Advice for Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail, From a 2013 Thru-Hiker

It was January 2012 when I decided that I would attempt a thruhike of the Appalachian Trail. I had never been backpacking before, let alone hiked more than 8 miles in a single day. No matter what, I knew it was what I wanted to do. It was then that I started my education on long distance hiking.

I planned for my hike on the Appalachian Trail for a little over a year. This was mainly for financial reasons, as I needed time to save up money for the 6 month long hike. During that year, I did hours upon hours of research about long distance trips, wildlife, clothing, food, weather and how to keep my body both physically and mentally strong.

Even with all my research, I stood on top of Springer Mountain with hundreds of questions left to be answered. The questions that remained were about the fine details of hiking the AT. Granted, some of my questions could not be answered, as they were based on personal preference. Because of this, I decided to do a write up on what worked for me, what I changed, and what I learned during my thruhike.

Before you read what I wrote below, keep in mind that I was not obsessed with weight. This is for hikers who have an open mind. This is what worked for me, not what works for everyone. Hike your own hike.

Appalachian Trail Sign

Basic Info:
Age: 28 at start, 29 at finish
Height: 5′ 11″
Weight at start: 165 lbs (I gained 11 pounds on purpose)
Weight at end: 143 lbs

Start: Approach Trail on March 13
End: Katahdin on August 26
Days: 168
Avg Miles per day: 13
Number of zero days: 15 (three of which were due to the Norovirus)

Trail name: Salad Days (A name I gave myself before the hike. The salad days are the youthful times of your life when you are inexperienced, enthusiastic and innocent.

Here is my gear list I started my hike with:

Pack/Stuff Sacs:

BackpackOsprey Atmos 65L
Clothe bagSea to Summit 8L Ultra Sil
Food/Bear bagZpacks Roll top Blast Food Bag
Misc stuff sackSea to Summit 2L Ultra Sil
Sleeping bag stuff sacZpacks Medium Roll Top Dry Bag

Sleep System:

REI Igneo, Long, 19F
Therm-a-rest NeoAir X-light
PillowCocoon Hyperlite
Sleeping Bag LinerSea to Summit Reactor

TentEureka Solitaire
StakesMSR Groudhogs (4x)
Tent TarpTyvec Ground Sheet

Cook System:

Jetboil – Sol
Fuel – Jetboil 100g
UtensilSea to Summit Alpha Spork
TowelBandana
Water PurifierSawyer Squeeze
Water Fetch BagPlatypus 34oz
32oz Nalgene
2L Camelback Bladder

Clothing:

Base Layer TopREI Midweight Long Sleeve
Base Layer BottomREI Midweight Long Johns
1x UnderwearCompression boxer briefs
3x Smartwool Socks
Middle Layer TopMountain Hardwear Zip Up Fleece
Outer LayerPatagonia Nano Puff Hoodie
Rain JacketFrogg Toggs
Rain PantsFrogg Toggs
GaitersBlack Diamond GTX
ShoesBrooks Cascadia 8 w/Super Feet (Green)
ShortsMountain Hardwear running shorts
PantsColumbia zip offs
HatSmartwool beanie
GlovesFleece
Over MittensZpacks cuben fiber

Misc:

KnifeLeatherman Juice
Black Diamond Head Lamp
REI Backpack Rain Cover

First Aid Kit:

SoapBrommer’s 2oz
Bear Bag Rope50ft Parachute chord
1x Carabiner  for bear bagging
Trekking PolesBlack Diamond Z-Poles
iPhone 4S
Camp towelZpacks Lightload Towel
Pen and Notepad
AWOL’s AT Guide
SunglassesSmith Precept
Zagg 6000 mha Battery pack (I loved this and carried it the entire trip, it was much better than a solar panel)

About every 500 hundred miles I would reevaluate what I was carrying. I learned a lot about what I actually needed and what I thought I needed. Here are some details about the gear I carried and what I changed:

Gear:

My pack (Osprey Atmos 65L) lasted the entire hike, although the zippers on my hip belt wore out and I was unable to close them. I ditched the brain (top cover) of my pack in Vermont. I would purchase another Osprey if I were to hike another long trail. The suspension system in Osprey packs is worth the extra weight over an ultralite pack. I currently use a Go Lite Jam 35 for weekend trips, but carrying 6-7 days worth of food requires some extra support I think.

