Why 75% of AT Thru-Hikers Won’t Make It (Spoiler: It’s Complicated)
Try not to act too surprised when I say this: hiking the Appalachian Trail is pretty hard. Over 4,000 people attempt to thru-hike the AT annually, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) estimates that only one in four actually make it. In fact, the completion rate may even be dropping. Since 2016, only about one in five have finished the whole trail.
That’s a pretty dismal success rate. However, it’s not that surprising when you consider that the AT is 2,200 miles long and takes four to six months to complete. You can imagine how much could go wrong during such a massive undertaking.
It’s easy to imagine why as many as 80% don’t make it, but I would argue that there’s more to the AT’s low completion rate than meets the eye.
One in five don’t make it, yet most of the people I hiked around were successful. Why?
When I thru-hiked, I was never part of a tramily, but I crossed paths with the same dozen or so fellow hikers from Virginia all the way to Katahdin. Most, if not all of us, made it. Of the 15 hikers pictured in the group photo above, at least 13 completed their thru-hikes—a staggering 87% success rate. I didn’t know/keep in touch with two of the people pictured, so the rate could be even higher.
I also know someone who hiked hundreds of miles this year with a relatively large seven-member tramily. Although the group eventually split up into several smaller tramilies and became widely scattered along the trail, six out of seven made it to Baxter Peak.
What are the odds, right? Only one in four thru-hikers supposedly makes it, yet almost every member of this giant tramily finished. What’s more, the only member who didn’t make it was a strapping ex-military badass who was unquestionably the strongest hiker of the group.
It got me thinking. If all these people are making it, where are the 75-80% of hikers who aren’t? And if my friend’s tramily is any indication, why is it that some of the strongest hikers on the trail don’t always finish?
Why do so few make it?
The reasons people fail to complete thru-hikes are fairly intuitive. The Trek even surveyed long-distance hikers in 2017 to get a handle on what causes hikers to quit. Some get sick or injured (69%), some have family issues back home or run out of time or money (15%), and others are worn down by mental fatigue and loss of interest (15%).
Some combination of the above factors picks off three out of every four prospective AT hikers, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. In particular, the finding that 15% of aborted thru-hikes are due to mental fatigue seems deceptively low to me.
Although injuries and lack of time and money appear to account for most failed hikes, I think those circumstances are often underpinned by mental fatigue and an underlying lack of desire.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I’m going to keep thru-hiking anyway.
I know of one hiker who hurt her ankle and prayed for a broken bone all the way to the hospital so she could end her thru. She left the emergency room in despair because the ankle was only sprained, which in her mind was not a valid excuse to quit. In contrast, PT (pictured above) was so determined to finish that he hiked 400 miles through the Whites and Maine with a barely-healed broken ankle.
In Maine, I met a woman who had a screw backing out of her spine, the result of a war wound from Iraq. The screw was creating a grotesque lump in the center of her back that rubbed painfully against her pack. But she only had 100 miles to go, so she cushioned the screw with some spare foam and kept going.
Finally, let’s not forget then 67-year-old Princess, who slipped on a rock on the AT in 2018 and ended up with a massively bruised face and a dislocated finger. She got up, popped the finger back into place, visited a doctor in the next resupply town, and kept going with good cheer. “Thru-hiking’s not for wimps,” she said with a shrug when I asked her about her bruises.
I could go on. These are just a few examples of hikers whose need to complete their thru-hikes outweighed their need to rest and recover. Stories like these are amazingly common on long trails.
Peoples’ thresholds for “hike-ending injury” are influenced by their inherent desire to continue.
As you can see, people’s definitions of a “hike-ending injury” vary widely and are probably strongly influenced by their underlying desire to continue. Again, that’s why I think that mental fatigue accounts for more failed thru-hikes than meet the eye.
Because if you don’t really want to thru-hike deep down, any injury or obstacle can be made into a justification for quitting. Alternatively, at some point, you might just realize that you’ve gotten what you needed from the experience or accept that you’re not enjoying yourself. (No one enjoys themselves all the time on the AT, but you should be at least a little bit happy to be out there).
And that’s all fine. There are many good and valid reasons people get off trail prematurely, mental fatigue included. Not finishing the AT within 12 months isn’t the end of the world, and it’s certainly not a reason to shame people. We’ll dig into that more later, but it’s worth acknowledging here.
You have to want it more than anything.
While it’s certainly possible to finish even if you start out totally unprepared and inexperienced, there’s one quality every successful thru-hiker must have: you have to want it more than anything.
Thru-hiking is a volunteer activity. No one’s making you do it. No one’s paying you to be out there, struggling through rainstorms and steep, rocky terrain. You won’t get a medal when you finally summit Baxter Peak. There is little external motivation to hike the AT—your motivation must come from within.
