How to Hike the Appalachian Trail

Trail Lunch
August 3, 2001, Mile 2168

Why I Hiked, and how You can Successfully Through-Hike the Trail

My name is Bruce Nelson. I was a career smokejumper out of Fairbanks, Alaska. My close friends often call me Buck. During my summer on The Trail however, I was known by my trail name of “Colter.”

There are many reasons to hike the Appalachian Trail, and many ways to do your hiking. Most folks are out to enjoy a section hike, a few hours or days of exploring a favorite stretch of trail. Some choose to hike the entire trail in one calendar year; this is called a “thru-hike.” A thru-hike normally takes from 4-7 months and winds along the 2,168 miles and 14 states the trail passes through.

In the fall of 2000, I’d been fighting wildfires for many years. I realized that it was time for me to take a summer off to recharge my batteries and to enjoy some of the adventures I’d been dreaming about. In August of 2000 I left for six weeks alone in the Alaska wilderness (see my video page.)

During a fall and winter of travel, writing and planning, I decided that I’d attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. A thru-hike would offer me several things I was looking for; a grand adventure, a physical challenge, travel in new places, a summer in the outdoors, and a chance to meet new people.

After a great deal of research and preparation, I selected my equipment. I’m a lightweight backpacker at heart, and going lightweight seemed to make even more sense on such an epic hike, where staying fit physically and mentally was so important.

Through I contacted a “trail angel” in Atlanta who offered to bring me to the trailhead on March 31. Chuck proved to be fine fellow and housed my first trail friends, Stan and Tina, the night before we headed out to the trail.

Around noon the next day, we stood atop Springer Mountain, then turned and headed towards Maine. It was hard not to feel like a fraud when boyscouts would stand in awe after finding out we were walking all the way to Maine. I thought it was interesting that people seemed just as impressed when I was PLANNING to hike the whole way as when I had completed to trail.

Is a Thru-hike for You?
Before you tell off your boss, sell your home, and kiss your girlfriend and old life goodbye, you should know as much as you can about the trail, and yourself and motivations. There’s a saying I like along the lines of “A lot of people want to be authors, but not many people want to write.” Ultimately, on the AT there’s a lot more people who want to be thru-hikers than there are folks who want to actually wake up each morning and head for Maine (or Georgia.) When people talk or write about the trail, they like to talk of the splendid sunsets, the beauty of the wilderness, the friendships and spectacular views. You hear less of the aching knees, the fatigue, the insects, putting on cold, wet shoes and clothes morning after morning, and the sometimes suffocating humidity of the Appalachians in summer. You hurt a lot, you’re tired a lot and to be frank you spend a whole lot of time simply enduring.

People who enjoy the experience as a whole are the ones who notice the magic more than the discomfort and boredom. Which type of person will you be? One thing to consider is how much backpacking and camping experience you have. The more time you’ve spent outdoors under arduous conditions, the better of an idea you’ll have of how you’ll react to the realities of the trail. Here’s a question I like to ask people: “What do you really enjoy doing? Golfing? OK, how would you feel about golfing all summer, rain or shine, every day, all day?”

If you think I’m overstating the negatives, consider that 25% or less of the people who commit to a thru-hike, actually finish. I think it’s fair to say that most people who don’t finish have the ability to finish the trail if they truly had to, but they find it isn’t worth the cost in physical or mental discomfort. Vast numbers of hikers find they get too homesick, discouraged or disillusioned. Many have the mental drive but suffer injuries that preclude their finishing. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% drop out by Neal’s Gap, only 30 miles from the start of the trail. There’s nothing shameful about not finishing the trail, of course, but it’s wise to look at the endeavor realistically before you begin. Remember, it’s not primarily a CAMPING trip, it’s primarily a HIKING trip.

