America’s original long-distance trail has captured the imagination of lug-soled adventurers for decades. First completed in 1937, today’s Appalachian Trail (A.T.) passes through 14 states and dozens of federal, state and local parks and forests along the way. Sources differ on end-to-end mileage, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the grassroots organization that manages the trail, lists the total as about 2,180 miles.
Most thru-hikers finish the Appalachian Trail in five to seven months, although record holders have completed it in under two.
If your wanderlust has gotten the better of you, we want to help prepare you for the challenge. Our advice comes courtesy of REI Knoxville camp/climb specialist Tim Bird, who thru hiked in 2014 and teaches classes and hosts forums for aspiring A.T. hikers.
A.T. Planning Considerations
Many factors will influence your gear planning and preparation, including the time of year you start your trip, direction you travel and length of time it takes for you to finish the trail.
Terrain: The A.T. wends its way through stark wilderness and crosses more than 500 public roads. Terrain ranges from forest paths to precipitous scrambles.
Weather: Conditions for thru hikers vary from the possibility of snow flurries in spring and fall to the sweltering heat of summer.
Route planning: The vast majority of thru hikers travel south to north,starting at Georgia’s Springer Mountain, leaving between late February and mid April. Avoiding the snowy north in early spring is one reason, but culminating the journey atop Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park is also a big motivator.
The north-to-south route kicks off with a grueling ascent of Mount Katahdin, where the trail can be closed by snow until late June. Black flies and swollen creeks greet you at the start, while snow in the southern Appalachians often awaits you at the end.
Another strategy involves starting in the middle and doing the trail in sections, but not continuously in one direction. This approach lets you enjoy a throng-free and snow-free start. (It requires a commute plan to connect sections and, unless you jump sections multiple times, it means forgoing the Mount Katahdin climax.)
Timing considerations: Elite athletes have done the full trail in as little as 54 days, but the average is about 6 months (preceded by about 8 to 12 months of preparation).
Differences in daily mileage and the length of layover days add up, ultimately determining whether you finish in 5 or 7 months. The hiking gods—conjuring blizzards, blisters and other tests of your resolve—will also have a say.
Your plan is an initial projection: Hiking thousands of miles through wilderness over many months is an unpredictable endeavor. Check the ATC trail conditions and closures page before you go and when you have online access. Talk to hikers along the way. Make contingency plans ahead of time and assess conditions throughout the trip.
A.T. Permits and Fees
You don’t need a trail-use permit: Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, no permit is required for the trail itself. Given the surging popularity of both thru hiking and the A.T., this might change in the future. The ATC offers a voluntary registration page to help hikers select less crowded itineraries and to help gather data for trail preservation.
You do need national park permits: Both Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park require backcountry permits for A.T. thru hikers. The ATC permits and regulations page notes the fees and provides links to each park’s permit page.
Additional fees and reservations: Some of the national forests and state parks along the trail charge camping fees and require reservations. The ATC permits and regulations page (noted above) has the latest details.
A.T. Maps, Guidebooks and Wayfinding
Having good maps is important, but you’ll find that the A.T. is generally well marked. Because the trail gets altered from time to time, you need to learn how to recognize the distinctive white blaze that marks the trail: a two- by six-inch vertical paint rectangle in a prominent place along the trail. (Two blazes are sometimes used where the trail changes directions.) When blazing differs from your map, follow the blazes. Above treeline, rock cairns are used to mark the route.
A.T. Budget, Supply and Gear Considerations
Trip budget: The minimum estimate for the cost while you’re on the trail is one dollar per mile. A less bare-bones budget is $3,000, though many who splurge on layover days and food choices will spend even more. The ATC estimates gear costs at another $1,000-$2,000, depending on how much suitable equipment and clothing you already own.
Food and resupply planning: These are the nuts and bolts of your trip plan, and the details will take substantial research. You can find a wealth of information in guidebooks and online, including ATC pages that discuss resupply strategies. Except for Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, the A.T. offers resupply options roughly every 4 or 5 days. So you have lots of flexibility for your initial plan and to change things up along the trail.
Gear philosophy: Minimalist hikers will always argue that you can go lighter, but you’ll need to decide for yourself where you are on the ultralight to ultra-prepared spectrum.
Gear know-how: The A.T. is not the place for a maiden equipment voyage. Take trips to familiarize yourself with your gear and take classes to ensure your backcountry skills are honed for the challenge.
Differences from the PCT: While you find fewer ultralight enthusiasts here than on the PCT, A.T. hikers are nonetheless embracing this trend. Many are also choosing to swap out lighter gear for more robust gear at key resupply places.