If you want to thru-hike more than anything, you’ll overcome the hard, lonely days. You’ll do whatever it takes to finish, even if you start out slow, inexperienced, and hamstrung by a tight budget.
With enough desire, you can surmount blisters, sprained ankles, and worse. In contrast, if completing the trail isn’t your number one priority, you’ll be unlikely to finish even if you’re a strong, healthy, experienced hiker.
Big Sky, a retired Green Beret-turned-2018 thru-hiker, hiked much of the trail with fellow veterans until one of his group inexplicably decided to quit in Monson, ME. His companions even offered to carry his gear for him, but there was no convincing the man to keep hiking. He left the trail five days before the finish line and never came back. Why? It’s unclear. With no apparent reason to quit, it was presumably a matter of mental fatigue.
That’s probably also why my friend’s superstrong ex-military tramily member didn’t finish. It wasn’t that he physically couldn’t do it. He didn’t get injured or run out of money. Again, it was an issue of mental, rather than physical, fatigue. He chose to stop because other goals and desires were calling to him more loudly.
How many hikers fail before they even make it out of Georgia?
The more you prepare yourself for your hike, the better. But if you want to succeed, the only thing you absolutely can’t do without is an unwavering resolve, bordering on obsessive need, to finish. Unfortunately, many people start the AT without that crucial spark.
As mentioned above, 4,000 people attempt to thru-hike the AT annually (and the number increases with each passing year). But how many of them are “serious” hikers?
I’m not suggesting that you have to be an elite athlete to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t have that much backpacking experience when I started the AT, and I know I’m not the only one. But the endeavor does require a certain amount of commitment, and not everyone wants it badly enough.
We’ve all followed Youtubers who spend months hyping their AT hikes, only to quit the trail within the first week. There’s even an AT urban legend about the would-be thru-hiker who shows up at Springer Mountain, say, “Dirt?! I thought this was a paved trail!” and quits on the spot. And we’ve all met hikers who, like Bill Bryson’s friend Katz in A Walk in the Woods, decided to do the trail at the last minute and showed up grossly underprepared.
Thru-hiker failure rates are likely exaggerated by a significant number of candidates who weren’t fully committed to the attempt.
Data is limited.
I’m guessing that many failed thru-hikers quit the trail early on after suffering a rude awakening about the rigors of trail life. They are the ones who hit the trail utterly unprepared and with no idea what they were getting themselves into. If we could take the total number of annual attempts and filter out the hikers that never even make it out of Georgia, I’m guessing the success rate in the rest of the group would be significantly higher.
I’ll admit that I’m speculating wildly based on my own highly un-scientific experiences and observations. It’s difficult to track thru-hiker completion rates reliably, and there’s not much data breaking down dropout rates by section of the trail. (Someone please correct me if you know of a good dataset).
One study did track northbound AT hikers from Springer Mountain to Katahdin, surveying them at multiple points along the trail. Seventy-one percent of participants in that study did not complete the trail. Furthermore, 60% of all dropouts in the study quit somewhere before the first checkpoint in Damascus, Virginia (NOBO mile 471)—less than 20% of the way to Katahdin.
The ATC gives hikers the opportunity to sign in at Amicalola Falls, GA, Harpers Ferry, WV, and Baxter State Park, ME (roughly the beginning, middle, and end of the journey). Based on those registrations, ATC reports that about half of NOBO hikers quit between the Springer and Harpers Ferry. The ATC will be opening a new visitor’s center in Damascus, Virginia next year (mile 471), so hopefully, we can soon see how many hikers are quitting even earlier in the journey.
By comparison, completion rates on the rugged CDT are much higher.
Compare the AT to its Rocky Mountain counterpart, the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Many consider the CDT the hardest of America’s three Triple Crown Trails due to its remoteness and rugged terrain.
Relatively few people attempt the CDT each year, but the success rate is significantly higher than that of the AT. Per a 2017 congressional report by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC):
“In 2011, approximately 50 people attempted the hike. The number has steadily increased to this year’s documented 220 thru hikers. Success rates have been around 75% in the past. Current success rates are about 35-40%.”
The completion rate on the CDT has dropped a lot in recent years, but 35-40% success is still much higher than the AT’s 20-25%.
The barrier to entry on the CDT is a lot higher than it is on the AT due to its remoteness, lack of services, and relative obscurity. As a result, it probably self-selects for experienced, competent, and committed hikers. In contrast, the AT is well-known and easy to access. Anybody can wander onto the trail calling themselves a thru-hiker.
The fact that the AT is so gloriously easy to access makes it equally easy to quit. I knew one thru-hiker in 2018 who plotted out his potential escape route from each resupply town he planned to visit, taking note of bus routes, rental car agencies, and nearby regional airports in case he decided to bail. He never hit Eject and made it all the way to Katahdin, but you can see how a less-determined soul could easily bow out.