Common Characteristics of Successful Thru-hikers

  • The greatest is an unshakable dedication to completing a thru-hike
  • Confidence in, and knowledge of, themselves,
  • The ability to maintain good morale in tough conditions,
  • Decent physical condition, no major problems with knees, ankles, backs, feet or hips,
  • Good judgment: knowing when to push and when to rest, etc.
  • Outdoor experience

Things That Surprised Me About the Trail

  • It was a lot STEEPER that I thought it would be. According to Wingfoot, there are about 91 vertical MILES of climbing and descents on the AT. I’m sure it’s that much, at least! 91 vertical miles of climbing is 480,480 vertical feet. If you finish your hike in 5 months, or lets call it 150 days, that’s 3,203 feet of climbing and descent EVERY day. The trail was so steep and slippery in some places in New England that it was hard for me to believe that it was the AT. Of course, there were hundreds of miles of mellow trail too, and it doesn’t take a mountain climber to do the AT.
  • Woodticks were a bigger factor than I expected. I grew up around woodticks without suffering any ill consequences, but during the summer of 2001 I TWICE had to take antibiotics to fight woodtick infections. I talked to several folks who had contracted Lyme disease, that summer or before.
  • It was easier to get food and supplies than I thought. Seldom did I have to carry more than four days worth of food.
  • There were a lot fewer single ladies on the AT than I expected. This was a favorite topic of my buddy Metro!
  • People were so friendly. I had no problems with locals. Usually it was easy to hitch to and from town, and many times trail angels left cold drinks and food at trail crossings.
  • Virginia is not flat, contrary to what you might hear.
  • I rarely slept in shelters. For me, shelters tended to be mousy, buggy, loud and had hard floors. I think what appeals to people most is the social aspect of the shelter, and the avoidance of putting up and taking down their tents/tarps, especially when it’s rainy. With the right folks, shelters were great, but I usually prefered tarping out, often in the company of friends.

Mail Drops and Food Drops
Like so many topics on the trail, this one is very subjective. Some folks do 30 or more mail/food drops, and some do NONE! I did food/mail drops at the following places, Fontana Dam; Waynesboro, VA, Harper’s Ferry, WV; Port Clinton, PA; Bear Mountain, New York; and Caratunk, Maine.

The more you want to pick up “snail mail,” special food items, or other items from home such as prescriptions, the more mail/food drops you’ll want. The advantages of mail drops are obvious; it’s fun to get packages and mail from friends and relatives. You can also get food items that may be hard to find on the road, and may be able to get them cheaper. For me though, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages in almost every case:

  • To me, the trail is largely about freedom. Mail drops tend to make you speed up or slow down so you arrive at the right place at the right time.
  • Before you start your hike, you don’t know which foods you’ll get tired of. Also, MOST folks who buy a summer’s worth of backpacking food end up not completing their hike.
  • Often a food drop is missed, and there’s lots of hassles for everyone involved to get the package to where you’ll be next.
  • There’s a certain burden placed on your support crew back home.
  • Mailing food has grown more expensive. Saving on your grocery bill is usually not a sufficient reason to do a food drop.
  • Usually you have food left when you get your food drop, forcing you to give away, throw out, or carry the extra.

If I were going to hike the AT again, I wouldn’t plan ANY food drops. A thru-hike requires flexibility. Here’s a list of common food drop towns.

More Thoughts

  • Spend several weeks getting in good shape before the hike. Ease your way into it by starting out with a very light load on flat ground, and increasing the length, steepness, and weight as you progress.
  • Don’t push too hard during the first days of your hike. Above all, don’t hurt yourself! I saw people get crippling blisters right off the bat. PREVENT blisters. Wear shoes that fit and stop and treat hotspots before blisters develop. Take a couple hours before you even buy your footwear and read through the articles on Fixing Your Feet especially the pages on blister prevention and footwear fit.
  • As you get in shape, increase your mileage. Get in the habit of setting goals for the day. There are lots of things that may slow you down, including weather, illness, injuries, emergencies at home, etc., so don’t “get behind the curve” or you may find it impossible to catch up before those early October snows end your trip short of Katahdin.
  • No Rain, No Pain, No Maine. If you never hike thru the rain and the pain, you’re not going to see Maine. That said, hike through discomfort, but don’t continue to push when you’re doing damage to your body!
  • Remember to take the time to look around you. See and appreciate the forest, scenery, wildlife and people you meet.
  • Be hiking at first light to see the most animals.
  • Don’t be afraid of bears. As long as you don’t sleep with your head on a pizza or something, bears pose little threat. Bears instinctively realize that humans are boss. If you use bear bells, the bears won’t kill you but other hikers will. Don’t carry bear spray unless you need it to sleep. If you’re “bearanoid” sleep in shelters until you get over it.
  • Hike your own hike. Don’t be concerned if others aren’t hiking up to your standards. Being a thru-hiker doesn’t make you better than other people or the center of the universe.
  • Take zero days when you need them.
  • Know yourself.
  • Travel light. Don’t carry what you don’t really need. A lighter load will help you avoid injury, and make your hike easier and faster.
  • Treat or filter your water, wash your hands before eating, and don’t share food with dirty hands. The best peer-reviewed scientific study on the Appalachian Trail concluded: Diarrhea is the most common illness limiting long-distance hikers. Hikers should purify water routinely, avoiding using untreated surface water. The risk of gastrointestinal illness can also be reduced by maintaining personal hygiene practices and cleaning cookware.

