The Worst Conditions on the Appalachian Trail and How to Survive Them
There were several times throughout my Appalachian Trail thru-hike where I thought, Why am I doing this? I don’t have to put myself through this. I can just quit. But I didn’t. I found ways to cope and the gear that helped me to retain (most) of my sanity. Here are the worst conditions along my NOBO journey on the AT and where I encountered them — from the absolute worst to the almost bearable. Hopefully, my suffering can help you anticipate the discomfort even if mitigation isn’t really an option.
Bugs: New York to Connecticut
I never thought something smaller than the fingernail on my pinkie finger would be the reason I almost quit the thru-hike I had been looking forward to for years, yet mosquitos were the bane of my existence.
The heat was in full swing when I walked through New York and Connecticut. It was July and the bugs were thriving. I was not. Walking along, I couldn’t stop for thirty seconds without at least ten mosquitos swarming my arms and legs. Instead, I would start running as soon as I heard the keening buzz around my ears.
However, even at this uncomfortable and unsustainable pace, I couldn’t lose them. Being unable to stop to drink water or scarf a Clif Bar was frustrating, and the inability to sit down for lunch was almost too much. Every day, my body was slathered in DEET, sweat, and an array of bug bites. It was a gross existence.
How to Stay Sane During Bug Season
Wear a head net
A bug net helped me to keep calm throughout the day, and I believe that most of its benefit was mental. Without the bugs swarming in my face, I felt like I was in my own precious safety bubble. It was a huge relief knowing that neither gnats nor mosquitos could fly up my nose, in my eyes, or into my ears, and I no longer needed to swat around my head like some sort of crazed dance man. Reclaiming small water and snack breaks was also a huge win.
Hang where the bugs ain’t
Taking breaks to eat or drink on roads or near moving water is a good way to avoid the bugs. I found them to be less prevalent when I stood in the middle of a gravel road, and I would take advantage of this odd sanctuary by munching a Clif Bar or making a cold-soaked ramen and tuna delicacy — while watching for cars, of course. And when the opportunity presented itself, I would swim out to the middle of a lake or body of water, drift around, and enjoy a few minutes of bug-free ecstasy.
Fortunately, no matter how maddening the bugs were during the day, I always had my own personal sanctuary in the evening. Obviously, carrying a fully enclosed shelter and sleeping in it is the best way to avoid mosquitos when you’re not hiking, and I often dove into my tent for relief immediately after making camp. It was a delight to be free of worry that something would bite me every second.
There are several different kinds of lotions and sprays to repel bugs. Although I would not advise anyone to take after my methods, I soaked myself in 98% DEET every couple of hours. While this kept the bugs away, it also chemically burned my skin (and butt chafe) and destroyed my rain jacket. Though this was unpleasant, at the time, I valued being bug-free over the safety of my skin, and would most likely make the same decision in the future. I don’t handle bugs well.
However, there are other bug repellents available. Picaridin is another option that does not damage gear, and other natural options exist. For me though, DEET was the only thing that protected me from the worst of the mosquitos on the AT. Even though it is a harsh chemical and should be viewed skeptically and used responsibly, my sanity took precedence. So if you’re going to do this, just make sure to wash off your skin at the end of the day (with your water bottle, far from a water source) if you can.
Mud: Vermont and Maine
Everyone fearmongers about Vermud, and there’s some truth to it. Mud will be prevalent throughout the trail, depending on seasonal and variable rainfall, but Vermont seems to be muddy every single year.
I tried to avoid the mud by balancing on rocks, roots, and edging around it, but this became mentally taxing and extremely slow to be sustainable. Usually, I became bored of it an hour into the day and would give up trying before literally running through the heart of it. I also ate more during muddy stretches to account for the harder movement.
Stay Strong with a Mudproof Mindset
At the end of the day, you can always rinse yourself off in a stream. Mud won’t stay on you forever. I washed off my socks, insoles, and shoes in streams regularly, which helped my gear last longer and restored my spirit.
Furthermore, once I got past the fact that I would become covered in mud, I actually started having fun. I found it was useful to switch my mindset. Instead of thinking, “Ugh, more mud?! I’ll never get through this section of trail! I’m disgusting! This is terrible!” I rejoiced, “Oh, mud! Slip and slide time! Whee!” Sometimes I would run and jump into the mud to see how far I could slide along the trail.
It was really useful to think like a little kid, rather than agonize over the difficulty of hiking through mud. Remember how much fun mud used to be? Similar to most hardships on trail, life gets easier when you just accept things for how they are and make the most of them. Sometimes that means getting muddy — not like you have a choice.
Not All Mud is Created Equal
Maine’s mud is slightly different than Vermont’s, and I was able to run through the latter because I was relatively sure I would not sink up to my knees. In Maine, however, it’s not just mud — it’s alpine bogs.
Usually, bog boards help hikers cross the muckiest stretches. Usually, the bog boards are dilapidated or covered by mud so they’re almost invisible. Even in the best circumstances, it’s a precarious balancing act on boards you can’t really see. Tapping ahead with your trekking poles is essential, and you just have to be patient and careful. It’s better to be sure of your steps than unable to take another one because of a twisted ankle.
