Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Trends: Examining Gear, Budget, and Resources Over the Past 5 Years

In 2014, we began conducting annual surveys about AT thru-hikers and attempting thru-hikers. Starting these surveys soon after my own thru-hike has been a really meaningful way for me to stay connected to my hiking community, especially since grad school keeps me indoors so much. It’s been my hope that the information from these surveys has helped and will help aspiring thru-hikers better prepare for their journeys.

Since we now have five years of survey data, it seemed to be time to look back at trends since 2014. Many of the hiker preferences, choices, and characteristics we report each year have stayed consistent, but many have changed. These changes include preferred trail guide resource, hikers’ budgets, footwear preferences, hammock use, pack capacity, and use of mail drops. Because we expanded the survey each year, we only have information dating to 2015 or 2016 for some trends.

Resources

Guthook is gaining traction alongside AWOL’s guide

ResourcesOverTime18

 

For many years The A.T. Guide by David “AWOL” Miller was the trail guide and essential resource for AT thru-hikers and section hikers. Since 2016, the Guthook app has gained popularity, and as of last year was equally popular with AWOL’s guidebook. Resources consistently rated “helpful and/or inspiring” by hikers in our surveys are this website (The Trek), the ATC’s website, and Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis, creator of this site. It’s worth mentioning that hikers who follow the website on social media are the ones recruited to participate in the survey so we expect that hikers who find our site helpful may be overrepresented in the survey. The longstanding online forum WhiteBlaze.net was a go-to resource when I thru-hiked in 2014, but even then the website looked outdated and lacked effective search features that were expected on websites by that time. Each year, WhiteBlaze.net has declined in popularity. Other forms of social media are still among the less popular resources for hikers.

Budget

Hikers spend more each year, adjusted for inflation

BudgetOverTime18

From 2016 to 2018, there was a drastic increase in the amount spent on a thru-hike. This is not simply due to inflation because the US dollar only inflated to $1.05 from 2016 to 2018.

So, a hiker budget of $4,000 in 2016 is equivalent to a hiker budget of $4,200 in 2018. Although most hikers in 2016 spent $4,000 total, most hikers in 2018 spent one and a half times that ($6,000) OR MORE. In the upcoming survey we will change the response options of this question so we can know more about the budgets of those who spent more than $6,000. The past two years, I have underestimated what budgets would be because I spent only $4,000 on my thru-hike in 2014 and did not realize that hiker spending had changed so much since that time. So, until we can get more data for 2019, I recommend that future thru-hikers do not rely on budget estimates from people who thru-hiked more than two years ago.

Related

Footwear

Trail runners are more popular each year and hikers consistently switch to trail runners mid thru-hike

FootwearOverTime18

Every year we’ve found that hikers tend to start with hiking boots and switch to trail runners, saying they ultimately preferred to use trail runners. Even so, the percent of hikers who ultimately prefer trail runners has continued to rise, from 64% in 2014 to 75% in 2018. Every year, a small percent of hikers wear less typical shoes, such as sandals or even hiking barefoot.

Altra overtakes Salomon

FootwearBrandOverTime181

The popularity of Altras has skyrocketed in the past five years. In 2014, they were only worn by 3.7 percent of hikers, and now they are the most popular brand, worn by 30.3% of hikers in 2018. Salomons have maintained steady popularity and were the most popular footwear choice for hikers until Altras unseated them in 2018. Brooks and Merrell remain consistently second and third most popular, hovering around 10-14 percent each year. Not shown on the chart are La Sportiva, Vasque, and New Balance, which have been worn by 2 to 6 percent of  hikers each year. We’ve linked all of our 2018 surveys at the bottom of this post for details on footwear and gear.

Shelter Systems

Hammock use has declined over the past five years

ShelterOverTime18

I’ve heard anecdotally that in the first few decades of the AT’s existence, many hikers relied solely on the lean-tos, but as far back as the 1970s, the AT became heavily trafficked enough that hikers needed to bring their own shelters. For the past five years and probably for some time before that, tents have been the most popular shelter system for AT long-distance hikers. Still, they’ve increased in popularity from 62% of hikers using tents in 2014 to 80% using tents in 2016 to 2018. The reason for this increase is unclear from our data. At crowded campsites, good spots for tents OR hammocks can be tough to find. I wonder whether more and more couples or families are hiking the AT, since we know from last year that couples tend to use tents more than individual hikers do. As of writing this, I don’t have any definite answers. If you have any ideas on the reason for the decline in hammock use, please comment below.

Backpacks

Average pack capacity has decreased

PackCapacityOverTime18

 

We first surveyed about backpacks in 2015. The average pack capacity has declined from 56 to 50 L in the time since then. This is likely the result of multiple trends:

  1. Over time, gear companies continue to improve their products to be lighter weight
  2. Better access to resources about backpacking could mean hikers carry fewer items and don’t need packs as large
  3. Ultralight backpacking has increased in popularity

We did not ask about base weight of supplies until 2016, so we can’t compare base weight to pack size for the 2015 data. For as long as we have measured base weight, most hikers have reported base weights from 15 to 20 pounds.

