Trailboard Top 40: A Playlist for Your Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Whether I was belting out the lyrics, singing them to myself, or some sort of awful duet with my hiking partner Bandanna Ben, The Scientist by Coldplay checked all the boxes for us. For those who know, it was the final days of our thru-hike. The most epic thing we had ever set out to accomplish was coming to an end. Proud of what we had achieved; elation mixed with caution as you tell yourself, We’re not there yet. Those last few days in Maine that lead to your last ten miles, five miles, one mile before Katahdin Stream Campground are just that. I get chills to this day when I hear that song. 

Music can evoke emotions that written word just cannot. However, in the life of a thru-hiker, our minds tend to wander and wonder. Music can often focus us, further distract us, bring us to tears, or fill us with joy. There seems to be a time and place for all genres as the trail makes sure you feel the full spectrum of human feelings. The Appalachian Trail rises and falls in elevation like the crests and troughs of a sound wave. It is not just the ups and downs that guide our emotions. Our mood is often reflective of the weather, the terrain, the people you are with or trying to hike away from, even your geographical location. 

On a thru-hike, the trail dictates similar emotions. Because I cannot accurately empathize firsthand with a southbound thru-hiker, I won’t try to pretend. What I am going to do is nail down the top 40 songs that coincide with a NOBO thru-hike.

In the beginning, the dance we do along the NC/TN border gives way to open farmland and the blues of Virginia. After 800 miles you start picking up some, knocking out multiple states in a matter of days. Crossing the halfway point and then the Mason-Dixon Line. That disappointment when you step into New Jersey only to realize the PA rocks do not recognize the borders of man. We are going to cover all the highlights. The trail ascends back to elevation in Massachusetts as hikers rise above 3,000 feet for the first time since Virginia. Vermont brings on new challenges as well as those long forgotten. Each step propels you forward into New Hampshire and the greatest challenges yet. Everything you’ve been training for then slaps you in the face when you look up and see Mount Moosilauke, the gateway to the Whites. 

The most remote terrain and geography awaits as you enter “Vacationland.” Buckle up because heavy rains and black flies can make your final push pure hell. The Appalachian Trail tests you until the very end. Next thing you know, it’s over and it all felt like a dream. These are the songs that can guide you, inspire you, break you down, knock you down to your knees in the middle of the trail on a grassy bald. It’ll make you ask, “What have I done?” and “What am I doing?” These songs will make you dance on an exposed ridgeline. Toast to a sunset. Here we go.

First Quarter: Springer Mountain, GA, to Damascus, VA

1) Ends of the Earth, Lord Huron 

2) Awake My Soul, Mumford and Sons 

3) Ain’t No Man, The Avett Brothers 

A self-esteem boost provided here. Even if you’re in good shape, there’s nothing that can really prepare you for what lies ahead. Although physically strong is a good attribute, a thru-hiker’s true power lies between the ears. Believing in yourself is of utmost importance.

4) All My Life, Foo Fighters

5) On the Road, Houndmouth 

6) Hurt, Johnny Cash 

7) That’s What’s Up, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

8)  Back to the Wild, Langhorne Slim 

9) Strawberry Wine, Deana Carter

10) Ashokan Farewell, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

A certain song can stand out from your thru-hike. Some have meaningful lyrics, others a good beat to get you pumped up. When I made it to Damascus, I could not have been more proud of myself. It’s one of those benchmarks where you can say to yourself, “OK, I can do this.” Nearly a quarter of the way complete, Damascus offers a chance to take a breath, reflect, and look forward. Staying at The Hostel in 2007, Baltimore Jack (R.I.P.) was hanging around, entertaining hikers. That night, though, a cyclist biking across the country happened in to stay for the night. She also happened to have a violin. As she began busting out this tune all conversation stopped in the room. Pure silence except for the bow dancing back and forth across the strings. There was not a dry eye in the room.

Second Quarter: Damascus, VA – Halfway Point

 11) I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), The Proclaimers 

 12) Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes

Before the Virginia Blues set in, take a moment to recognize the vibrant greens of summer, the sound of rain against the rhododendron leaves. The mountain laurel pops and the miles keep rolling on.