It’s telling that the CDT success rate, while still high, has dropped as the number of annual attempts has increased. This is just my $0.02, but perhaps as a trail increases in fame and popularity, it attracts more underprepared and undermotivated hikers to make the attempt.
Curb your enthusiasm.
Mental resolve is a big piece of the pie when it comes to improving your odds of success, but you still have to get out there and walk the actual walk. Though it’s vital to foster a burning desire to succeed, you also need to temper that enthusiasm with common sense.
Some hikers are so eager to make miles and prove their mettle that they hit the ground running with big miles. It’s hard to resist the temptation to do this, especially if you’re coming into the hike in decent shape.
However, I can’t stress enough the importance of easing into the hike. Give yourself at least a week or two of lower miles so your muscles and joints can adjust. Eight to 10 miles per day for normal people, 15 if you’re fit and experienced.
No matter how much you train for your thru-hike, there’s really no way to replicate the all-day-every-day impact of thru-hiking. Too many hikers start out way too fast and injure themselves before they really get going. So yes, you have to want it. But use your common sense and set yourself up for success.
On a related note, I shared a few stories above about people hiking through injuries. While these stories demonstrate the level of commitment many thru-hikers have to their treks, not every injury can be walked off. I would certainly assume that the screw-coming-out-of-spine hiker was risking long-term health complications by pushing through to the end.
Thru-hiking is incredible, but life is long. The last thing you want is to impact your long-term health by deferring important medical treatment until after Katahdin. There is something to be said for living to hike another day.
Accept the things you cannot change.
Sometimes, things happen that are completely outside your control. That’s life. No amount of desire can stop your loved one from getting sick or prevent a tornado from destroying your house, for instance. No matter how nimble you are, you could still step on a wet rock, break your leg, and need months to recover.
Just ask the Class of 2020 about how events outside their control affected their thru-hikes. They’ll have a lot to say on the subject.
Coming home earlier than anticipated, after pouring so much of yourself into the endeavor, is painful and difficult. Remember that failing to complete a thru-hike (for any reason, whether or not it’s ostensibly within your control) does not make you a failure as a person. Defining yourself this way is a mistake.
The same determination thru-hikers rely on to complete the trail can help you pick up the pieces after ending your attempt and come out stronger on the other side. That unwavering resolve can help you turn toward future goals and endeavors with renewed vigor.
Set yourself up for success.
No one can tell you how to make yourself want the AT more than anything—you have to do that yourself. As Zach Davis points out in Appalachian Trials, clearly identifying your “why” can keep you on track when the going gets tough.
With enough desire and a little luck, you’ll have a good shot at making it. However, the challenge of thru-hiking isn’t all in your head. Here are a few concrete steps you can take to set yourself up for success.
- Start out slow (eight to 10 miles per day for most people, 15 if you’re fit and experienced). Give your body a chance to adjust before you start cranking big miles.
- Hike your own hike. It’s great to make friends on the trail, but sometimes you have to prioritize your own needs. Don’t make yourself hike faster or slower just to keep pace with others. Don’t skip towns or side trails you wanted to experience.
- Keep your base weight down. You don’t have to have an expensive ultralight setup. However, the less your pack weighs, the better you’ll feel and the less likely you’ll be to get hurt. In our 2017 survey, we found that low base weight was a significant predictor of success. Ideally, your pack should weigh less than 20 pounds before adding food and water.
- Take plenty of rest days. Especially in the beginning. Slow down, enjoy the experience, and give your body time to recover. Leave room in your schedule and budget for extra zeroes early on. No money? Zero on trail instead.
- Shakedowns. Take as many practice hikes as you can before the real deal. Hiking is THE best way to get in shape for hiking, and this will give you a chance to hone your gear list and prepare for the mental and physical rigors of the trail.
- Have a balanced diet. Don’t go HAM on candy bars right away just because it seems like the thru-hikerly thing to do. Eating some healthy stuff will make you feel better. (Also make sure to eat things you actually like and crave. Happy food does wonders for morale).
- Save money. Money (or lack of it) does take people off-trail. As a rule of thumb, budget $1,000 per month on-trail for a comfortable hike. If you can’t raise that much, you can pull it off for less by hiking faster, buying used gear, and avoiding town like the plague.
Why do three in four people fail to complete the Appalachian Trail every year? As you can see, there are many reasons.
Many inexperienced, underfunded, out-of-shape hikers are able to power through the entire trek on sheer force of will. On the flip side, no amount of money, experience, or athleticism will get you to Katahdin if you don’t have the will to keep going when the going gets terrible.
Spontaneous thru-hikes are OK, but deciding to thru-hike on a whim because you have nothing better to do? Probably not going to work out, unless you find the grit necessary to turn that whim into an obsession along the way.
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.