Thinking of Hiking the AT? Read this First!

Looking to quit your job to spend half a year testing your physical and mental limits by walking vast distances along one of the most beautiful corridors in the world? Well, what if I told you that the best way to do that was not on the Appalachian Trail, as some would have you think. In fact, the AT has some pretty serious downsides. Though it is the accomplishment of a lifetime to walk from Georgia to Maine, there are other thru-hikes that have prettier views, better weather,  a much lower negative impact on local ecosystems, and more of an opportunity to reconnect with nature.


Ever heard of the “green tunnel?” Due to the low elevation and high average rainfall, much of the AT cuts through nearly indistinguishable miles of forest. Many of the summits are covered. If you’re lucky, sometimes you’ll get a tiny gap between the trees, so you can see some gently rolling hills.

Not to say that the AT doesn’t have beautiful sections. Mcafee Knob, the White Mountains, Dragon’s Tooth, and Katahdin are among the trail’s many highlights. But between those are long, difficult sections without any panoramic views. In fact, Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the whole AT, is a covered summit— you have to go up to the manmade observatory to see the views.

Not only can beautiful views be hard to come by on the AT, but the trail is also hard— like really really hard. Imagine steep, treacherous rocky climbs, rewarded with only a covered peak and an equally treacherous descent. Other trails often have more gradual climbs, rewarded by actual views.

One of the better views on the AT. Image via Owen Eigenbrot.


On the PCT in the Sierra, look forward to views like this every day.


As anyone who’s been to the American Southeast in the summer knows, the weather isn’t anything to call home about. The AT is notoriously hot, humid, and rainy. Of course, you get sweaty on any hike, but on the AT you will get sweaty and never dry. Or you things will get soaked in the rain and then never dry. Also, because of the high humidity, many parts of the AT don’t cool down at night. That’s right, you can’t avoid hiking in 100º degree sticky damp heat by night-hiking, because at night it’ll only be 85º (these numbers are exaggerated; Damascus, VA averages around 85º during the day in July).

Trail Impact

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people have been getting outside. On the one hand, everyone should have the opportunity to access outdoor recreation: on an individual level it can improve mental and physical health, and on a systemic level more people caring about the outdoors can increase awareness about the need for conservation and environmentalism. On the other hand, when all those people are going to the same spots, it can really take a toll on local ecosystems.

The AT, as the best-known long-distance backpacking trail, bears the brunt of this environmental impact.

In 2019, over 3,000 hikers attempted a NOBO thru-hike of the AT. Assuming most of them started between March 1 and April 15, that’s a lot of people grouped around Springer Mountain at the same time. According to Appalachian Trail Histories, “The increase of use of the trail by humans leads to unavoidable damage such as…erosion…pollution, littering, and plastics.”

In fairness, the PCT’s numbers are comparable— in 2019, there were 4,748 NOBO long-distance permits issued. The difference is that the PCT has a hard cap of 50 hikers starting per day from February through May, so the impact is less concentrated. Also, some of the people with permits may not necessarily be thru-hikers. Finally, with the permit system, there is a hard cap on the number of PCT hikers, while the number of AT hikers can continue growing exponentially.

No room to sleep! Photo via Stubbs.

Hiking Culture

If you’re hiking the AT NOBO starting in March or April, expect overcrowding until at least the end of Georgia. Not only will shelters and campsites be full, but it may be difficult to get in a hiking rhythm on such a narrow trail with so many people around. This overcrowding may inhibit the kinds of serene encounters with nature that some may be looking for in a thru-hike.  So many hikers at the same time also have negative impacts on conservation efforts, and overcrowding has the potential to spread diseases such as norovirus.

Of course, having other people around can be helpful for people who are new to long-distance backpacking, or backpacking in general. You can learn a lot of tips and tricks from those more experienced. Also, having more people around can make hiking less lonely. In some ways, it also makes the trail safer, because there’s more people to step in and help out if things go wrong. On the other hand, much of the actual danger on trail comes from people, not from the trail itself, so this point is debatable.

Some epic CDT views. Image via Kinsleigh Sawatsky.

Some AT Alternatives to Explore

Sometimes people gravitate towards the AT because of the hiking culture, but if more hikers were to hike a wider variety of trails, there could be trail community anywhere without the damage to local ecosystems that come with such a large number of hikers.

The Triple Crown

These trails are around the same length as the AT, but much prettier.

Pacific Crest Trail: For hikers who want more gradual climbs, more scenic views, a wide variety of ecosystems, and a vibrant hiking culture. Best weather of the Triple Crown, by a long shot.

