23 Crucial Things 2023 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Need To Know
If thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is on your agenda for ’23, you’ve come to the right place. Planning an adventure of this scale is no easy thing, but luckily for you, we have 23 tips that will make things easier.
23 Things 2023 AT Thru-Hikers Need To Know
1. You need a bear bag or canister.
As of 2022, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy now strongly recommends that all backpackers carry a bear-resistant container. Sleeping with your food in your tent/hammock is dangerous not only for you, but for other nearby hikers and animals too. Bears can start to associate campsites with food, and when that happens, they may eventually have to be relocated or put down for aggressive behavior. It’s not fair to cause that fate for a bear or other wildlife, so it’s best to properly secure your food overnight in either a bear canister or bag.
READ NEXT – The Case for Bear Canisters on the AT
Admittedly, bear canisters are bulky and heavy, but they’re so easy to plop down when you get to camp at night. Bear bags have traditionally worked well, and they’re lighter than bear canisters. However, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy now says food hangs alone may not be adequate as cases of human-wildlife conflict over food have risen in recent years. To be clear, canisters aren’t required at this time—just strongly recommended.
If you do opt for a traditional food hang, bear in mind that they require more effort to set up than a canister, so make sure you practice your hanging skills before heading out on your trip. Some shelters have cable systems or bear boxes on-site, but you shouldn’t rely on them as they may be full or broken when you arrive.
2. Bring a first aid kit.
Scrapes and bruises happen on trail. For the most part, they’re nothing to worry about. However, it’s worth bringing band-aids, alcohol wipes, and Neosporin to ward off infections in blisters and bigger cuts. It’s also worth carrying tweezers to pluck out any splinters or ticks that latch on for a ride, as well as leukotape to prevent and treat blisters.
For the first few weeks, consider adding Icy Hot, Tylenol PM, and sunscreen to your kit. Your body takes time to transition to trail, and you’ll likely develop a few muscle aches in the process. Icy Hot and Tylenol PM (to help you sleep) can be your saving grace.
And while people talk about the green tunnel, most of the trees will be bare when you start your hike. That means you’ll have very little shade to protect you from the sun, and after the winter, your skin might not be ready for that full sun exposure without sunscreen. Do yourself a favor and pack the sunscreen. You won’t regret it.
READ NEXT – How to Prevent and Treat Blisters While Thru-Hiking
3. Your mileage will fluctuate.
You may think that after your trail legs kick in it’ll be smooth sailing for the rest of the hike, but your mileage will change from state to state. You could be doing consistent 20s in Virginia, 15s in Rocksylvania, 20s again in New York, and then single digits in the Whites and Southern Maine.
Subscribe to The Trek’s Newsletter to get all the latest from the trail.
That’s all completely normal. Don’t beat yourself up about your mileage fluctuating. You’re just adjusting to the different parts of trail, and your mileage is reflecting the terrain’s difficulty.
READ NEXT – How Long Does It Take To Hike a Mile?
4. FarOut is the way to go.
Trail guides are necessary for looking ahead at water sources, shelters, and alpine zones. The AWOL guide is a great resource, but you can get everything you need from the FarOut smartphone app (although there’s no substitute for a hard-copy guidebook or map if your phone dies.). The AT guide on FarOut is more expensive than AWOL, but it has the benefit of interactivity and crowdsourced comments. Plus it tends to be more accurate with water supplies.
The comments from fellow app users are also very helpful for updates on water and shelter conditions, but take any comments about the difficulty of the climbs with a grain of salt. There is a lot of fearmongering on the app, and the warnings about tough climbs can psych you out. FarOut’s elevation profile also has a way of making every climb look twice as steep as it actually is. Just remember how many people have hiked the trail before you and remember that you can do it too!
5. Leave No Trace
Everyone on trail is hiking because they love the outdoors, but not everyone takes care of the trail as they should. Be an example of how to conduct yourself on trail by learning the Leave No Trace Principles and leaving the trail better than you found it.
The 7 LNT Principles:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Leave what you find.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors.
Proper waste disposal is one of the biggest issues the AT faces. Pack out all your trash and pick up any garbage you see along the trail. Even when you’re feeling lazy, dig your cathole properly and pack out your toilet paper. TP takes much longer to break down than poop, which is part of the reason it’s so common to see lily-white “toilet paper blooms” strewn across campsites and the trail.
It might sound gross, but carry a dedicated ziplock bag with you and pack your TP out —you really will get used to it. Just make sure to double-bag it and cover the outer bag in duct tape if the visuals disgust you. Or use a portable bidet to use less TP when you go Number Two. Finally, if you’re someone who squats to pee: use a pee rag to cut down on the amount of TP you have to pack out.