Click here for a list of my gear and equipment and clothing recommendations.

Mileages and Dates
I began my hike on March 31, 2001. The weather was often rainy and foggy early on, and there was even a bit of snow for a few days. My gear kept keep me comfortable.

I started out my hike in pretty good shape, quite a bit better than most folks starting the trail. On the second day I did 20 miles without much trouble. Towards the end of the trail, the folks I was hiking around had gotten much stronger, while I was in only slightly better shape. My pace, therefore, was fairly consistent throughout the hike. The first week I averaged 16 1/4 miles a day. Overall, I averaged about 17.6 miles a day, including 5 “zero days.” In central Virginia, I was averaging about 20 miles a day. My longest day was 30 miles. One of my few regrets is I never really pushed to see how many miles I could do at max. I heard of a 40, even a 50 mile day! For two weeks in the toughest parts of New Hampshire and Maine, I averaged only about 13 1/2 miles a day, which included a couple of short days. Most folks probably start out fairly slow, speed up dramatically in Virginia as they get in better shape and the terrain mellows, and then, like me, slow down when they get to that famous, beautiful, rough ground in NH and ME.

Map Man has put together a very interesting page showing AT hiking rates for each section of trail. Well worth taking a look at to see what kind of miles people are hiking in the real world.

SummitPost has a Appalachian Trail Mileage Chart which can be very useful for planning, especially for distances between given points. It lists shelters, major landmarks etc.

I finished my hike on August 3, 2001. On the mountain with me that day were Windex, Del, Mukwa, Andalia, and several other friends from the trail.

Whether you are a section hiker or thru-hiker, I wish you the best of luck. Questions or comments are welcomed below.

Don’t forget to check out my Appalachian Trail Gear List

A.T. Guidebook
The Best A.T. Guidebook
A.T. Guide
AWOL on the A.T.
The Best A.T. Book
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Impressions
The Best A.T. DVD
Appalachian Impressions DVD
Alone Across Alaska
My Adventure
Alone Across Alaska DVD



  1. Bruce,

    Thinking about the AT, I’ll be 69 in a few months. I am most concerned about ticks. You had repellent and still got infected? Do you have to check yourself daily? How did you take an antibiotic? How did you know to take it. For water — you didn’t take a filter – just the pills on your list? What was your trail name?


    • Hi John,

      I think people tend to fear the wrong things. I under-rated the risk from ticks. Ticks aren’t something to fear, they are just an issue to address. Many people have tick problems on the A.T. Some serious, including Lyme disease. I had repellant, but rarely used it for ticks. I should have. I saw a Dr., who initially thought I had Lyme disease but the tests showed otherwise. I got a prescription for an antibiotic in tablet form, and the Doc himself gave me a ride back to the trail. I did check for ticks often. The CDC has good advice on ticks:

      On the A.T. I used a filter bottle. If I were to do it again I’d use Aqua Mira although my filter bottle did work well. My trail name is Colter.