Ahhhh, the infamous rocks. Over 200 hikers from 2022 voted Northern Pennsylvania as their least favorite section of the entire AT and anyone who’s visited can relate. While it is easy to feel frustrated by the tedious hiking and slowed pace, not to mention the sharp zingers jabbing your soles, I approached this obstacle the same way I dealt with mud. That is, I pretended I was a kid again and tried to enjoy hopping from rock to rock like a massive game of The Floor is Lava.
Put the Poles Away
In addition to unleashing my inner five-year-old, I found the rocks easier to navigate when I put my trekking poles away. This might seem counterintuitive — more points of contact equals more stability, right? — but I found that my sticks didn’t help me much. When I used them, I found myself thinking too much about where to put them, which, combined with two feet to watch, was a lot to manage mentally. Putting them away, I could focus on just my feet, stretching my arms out like a tightrope artist, and allowing my momentum to carry me efficiently as I hopped from rock to rock. In this way, I learned to trust myself without letting my feet get away from me.
Protect Your Feet
In anticipation of the rockiest sections, I picked up a new pair of shoes so that my feet would be more protected. I used Brooks Cascadias throughout my hike which utilized rock plates to protect my feet from the pointy rocks and allowed me to cover longer distances with less pain during days of running across rocks. I also soaked my feet in cold streams every night and massaged them with a cork roller ball to relieve some of the pain.
Rain: Everywhere and Anytime
The AT can have some unpredictable weather, but it’s certain that you’ll experience rain while you’re out there. This can be hazardous when it’s cold, but even when the weather is warm, you might find the rain annoying. It’s frustrating when your gear is wet, day after day — nobody likes putting on wet socks in the morning, and blisters and chafe can be exacerbated by chronically clammy skin.
Protect Your Skin
In these circumstances, it’s useful to use skin lubricants like Body Glide or Vaseline liberally. In consistently wet conditions, I also found it useful to only wear one pair of socks, saving my backups for sleep. This allowed my feet to stay dry at least during the night, which is essential for foot well-being. Besides, if you already have one wet pair of socks and it’s still raining, there’s no point in getting your other pair(s) wet.
Moisture Management: Staying Dry
Rain can be stressful. It’s so humid on the AT that once something is wet, it can stay wet for a while, so having dry sleep clothes is a great way to leave the damp behind, at least temporarily. However, even your soaked hiking clothes aren’t a lost cause. Your body heat will help dry them during the day, and taking advantage of even a fleeting glimpse of the sun to dry your gear is worth the time.
This is especially important with your sleep system. If your sleeping bag and sleep clothes get wet, it can be dangerous depending on how cold it gets at night. If you get soaked and don’t have dry clothes, even at 50 degrees Fahrenheit — you could be at risk for hypothermia. For this reason, it’s best to keep these essentials dry by using waterproof stuff sacks or a pack liner, but don’t underestimate the power of a 15-minute yardsale.
Cold Rain: When It Gets Serious
When hiking in cold rain, the best thing you can do is either keep moving or find somewhere dry (like a shelter) where you can eat something and change into dry clothes. There are plenty of places on the AT where shelter isn’t an option, so in these circumstances, it might be best to eat and hike at the same time. Movement means warmth, and food means movement. Calories will keep you going. However, if conditions remain dangerous or worsen, consider setting up camp to wait it out. Or if luck allows, getting into town and waiting out the bad weather might be the best option.
There are two sections of the AT where rain can be more dangerous — The Whites and the Hundred Mile Wilderness — though dangerous conditions are possible along the entire AT:
The White Mountains: Home to long stretches of alpine zone, which are more exposed and dangerous during inclement weather, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the weather and avoid traversing alpine zones during rainy conditions. Slippery footing and uncertain navigation can slow you down to the point that it’s hard to stay warm, and the harsh exposure can chill you dangerously in a matter of minutes.
The Hundred Mile Wilderness: While trail conditions may be similar to every other section in the rain, the river crossings are not. There are very few bridges here and the rivers can swell rapidly during and after heavy rainfall. Make sure you have your navigation dialed so that you are aware of alternate routes that bypass rivers with a dangerous flow. Remember, it’s not worth it to try and cross a river that is dangerously high. Take an alternate route, and don’t be afraid to search off-trail for a safer crossing.
Getting Thru It Together
Hikers rarely sleep alone on the AT. Three-quarters of surveyed hikers disclosed that they spent over 75 percent of their time with others nearby, and true character surfaces in the most challenging conditions. Genuine, kind people will make themselves known, and in my experience, there are a lot of them on the trail.
If you need help, just ask. From blister cream to a hand warmer, someone might have exactly what you need. And even more important, no one needs to struggle alone. Camaraderie is a powerful tool. Regardless of what you’re going through — be it bugs, mud, rocks, or rain — at the end of the day you’ll be setting up camp next to other hikers who have been trekking through the same difficulties as you. It’s an awesome bonding experience. Ultimately, thru-hiking is tough, and it sucks sometimes. But if it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t be thru-hikers, would we?
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.