6. Resupplies are a lot easier than you think.
You can resupply at almost every gap, either by hitching into town or paying for a shuttle. Even when there isn’t a convenient grocery store nearby, you’ll learn pretty quickly how to make do with a gas station resupply. Of course, the more dietary restrictions you have, the more difficult resupplies can become. If you are concerned about your options, you may want to look into sending boxes; just know that it may cost you extra money and time.
READ NEXT – A Comprehensive List of Resupply Points on the Appalachian Trail
7. Consider registering your thru-hike with the ATC.
You don’t have to register your thru-hike, but we think you should. Registering your hike on ATCamp helps prevent overcrowding, which harms the trail experience and the trail itself. No one wants to get to camp after a long day of hiking to find that the shelter and food storage devices are already full. Plus, the website has a ton of useful information which will you help you with the logistics of your hike.
The process is simple: to register, start here. First, you’ll select any start date on the registration charts that is below capacity. Then, you’ll come back to the registration page and select a starting point. Once you’ve done that, you’ll fill out your personal info, and then review and submit your registration. You should get an email shortly after from ATCamp that confirms your registration. Easy.
8. AT Illnesses
Every year norovirus and Lyme disease take hikers off trail, but now we also need to watch out for Covid. At this point, we all know the basics for staying safe from Covid (masking indoors and getting vaccinated), but norovirus and Lyme disease require extra precautions.
For norovirus, filter your water, wash your hands regularly, and don’t share food. If someone wants some of your chips, pour them out for them. Don’t let them stick their hand in your bag in case they are carrying the illness. Greet fellow hikers with fist bumps rather than handshakes.
To avoid contracting Lyme disease, think about using Permethrin on your clothes and gear before you head out and reapply every six weeks on a zero day. Do nightly tick checks and look everywhere because ticks are sneaky! Use wet wipes to clean your legs at night to expose any ticks that could be camouflaged as flecks of dirt. It’s unlikely that you will contract a disease from a tick that’s only been on for a couple of hours rather than a couple of days, but let your doctor know if you’re ever bitten by one to cover your bases and stay safe and healthy.
READ NEXT – How to Not Mistake Lyme Disease for Coronavirus
Even after taking every precaution, if you experience fever, nausea, or a seriously upset stomach during your hike, get off trail and see a doctor ASAP. Hiking through norovirus can cause serious dehydration and Lyme disease only gets worse with time. If you have flu-like symptoms, self-isolate and take an over-the-counter Covid test. The trail is already tough enough on your body. Don’t risk your health or safety (or anyone else’s) by trying to hike through illness.
9. Expect to pay more for your Smokies permit this year.
Thru-hiker permits for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) have been required since 2013, but this year, you’ll have to pay a bit more for it. Starting March 1st, the price of all backcountry permits for the Smokies will increase from $20 to $40.
READ NEXT – Smokies AT Thru-Hiker Permits to Double in Price in 2023
We know that it’s never fun to have to pay more for things, but at least that money will be going toward a good cause. GSMNP is the most visited national park in the country, and it’s continued to see an increase in visitation and backcountry use. The money from your permit will help support much-needed maintenance and operational work within the park.
10. Treat your water!
Some hikers don’t treat their water on the AT, but it’s truly not worth the risk. It’s difficult to predict whether and how a seemingly pristine water source may have been contaminated. Just saying: we’ve personally seen piles of human turds and toilet paper deposited on a stream bank upstream of where hikers were collecting water. Sadness.
The handful of ounces and extra time you’ll spend treating your water will pay uncountable dividends in avoided pain, sickness, and suffering.
11. The bugs can be brutal.
We’re not even talking about ticks here. We’re talking about your everyday, commonplace gnats and mosquitoes. They will band together to try and break you, but don’t let them!
Head nets are great, but they can be uncomfortable. A brimmed hat can help to keep the stuffy material out of your face and make it easier to breathe. Pre-treating clothing and gear with permethrin can also help deter a wide range of bugs, including ticks, gnats, and mosquitoes.
Other than that: Bug spray all the way. The natural stuff doesn’t always handle the job, but DEET is tried and true. There are two points in Massachusetts where you walk along rivers at a very low altitude where it’s a full-on mosquito massacre, and you’ll need DEET to keep your sanity intact.
Even with all these precautions, there will be days when the bugs get the better of you. Sometimes the best you can do is accept that you won’t be taking many breaks that day and dive into your tent as soon as you reach camp. May those days be few and far between.