Resupply

You don’t necessarily need to use mail drops unless you have dietary restrictions

ResupplyOverTime18

Older resources about the AT tend to emphasize the mail drop resupply method, which was the default way of resupplying for many decades of long-distance hiking on the AT. However, mail-drops are no longer necessary for most hikers because the ability to get to and from town has improved and towns have more stores than they once did. For hikers who do not have dietary restrictions, fewer and fewer each year use mail drops for resupply. Hikers with dietary restrictions are a notable exception. Between one-half and one-third of hikers with restrictions such as allergies or vegetarianism still use mail drops as often as town stores or more often.

More From Our Annual Hiker Surveys

In the next few months, we will be surveying hikers from 2019 and posting those results. Information from our 2018 survey can be found below.

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Comments 13

  • Jerry : Sep 20th

    One of the main reasons for increased expense is motels for charging electronics/internet access
    Transportation, meals and lodging to post on Facebook counts up quick

    Reply
  • Jerry : Sep 20th

    Trash.. during the 1950s we were taught about Dakota fire holes..they will burn wet wood and melt a tuna can down to a puddle the size of a quarter. Metalized pouches disappear from the intense heat. Plastics burn intensely.
    There is no residue that is common with open fires and any tiny residue is buried when the fire holes is filled.
    When I worked fore Forest Serviche

    Reply
  • Rick : Sep 21st

    I am surprised to not see New Balance on the list of footwear. Back in the late 90’s- 2010 when I was sectioning the New Balance AT 800 Trail Runner series was the way to go. I think many liked them for the midsole shield and the vast array of larger sizes. Interesting how tastes change over time.

    Reply
  • Ross : Sep 21st

    I think one reason tents have grown in popularity is that tents get lighter every year.

    Reply
  • Loafer : Sep 21st

    As a dedicated hammock camper I’ve seen the numbers remain or grow along the AT…but for thru-hikers hammocks don’t make as much sense. Tents have dropped in weight considerably over the past few years, and the gear a person carries while tent camping translates easily into using the shelters…hammocks not so much (unless you use a mattress in the hammock). This means that the tent becomes a piece of gear that you can use as it suits you and shelters are an easy option.
    As for cost; are we including gear bought before the hike? Because the really good gear has gotten expensive. If not then I would posit that one of the reasons for increased cost is the emphasis on reduced weight. Not only does this drive people to replace gear with more expensive and lighter gear along the way, but I see more and more hikers only taking 2 to 4 days worth of food and popping into town much more frequently…by the way, city access continues to grow and services like Lyft and Uber are giving dedicated trail drivers competition like I have never seen before as no one has to worry about finding local numbers for drivers or taxis. On top of all that there seems to be more hostels and B&Bs every year as civilization closes in around the trail. And don’t forget the cost today for cellphone coverage, Garmin Inreach service, cameras and associated vlogging gear (seems like at least 1 in 5 thru-hikers has a vlog), and the added cost of swapping out gear as seasons change (hikers have gotten much better and smarter about this as access to delivery services has increased). And despite all of the increased costs; people are still eating ramen-bombs on trail 🙂

    Reply
  • Kelly Sellers : Sep 24th

    How do I get on the list to fill out the survey for 2019?

    Reply
  • Robb : Sep 25th

    Hammocks – Just speculating here, but with a surge of people hiking the AT more recently, especially ones that are new to hiking, I suspect more of them turn to tents. Tenting is simple to understand, easy to setup and nearly bullet-proof way of camping successfully. Contrast that with hammock camping that can be tougher to setup and more expensive to get a high quality rig. To get weights down as low as tenting, one generally has to invest in a kit that would cost $1000+ (cuban fiber tarp, down quilts, etc).

    That being said, having just returned from a 5 day trip in the Smokey Mountains, hammock camping was an awesome way to travel. It was comfortable at night, warmer than a tent and easier to pack-up in questionable weather (save the tarp for last!).

    Reply
  • Adam : Sep 27th

    This is phenomenal. Thank you Mariposa for your continued dedication towards getting us this useful data.

    Reply
  • Arachne : Sep 27th

    Loafer is spot on. Interesting and reasonable conclusion to increased tent usage. Access to more services = more town options = more money. Oh and those lighter tents are also more expensive. Thanks Mariposa for this fascinating post.

    Reply
  • Jill Emmelhainz : Sep 27th

    The decline is use of Salomon footwear is not just being unseated by Altra. Teen daughter backpack 3-6 weeks on the AT each year and have LIVED our Salomon boots. After our first trek, I bought Salomon trail runners for daily wear at home. All of those were worn out by late 2017so we went to replace them. Unfortunately, Salomon had made some changes and what had been the absolute most comfortable footwear for us had become torture devices. Daughter switched to Altras. I haven’t yet found a comfortable replacement. So sad Salomon ruined a good thing….

    Reply
  • Paul D : Sep 29th

    This is great information for someone considering or planning a thru hike. Can you please confirm what costs are associated with “Budget”? I assume basic gear is not included? But are you only considering: food/resupply, lodging (hostile, motel, hotel, etc), occasional transportation, laundry, restaurant meals? What about replacement footwear, or other replacement gear, mail drop cost?

    Reply
    • Mariposa : Sep 30th

      We asked hikers what they spent total on the trip, including gear.

      Reply
  • Paul Magnanti : Oct 1st

    Cool info. Do you have a similar longitudinal set of stats for the length of a thru-hike? Be interesting to see if there is any way to correlate length of thru-hike to expenses.

    Reply

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