Is a Winter AT Thru-Hike Right for You?

Are you planning an AT thru-hike for next year and wondering if you should start early? I started my successful thru-hike on February 3rd, 2018. A winter start is hard, cold, and not right for everyone. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and allows you to hike NOBO and still miss the crowds. Here’s what I learned on my winter start.

start the at in winter

Snow worries! I really did love the snow. Photo courtesy Glenn “Scoutmaster” Justis.

Snow. So much snow.

Let’s start with the bad first. If you start a thru-hike in winter, you need to expect winter weather. I had three straight weeks in March where I saw snow every single day. Snow is beautiful, but it adds a whole other component to an already-difficult adventure. If you start early and hike fast, you are also likely to encounter snow further up the trail. Postholing through the high sections of Vermont and New Hampshire is much less fun than hiking through fluffy powder in the south. 

Hypothermia, frostbite, and trench foot are all potential problems that are normally non-issues on the AT. Drying gear is impossible when it instantly freezes. Breaking trail through a foot of powder can really slow down your mileage, and white blazes blend in with snow, making navigation a challenge. However, I can’t emphasize enough just how beautiful the AT is in the snow. I was really worried about the Virginia blues and being bored on the southern AT. The snow added enough of a challenge that this turned into one of my favorite sections. 

start the at in winter

You need winter gear.

A twenty-degree sleeping bag just isn’t going to cut it when temperatures dip into the teens. Winter gear is heavier and more expensive, which can really burn a hole in your budget. I hiked with a five-degree sleeping bag, down booties, and Kahtoola microspikes, none of which is standard AT thru-hike gear.

Town time adds up.

Many people who start early find themselves spending more time in town to wait out storms. If you start with appropriate gear, you can avoid this to some extent. The south is also much cheaper for town stops, so it is fairly easy to balance this by spending less time in hostels in the north. However, budgeting for extra time in town at the beginning of your hike is wise.

Experience is helpful.

I found I had a fairly easy time dealing with the cold because this was not my first thru-hike. I knew I could hammer out a marathon day to get into town before a snowstorm started, and I was not worried about navigation issues. Fitness and more advanced skills definitely made my hike a lot easier, but many people who started at the same time as me and completed their hikes had never thru-hiked before. 

What bubble?

This is the point that made an early start 100% worth it for me. The AT is known for being overcrowded at the beginning of the NOBO season. I had no interest in being part of the bubble. The ATC recommends a flip-flop hike to reduce impact on the trail, but Katahdin is a spectacular place to finish a thru-hike, and waiting until April to start didn’t fit with my schedule. By starting early, I never struggled to find space in a shelter, sometimes had hostels to myself, and had an amazing experience. There were always a few other thru-hikers around, and plenty of section hikers, so I was never lonely, but I could always find the solitude that I wanted. 

Snow makes iconic AT spots even prettier.

You can have an eight-month thru-hike.

Are you worried about finishing your thru-hike in time? If you’re not a fast hiker and don’t want to have to flip, starting early gives you plenty of time to reach Katahdin before it snows. Many other early starters knew that they would have to get off trail for a while in the summer for family celebrations or jobs. Starting early gave them enough time to do a large part of the trail, leave and return, and then still finish before October. 

 

Beautiful vistas defined my hike- very different from the normal green tunnel.

No leaves means more views.

When you’re chasing spring up the trail, views aren’t limited just to overlooks. I didn’t experience the green tunnel until Vermont. The AT is a beautiful trail and I really enjoyed getting to see more of it.

Trail Magic

No one should hike just to receive trail magic, but plenty of people warned me not to expect any. True, I didn’t come across any people handing out burgers and beers in parking lots, but the trail magic I did receive was much more personal and specific to me. Strangers invited me into their homes to wait out snowstorms or helped me slackpack through challenging sections. I chatted with a man at breakfast, and he tracked me down at lunch with a bag of fast food. I’ve never felt more like a rock star than when someone came up to me in town with food because “you’re the first thru-hiker I’ve seen this year!” You won’t get coolers filled with food on the side of the trail (which are bad Leave No Trace anyway), but if you start early, you will absolutely still receive trail magic.

start the at in winter

Tips for Success

Succeeding at an early-season thru-hike is as simple as being prepared. Starting with winter gear will mean that you don’t drop several hundred dollars replacing your sleeping bag when you find out it isn’t warm enough. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to bail to town if the weather is worse than you’re comfortable with. Slackpacking can be a useful tool to make miles and still warm up at night, but costs can add up if you spend a lot of time in town.

Learning some basics of winter camping will help if you find yourself in winter weather. Learn how to keep your water from freezing, either by keeping it close to you, or insulating it. Figure out what foods are inedible if they are frozen. Put your Clif bars in an inside pocket an hour before you want to eat them so you don’t break your teeth. Sleep with your electronics, and keep your phone warm if you use it for navigation (but also be prepared with a map, since cold kills phones). Unless you’re extremely unlucky and hike in a high snow year, it’s unlikely that you’ll have more than a few weeks of snow. However, being prepared could make the difference between finishing your thru-hike or not.

Starting an AT thru-hike in the winter certainly is not for everyone. But if you’re willing to deal with poor weather at the beginning of your hike, it can help you avoid the bubble and find solitude on an often busy trail. 