13) Escapee, Architecture in Helsinki 

14) Faithful Heights/Ramona, Night Beds 

15) S.O.B., Nathaniel Rateliff

16) My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own, Phish

17)  Here I Go Again, Whitesnake

This one rings true. Whether ditching your crew because you’ve got to make miles, or setting back out after nursing an injury (physical ailment or self-inflicted). Crank this one and go get what’s yours. 

 18) Don’t Stop Me Now, Queen 

19) 1000 Miles, Vanessa Carlton

Whether you’ve seen White Chicks or not, the title is pretty obvious. You have now walked 1,000 miles. Find your closest hiking compadre and sync up the piano part with a head turn.

20) Living on a Prayer, Bon Jovi

There’s a good chance you’ll need a pick me up after the Half Gallon Challenge. A stereotypical pick? Yes. A necessary one? Yes.

Third Quarter: Halfway to Vermont

21) Good as Hell, Lizzo

22) Heart Like Mine, Hope Social Club 

23) Push It, Salt-N-Pepa

There hasn’t been a mountain over 3,000 feet for weeks, but that doesn’t mean the trail is easy. Don’t let that elevation profile fool you. You’ve still got to push it… real good.

24) Hold On, Wilson Phillips 

Whether you’re a month and a half into your three-month thru-hike, or three months into your six month thru-hike, this ballad rings true. Done well, you might even win a talent show. 

25) Sober, Childish Gambino 

26) Against the Wind, Bob Seger

You might not be yo-yoing across the country like our boy Forrest Gump, but at times, you do feel like you’re running against the wind. I’ll never forget hiking late into dusk one day, and noticed the sun setting to my right. Assuming the sun was still setting in the West, I grew furious about hiking south despite being on a northbound hike. My companion quickly reminded me, “Hey man, all the miles count the same.” 

27) Got to Be Real, Cheryl Lynn 

28) That Summer, Garth Brooks

29) Every Breath You Take, The Police

30) The Shape I’m In, The Band

Fourth Quarter: Vermont to Katahdin

31) Summer Love, Chairmen of the Board 

32) If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me, Jimmy Buffet

It’s funny how you think of the beach when you’re in the mountains, and vice versa. Don’t let the Margaritaville legend fool you. When we hike, there’s often people we leave behind.

33) The Climb, Miley Cyrus 

34) Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy, The Lone Bellow

By now, you’ve certainly asked yourself this question. The reality of the situation is no, no, it is not. At least you can sing about it now instead of just screaming the random question to the gods.

35) Dreams, Van Halen 

36) You Can Have the Crown/Some Days, Sturgill Simpson

The final three states of a northbound hike are like a roller coaster of emotions. You can have your most epic day, and your absolutely worst day in the same damn day. The terrain is brutal, the weather unpredictable, and your spirit cannot waiver. Sturgill harnesses the good and the bad, packaged neatly for you here. 

37) Lonesome, Dr. Dog 

38) High Steppin’, The Avett Brothers 

39) The Day is Coming, My Morning Jacket 

40) The Scientist, Coldplay

I’ve expressed my feelings here. Catching glimpses of Katahdin from days away, getting closer and closer as it appears bigger and bigger. It’s hard to believe you have arrived. As preposterous as it may seem, I would like to go back to the start. Please, take me back to the start

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Comments 6

  • Ric : Sep 13th

    Great article. I’ll definitely listen to the songs. Pretty sure they’re all on Pandora. OK! What was the song the girl played on the fiddle in Damascus?

    • Spencer Warpzilla McKay : Sep 16th

      It was Ashokan Farewell, beautiful song!

  • Scott A Brotherton : Sep 13th

    No “Horse w/no Name” by America ??! Probably a more appropriate PCT tune – Great list !

  • Jaime : Sep 13th

    I hiked the AT a few years ago… and these are great songs to listen too… I love how there is a little of everything.. great job

  • ChumbaWamba : Sep 13th

    We sang some Springsteen in Jersey, but our first day back on trail after a resupply was usually “The Weight” by the Band. Going into town, which often involves a descent, was often to the tune of “Cripple Creek,” also by the Band. We sang them enough that we started making up new lyrics.

    Great list.

  • Twiddlesticks : Feb 8th

    Good list, I’ll download a few of these for my trip. Also gotta add “up to the mountain” by Greg Volz. Cheesy but richly textured goodness.

    And yeah, thanks for putting in a Phish tune, far out I love them 🙂


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