READ NEXT – How To Treat Your Clothes With Permethrin
12. Make the most of trail towns.
We know that everyone’s focused on Katahdin, and it’s important to keep your eye on the prize, but you need to enjoy yourself along the way! As good as big mileage days feel, they’re not the only times when you make lasting memories of the trail. In fact, a lot of memory-makers happen on rest days and in trail towns.
It’s worth taking it easy every so often and living it up in towns you’d never otherwise visit. Check out the local diners (specifically the pancakes at Damascus Diner) and breweries (Kennebec River Brewery is fire and has an arcade in the back!). Many towns are very hiker-friendly, and you’ll meet past hikers and locals with incredible stories about the trail. In the end, you’ll be glad you enjoyed yourself instead of making it to Katahdin a few days earlier.
13. Blazes can be confusing.
The trail is well-marked, and you shouldn’t have a hard time following it, but the blazes aren’t always consistently marked. Sometimes they’re close together, sometimes far apart. Sometimes snow or white lichen on the tree bark make it hard to pick them out.
Double blazes (one stacked atop the other) typically indicate a turn in the trail. Some trail clubs indicate a right or left turn by offsetting the top blaze in that direction. Some don’t.
So it’s important to pay attention lest you walk off the end of a leaf-covered switchback because you missed the blaze.Try not to zone out so hard that you don’t even notice the blazes, and when in doubt, look for blazes behind as well as in front of you to confirm you’re still on the AT. The trail is almost universally well-trodden, so it’s a red flag if you feel soft, loose, or loamy material underfoot rather than hard-packed dirt. If you see a double blaze, whether it indicates the direction of the turn or not, start looking around.
14. The trail is a very social experience.
If you’re hitting the AT to be alone for six months, be aware that there are almost always people around. The trail gets about 5,000 thru-hike attempts every year, and that isn’t even counting people who go out for day hikes and shorter backpacking trips. You may be able to avoid people by stealth camping. However, there are regions where that’s illegal and you need to stay in designated shelters (aka the Smokies and much of the mid-Atlantic).
This aspect of the AT can be a good thing because it makes getting on the trail alone a bit less intimidating, and it can be a lot of fun meeting other hikers. Just make sure to have your expectations in check so you aren’t heading on trail with the intention of having a solo experience. You won’t have one if you start anywhere near the bubble.
Hiking in the off-season, flip-flopping, or starting each day very early when most hikers are still asleep can help create a more solitary experience if that’s what you’re looking for.
15. Prepare for the cold.
If you start your hike early (February, March, or April), chances are you’ll encounter snow and/or cold. In April in the Smokies, temperatures can reach the teens or below with wind chill. We’re not telling you this to scare you, we just want to remind you that you’ll experience cold weather even though you’re in the south in spring. Bring gloves, a sleeping bag with a low temperature rating (a liner is a good idea, too), and warm base layers.
Once the weather warms up and you’re consistently at lower altitudes, you can send your cold-weather gear home for the summer. You may, however, need it back as you head farther north and the weather cools again. Don’t send home your puffy though! Always keep that on you for emergencies.
READ NEXT – Should You Start the AT in Winter?
16. Don’t underestimate trekking poles.
Do not skip the trekking poles! Yes, everyone’s different and some people don’t use them, but they can really be a game changer. They relieve some of the weight and pressure from your joints and can help save your knees when going downhill.
Also, learn how to stash your sticks for rock scrambles. Especially in Southern Maine, there will be times when you need your hands to climb. Putting your trekking poles in your pack is easier than tossing them and climbing up after them.
17. You can skip rainy days (sometimes).
There’s a lot of pressure to keep to a schedule and hike as much as you can on the AT, but there’s really no need to hike through every single bad weather day. Admittedly, you can’t skip them all: it sometimes rains all day or even for multiple days consecutively. But budgeting a handful of unplanned bad-weather zeroes will do wonders for your mood. Don’t make yourself miserable just to get to Katahdin a day early. If you take the trail seriously enough and put in the effort, you’ll still make it even if you sit out a rainstorm.
Please take this advice to heart for alpine zones and more treacherous sections (looking at you, Mahoosuc Notch!). It can be dangerous to head into certain portions of the AT during storms or torrential rain. Factor in what type of tree cover you’ll have when you decide whether or not to hike on a rainy and windy day. The rocks can also get very slippery, so if you’re planning on doing a very technical and steep climb, maybe wait out a day if there’s rain in the forecast.
Likewise, in the early days of a northbound hike when temperatures are cold, you might climb through a mild, soaking rain at low elevations only to find it snowing when you summit the mountain. Not good. Hiking in wet weather just on either side of the freezing point is risky.