My Sawyer Squeeze froze the second night (my fault) and then one of the bags ripped. In Neal’s Gap, I switched to Aquamira and used that for the rest of the hike. I had a pump filter sent to me in Pennsylvania because I heard the water can be untrustworthy. There was never a time that I needed to use the pump filter though. That is to say, I had a lot of rain while I was in Pennsylvania.

My Zpacks stuff sacs lasted the entire trip, but they started to fray on the roll top part. I would purchase them again if I were to do another long distance trip.

I swapped out my Winter bag for my Summer bag in Waynesboro, VA. We had a cool Spring in 2013. There were nights that went below freezing temps well into Virginia. I purchased a 45 degree Marmot bag. I shortly sent back my sleeping bag liner. I used the liner for warmth and keeping my down bag clean. I didn’t need the extra warmth anymore and my summer bag is synthetic, so I could wash it in town if I wanted to (although I never did, and it still stinks).

I carried my pillow the entire way. I tried my clothing bag for a pillow a few times but hated it. I didn’t mind the few grams of weight for comfort at night.

My Tyvec ground sheet worked great until around Vermont. It became so soft that it started to hold water when it rained. I could wring it out in the morning. This caused me to carry extra weight because it would be holding water. If I were to do another long trip, I’d have a new ground sheet mailed to me halfway through the hike.

My tent performed great. Most hikers who owned the same tent hated it. You cannot sit up in it. I am 5′ 11″ and didn’t seem to have an issue with its size. It cost me $80 and weighed just over 2 pounds. I cannot complain.

I loved my Jetboil. I would cook, eat and cleanup before some hikers finished cooking. I did need to replace it in Lincoln, NH because the threads on the stove part had stripped.

I ditched my Nalgene bottle in Vermont. I didn’t use it often enough.

I sent home my Leatherman in Virginia. I purchased a cheap, light box cutter and still only used it a few times.

I ditched my soap. I never used it. I would wash up in streams using my bandana and take advantage of using soap when I got into a town.

I snapped one of my Z-poles in Pennsylvania. Those rocks are brutal. Black Diamond allowed me to purchase a new pair for 40% off their lowest retail price. I ended up having those new poles sent home and saved them for another hike. I purchased Leki poles in New Jersey and used those the rest of the way. I still prefer the Z-poles do to their weight difference although the Leko poles performed great.

I sent home my camp towel. I used my bandana for any cleaning.

I sent home my sunglasses in Vermont. I had a few days when I wished I had them, but I did not miss them.

I purchased an emergency blanket somewhere in Georgia. It was the best purchase, especially once I reached New England. There were a few nights in Maine that got down into the mid 40’s. I only had my Summer bag with me. I laid out the emergency blanket inside my sleeping bag and slept comfortably the entire night.

Clothing:

I carried my base layers the entire hike. I refused to hike in them and only wore them in camp. They were my anti-hypothermia protection.

I always hiked with compression underwear on. If I didn’t, I would get chaffing (I’m a skinny guy too).

I sent home my Nanopuff jacket in Waynesboro, VA.

My Frogg Togg jacket and pants didn’t last. They ripped within the first 100 miles. I replaced the jacket for a Patagonia H2no and had Shower Pass rain pants sent to me. I sent home the rain pants in Virginia. I carried the rain jacket the whole way.

I sent home my gaiters at Neal’s Gap. I never wore them. Dirty Girl gaiters (or a similar style) are the only thing I would recommend for the AT.

I went through 3 pairs of Brooks Cascadia 8 shoes. One pair went over 1200 miles. Amazing.

I sent home my zip off pants in North Carolina. I hiked in shorts every day and put my base layer pants on in camp. If it was really cold, I’d wear my rain pants before I sent those home as well.

I carried my beanie the entire trip although I sent my gloves home in Virginia.

I ditched my third pair of socks and kept one for hiking and one for camp.

Appalachian Trail Mcafee Knob

Food:

Resupplying was the biggest adjustment for me. The first four resupplies, I spent about an hour in the grocery store and then an hour tearing apart the food packaging, repacking it all and then stuffing it all into my pack. By the end of the hike, I was in the store for 15 minutes and was packed up in another 15 minutes. I slowly learned how much I needed to eat, what I liked and what was easy to cook. Once I am in camp for the night, I am very lazy. I want to be eating in less than 15 minutes. I would buy food that would help with my laziness.

