8 Essential Safety Tips for Thru-Hiking the AT
You just announced your Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and now your family, friends, and neighbor’s dog-walker are all bombarding you with warnings:
“Make sure you bring a portable defibrillator in your first aid kit and a week’s worth of extra food!”
“Carry a gun so you can fight Bigfoot!”
“What are you going to do when you get sucked up in a tornado and fall back to earth in a drug smuggler’s hideout?”
Sure, thru-hiking carries some inherent risks. Fortunately, the dangers you will actually face have less to do with mythical creatures than with mundane things like blisters and bugs. Instead of lecturing you about every threat imaginable, here is a guide to how to safely navigate some of the most common scenarios you might actually face on the AT.
Ed. note: This article focuses on environmental hazards of thru-hiking. For those who came here because they’re concerned about crime rates / safety from other humans on the AT, the following posts are a great place to get started:
- Is Backpacking Safe for Solo Women? Understanding and Managing Risk in the Backcountry
- Examining the Real Numbers Behind Violent Instances on the Appalachian Trail
1. Know How To Ford a River
Keeping your feet dry on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is impossible. Often, rivers and streams don’t have bridges and are more dangerous than they look.
Many of the most notorious stream crossings are in Maine, especially the 100 Mile Wilderness, but heavy rains can turn any stream into a dangerous torrent. Swift currents and slippery rocks can cause a disaster, so it’s important to take action to keep yourself safe.
When crossing a river, start by looking for the best place to cross. Although counterintuitive, it’s usually best to cross where the river is widest because it is shallower and the current is slower. Before departing, unbuckle your hip and chest straps. That way, if you fall and your bag gets stuck, it won’t trap you underwater.
When crossing, keep your shoes on. They’ll provide you with necessary traction on slippery rocks and protect your feet from sharp points. It may be disappointing to get your feet wet, but you can go without socks if you’d like to be a little more comfortable on the other side. As you cross, face upstream and sidestep. This will keep you the most stable.
Not only is it important to cross safely, it’s also crucial to accept that sometimes the river will not be passable after heavy rains. In these scenarios, find a different route, backtrack, or wait it out. Sometimes it will be a few days before you can safely cross, but a couple days’ delay is always better than risking drowning.
2. Respect the Weather
Weather on the Appalachian Trail ranges from almost pleasant to extremely dangerous. Thru-hikers should be able to recognize the fine line between weather that makes you miserable and weather that can be outright deadly. On the long walk from Georgia to Maine, AT thru-hikers are likely to face extreme cold, extreme heat, thunderstorms, heavy rain, high winds, and everything in between.
Most thru-hikers will experience snow and frigid temperatures at some point. Check the forecast and keep in mind that mountain summits and ridges will be much colder than surrounding valleys. That means even if it’s just raining down in town, it could be icy and snowy up top.
Northbounders have a good chance of experiencing freezing temperatures along the ridgelines of the south, especially in the Smokies. Then, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, temperatures will drop again.
Mt. Washington can receive snow any month of the year and is often described as having the worst weather in the world. For example, in 2023, the summit received about eight inches in June and a flurry in August. The Whites are also often subject to hurricane-force winds and, in warmer months, thunderstorms.
Whether you’re in the Whites or the foothills of Virginia, you should know what to do if the weather changes rapidly. Many thru-hikers reach the most exposed parts of the AT (New Hampshire and Maine, where long stretches of trail are above treeline) in the heat of summer, when thunderstorms are common.
In case of a severe storm, seek shelter at low elevations, where temperatures will be warmer, winds will be lighter, and lightning is less likely to strike.
Heat can be a threat too. The AT often experiences heatwaves, which can be very dangerous when coupled with high humidity and strenuous physical activity. Make sure to stay hydrated and take frequent breaks.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of dangerous weather conditions on the AT, just some of the most common. However, most of these situations can be avoided by proper planning. Check the weather, and don’t be afraid to take a few zeros to wait out a storm.
Even if other hikers choose to continue through seemingly dangerous conditions, they may have more protective gear and/or experience. They also could be making a mistake, so don’t feel pressured to continue just because others are doing so. When in doubt, play it safe.
