Choosing the Best AT Start Date: Advice From a Former Mountain Crossings Employee
One of my favorite things to do when preparing for a long hike is to whip out my whiteboard and start a countdown, but it’s hard to do that if you don’t yet know when you’re starting. Picking a start date is an important part of planning your AT thru-hike. Starting at the time of year that is best for you and your adventure can make or break your hike.
I spent the northbound seasons of 2022 and 2023 working at Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap on the Appalachian Trail. Just over 30 miles from the Southern Terminus at Springer Mountain, Mountain Crossings outfitter is often the first stop for hopeful thru-hikers.
My job there was to help hikers. Thousands of them passed through our doors each year, all looking for a little bit of advice as they launched on their journeys. Sometimes I wished I could have spoken to them before they ever started the AT, because often their issues could have been avoided by simply choosing a different start date.
There is no perfect day to start the Appalachian Trail. Every day will have its advantages and disadvantages, and picking a start date is about compromise and deciding what is right for you. For the bulk of this, I will be focusing on northbound start dates, as that is by far the most popular direction to hike the AT, but I’ll also touch on southbound and flip-flop itineraries.
Things To Keep in Mind
Before you pick your start date, there are a few things to be aware of. This hike is your adventure, and everyone’s experience is different. Beyond your start date, many factors will influence your hike, one of which is your pace.
I’ve tried to tailor the long-term implications of various start dates towards the beginner hiker, someone who expects to start out traveling 8-10 miles a day and complete the trail in about six months. If you’re an experienced hiker completing your Triple Crown and feel confident you’ll be busting out 25+ mile days from the start, then the long-term implications will not apply to you in the same way.
Another thing to consider is that most northbound hikers are on a deadline. Baxter State Park, home of Katahdin, typically closes the trails by mid-October (although sometimes earlier) to protect sensitive vegetation. It would be a mega-bummer to hike 2000+ miles only to miss out on the climactic finish.
Make sure you leave enough time to get to the terminus before it closes, or at least make plans to flip north if you feel you’re cutting it too close.
Northbound Start Dates:
Choosing the Best Northbound AT Start Date
First of all, this is meant as generic advice based on my experiences living and working on the AT in north Georgia. Advice is a dangerous gift, partly because it is not one size fits all.
I obviously cannot tell you, months or years in advance, what the weather will be like on a specific day. As I would tell the people who called the store with that question on a daily basis: if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be working here, but assume it is going to rain.
January to Mid-February
- More cold weather to start
- Fewer crowds
- Less water availability
- More tolerable Mid-Atlantic temperatures
- Higher chance of bugs, mud, and sketchy stream crossings in New England
Seriously, guys, Georgia gets cold. Expect temperatures well below freezing, and sometimes below zero. This often catches people by surprise, either because they associate Georgia with having a warm climate or because they are looking at the forecasts for towns like Blairsville or Dahlonega.
There is minimal accurate weather forecasting for the ridge the AT follows through Georgia, and the towns on either side of it are thousands of feet lower in protected valleys. On Christmas Day in 2022, I recorded air temperatures below zero at Neel Gap with high winds. Down in town that same day, the temperatures were in the low 20s without much of a breeze.
The best forecasting tool for the majority of the trail is ATWeather.org, however even this is not always accurate.
The other thing to be aware of this time of year is the scarcity of water. January and February starters should expect to run across dry water sources (even ones that are designated as “reliable” on Farout). Carry more than you think you’ll need.
Additionally, if I were starting this early, I would carry microspikes with me, as well as a zero-degree sleeping bag and a pad with a high R-value. The rocky descent down Blood Mountain can get sketchy this time of year, and the Smokies are sure to be a challenge.
Mid-February to Mid-March
- Some cold weather
- Moderate crowds
- Some water availability
- Potentially less Mid-Atlantic heat
- Higher chance of bugs, mud, and sketchy stream crossings in New England
If I were going to hike the AT northbound at my current level of experience, I would start somewhere in the second or third week of February. Although sometimes still brutally cold, by mid-February the worst of winter has typically passed. Water sources should start becoming more reliable as spring approaches and the days lengthen.
I would still take microspikes and a very warm (zero-degree) sleeping bag, but I would be comforted to know they hopefully would not be needed for too much longer.
The downsides here are the crowds. The Bubble seems to form earlier and earlier every year. This can mean competition for campsites, crowds at shelters, and sold-out hostels on cold or rainy nights.
In mid-February and early March, you’re also entering a bit of a rainy season. While more rain means more water on the trail, which means shorter water carries and a lighter pack, it can still be a mega-bummer to hike in.
No matter when you start your hike, you’ll likely be walking through a lot of rain at some point. On my 2021 thru, it rained for 38 days in a row), but spending your very first week on the trail soaking wet could be a morale killer. Still, no rain, no pain, no Maine.