Continental Divide Trail: For hikers looking for a bit more solitude, a wide variety of ecosystems, and some bucket-list highlights. Also good for hikers looking for a navigation challenge, or interested in a choose-your-own-adventure type route.

Other US-Based Trails

Look, most people don’t finish the AT anyway. Wouldn’t it be nicer to finish a prettier trail with fewer environmental impacts and better weather than to drop out halfway through an AT NOBO attempt?

Arizona Trail: 800 miles traversing “deserts, mountains, forests, canyons” while walking across the USA’s 6th largest state. In fact, Arizona is larger than Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, West Virginia, and Maine combined

Pacific Northwest Trail: If you want forests, try this rugged 1,200-mile path from Montana to the Pacific along the Canadian border. It also crosses some of the country’s most spectacular mountain ranges including the Rockies, the Cascades, and the Olympics.

The Long Trail: This 272-mile trail through Vermont actually shares 100 miles with one of the most beautiful parts of the AT. It’s a nice taste of Northern New England hiking.

Colorado Trail: Graded for horses, this 485 trail will have much more gradual climbs than you will find on the AT. It also provides epic panorama views of the Rockies.

John Muir Trail: 211-mile trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, mostly along the (arguably) best part of the PCT.

The Colorado Trail. Image via Jim Rahtz.

International Trails

Thru-hiking is not limited to the U.S! Trails are a great way to explore culture, climate, and scenery around the world.

Camino de Santiago: A network of different trails across Spain, France, and Portugal, all leading to the tomb of St. James in northwestern Spain. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, a 500-mile route across the northern Iberian peninsula.

Jordan Trail: A 420-mile route across Jordan from Umm Qais in the north near Lebanon to Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Te Araroa: New Zealand’s premier 1,864-mile thru-hike. Its route is designed to showcase both backcountry nature, and local Kiwi culture.

The Jordan Trail. Picture via Effie Drew.

In Conclusion

I’m not trying to persuade anyone off-trail. I’m all for more people taking more time to do long-distance backpacking trips. If, after all your research, you decide that the AT is the best fit for you, then go for it. But the only way we’re going to get more trail culture on other trails is for hikers to actually hike other trails. And it may turn out that another, prettier, easier trail, with better weather, could scratch the same itch as the AT.

Featured image via Max Kiel.

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 5

  • Ruth Morley : Mar 11th

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking along the same lines for some time, and wondered if others also felt the AT was overcrowded, really tough, and loved to death. I’m very happy that I was able to complete the whole thing as a LASHER, even though I had to go home 3 out of 4 summers with major injuries. I greatly look forward to the Colorado trail this coming summer, certainly with its own challenges (summer thunderstorms, altitude), but certainly more positives in my book (not as scary, more dramatic mountain scenery).

  • Giraffe : Mar 11th

    Great post, really liked the argument and the options. For me, I always think the adventure is the state of mind- Anna McNuff, a Brit who wrote a book about doing the NZ trail (amongst several other books about other adventurous exploits) used to do ‘microadventures’ where people would just go and camp somewhere way out to be out of their comfort zone. The point is, sometimes getting up early in the morning and going for a wild swim is worth 2-3 days of green tunnel slog, but you don’t need to quit your job to do it. I loved my time on the AT, but I only hiked across VA- I felt that was enough to get the point. Next time I hiked, it was completely off track, just picking up a pack and heading out, no blazes, and it was ace. The AT was a fabulous thing to do for a bit, but you really do get the idea from a few week. Just my opinion.

  • Phil J : Mar 12th

    Balanced views her. I used to live in Jordan for 9 years, the Jordan trail is well worth it. There is a cycle route too. Due to teaching commitments I have not done the entire route on foot, but done many sections by foot or bike. Petra us worth a visit alone. I would like to do PCT and Te Araroa as well.
    Best wishes

  • Prometheus : Mar 12th

    Things I agree with: Hike Te Araroa. It is beautiful and challenging, and the people are so wonderful.

    Things I disagree with: The Long Trail has some of the same problems the AT has. A lot of history and people, not a lot of views, and it is rugged. (The views that it does have are quite nice though, just like the AT). The Colorado Trail: people always say “it’s graded” but nothing is easy at 10-12k feet. The views are lovely, but there aren’t any until after 10k feet, and then you have to temper that with the thunderstorm danger (and hail) and sparse water in places (and competing with cattle for the water that does exist).

    Things I am excited to learn about: The Jordan Trail. Petra has been on my bucket list since I saw Indiana Jones at a young age.

  • Jeannette : Mar 21st

    I’ve had my eye on the Via Alpina, too. From Trieste to Monaco.


What Do You Think?