Trust us, you have plenty of time.
18. Mental Preparation
There are a lot of reasons people fall short of their goal to complete a thru-hike: injuries, running out of money, turmoil on the homefront, just to name a few. However, a significant number of people who quit on their hikes do so because they can no longer mentally endure the undertaking. Many go into a thru-hike understanding that it’s more of a psychological than a physical challenge, few properly prepare for this pitfall.
Fortunately, there is a resource aimed specifically at helping aspiring AT thru-hikers prepare their minds for this half-year endeavor. Appalachian Trials, authored by The Trek Founder and Editor-in-Chief Zach Davis, has helped countless hikers mentally prepare for the Appalachian Trail.
19. Verizon generally has better cell service than AT&T on the Appalachian Trail.
Ironically, AT&T doesn’t work all that well on the AT—and it’s particularly awful everywhere south of Pennsylvania. Verizon, in contrast, has the best overall coverage on the Appalachian Trail. But whichever provider you use, expect to occasionally go a few days without a reliable cell signal.
If you urgently need connectivity, mountain peaks are generally your best bet for cell service. Alternatively, you could get a GPS beacon that works off a satellite network so you can communicate with the outside world even when you have no cell service. We recommend the Garmin InReach Mini, which runs off the reliable Iridium satellite network and enables two-way text communication.
20. Hostels and food get more expensive once you hit New England. Budget accordingly.
If you’re hiking NOBO, you’ll also get progressively more tired and more willing to shell out massive sums of cash for town comforts like hot food and hot showers. Not to mention your gear will grow more likely to fail and need replacing the farther you get in your hike. With that in mind, don’t frontload your spending on the AT. Be conservative with your budget initially so that you have enough money for the entire hike. Don’t let a budgetary shortfall be the thing that keeps you from Katahdin.
21. You don’t need a lot of money to thru-hike.
It’s very possible to hike the AT on a tight budget and still have a great time. How does one achieve this? By paying down debt in advance, shopping sales and buying used gear, avoiding town, taking fewer zero days, and so forth.
Want to know exactly how to budget for the AT, along with specific, actionable tips for saving money on gear and on-trail? You’re in luck because we have an ebook on that very subject over at our store, available for the low-low price of $7. How convenient!
Class of ’22 AT thru-hiker Trishadee “Dandelion” Newlin advises future hikers to budget not just for money, but also for time. “So many thru-hiker friends I spoke with said they wished they had slowed down, especially at the end. I took ‘zero’ days to rest and explore trail towns and kept my pace and miles at a level that let me enjoy the trail.”
READ NEXT – 9 AT Thru-Hikers Share Their Top Advice
22. You can thru-hike with your dog.
Everywhere except the Smokies and Baxter State Park, that is. Some hikers with dogs choose to skip the Smokies altogether. Others kennel their dogs and arrange to have them shuttled to the other end of the park to meet them after they’ve completed the section.
Having a furry companion on the trail is a lot of fun (and definitely beats spending four to six months apart from your best bud) but make sure your dog is up to the challenge. Thru-hiking is just as massive an undertaking for a dog as it is for a human. Make sure you can carry the extra weight of a dog’s food, water, and gear (they’ll be able to carry some, but typically not all of their own supplies). Keep your dog on a leash and be respectful of other trail users.
23. It’s just as important to rest as it is to hike.
Burnout is real. You’re putting your body through extreme conditions every day, and the trail eventually takes its toll. Zero days give your body time to rest and recover before heading back out.
Resting for the sake of your mental health is just as important. The trail is both mentally and physically challenging, and one of the best ways to avoid fatigue and giving up is by taking a break when you’re not feeling up to hiking.
If you find that you’re still struggling to find the motivation to hike after taking time off to rest, consider the following advice from Trek Blogger Jake “Sidetrack” Arens. “You won’t want to hike every day … Once you get up and start, though, the momentum will carry you through. You can always do one more day, one more mile, and one more step.”
Keep these words of advice in mind as you prepare to have the experience of a lifetime. The AT is wild and unpredictable. You’re sure to encounter conditions and situations that will require adaptation on the fly. The more you learn and prepare in advance, the more you’ll set yourself up for success.
But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to get ready, so allow yourself to savor each moment, both leading up to and during your thru-hike. Whatever comes your way, know that you’ll be able to meet each unique challenge as it comes.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
This article was originally published on December 20th, 2021. It was updated by Rachel Shoemaker on December 19th, 2022.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
What Do You Think?