Mid-March and April
- Warmer weather to start
- Higher chance of Mid-Atlantic heat
- Some possibility of bugs, mud, and sketchy stream crossings in New England
By now the weather has turned a lot fairer, and you can almost certainly ditch the heavier sleeping bag and other winter gear like microspikes. Hold on to those base layers and puffy jackets as the night still brings a chill, but for the most part, the temperatures are a lot more civilized and typical three-season gear will suffice.
Water sources should be plentiful by now, and the flowers will be in full bloom.
This is likely also the most crowded time on the trail. That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for first-time hikers. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be surrounded by a ton of really cool people and will quickly become part of a tramily, if that’s the experience you’re looking for.
When I first started hiking, I found myself reassured to meet so many people who also didn’t really know what they were doing. Lifelong friendships were formed figuring it out together. I’ve always found that it’s more fun if you’re part of a team. If I were a first-time hiker, I would probably start between mid-March and the end of April.
This is also the time of year that gives the AT its “party trail” reputation. You’ll probably run into as many people who are more excited for their next beer than they are for their next scenic view. If this isn’t you, no big deal. You’ll find your crowd — just don’t expect much solitude, especially at the beginning.
An important aspect to consider when looking at these start dates is the effect this massive bubble of hikers has on the trail. Campsites become overrun, supporting infrastructure like hostels and shuttle services is pushed to its limits, and the trail suffers. Make sure to practice all the elements of Leave No Trace, and thank the ridgerunners and volunteers who work so hard to minimize and reverse the damage done each season to the trail.
May and Beyond
- Fewer crowds again
- Less water availability again (but still plenty)
- Guaranteed sweat-fest in the Mid-Atlantic
- Colder temperatures in New England
- Limited time window to reach Katahdin
I know I just told you a few paragraphs ago that Georgia is really cold, but the reality is that it’s quite hot. Confusing, I know.
I would not recommend starting northbound this late in the year unless you’re prepared to hike serious miles right from the start. You’ll need to move quickly to avoid the blistering, humid Mid-Atlantic summer and to arrive at Baxter State Park in Maine before the trails to Baxter Peak shut down for shoulder season.
If you’re an experienced hiker starting in good shape, a May start date could be a great option for you. Warmer days mean lighter packs, and moving behind the bubble and away from the crowds has its advantages. For the most part, though, if you have to start later in the year, I would recommend a southbound or flip-flop hike.
Choosing the Best Southbound AT Start Date
- More temperate weather
- Fewer crowds
- Opportunity to follow fall color change south
- Shorter season
I’ll admit to my own bias here, but southbounding is what the cool kids are doing. If life in the “real world” (read with as much disdain for the term as possible) requires you to start later in the year, this is what I would strongly recommend.
You’ll almost certainly run into fewer crowds and can experience the changing of the seasons on the east coast in a unique way. Walking the same pace as the changing of the seasons, I was treated to over 1,000 miles of fall foliage on my hike, and slightly more temperate weather.
The southbound start season is relatively short. Most successful attempts begin in June or July.
Start much later and you start running into problems down south with cold temperatures and dry water sources. Start much earlier and you’re still running into those brutal Mid-Atlantic summers, not to mention the plague of Maine’s biting blackflies.
Starting on June 16th from Katahdin, I experienced both hot days in the beginning and cold days at the end, but in small doses.
Choosing the Best Flip-Flop AT Start Date
- Flexibility to avoid crowds
- Best chance of good weather throughout hike
- Less impact on trail
- Potentially longer time window to reach Katahdin
- More logistics/expense getting to and from the trail
If you really want to minimize your time in the crowds and give yourself the best chance of good weather for the majority of your hike, this is the option for you. It is also the option that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends for minimizing the impact of hikers on the trail.
Flip-flopping gives you the option to start wherever you want, whenever you want. You can cherry-pick the best aspects of both a northbound and southbound hike and do it on a schedule that works for you.
I’ve always thought that heading north out of Harpers Ferry in early May would make for an excellent adventure (and if there is one “traditional” way to flip-flop, this is it). With this itinerary, you start out in mild weather and have plenty of time to reach Katahdin and flip south.
On the other hand, getting on and off the trail multiple times can be a logistical headache and adds to the transportation costs for your thru-hike.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy collects data from both former and future thru-hikers, which can be extremely useful in planning your hike. Although not required, you should consider registering your hike with the ATC to aid in this data collection. It helps produce useful tools like this graph representing planned start dates for the 2024 season.
A final thing to consider is specific popular start dates. These typically include the 1st and 15th of March, April, and to a growing extent, February.
Many hikers also choose to start in the days surrounding Amicalola State Park’s Thru-Hiker Kickoff, which is held annually on the first weekend in March. Similarly, many hikers start one month prior to Trail Days in Damascus, VA in an attempt to time their arrival in Damascus to coincide with the festival.
Other notable dates include the punny March Fourth and April 20th (If you can’t figure that last one out yet, just know it is not a skunk you smell when passing that first shelter).
Whatever day you land on, just know that I’m excited for you. It’s always a great day to be out hiking.
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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