  2. PS — loved your site and thanks for it!

  3. Adventure and exploring are things I have always been into and doing this trek sounds like something I would enjoy for many reasons. I came across this page by accident but it was very informative and I thank you for sharing your experience. I just got out of the military (12yrs) so I’m no stranger to being outdoors or “long walks” with gear on my back. My questions are more logistical than anything, they are: 1. How much food and water does one need to carry and how far apart are reliable resupply points? I’m guessing living off the land is limited to a point because of where the trail is located. 2. Are there rules, official or unofficial, that prohibit certain weapons, building fires, where you an set up a shelter, etc? 3. What is the weather like? How hot or humid does it get how much does it rain etc. This affects how you pack. 4. How much prep time would you recommend? Rucking 20 or more miles or land naving 40k through thick swamp and jungle is something I have just woken up and done on any given training day many times but 2100+ miles is quite a bit different. 5. God forbid there were an emergency of some kind are there cell signals on the trail? A cellphone would also be good for taking lots of pics. And my last question is how much did your body composition change? I’m 5’8 and weigh 200 pounds.My body fat is a little higher than I would like and I know that walking over two thousand miles will help lol but did you loose a lot of muscle? Were you weak and frail feeling at the end? Thanks, Tony

  4. Hi Tony
    Usually you can get by with 2-5 days worth of food with resupply points being fairly common.
    Most AT hikers agree that carrying a firearm isn’t needed, and in fact it’s illegal on many parts of the trail. Campfires are usually legal at established spots. It is usually legal to camp just about anywhere along the trail, except in Great Smoky Mountains National Park where there are some restrictions
    It can be cold and snowy early in the year or at the end depending on when you finish. You’ll probably get plenty of rain. It can be very hot and humid mid-summer.
    I recommend training with plenty of hiking on steep ground with a pack, but some people have started the trail out of shape and still made it. Not a good idea however.
    There are stretches of cell coverage and stretches of none.
    Many guys lose 15-25 pounds. Most people lose some weight. I felt healthy and strong at the end of the trail.
    Check out for discussion of many of these issues.
    Good luck!

  5. Hey, how u doin?

    I read your site in the fall of 2011, when I was living in Okinawa Japan. I remember I went through your gear list many times fantasizing about throwing on a pack and just walking…

    When I got back state side January 2012 I met two other guys who were ending active service the same time as me, who had in their own ways thought of doing the trail… Long story short, we embark in a matter of weeks… Yay!! All this time thinking about it and it’s finally coming.

    Just wanted to share that. Your website gave me the early fuel and the belief that I could do something so awesome… Take it easy man…

  6. Hi Andrew,
    That’s awesome! I hope you guys have a great hike. If you will have on online journal feel free to share a link to it here.

  7. Barrt E. Sprott

    April 3, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    The AT bek”ns not sure why but cannt wait to find out. Your HOw to hike the AT is very good help for me. Thank You.

  8. Hey man,
    I am a high schooler who is hoping to hike the AT next March, and make it back in time to go to college mid to late August. You said that you started the trail on March 31st, and finished on the first of August, that seems incredibly fast to me. Would you say that a lot of people hiked it at your speed, or close to that speed? Do you have any advice on how to hike fast? Also, did you find that you hiked with the same group for the majority of the AT, or did you pretty much hike on your own linking up with new people every now and again? Also, do you have any advice on how to get deals on gear?

    Thanks a bunch,

    • Hi Sean,

      There are many people who hike at my speed or even much faster. But the vast majority of people hike slower than that. For most of my hike I would pass people and then never see most of them again. It wasn’t until New England or so that I began seeing many people over and over. At Katahdin I wasn’t around any of the people I started with, but was hiking near many people from the last few hundred miles of trail. One big reason for this is I started the trail in good shape and by the end of the trail most people are in great shape and anxious to complete their adventure.

      If you want to or need to hike fast, I would definitely recommend getting in GREAT shape BEFORE starting, trying to train on steep ground with a loaded pack wearing the shoes you’ll use on the trail. Get out for long weekends or other longer trips if you can to train your body and polish up on general backpacking skills. You’ll want the ability to do 20 mile days from the start.