Note that, while the A.T. doesn’t have deserts nor 13,000-foot passes, its hikers still need to be aware of water sources (Pennsylvania has long dry stretches) and ready for severe weather (both the southern Appalachians and northern New England are snow-prone). Thus most A.T. hikers don’t carry ice axes or traction devices, but many do carry trekking poles for the added stability.
Finally, because more than half the trail passes through lands where hunting is allowed, A.T. hikers need to do some extra research and add some blaze orange attire to their list.
Appalachian Trail Backpacking Gear List
Bear precautions: Though grizzlies are not found here, the average thru hiker is likely to encounter a black bear at some point. The best defense against bears in camp is preparing and storing food properly. Use bear lockers at shelters that provide them and a canister where its use is mandated. If you don't want to use a canister for the whole trail, then hang your food (and anything fragrant) everywhere else you camp.
On the trail, make noise to alert bears of your presence and give a bear room to move away if you see one. If the bear doesn't run away, avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Don't run or play dead, even if the bear makes a bluff charge. Carrying firearms is strongly discouraged. If you're concerned, then carry bear spray instead.
Ticks and Lyme disease: Lyme disease, though rare, is serious enough to end a thru hike. Cover up in tick-prone areas and use repellents that are effective against ticks. Check for them frequently and remove them promptly.
Note: Included in this checklist are the Ten Essential Systems you should have on every backcountry trip: navigation; sun protection; insulation; illumination; first-aid supplies; fire starter; repair kit and tools; nutrition; hydration; emergency shelter. To learn more, see our Ten Essentials article.
- Backpack (big enough for a bear canister, where mandated)
- Pack raincover
- Small daypack (optional)
- Tent suited to terrain, with guylines and repair sleeve
- Tent footprint (optional)
- Sleeping bag suitable for wet weather and anticipated temperatures
- Sleeping pad
- Whistle (plus signaling mirror)
- Multifunction watch with altimeter (altimeter feature is optional)
- Knife or multi-tool
- GPS (optional)
- Map(s) and guidebook(s) or route description
- Trekking poles (optional, but recommended)
- LED headlamp with extra batteries
- Water filter and backup treatment system
- Stove, fuel and repair kit
- Matches or lighter
- Cookset, dishes, bowls, utensils, cups (measuring/drinking)
- Nylon cord (at least 60 feet)
- Repair kits for mattress and other gear; duct tape strips
- Fire starter (for emergency survival fire)
Clothing and Footwear
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying sports bra
- Wicking, quick-drying long underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying T-shirt and long-sleeve shirt
- Quick-drying pants
- Quick-drying shorts (optional)
- Fleece jacket or vest, or insulated jacket or vest
- Fleece pants (optional)
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket suitable for the conditions
- Waterproof/breathable rain pants suitable for the conditions
- Bandana or Buff
- Sun-shielding hat or ball cap
- Winter hat
- Gloves or mittens
- Hiking boots or hiking shoes suited to terrain
- Socks (synthetic or wool) plus spares
- Sandals (for fording streams and relaxing in camp) or water shoes
- Swimwear (optional)
- Blaze-orange hat or vest (in hunting season)
- Water bottles or hydration reservoirs (3 liters total capacity)
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush with cover and biodegradable toothpaste
- Biodegradable soap
- Toilet paper
- Sanitation trowel
- Hand sanitizer
- Women’s hygiene items
- Personal wipes
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Plastic zip-top bags
- Insect repellent (effective against ticks)
- Tick-removal tool (optional)
- Bear spray (optional)
- First-aid kit (see our First-Aid Checklist)
- Quick-drying towel
- Camera or video cam and extra memory cards (optional)
- Binoculars (optional)
- Cell phone (don’t rely on service)
- Satellite communicator / personal locator beacon (optional)
- Field guide(s); star identifier (optional)
- Journal, pen and e-reader or reading material (optional)
- Fishing gear and permit(s) (optional)
- Credit card; cash for layover days and camping fees
- National park AT permits, plus camping reservations for your itinerary
- Trip itinerary left with friend
6,000 calories per day in these categories:
- Breakfast (oatmeal, granola, freeze-dried breakfast, etc.)
- Lunch (bagels, summer sausage, cheese, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Dinner (pasta, couscous, rice, freeze-dried dinner, etc.)
- Snacks (cookies, GORP, jerky, candy bars, dried fruit, etc.)
- Energy gels
- Energy bars
- Electrolyte replacement drink mix
- Extra day’s supply of food (carried on each leg of the hike)
Lighter Gear Options
- Stuff sack, dry bag or rodent-resistant food sack (for most of the trail)
- Ultralight/mesh hiking shoes
- Ankle-high gaiters
- Lighter sleeping bag (30°–39°)
- Ultralight rain jacket