I’ve gotten so many questions over the past year asking me all sorts of things about the Appalachian Trail, backpacking, and general terminology. I decided to compile a giant post answering all of your questions! I’ve already answered barely a few of them here on The Trek (new name for Appalachian Trials for anyone who’s still following me!) but I hope this will be more comprehensive and detailed than your usual generic AT FAQ.
Why do you want to do it?
Why do I want to hike the trail? Ten words. Because I can. Because it’s there. And I want to.
When you complete the Appalachian Trail, what’s next?
The Pacific Crest Trail. The Continental Divide Trail. And everything else.
What in the world is a NOBO?
A NOBO is a Northbound hiker, most commonly someone who is hiking from Georgia to Maine. The term has also been used to describe the direction you’re headed when you do a flip-flop (more on that in a second).
What in the world is a SOBO?
Take a glance above and then guess. A SOBO is a Southbound hiker. There is a friendly rivalry between SOBO and NOBO hikers, and while I prefer to finish my thru-hike on Katahdin, there is also a lot to be said for SOBO hikers because they start on Katahdin and then are immediately thrown into the 100 Mile Wilderness with no trail legs, while NOBO hikers head into the 100 Mile Wilderness with 2,000 miles under their belts.
So…. what is a flip-flop?
A flip-flop is an alternative version of a thru-hike. Hikers have several options: they start at one terminus, hike to a designated point, flip to the other terminus and hike back to the designated point; they start at a designated point (Harper’s Ferry is a popular option, as is Damascus, VA), hike to a terminus, flip back to the designated point, and hike to the other terminus; they start at a designated point, hike to one terminus, flip to the other terminus, and hike back to the designated point. These options are just off the top of my head. There are unlimited ways to flip-flop!
What is the normal range of time to complete the Appalachian Trail?
An average AT trek takes anywhere between 5 to 7 months, but if you’re a high mileage hiker, it can be in a shorter time frame. Jupiter, who is currently hiking the Eastern Continental Trail from Quebec to the Florida Keys (spanning the International Appalachian Trail, the Appalachian NST, Benton Mackaye Trail, Pinhoti Trail, Alabama roadwalk, Florida NST, and Keys-Everglades roadwalk), completed the Appalachian Trail section of his ECT adventure in 91 days (not a record by any means, but still pretty impressive!). The FKT (fastest known time) was set on September 18, 2016 by Karl Meltzer who completed a southbound trek in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes, obliterating the old record set in 2015 by Scott Jurek (46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes).
How much does it cost to do a thru-hike?
Not including the cost of gear, you should budget approximately $1.5o per mile. This money will generally be used for hostels, food, and emergency funds. There are some people who “platinum blaze” – money is of no concern to them, and they can spend upwards of $5,000 or $10,000.
When you say HYOH, what do you mean?
Hike Your Own Hike. Generally, you don’t judge other hikers or bully them into doing what you want. If someone has a pack that is 75 pounds, you could gently suggest they get rid of a few items, but you don’t tell them to. HYOH. If someone wants to finish hiking for the day at 14 miles, let them. You can push on and do your 22 miler. HYOH. You could skip hiking through the Shenandoah National Park and instead canoe on the Shenandoah River. HYOH. However, HYOH is sometimes used as an excuse to be an entitled jerk.
“Hey man, why’d you leave that pile of toilet paper in the middle of the trail?”
Don’t use HYOH as an excuse to be a jerk.
What is the difference between a thru hike, a section hike, and a day hike?
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a thru-hike as hiking the entirety of the trail in less than twelve months or one calendar year. A section hike is hiking a good chunk of the trail over a period of days, weeks, or months. Technically, my 700 mile 2016 AT attempt is a section hike. I’m hoping to turn that section hike into a thru-hike. A day hike is, obviously, hiking on the trail for a day or two. I also lump weekend hikers in this category.
This reminds me of a joke.
There are a few M&Ms laying amongst the leaves and dirt on the Appalachian Trail. A day hiker hikes past, glances down at the M&Ms, and keeps going. A section hiker walks past, notices the M&Ms, picks one up, brushes the dirt off, and eats it. A thru-hiker powers past, stops, backs up, picks up a M&M, eats it (dirt and all), and starts foraging in the leaves to find more.
You talk about blazing all the time. What are all the different types?
First of all, a blaze is a painted rectangle on trees, rocks, roads, or other formations to help guide hikers on a trail.
White blazing is when you follow each white blaze on the Appalachian Trail from start to finish. I consider myself a purist, in that I must see every single white blaze without skipping any sections. In other words, I make it a point to enter and leave shelters the same direction so that I don’t accidentally skip any part of the trail, no matter how small. Blue blazing is when you take a side trail (typically painted with blue blazes) to skip a section of the trail. Alternatively, blue blazes can also lead to water.
