What You Need to Know About the Appalachian Trail Kickoff
The Appalachian Trail Kickoff, or ATKO, is an annual event held in early March. This event has been going on for 18 years, and continues to get better and better each year. If you are an aspiring Appalachian Trail hiker, whether you’re planning a thru-hike, long section, or just want to get out and do some day hikes, this event has something to offer.
The 2020 ATKO Will be Held March 6-8 at Amicalola Falls State Park
What Is the ATKO?
The ATKO is kind of a send-off for the year’s thru-hiker class. The event draws crowds of hikers setting off for their long treks, many of whom will start the march to Maine following the weekend-long event. It’s also a great opportunity for experienced hikers and longtime AT enthusiasts to congregate and reunite with old friends while making new ones.
Each year, vendors and experienced Appalachian Trail community members coordinate and gather to make the kick-off happen. Vendors set up booths with backpacking-focused equipment for hikers who need to make last-minute purchases or gear upgrades. Hostel owners hand out cards and vouchers for discounted stays. Trail experts give talks and presentations on everything from Leave No Trace to dehydrating your own backpacking food. Hikers come for a weekend of fun and fellowship, welcoming the new class of AT hikers into the family, and sending them off better prepared than they were before.
Why Should You Go?
There are a lot of reasons to attend ATKO, from gear to shakedowns to building community.
Hear It from the Pros
The ATKO offers a prime opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge from people who have been there. While checking out the latest in cottage-industry gear offerings is cool, I think the talks and presentations are the real draw of this event. Attending ATKO will provide the opportunity to meet and hear from the likes of longtime trail angel Miss Janet, Lightheart Gear‘s very own Judy “Heartfire” Gross, and Hiker Yearbook founder Matthew “Odie” Norman.
Get Up-to-the-Minute Status Updates and Information About the AT
In addition to hearing from trail celebrities, many trail organizations will be providing valuable information and updates. This year, a representative from ADLHA will give a talk about “Staying Found on the AT.” Learn about using solar power from Etowah Outdoor’s Paul Fitzner, and discover a new trail with the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Check the itinerary below for a schedule of presentations.
Try Out New Gear Options and Purchase Last-Minute Items at a Discount
If you are still in need of some major pieces of gear, avoid the shipping costs and buy it in Georgia! Several representatives from both big and small name gear companies will be present. These companies often offer deep discounts to attendees. This year’s vendors will include Lightheart Gear, Antigravity Gear, and REI among others.
Shake Down Your Pack
If you already have all of your gear, ATKO offers a prime opportunity for the ever-important pack shakedown. Several experienced long-distance backpackers are usually available to help you shed some pack weight. Get professional opinions on what you need vs. what you don’t and start the trail with a leg up.
Hang Out with Other Hikers
Finally, if all of the above hasn’t convinced you, come for the fellowship. There is a community fire pit in the tenting area, and plenty of opportunity for lounging at the lodge. Each year, new and experienced hikers gather in the evenings to discuss trail life. Newbies come with their eager questions and concerns. Longtime hikers reminisce on their own thru-hike attempts. Trail stories and laughs abound. Someone usually brings s’mores. Sometimes, thru-hikers walk away from this event with new friends who will become family as they make their way to Maine.
Where Should You Stay?
Amicalola Falls State Park and Lodge offers a lodging option for every type of traveler. For the hiker who just isn’t quite ready to rough it yet, the lodge itself offers nice indoor accommodations. Most of the events and displays happen at the lodge, so staying here is convenient. There is also a restaurant inside.
For the glamper who isn’t quite ready to turn into a full-fledged camper, the state park offers both cabins and RV sites nearby. Both the cottages and RV lot are pet friendly. These accommodations are a short walk from the lodge and are a slightly less expensive option.
For the aspiring thru-hiker and fully fledged hiker trash, there will be a tenting area available. The tenting area is in a flat field next to a creek and costs $10/person/night for Friday and Saturday night. There are a few options for hanging hammocks, and it is close to the visitors center, where restroom and shower facilities can be found. This is also where thru-hikers will check-in to begin their hikes, weigh their packs, and pose for a photo under the arch! It’s also the beginning of the Approach Trail for those who will be taking that route to Springer Mountain. To reserve a tent site, you can call the lodge at
Whichever lodging option you choose, you’ll want to call and make reservations ASAP! The lodge and the campground fill up quickly for this event. As the event gets larger, the tenting area may fill up as well.
You can get to this event via whatever method you were planning to arrive for your thru-hike. There are several shuttle options available from the Atlanta area. The REI stores in Atlanta have also started offering hiker shuttles, and will be attending the event so that could be a good option for someone.
If you are starting your thru-hike immediately after the event and need to get to Springer, there are always people at the event offering shuttles. In addition to the abovementioned services, past hikers and trail angels attending the event often jump at the opportunity to provide rides to Springer. Someone will get you there; don’t stress over that.
Now That I’ve Talked You into It, Here’s the ATKO Schedule for 2020
Friday, March 6 – Sunday, March 8
Friday, March 6
4:45 p.m. – Jack Layfield with AT Chaplaincy – AT Chaplaincy Program
6 p.m. – Richard Judy and Emmy Law – An Ode to the Trail
Saturday, March 7
9 a.m. – Paul Fitzner with Etowah Outfitters – Utilizing Solar Power
10:15 a.m. – Jay Dement with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club – Hike a Better Hike
11:30 a.m. – Judy Gross with LightHeart Gear – Dehydrated Food
1 p.m. – Whitney La Ruffa with Six Moon Designs – Hikers’ Advice
2:15 p.m. – Larry Dumas with the Benton MacKaye Trail Association – Hiking the Benton-MacKaye
3:30 p.m.– Ken Bunning with the Appalachian Long-Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) – Staying Found
4:45 p.m. – Eric Matos with Ever Green Adventure Foods – Eliminating Single Use Plastic on the Trail
6 p.m. – Kaite Rapp and Tom Ottinger with ridgerunners and AT Conservancy – Stories from a ridgerunner
7:15 p.m. – Carol and Jim Steiner – AT Day Hiker Trail Adventures
Sunday, March 8
10:15 a.m. – Josh Harrington – Art Along the Trail
See you at the kickoff!
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