3. Respect Your Body’s Needs
The transition from regular life to thru-hiking can be a challenge. Often, your body will get mad at you because it wants to continue sitting on a couch all day with unlimited access to Wendy’s. Your body is kind of like a toddler—it will throw a temper tantrum just because it’s hungry or uncomfortable or doesn’t like its new shoes. But these tantrums are worth listening to.
Just about every part of your body has a chance to get ticked off about this new activity of yours. Your feet probably don’t like all the constant impact. Your back might not like the feeling of your pack. Your neck might hate staring down at rocks all day.
Whatever it is, the pain you’re experiencing is your body’s way of begging you to change something. That could mean buying new gear, hiking more slowly, eating more, or taking a few rest days.
Listening to these messages is always more important than making a few more miles. Usually, ignoring your pain only exacerbates the problem and extends the amount of time you’ll inevitably spend off-trail recovering.
Related: Ibuprofen is an OK way to manage pain and inflammation until you can get to town and take a rest day, but it’s not a long-term solution.
This advice isn’t just for new thru-hikers adjusting to the trail. It’s just as important five months into your hike as it is in the beginning. Let’s face it: humans aren’t designed to walk all day, every day, for months on end. So when your body tells you it’s time to take a break, listen.
4. Don’t Overpack
It’s a common trend for new backpackers to “pack their fears.” Let’s face it: a thru-hike is a daunting endeavor, and it’s normal to be afraid or anxious before starting.
When facing the prospect of carrying your whole life on your back, you might feel tempted to throw extra items in the pack “just in case.” However, packing too much in an effort to be safer can actually cause you more harm than good.
Carrying a lot of weight for weeks and months on end is really taxing on your body, so it’s important to keep your pack weight down. That’s not to say you need to invest in ultralight gear, that you shouldn’t pack essential safety items, or that you can’t bring a few luxury items. However, the industrial size first aid kit and spare emergency bivy can stay home.
Not sure what is or isn’t reasonable to pack? Turn to your community of thru-hikers for help. You can get virtual shakedowns in many online forums these days or through Mountain Crossings, an iconic AT outfitter.
5. Don’t Let Your Water Filter Freeze
Water filters are important — they help keep waterborne illnesses like giardia at bay and keep you from turning into a walking diarrhea machine. So it’s pretty important to make sure your filter is working. However, if your filter freezes, it becomes completely useless, even after it thaws.
Modern water filters like the Sawyer Squeeze are made up of countless incredibly tiny holes that allow water to pass through while trapping contaminants like harmful bacteria. The problem is that when water freezes, it expands. And when there’s water inside the filter, it forces the holes to expand too. These expanded holes are now big enough to allow pathogens to pass through. Even after the water inside thaws, the pores don’t return to their normal size, rendering the filter broken.
That’s why in cold weather, it’s important to keep your filter warm. On cold nights, if there’s even a slight chance of the temperatures dropping below freezing, you should sleep with the filter inside your bag. Also, if it’s below freezing during the day, you should keep it in an inside pocket touching your body, taking it out only when you need it.
It’s typically impossible to tell afterward whether the filter has frozen. While in some cases you may notice a reduced flow rate, it often continues working as normal even after freezing. Because of this, if you think there’s even a slight chance that your filter has been exposed to subfreezing temperatures, it’s best to replace it.
6. Be Bear Aware
Virtually the entire Appalachian Trail runs through bear country, and hikers need to take steps to protect themselves and the bears from a negative interaction. The good news is that the region is only habitat for black bears, the least threatening species. Black bears rarely bother humans and are usually more scared of us than we are of them.
However, hikers in bear country should still be prepared and follow certain precautions to avoid a negative encounter. Every so often, a black bear will lose its fear of humans as a result of associating them with food. This is usually caused by improper food storage.
Fortunately, there are lots of options for safely storing your food. Among the easiest is the bear canister, which as of 2023, is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s recommended method. A bear canister is simply a hard-sided jar that keeps bears out. Canisters are efficient and low-effort, though they can be a little heavy and awkward.
Somewhat less reliable than a bear canister but sturdier than a standard food bag is the Ursack, a durable Kevlar-like food storage sack that resists bears’ powerful claws and teeth.
As an alternative, many campsites include bear boxes, cables, or poles, which are designated places to store food out of reach from bears. That being said, many sites will not have these contraptions. After arriving at a campsite and feeling a sense of crushing defeat when you notice their absence, you’ll have to tie a bear bag.