      Once on the trail, listen to your body and don’t overdo it or you may end up with problems with shin splints and the like. Take good care of your feet and address hot spots before they turn into blisters. Put in big miles when you can because there will be days when you can’t: injuries, sickness, family emergencies, etc. It’s good to have some days “in the bank.”

      Have a great hike!


  9. I plan to attempt a thru-hike beginning April 2014. I will be 50 when I begin the hike – is the AT fairly safe for women hiking alone?

    • Hi Becky,
      Yes, it is. Like life in general, it just requires some good common sense and trusting your instincts. Try to avoid hitching into town on your own for example. You will make friends and it will usually be easy to find a hitching partner. If someone makes you uncomfortable at a shelter, hike on to the next shelter or pitch a tent out of sight of the trail. Hikers tend to look out for each other. You should be safer on the AT than in a big city.
      Have fun!

  10. Hey buck,
    I’m in highschool now, but I’m an active scout and love hiking, almost every weekend! I dream of getting onto the AT one day and doing the whole thing. But my parents and peers say it will be difficult to do the trail with college, and eventually a job. When do you think the best time to do the trail is? I mean any time on the trail is great, but what would you reccomend? I’ve considered a gap year after college, or maybe before college, or should I wait longer? Can I hike the trail and keep a job? Thanks for your awesome website, you inspire.


    • Hi Rob,
      That’s a question you and your parents will have to answer. There are as many different correct answers as there are people and situations. I went on a sabbatical for my job, as do many others. Some people flat out quit and some get fired when the boss finds out they will be gone for many months! For most people it’s probably better to hike the trail just after college than just after high school. Planning for the future and living your current life are both important. Talk to you parents and decide what’s best for you. Check out for many similar discussions.
      Good luck!

  11. Hey!

    What a great resource you have put together here. I’ll be on this site a lot over the next few months.

    It looks like you do not recommend tons of mailing food ahead of time, b/c it does look like way more of a headache that it’s worth. My question is this. While I think it’s kind of tacky normally to talk #s, how much would you recommend having put away (and on you at all times, in cash, if any at all) b/f leaving on the trip? I’m tempted to ask specifically ask how much you spent on your thru-hike, but maybe that’s too far:)


    • People spend wildly varying amounts hiking the AT, just like in life. Much depends on how fast your hike is. Longer hikes will usually be considerably more expansive for many reasons. One of which it often means many more “zero days” (days off) which are usually spent in town which is where hikers spend their money on lodging, meals and often a bit of partying.

      The most frugal may get by on less than $2,000. Others may spend $8,000 or more. I’m guessing I spent about $3,000 total on my hike but that was over ten years ago. Check out some links on this often asked question. Good luck!”

  12. hi bruce
    im 66 and very good thinking about starting in maine and going south in april.2014 would that be a good time and good way to start.? and what about my dog? tnx bob

  13. How did you feel after the journey ended? Was going about regular life pretty surreal for awhile? I remember coming back from overseas and being really overwhelmed by the selection in a normal American grocery store. Did you feel less connected to materialism? Did you feel out of touch?

    • Hi Daniell,
      Thanks for the comment and questions. I think those are all common reactions. I had a somewhat different experience coming off the Appalachian Trail because I almost immediately started on a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. You are right though of course, the A.T. is another world compared to regular life and you really learn that it isn’t necessary to have so many material possessions to be happy. People who were in the backcountry during 9-11 definitely felt out of touch, that’s for sure.

  14. Buck,
    I have just started my research on hiking the AT trail. I can get only two consecutive weeks from work. For a two week hike, is there a section of the trail that you would suggest I do over any other? It would most likely be during May, June, July, or August.

    • Hi Barbara,

      So much depends on what you enjoy and when you hike. For example, would you like to avoid the main group of thru-hikers or would it be fun to hike around them? Do you want a challenge or a more mellow hike?

      The White Mountains are really hard to beat for beauty. The Hundred Mile Wilderness ending with a summit of Katahdin would be awesome, but I wouldn’t do it before July. Starting from Springer Mountain in early May would be fun. Definitely consider the weather and elevation of an area you’re looking at.

      This is another one of those questions to ask on to get a wide variety of opinions.