Featured image: graphic design by Sophie Gerry.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar
    Shannon Ramsey : Oct 28th

    Wow, this was a really awesome and insightful article, thank you so much for writing it! I’ve personally been grappling with my start date for my 2021 AT thru-hike. I also have time restrictions due to my career and some family events happening in late August/early September so I’ve been thinking that a February start date is necessary if I want to complete my thru-hike in time. Admittedly, I hate even having time restrictions on myself and am concerned that even leaving in February will be late since this is my first thru-hike. While I have backpacking experience and recently section hiked through Shenandoah National Park, I don’t have much experience with winter backpacking/camping. Your advice and tips we’re extremely helpful, but do you have any other resources you recommend I seek or ways that I can better prepare myself so that I am successful out there especially if GA/NC has a rough winter? I really appreciate any other guidance you may have because as you mentioned, a February start date is more difficult and I don’t want to underestimate the challenges I will inevitably face, especially as a first-time thru-hiker. There definitely seem to be many positives to an early start date and I’m glad you were able to reap the many benefits of those! I imagine the trail may be even more crowded this year than normal due to it being closed for NOBO thru-hikers, so I’m especially motivated to get out there earlier so as to avoid the bubble, though I’m looking forward to meeting some great people! Thanks again for the helpful and informative article! Best of luck to you as you prepare for your next big adventure! 🙂

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Eloise Robbins : Oct 28th

    Hi Shannon! Thanks for the nice comment! I’m actually working on an article with more information right now, so keep your eyes on The Trek in the next few weeks! I’ll try and remember to come back and comment with a link once it’s live.

    Apart from that, I read “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills” before winter camping the first time and found it really helpful. There’s a lot in there that’s not relevant for a winter thru hike, but there are some good tips. YouTube also has some good videos if you have specific questions (I’ve been watching winter camping videos a lot lately as I get ready for a season of winter camping in Canada…) Apart from that, just try and spend as much time as possible this winter hiking and camping! That will help you figure out your gear and be in the best possible shape for when you get on the trail.

    If you have any specific questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out. I’ll try and help as much as I can. I hope you have a great hike though!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Shannon Ramsey : Nov 17th

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response Eloise, I sincerely appreciate it! I’m thrilled to hear you have another article coming out about this topic and am really looking forward to reading it! I will definitely follow your advice and check out the book you recommended as well as check out YouTube, I often forget how much valuable information they have especially for thru-hikers! One more question, I currently have a 20-degree sleeping bag, and I know you mentioned in your article that that won’t be sufficient for a February start date which makes sense. Are there any sleeping bags in particular that you recommend/used for your hike? Also, did you use the same sleeping bag for the entirety of your thru-hike or did you switch out to a lighter one as the weather got milder? Thank you again for your time and help, I really do appreciate it!!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Rick V : Oct 29th

    If I get the opportunity to hike the whole thing (45 with a job and young kids right now) I am considering what I’m calling a Fiscal Year thru hike.

    The Fiscal Year for the Federal Government starts on 01 October. I would start chunking away at Georgia and North Carolina starting after October 1st. A week or so at a time, by December switching to long weekends here and there (weather forecast dependent) until February. The hope is to be well into Virginia by mid-March and stay ahead of the bow wave until it dissipates. Then either do a month at a time or attack the rest all at once.

    Yes, lots of logistics, lots of miles driving back and forth (from Northern VA), and other expenses. And yeah, it kinda looks like a glorified section hike, but I’m OK with that. Many of us in-betweeners (30-60 year olds) have obligations that can only be put off for so long. Vacation days are hard to build enough of to still have a job to return to.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Eloise Robbins : Oct 29th

      Rick, I actually met someone who was doing this until he retired from the Army in March. He then switched to full time hiking. It certainly worked for him- he finished! If you have the budget for that much travel between trail and home, that seems like a great way to make it work for you and still get to spend plenty of time with your family.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Steve H : Oct 30th

    Thanks for the great article. i don’t mind the cold and some winter camping experience, but not winter hiking. The only thing that you mentioned that concerned me was the possibility of getting trench foot. How did you avoid getting it when you were hiking through so much snow. My first thought would be to carry enough clean socks to allow me to change them every day. I was wondering what your strategy was since it obviously worked for you. Thanks again for the info.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Steve H : Oct 30th

      Sorry for the poor editing… * I don’t mind the cold and I have some winter camping experience…

      Reply
    • Avatar
      Eloise Robbins : Nov 6th

      Oh boy. I mentioned trench foot because I barely avoided getting it! I changed my socks every day, and made sure to warm and dry my feet every night, but still ended up with wrinkly, painful, pins and needley feelings for a solid hour or so after I stopped every night. I’m not 100% sure if it was the start of trench foot, or some other foot issue, but it wasn’t very fun. I think I’d like to try waterproof socks on my next long distance winter hike.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jim Rahtz : Nov 6th

    Great article and an impressive hike. Depending upon your speed, it may be necessary to consider Mud Season in Vermont though. The Green Mountain Club (Managers of the AT and LT in the state) asks that thru-hikers stay off the trail there then, typically early April until Memorial Day Weekend. Hiking during that time just does too much damage to the trail (and your shoes and attitude). For more info, there’s an article here on The Trek titled, “The Inside Dirt on Vermont’s Mud Season.”

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Eloise Robbins : Nov 6th

      Good point Jim! I somehow managed to hit a sweet spot in Vermont where all of the high pine forest that is normally a problem was still under snow. Infact, I dealt with a lot less mud in early April on the AT than I did on an August Long Trail thru hike. That did mean I got to deal with some crazy post holing over Killington, Glastonbury and Stratton, but everything was still passable. I also somehow only had one day of blackflies in Maine, so I think I just got very very lucky with a cold year! It could be a real problem if you time it wrong though.

      Reply

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