7 Thru-Hiking Mistakes Rookie Hikers Make on the AT

The Appalachian Trail is 2,193 miles of “one foot in front of the other” mentality. That’s a whole lot of steps to make memories, meals, and of course, mistakes. Here are a few common (but avoidable) thru-hiking mistakes that rookie AT hikers often make. Read on so you can avoid making them yourself.

Adapted from a recent video by 2019 Trek Vlogger Julia Sheehan.  Apply to be a Trek Vlogger.

1. Starting Too Early

Thru-hiking season seems to start earlier each year. There are people starting in February and early March. Don’t start the AT at least until April. Mid-April is ideal because you’re going to bypass a lot of that winter weather in the South but still get relatively great weather in the Northern part of the AT. Just because you see other people starting early in the season does not mean you have to as well.

2. Underpacking 

It sucks to realize mid-trail that you really need something you left at home. Having a lighter pack is always ideal, but when you first start on the AT those extra few ounces aren’t going to hurt. Until you figure out what you really need, give yourself some leeway for a little bit of extra comfort while you’re settling into life on the AT. 

3. Overpacking

Just the opposite of No. 2. There’s no reason your pack needs to weigh 60-70 pounds. If you research your gear in advance, there’s no reason you can’t put together a setup that easily meets your needs without breaking 30 pounds. Besides, your knees will thank you. 

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4. Not Knowing When to Take a Break

Injuries happen. Some hikers ignore their pain in order to keep pace with their tramilies. However, there comes a time where you can hurt yourself so badly that it takes you off trail. Remember, there’s no rush. There’s no reason you can’t listen to your body when it’s telling you that a few zero days could be incredibly beneficial. 

5. Being Overly Competitive

General fatigue and muscle/joint pain can set in as early as Day 10 if you start out trying to keep up or catch up to people. You shouldn’t worry about anyone else’s mileage but your own. You don’t need to calculate milage like it’s life or death. Of course, you need to plan your mileage accordingly for resupply, but there’s no reason to be overly competitive. You will reach the Northern Terminus when it’s your time. Don’t rush the journey. It’s one of the best things you’ll do in your life, and the moment you get home you will miss it. Enjoy it while you’re out there living it!

6. Romanticizing the Trail

You’re going to smell bad and ache all over. You’re going to be exhausted and you’re going to have bad days. Overly romanticizing the trail can really limit your actual enjoyment of the adventure. Don’t get me wrong—the trail can be wonderful and enchanting, but it can also be despairing at times. Although you definitely should get excited about the possibility of hiking the AT, be clear-eyed about the challenges you’ll face, too. It is an incredible challenge of mental, physical, and emotional strength and endurance.

7. Doubting Yourself

This is one of the most important thru-hiking mistakes to take note of. The trail never changes in the miles you have to walk or the mountains you must cross to reach the Northern Terminus. Doubting yourself just makes the adventure that much more difficult to enjoy and more challenging of a task. The energy you spend doubting yourself is a waste. Instead, use that energy to propel yourself forward with confidence and you will surely have a much better time! 

As a rookie, there are always thru-hiking mistakes to be made even if you are the most prepared possible. Whatever you do, make sure to enjoy the beautiful and ugly parts of this incredible experience and do your research (which you’ve already started after reviewing these seven common thru-hiking mistakes).

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Comments 7

  • Eric Fischer-Colbrie : Oct 1st

    Simple but such GREAT advice!

    Thank you!!

    Eric

    Reply
  • Chuck Thomas : Oct 2nd

    Very good and realistic advice. Thank you!

    Reply
  • Julia Sheehan : Oct 2nd

    Thank you for sharing this is written form. 🤍🤍🤍

    Reply
  • Dave : Oct 2nd

    I know all about mistakes. I had the perfect opportunity to do a thru-hike–in 2009–I started the third week of March in GA. It was very cold and constantly raining. I was hauling something like 60 pounds (including a travel guitar–bad idea). Didn’t bring enough protein. I ate through the beef jerky on day one, then I was left with just rice and crackers. I got everything (including jeans), completely drenched. I was miserable. I wish I made it at least to the first checkpoint where I could dry off, warm up, get some food, and regroup. But I came across a couple of good ol boys driving a truck on one of the logging roads, and I bailed. I was done. Only 3 days, 2 nights. What a bust. I’d love to try again–it’s unfinished business–but it’s pretty hard for me now to just take off for 5 months. And what if I go through all the hassle, just to once again burn out?

    Reply
  • TBR : Oct 6th

    Wisdom!

    Reply
  • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Oct 11th

    Good stuff, Ms. Ritchey.

    ~Pony
    AT’16

    Reply
  • Shannon Ramsey : Oct 28th

    Great article and advice especially for rookies such as myself! Your points on taking time to rest, listening to your body, and not making it a competition are extremely important and vital in being able to successfully complete and enjoy your experience out there! The only point I might argue is that I do see value in leaving sooner than April. I’ve met several thru-hikers to say that the beauty and value in leaving in February or early March is that you miss the bubble. While there definitely seems to be some positives to starting with the bubble, there seems to be even more positives to starting before then so as to avoid over crowded shelters and hostels and just an overcrowded trail in general. There’s no denying that starting later will mean you will enjoy much better weather in the South but from what it sounds like you will also have to deal with more crowds and less space on trail and in the camp sites. I could be completely wrong, I’ve just heard this sentiment from several NOBO thru-hikers. I’m sure it’s all about perspective and what you value out there though so I can certainly understand why many opt for a later start date! I live close to the trail down South so I know the winters down here can get quite cold and snowy but you adjust! 🙂

    Reply

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