Yellow blazing is skipping a section of the trail by riding in a car.
Aqua blazing is skipping a section of the trail via water. It is quite common to aqua blaze the Shenandoah National Park.
Brown blazing is taking your own path off the trail to drop a deuce.
Pink blazing is when a hiker follows a female hiker, either with or without her consent (this can get quite creepy sometimes).
Banana blazing is when a hiker follows a male hiker, either with or without his consent (which can also be quite creepy).
While not an actual blaze, it is also encouraged to wear blaze orange during hunting season so hunters can see hikers.
What are mail drops?
A mail drop is when you have a home team (which you should…) send you packages (mail drops) while on the trail. Some people choose to resupply their food bags entirely from mail drops, which I find very risky. Many of the towns along the trail are quite small, and post offices may have unusual hours or are closed on weekends. For example, if you got to the post office at 6:30 on a Friday, but the post office is closed all weekend and will not open until Monday at noon, you’re losing two and a half days of hiking and have to spend that money staying in a hostel while waiting. I personally bought the majority of my food in stores (less than $20 could last me about 8 days) but used mail drops to supplement my food bag with bars, energy chews, and dehydrated meat. I also utilized mail drops for new shoes!
What does AYCE mean?
Every thru-hiker’s favorite four-letter word! All You Can Eat – in other words, loaded, greasy heart attack buffets. Yesssssssss! I got kicked out of an AYCE pizza place on the trail once because I ate so much. My goal is to get kicked out of a Chinese AYCE my next time on the trail. I also came up with a collection of four-letter words that I loved, and put them in a sentence.
Free food ahead, AYCE in town.
How do you pack your pack?
Personally, I have my packing down to a science. I own a Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60L. It’s ultralight but lacks a few features – namely a bottom zipped compartment for my sleeping bag. Aside from missing features, I love this pack. I load the bottom of my pack with my sleeping bag, then stick my tent wrapped around my stove on top. Next is my clothing bag, my toiletries bag, and then my food bag and snack Ziplocks. On my left side, I load my tent stakes, a water bottle, my mug, my pack cover, toilet paper, and my pillow. On my right side, bottom pocket, I have another bottle of water and my phone. In the top pocket I have my trail guide. In the big mesh pocket, I have my first aid baggie, my rope, my headlamp, my water filtration kit, and whatever book I happened to pick up at a shelter. My hip belt had pretty large pockets that I filled to the brim with snacks (CLIF bars, PROBARs, and Pop Tarts). I hooked up a pulley system for my sleeping pad to the front of my pack.
Why the obsession with weight?
Imagine. You’re walking 2,200 miles. That’s a task right there. You’re doing it over mountains. Even more of a feat. And then add a pack on top of all that. Do you want a heavy pack… or a light one? My pack’s base weight (no food or water) is about 14, and fully loaded it hovers at about 21 to 23 pounds. I am firmly in the ultralight category. I started my AT trek with a lady whose pack was 48 pounds and full of so many gadgets I couldn’t imagine using – she told me she was bringing a kitchen sink and I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. She was also very reluctant to send anything home even though she asked me to go through her pack and suggest what to keep and what to get rid of. She didn’t even make it out of Georgia.
Hiker trash – compliment or insult?
A compliment. Totally. We made an effort to depart from civilized life, and when you call us hiker trash, we recognize it for what it means.
How do you keep in touch with friends/family?
If you want to contact people while hiking, it is really up to what phone service you have and the coverage it provides. I have Sprint, so I feel confident saying that 75% of the AT, my phone would be roaming or out of service completely. I’ve heard that Verizon covers an insane amount of the trail, and other service providers generally vary. I kept in touch with family and friends mainly in town when I could get on someone’s WiFi.
So… how do you go to the bathroom in the woods?
HA! I get asked this SO often! The majority of the shelters on the Appalachian Trail have privies, or outhouses (basically toilets with no plumbing), which I’m absolutely in love with. There are so many styles – open air (no walls), mostly contained (the one at Overmountain Shelter comes to mind – low walls coming up to my chest and then the front was open to the valley below. Literally a privy with a view), walled in but with open partitions along the tops and bottoms (pretty common from what I saw), and completely enclosed.
There are also pit toilets and compost toilets at some points like in Shenandoah National Park, to make park visitors feel more comfortable. But hikers LOVE those and will take the opportunity to use them.
