a lot of solitude. You won’t be the only one there. If you hike during the off-season you will have much of the trail largely to yourself. But, at any time during the Summer, the Appalachian Trail is a social hike. You will make friends along the way, some of whom may turn out to be of the lifelong variety. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail during the Summer, there was only one night that I had a shelter completely to myself. When I hiked it during the Winter, I was alone every night. You will meet strange characters and amazing ones. The trail angels and the various personalities along the way will make you feel at home. Please don’t take it for granted. It is part of the charm, culture and wonderful experience of the Appalachian Trail. It will warm your insides and help to make you forget all of the cold, dreary, wet days when you are soaked to the bone and have to crawl into your wet tent or a crowded, damp, three-sided shelter only to have to put your wet clothes back on the next morning. Remember, the Appalachian Trail is a social experience, don’t go out there expecting sheer wilderness. If you want a true wilderness experience, find another trail or go out in a different season.
Conditions on the Appalachian Trail change dramatically as Spring sets in and Summer nears. Beginning in mid-to-late May you can swap out some gear to lighten the load. I recommend waiting until after you are through the Grayson Highlands in Virginia to change to full Summer equipment (if you have started around the normal thru-hiker time) and then around Glencliff in New Hampshire, changing back to a cooler weather set-up. Below is a list of essential gear I carried in my pack on the Appalachian Trail:
- Backpack- Granite Gear Vapor Trail, w/ hipbelt pocket 2lbs 4oz
- Sleeping Bag- Spring/Fall- Montbell UL Super Stretch Down hugger #3; Summer- Montbell U.L. Super Stretch
- Montbell U.L. Down Inner Sheet– 11oz
- Pad- Thermarest Prolite XS– 8oz
- Granite Gear White Lightnin Tarp and 6 titanium stakes- 23oz
- Supermarket brand trash compactor trash bag- 2.2oz
- 1 extra pair of Icebreaker socks– 1.5oz
- Montbell Versalite Rain Jacket– 10oz (Send home for the summer months)
- Montbell U.L. Wind Jacket– 3oz
- Montbell U.L. Wind Pants– 2oz
- Montbell Thermawrap– 8oz (send home for the summer months)
- Granite Gear Medium Air Space stuff sack (for food bag)- 1.7oz
- Ditties (book, phone #’s and info rewritten on a piece of paper, pen, Princeton Tec Byte headlamp, and small Gerber nail clipper multi-tool) in a Granite Gear medium Air Pocket- 8oz
- Toiletries (small toothpaste, toothbrush, contact lens case, glasses, and saline solution) in a Granite Gear #1 Air Bag– 6.6 oz
- Granite Gear trail wallet and town necessities (credit card, ID, and cash)- 2oz
- Camera in Aloksak– 6oz
- Cookware (.9 liter Evernew titanium pot), Evernew alcohol stove, fuel bottle (small powerade bottle with duct tape wrapped on it, titanium spork, HEET (about 1 oz/day)- 10oz + fuel 1oz/day
- Steripen Journey– 4.5oz w/ CR123 batteries
- Water bottle (20oz Gatorade bottle with squirt top)- about 2oz
- Sil nylon groundsheet- 2oz
- Extra Insoles (ground down Waldies that can fit into my shoes)- 3oz
This is a typical apparel set for life on the Appalachian Trail:
- Highgear Watch– 3oz
- Icebreaker Wool Boxers– 3.4oz
- Icebreaker Socks- 1.4oz
- Icebreaker Merino Wool T-Shirt– 5oz
- Montbell Shorts– 5oz
- Visor or hat- 3oz
- Leki Makalu Carbon Ultralite Poles– 12.6oz
- Trail running shoe- 26oz/pair with Superfeet insoles
In addition, many people like to carry a pair of “camp shoes”, which can be nice to have when you get to camp and your hiking shoes are all wet, or when stopping in to towns. Sanuks work well because they are light and pack down flat.
When you are planning your hike of the Appalachian Trail, make sure to research, research, research. You will be more comfortable with the right gear and remember: there are plenty of people with the knowledge and experience to help you out. Keep in mind that you don’t need to bring along the kitchen sink. You will be one step ahead of everybody else and much more comfortable, enjoying yourself from the start, if you pack ultralight. Hiking the Appalachian Trail will change your life, naturally, so let it happen. Have fun, set small goals and you will surely be successful.
About the Author: Justin “Trauma” Lichter has hiked over 20,000 miles since 2002 using a method of travel referred to as Ultralight Backpacking. An adventurer and a minimalist, Trauma covers thousands of miles more quickly than previously thought possible. His travels have taken him to Africa, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and across the United States. Trauma is sponsored by a number of great outdoor companies, including: Granite Gear, Montbell, Icebreaker, CAMP, Garmont, Leki, Larabar, and SteriPEN. When he’s not on the trail, Trauma can be found backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, nordic skiing mountain biking or just relaxing with his dog and travel companion, Yoni.
Photos in this article are © Justin “Trauma” Lichter, All Rights Reserved.