A bear bag should be tied at least 200 feet away from the shelter or any tents, hang 12 feet above the ground, and 6 feet from the trunk or any limb. You can use a regular backpacking stuff sack as your food bag or, if you want to be extra safe, an Ursack.
These precautions are important not only for your safety, but also to prevent bears from associating humans and the campsite with food.
In Case of a Bear Encounter
Not only should you learn how to prevent bear encounters, you should also know what to do in the case of an encounter. Almost every thru-hiker will see a bear at least once on the trail, but almost all of these encounters are harmless and non-threatening.
But, if you do happen to come across a bear at a close distance, do your best to intimidate the bear. Make yourself larger by unzipping a jacket or waving your hands or an object in the air. Bears are dumb; they’ll fall for it.
Make as much loud noise as you can. “Hey, bear” is a popular call, but you an also take the opportunity to try out some new Yo Mama jokes if that’s your thing. Whatever you say, yell it loudly.
Just don’t run. Bears naturally have a chase instinct, just like your golden retriever, so running away could trigger them to pursue you. Unfortunately, this is a less pleasant experience than when Fido does it.
Other don’ts include making eye contact, which can be perceived as a challenge, or standing in between a mama and her babies. This information isn’t meant to scare you. It’s just to protect you and the bear on the very rare occasion that one is aggressive.
7. Be Bug Aware
While bears are certainly intimidating, the biggest threat from creatures that you’ll face on the trail actually come from something much smaller: ticks. Ticks range in size from that of a poppy seed to that of a sesame seed, and sometimes carry diseases. The most common of these tick-borne illnesses is Lyme disease, which is transmitted by deer ticks and can be very serious, especially if left untreated.
To avoid these critters, you should do a thorough check for ticks every day. It takes time for ticks to transmit diseases to their hosts; it isn’t an instant process. Therefore, catching ticks quickly and removing them properly is key.
These bugs like to latch on in hard-to-reach areas like behind the ears or in armpits. Additionally, their small size makes them difficult to find. A cell phone camera is a handy tool for self-checks.
Lyme disease often starts with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, muscle/joint aches, swollen lymph nodes, and headache. Most (but not all) people will develop a rash, often with a characteristic bulls-eye shape, around the spot where they were bitten. If you have any of these symptoms — especially if you know you were bitten by a deer tick — head to an urgent care.
Bug spray works wonders in reducing the chances of a bite. Some thru-hikers take this a step further by spraying permethrin onto their clothes. This chemical repels insects including ticks and mosquitoes, but is somewhat controversial because permethrin carries serious health risks before it dries*. It’s recommended to avoid spraying it on your underwear.
If you’re not comfortable using permethrin, never fear. It’s certainly not a requirement as long as you check yourself for ticks carefully.
*If treating clothes and gear yourself, make sure to do it outside where there’s good airflow. Wear long sleeves, gloves, and a face covering to avoid skin contact or inhalation. Once dry, permethrin is very poorly absorbed through the skin and is considered safe.
READ NEXT –
- How To Treat Your Hiking Clothes With Permethrin
- Bears, Noro, Lyme: What To Worry About (Or Not) During Your Thru-Hike
8. Keep Someone Back Home Posted
In case of an emergency, it’s good to know someone’s looking out for you. Some thru-hikers like to have family or friends track their location by GPS, and most will periodically call or text to give updates on their location. Establishing some kind of communication schedule will put everyone’s minds at ease and help loved ones track you down in the very rare event of getting seriously lost.
However, it’s important to set realistic expectations with your point of contact. Cell service is very spotty in many sections of the trail, and sometimes you won’t be able to call. This is where a satellite device like the Garmin inReach, which doesn’t need cell service to send messages, comes in handy. Even then, thru-hikers often don’t have the bandwidth for daily check-ins.
Make sure your schedule is flexible and realistic (i.e. they shouldn’t expect contact every day). That way your loved ones don’t get concerned when you’re too preoccupied with a surprise all-you-can-eat buffet.
Don’t let this list frighten you. Most of these scenarios are unlikely, and the chances of them becoming severe are even slimmer. Embarking on the Appalachian Trail may be scary, but with a little preparation, you have nothing to worry about.
Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm. Photo by Tom Czako.
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