      Have fun!


  15. Hey Buck,

    My friend and I are going to do an AT thru-hike this April. assuming that there can still be snow on the ground, would it be wise to wear some kind of boots until we’re sure that it won’t snow any more? also, do we need to carry water with us? or will there be enough streams and outfitters on the trail to keep us hydrated?

    • Even if there is snow in April running/hiking shoes should still work. Your feet will be wet often thru-hiking the AT. In those moderate temps most people’s feet won’t get too cold. I wore running shoes for hundreds of miles of snow walking on the CDT and PCT. Wouldn’t do it in the winter, though!

      The A.T. Guide will tell you where the water sources are. You won’t need to carry much water, but you will need to carry enough so you can drink freely until the next water source. In my opinion, it is wise to treat or filter backcountry water. (I’ve had giardia three times.) Sawyer mini water filters have been getting rave reviews. I usually use Aquamira drops.

      Make sure you get out there and do some multi-day hikes to get in shape and work out the kinks in your gear. Good luck!

  16. Hey buck,

    I’m think of doing a hike in the winter , like around dec-mar can it be done sir, and do you think it will be a good deal.

    • It might be possible, but very few people would succeed and fewer still would enjoy themselves. I would recommend hiking in milder months or choosing a different trail for that time frame.

  17. Hey Colter,

    I’m tentatively planning to thru-hike in 2016 but I would need to finish by early August. I’m in my 20’s and fancy myself to be in pretty good shape. I’m thinking about leaving between Feb 15 and Mar 15. I know it’ll be pretty much the dead of winter in mid-February but figure with the right clothes it’ll be manageable. What do you think? Start in February and freeze for a month or wait till mid-March with a firm deadline to race against?

    • Hi Sean,

      It depends so much on the person: how much cold tolerance you have, how fast of a hiker you are, etc.

      The ATC says most thru-hikers take a little less than six months to hike the trail (keeping in mind that less than 25% finish at all) with most successful thru-hikers taking from 5-7 months.

      Personally, if I had to finish by early August I would start in February.

      Good luck!


  18. I’m hoping to hike the AT and was trying to figure out when. I’m curious as to why you recommended doing it after college as opposed to before. I was considering graduating high school early and taking the first semester/year of college off. I just finished my junior year and will be 18 in November. I’m an Eagle Scout and in pretty good shape right now. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • It’s hard to know when the best time is to hike the AT. Many veteran thru-hikers would tell you the best time to hike the Trail is as soon as you get the opportunity, others would say after you have your college degree and still others when your kids are grown and out of the house and you’re still young enough to hike.

      For a person who won’t lose their work ethic in life, in other words, for someone who won’t come to expect a life of endless adventures without the drudgery of school and job, hiking right after high school might be one of the best decisions they’ve ever made.

      Best of luck whatever you decide!


  19. Buck,

    Thank you for sharing and maintaining your website. It is a wealth of great information for a beginner or experienced hiker. I have learned so much from all the details you have put forth in your writings and your Alone in Alaska video. Please keep educating the Hiker Community.

    Thanks again!

  20. I am planning a section hike for the entire month of October of this year. Unlike many other hikers I will be hiking South starting in Southern Va. and ending in North Carolina. I will be hiking alone. I’m wondering if that section of the trail will still be busy that time of year or will most hikers already have pushed way further north and the trail be deserted?

  21. B.N.
    Good day. I’m actually doing my research prepping to do some section hiking. I’ve done the Maryland section (Pen Mar-to-Harpers Ferry) twice to shake-down my pack weight and gear. I’d like to thru hike and considering N-S. A running shoe hike isn’t a consideration for me; ankles and left knee are battered from too many parachute jumps in 82nd Abn Div. I’ve done quite a bit of day hiking and backpacking in MD-Va area. 3 questions:1. I’m Africa-American, notwithstanding the friendliness of hikers what about the friendliness of locals for hitching etc?, 2. How much did you spend during your hike for food resupply?, 3. What would you consider as important in choosing a partner to thru hike with?

    • Hi L.A.

      It’s fun planning a hike along the A.T., isn’t it?

