How to Pick a Start Date

I have picked my start date! Woo hoo!  I will start my NOBO AT thru-hike on February 18, 2018.

A lot of thought went into picking this date. Several of the important aspects of picking my start date include: average miles hiked per day in order to have a chance at finishing, average temperature and snowfall early in the year, hiking into Damascus, VA for Trail Days, how crowded the starting line might be, and my desire to get started as soon as I can.

Best Planner Tool

Check out This site has an awesome, automated planner that will “dynamically create a plan based on your hiking style, terrain and other important factors”. You can enter the date you think you want to start, use a slider tool to estimate your speed from “record pace” to “very relaxed,” and the planner will estimate the number of miles per day, zero days, etc. taking into account terrain, resupply points, shelters, and other factors. The postholer planner lets you adjust number of zero/nero days and lets you adjust arrival dates to various shelters and locations. The tool automatically updates and even gives you warnings (see red numbers spreadsheet column) if your resupply is over 7 days.

Starting my trek on February 18th, at a fairly relaxed pace, gives me 238 days to reach Mt. Katahadin (est. end date October 13th). My plan includes 18 estimated zero/nero days which gives me 220 days to hike the full distance of the trail. That averages out to about 10 miles per day. The postholer tool provides a more indepth analysis of how those miles might be hiked based on terrain; thus, there is one section that I’d only hike 28 miles in 3 days, and a section with a max of 95 miles in six days. Given my current physical ability, this plan seems very reasonable to me and allows for a lot of flexibility for rest days, or just taking an impromptu break somewhere beautiful.

Trail Days

Trail days are May 19, 20 & 21, in Damascus, VA. Check out the trails Days website. I want to hike into Damascus for the event instead of having to flip up or down to it. I don’t really know why this is important to me, but it is. My current plan estimates me arriving in Damascus on May 16th. This is great because I will have a few days of wiggle room to meet my goal of hiking in for the event.

Temperature and Snowfall

Leaving so early in the season, I’m concerned about being ready for cold temperatures. The postholer website has an AT Databook that provides high/low/average temps by month and section of the trail. In February the mean temperature for the section from Springer Mountain to Hiawassee GA is 37°F, and a high/low of 50°/24° F. This is cold, but with the right gear, I am ok with that. I am more concerned about entering the Smoky Mountains so early though.

I estimate entering the Smoky Mountains at Fontana Dam around March 21st. According to postholer AT Databook, the average temperature for the section from Fontana Dam NC to Hot Springs NC is 40°F. This seems ok, until I think of snow and ice. There is a nice website called Hiking in the Smokys that indicates the average snow fall on Clingmans Dome during the month of March is 26”. Also check out the National Park Service information for the Smokys. The average snowfall in April is 5”. That is a pretty significant difference. The severity of the weather will certainly impact my hike and I am very, very mindful of my limitations and not getting in over my head. I really, really, really do NOT want a rescue team having to come after me!


I registered my hike on the AT Conservancy Thru-Hike Registration website. I was happy to see that there are already quite a few people voluntarily signing up. When you register, you can see how many other people have registered and what day they plan to begin. This is super helpful so that I can try to avoid heavy start days. As of this post, there are 51 people registered to start on March 1st. So far, I am one of 3 people registered to start on February 18th. I am currently a pretty slow hiker, which means that all those folks starting on March 1st will certainly pass me up. I will have fun waving as they pass me by and then will probably see them again when we all get stopped by the snow at Clingmans Dome! We’ll have great party and snowball fight.



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Comments 4

  • Ruth Anne Collins : Oct 31st

    Best wishes to you on your hike! It sounds like you are doing lots of research and prep. My advice is to be prepared to knee deep snow a couple of times along your trek starting this early. If you’re not concerned about hiking in that sort of snow, go for it. It can be really magical. That said, if you need a zero day or two or three due to conditions, you will have plenty of company and rooming may be an issue. We started a trek in 2013 March 9, and by the end of March had had two significant snow events, and we hadn’t even made it to the Smokies. Sometimes it was scary (the weather–snow) and sometimes it was magnificent.

  • Nanook : Oct 31st

    Hi Cindy,
    Great timely post as I’m also hike the AT in the Spring but haven’t made up my mind, where or when to start.
    The web sites you mentioned will be a great help.I have kicked around the idea of starting the Jan 1st and bring snowshoes.
    Hope to see you on the trail!

  • Daniel (Falls) : Nov 2nd

    I started February 15th this year. Your completely right, if you have the right gear an early start date is a great thing to do! I finished on August 32st.

    Starting so early allowed me to go into Asheville for a couple of days. Pittsburgh for a week. Taking 4 days off in harpers ferry. When I got up to New England I took 10 days off for July 4th (I am from MA) so I just went home.

    All those trips above totaled over 3 weeks off in vacations from the trail. I took a lot of zeros too! Lost count of those!

    So starting early really was pretty stress free when it came to any time table.

    FYI it will be cold every morning you get up. It will be dark around 5-6. You will see snow. One of the hardest things for me starting so early was (did not expect this) the no green anywhere. It was all grey and brown. Honestly it became a little depressing to not see any green till early April.

    The Smokies may be biggest challenge. I completely lucked out there. I only saw ice, no snow. I got through the Smokies before the first storm hit.

    You have definitely done your research! But, if you have any questions email me!

    -Falls 2017

  • Swathhiker : Nov 2nd

    You may be hiking into Harper’s Ferry for Trail Days with that start date! But good luck and see you on the trail!


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