I am also the type of hiker to snack a lot. I could never eat large amounts of food at once. I could eat a regular meal and then eat another one an hour later. Because of this, I would pack snacks in my hip belt pocket so I could walk and eat. I always ate on flat ground or downhills.

I always tried to purchase food that was already in a ziplock bag. For example, a lot of bit size candy now comes in 16oz bags with a zip top.

Here is an average 4 day resupply for me:

4x Poptarts (Smores tend not to grumble as easily)
4x Carnation Instant Breakfast
1x Quart ziplock of dry milk (I always tried to find Nido, but the further North I got, the harder it was to find)
6x Snickers
2x box of cookies or bars (Fignewtons, Chocolate/Coconut Bars, Oreos)
1x box of Cheezits (I never got sick of them)
1x Candy (I became hooked on Hersey Almond bites)
10x Tortillas
1x 8 oz jar of Nutritious peanut butter
6x Thomas bagels (I would step on them so I could fit three in one quart size ziplock bag. Thomas bagels seemed to last the longest.)
6x Easy Mac
2x Tuna packs
4x Ramen
2x Instant mashed potatoes
1x Uncle Ben’s rice side
1x 16 oz pack of Ravioli

At the beginning of the hike, I thought I would make coffee every morning and drink tea or hot chocolate at night. I did that about twice and learned all I wanted to do when I woke up was start hiking and all I wanted to do at the end of the day was eat and then fall asleep.

Books I ready before my hike:

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier (I read this to understand what it was like to take on a long journey)
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Byrson
Trail Food by Alan Kesselheim
Backcountry Bear Basics by Dave Smith
Weather Forecasting (Basic Essentials Series) by Michael Hodgson
Fixing Your Feet by John Vonhof

Here is some advice that was passed down to me:

Wear liner socks!!! I wore one pair of Injinji toe socks the entire hike. They lasted the whole hike with no holes. Amazing. I also went the entire hike without a single blister. No joke. I read a book called Fixing Your Feet before the hike. I’d recommend it to any long distance hiker or runner.

If there is a view, waterfall, tower, etc within 0.5 miles off the trail, go see it. An extra mile might seem annoying, but there are some really interesting things not far off the trail.

Always eat the tastiest thing in your food bag first. Then, you’ll always be eating the best thing.

Don’t be afraid to change your plans, even halfway through your day. For example, the group I was with planned to hike 17 miles one day. 4 miles into the day we met a local that offered to drive us to a lake to go swimming and canoeing. It ended up being one of the best days on the trail.

Take a lot of pictures. Even if you don’t feel like taking photos, do it. You will not regret it.

Don’t take what previous hikers say about certain dates as gospel. Use them only as a reference. So many hikers recommend to send your Winter gear home in Damascus and get your Winter gear back before the Whites. We had a cold Spring and a warmer Summer. I got my Summer gear in Waynesboro, VA and never got my Winter gear back. Everyone starts on a different date and every year the weather is different. I hiked with people who had some uncomfortable nights in Virginia because they sent their Winter gear home too early.

Most of all, enjoy every day, even the days that suck. You remember the amazing days and the crappy days the most.

Here is a video that I put together from my hike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yx5QQyG-Z7s

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

Enjoying a Moxie on top of Katahdin.

Enjoying a Moxie on top of Katahdin.

 

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Comments 3

  • Avatar
    Bob Rogers : Jul 7th

    I do have a question. I’m digging thru all of the blogs to see who stopped where for zero days. Along with hiking some of the Blue Blazes, I don’t want to miss out on any of the good Zero locations, places to eat, etc. Thus far (just started yesterday), I’m recording the cities. I’ll probably go back and add hostels, restaurants, sights to see, etc. I hope to do my own thru hike in ’16.

    To that end, do you have a list of your 15 Zeros (noro included). Please either reply or email. [email protected]

    P.S. Great write-up. I’ll have to come back for the books and some of the gear.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    John : Feb 27th

    A very good post and thank you. I will be hiking the AT mid April 2016. I love the fact that you put a sample 4 day food plan with your post. Thank you for the great information. I will follow some of the ideas you have.

    Reply

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