      1. I think locals will overwhelmingly treat you well. I’d expect that people will see your backpack and you’ll be thought of as an A.T. hiker first. For anyone, though, I recommend following your instincts, especially for hitching.

      2. I’d say I spent less than $15 a day for food while hiking. Some days it would be considerably less, with the Knorr’s Pasta/Rice sides for dinner etc. Some days it would be more, like buying breakfast in town with a large pizza for dinner.

      3. I, like most experienced hikers, would recommend not choosing a hiking partner for thru-hiking, but just meeting people along the trail and hiking with people whose company you enjoy and whose pace matches your own. For a section hike it’s more likely to work out. A similar pace and goals would be very important. In other words, is the hike about covering big miles, or stopping to smell the roses, or a combination of both?

      Have fun!

  22. Did you hike in running shoes only? If I started in Georgia around march 15, would I need boots for snow on any part of trip

    • I hiked in running shoes only, except for PA and beyond for a way where I wore hiking shoes. I didn’t wear boots at all on the AT or PCT, or CDT or Desert Trail. I’ve likely hiked hundreds of miles through snow on those trails. In relatively mild conditions, that works fine for most people. You are likely to run into some snow.

      If you are concerned, perhaps you could wear lightweight, well-broken in boots at the start of your hike.

      Good luck!

  23. you sound like someone who can help, Im a 51 yo recovering alcoholic,Sober for a couple of years,Health is good now decent physical condition novice camper but do a ton of hiking locally here around falls lake,I feel somewhat compelled to do a thru hike for a sense of accomplishment something that has been o, I guess I’m asking what was it really like? Would you take your dog?

    • Hello Jack,

      One saying I like is “we see things not as they are, but as we are.” So what a thru-hike is like will have as many answers as the number of people you ask. Most people from the general populace would not enjoy a thru-hike. Most people who actually begin a thru-hike decide to quit. A thru-hike is very difficult for most people. For some people that tackle a thru-hike it’s incredibly rewarding and the greatest adventure of their life.

      Personally I would not bring my dog. Bringing a dog on a thru-hike usually does not work out, although there are exceptions.

      Thru-hiking is not primarily camping, it is primarily hiking, so I would suggest first getting out and doing a week-long hike to see how you like long distance hiking, and then start thinking about if a thru-hike is really something you want to tackle. It doesn’t take total commitment to start thru-hike, but it does to finish a thru-hike.

      Only you can decide if it’s something you really want to do. One thing I’d suggest beyond a long test-hike or two is to read numerous thru-hiker journals, reading journals from those who didn’t make it as well as the ones that did. Visit the forums as well.

      Good luck and Happy Trails!


  24. You have given me an incredible amount of very useful information. After reading your blogs and all the questions and answers on your website, I have a much clearer picture of what it will be like. I now may start my Thru-hike in mid March rather that the first of March. Thank you again for the wealth of information that you have shared!
    Bill – Anchorage, Ak

  25. I do not want to feel homeless….I am leaving everything behind and as the day gets nearer I am not getting more excited but more doubtful. Does this mean ultimate failure? Looking to find a peaceful place to get a job and settle down….Is there such a place along the way. Not running from anything. Wanted to hike to something. Any words? I am a 47 year old female who got restructured out of a job and a house etc. No time like the present right?

  26. Hey Buck,

    Going along with a few other comments I have read, I am finishing up my Junior year of High School. I am an Eagle Scout and go hiking every opportunity I get. However, for a High Schooler, timing is difficult to plan, as I previously read, on when to go. With college soon to come, I feel like I will never have time to accomplish the hike. First question: school does not get out until May or so; would it be possible/smart to start in May and be finished by the time college would start? or would you suggest, in your opinion, not starting college in the fall semester in order to cut down on time pressure?

    Also, as a beginner backpacker at the moment, do you have any suggestions on gear to get (as far as info on backpacks, clothing, etc.) and a few unnecessary gear that most people bring because they ‘think’ they will use it but end up sending it home?

    Good wishes,

    • Hi Jay,

      The average thru-hiker takes just shy of 6 months to complete the trail. (Of the 25% or so who complete a thru-hike attempt.) Most people take 5-7 months. If you left May 1 and were back home by September 1 that gives you four months.

      Can you do it in four months? Is that too much pressure? The answer for most people would be “No” and “Yes.” Yet there are people out there for whom it would be “Yes” and “No.” You’ll have to decide which category you fall in yourself, as well as whether or not it’s wise to adjust your school plans. You will definitely need to be very dedicated to pull off a four month hike as a first long hike.

      I’ve got a list of A.T. gear, here:

      Examples of things to leave at home for an A.T. thru-hike: bear spray, hatchets, big knives, heavy rope, grills, excessive spare clothing and camp chairs.

      Best of luck whatever you decide to do!


  27. Hey Bruce,

    I’ll be graduating from college next spring, and I thought that would be the perfect (see: possibly only) time to hike the AT. I’m hoping to be back to start a job mid-October. Does this sound like a reasonable time frame? I think due to the timing of ending school I’ll have to go SOBO. Any advice would be much appreciated.

    All the best,

  28. Thanks for all the info, sharing your knowledge and experience. Really enjoy it all. Question is what can a thru hiker expect to spend on the trail not counting gear purchase. I know it can very per individual but what can one expect to need for an entire trip? Wife and I have been doing over nights for a couple years now. We are wanting to plan a nobo at some point. Jobs, life and money just keep getting in the way of that 6 months time off.. Thanks for your time and consideration.

    • Hi Mike,

      A common estimate for costs is $1,000 a month after gear purchase. I would guess most hikers spend a bit less, some a lot less, but that’s a good starting point. Big spenders can spend considerably more.

      Probably time spent in town is the biggest variable. Motels, shuttles, partying and restaurant meals can add up quickly and can be mostly avoided, sometimes entirely. Sleeping in the woods is almost always free, and grocery store food is usually much cheaper. Many hikers greatly supplement their groceries by taking advantage of “hiker boxes,” found at some hiker hangouts like hostels. Hiker boxes often have lots of food other hikers have grown tired of or had too much of. A faster hike is much much cheaper than a slower hike as well, just as a short vacation is cheaper than a long one. Running out of money is one of the most common reasons for people leaving the trail, especially young people. It’s important to be aware of your budget from the very beginning of the hike and act accordingly.

      Have fun!


  29. Hello Colter,
    I just started looking at AT information and came across your post. Thank you for sharing so much and being such a resource to folks planning or dreaming of a thru-hike.
    I hiked part of the AT through NY and CT many years ago and I have always carried this ambition to go back and test myself. I will certainly have to get in better shape before attempting it, and I think I will plan to set out after I retire which is some years away (at least 7).
    My predicament is unique. I have a hip replacement, so I would like to ask you whether a thru hike is even possible.. I am doing very well with the replacement and my other body parts don’t show signs of the arthritis that caused me to get the replacement (I could not tie my shoe without a struggle). Have you heard of anyone with joint replacements attempting and completing thru-hikes?
    I was surprised that you hike in running shoes – the terrain tends to be rough, so I wonder if you had any ankle trouble?
    Nobody asked you about snakes on the trail – were there many snakes you encountered and would boots be worth wearing as snake bite prevention?
    Once again, thanks for your effort on this post. You’ve been responding for over 2.5 years now!

    • Hi Patrick,

      I have in fact heard of successful thru-hikes after hip replacements. I would say if you are in very good shape when you start and carry a light pack you have a good chance of success.

      Running/trail shoes, instead of boots, are the most common thru-hiking footwear. I don’t have trouble with my ankles as a result, but I do have less blisters and lighter feet! Footwear is very subjective, though.

      I saw maybe three rattlers along the trail. I think the real-world danger is so low that it didn’t even enter into my shoe/boot decision.

      Have fun!


  30. Great read Buck, thanks! I’m playing with a crazy idea… Thru-Hike the AT, Kayak the Mississippi Head to Mouth, Bike the Pacific Route border to border /Canada to Mexico… all in one year. Endurance and timing are the big questions, especially if kept within a 12 month window (limited warm months up north). Talk me out of it!

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