I loved Tennessee (so insanely beautiful), but it was also the worst state in regards to privies. The Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club obviously has something against privies, because in all of Tennessee there is probably only one or two privies. The majority of shelters have shovels, and you are expected to dig a hole to bury your business once done. I was SO thrilled to get to Virginia (I wrote something vulgar in the shelter register once I got in to Virginia celebrating privies).
Ever gotten scared?
Absolutely. I was eating a snack on a log once, and felt a thump and was absolutely convinced that a bear was sitting on the log behind me. It turned out to be nothing – probably just a branch that fell over. You can also read about my night hiking adventure here.
What food did you miss the most while hiking?
Weirdly… I thought I would miss my mom’s cooking or stuff like sushi and Wonton egg drop soup. But I didn’t. What I truly missed were staples – fruit, vegetables, chocolate (yes, chocolate is a staple). My most favorite thing to say on the trail was “I’d murder someone for an orange” – probably because I was suffering from Vitamin C deficiency or something.
What else did you miss?
This is going to make me sound crazy but here you go. Growing up I always watched the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. This year was the first time I didn’t watch the Derby, because I was hiking. That was oddly something I really missed, and I remember while I was hiking through the Smokies in March, I was thinking about the 2015 Triple Crown races and I randomly started crying because I was thinking about American Pharoah and how he obviously loved to run. Sure, I missed my bed and showering and not having dirt stuck in the crevices of my feet and family and such, but horse racing was kind of a weird one for me to miss.
If you want to hike part of the trail, what is the easiest section or which section has the best sights?
Well, this is a loaded question. I honestly loved all of the trail that I hiked, and I know I will love all of the rest that I haven’t seen yet.
The Smokies is a great section. There is a lot to see, and the terrain change is pretty remarkable. If you do the Smokies, be sure to throw in the stretch to Max Patch and beyond to Hot Springs as well. Fontana Dam to Hot Springs is a nice 110 mile stretch if you want to dedicate a week to hiking. Be aware that you’ll need a permit! (also be sure to remember that thru-hikers have a different permit)
However, if you can only do a weekend, the Virginia Triple Crown is a great two to three day hike! Start at VA 620/Trout Creek and hike trail north. Within six miles you’ll reach the first jewel of the Triple Crown – Dragon’s Tooth. Hike ten further miles to Johns Spring Shelter (or go a mile further and spend the night at Catawba Mountain Shelter), and you can spend the night there. Camping on McAfee Knob is forbidden so try to stay at a shelter or tentsite if possible. Get up early in the morning and get to McAfee Knob, the second jewel of the Virginia Triple, in time to see the sunrise. Finally, five miles further you will reach Tinker Cliffs, to complete your Virginia Triple Crown, where you can look back and see McAfee Knob and down into the Catawba Valley. And to wrap up a 20 mile day, you will reach US Route 220 near Daleville.
If you want a challenge… hike through the White Mountain National Forest. Be sure to keep an eye on the trails, since the Appalachian Trail is overlaid by many other trails.
Want more of a challenge? Hike through the 100 Mile Wilderness up to Baxter Peak on Katahdin!
How do you hitchhike without getting in trouble?
Hitchhiking can be a touchy topic with civilized people. They believe hitching is dangerous (it is) and shouldn’t be done… but when you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t really have options. You also need to be aware where hitchhiking is illegal. For example, it’s illegal in the state of New York. There are many different methods of hitching – alone, in groups, etc. Typically, male hikers typically have more luck while hitching with female hikers. Drivers are more reluctant to pick up a solo hitchhiker. They are more likely to pick up a group of hikers who are smiling and waving than those who are not. Carrying signs help (I had a cardboard sign for a little bit that said “AT Hiker to Town” on one side and “AT Hiker to Trailhead” on the other), but may not be feasible for hikers. Hikers should generally carry a small amount of money to pay drivers with, but be prepared for drivers to refuse your offer. Drivers are more likely to pick up hikers on isolated roads – I had to walk back to the trailhead from Pearisburg, thumb out the whole way, because I got skunked (failing to get a car to stop while hitching) the entire time. However, from the trailhead to Pearisburg, I just stuck out my thumb and a truck stopped almost immediately. I’ve also had luck on road walks, sans thumb, with drivers stopping pretty often to ask if I needed a ride.
How can you find rides to hostels or to town?
I swear by the AT Guide. AWOL is a god worthy of worship. He lists businesses and their contact information if you need to call or text from the trailhead. There are also several hostels that come by at specific times to pick up and drop off hikers – the Hiker’s Hostel in Dahlonega, GA is one, and Haven’s Budget Inn in Franklin, NC both come to mind. Additionally, at Fontana Lake near the dam, you can pick up a phone, press a button, and call for a ride to Fontana Village, the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
So… what are trail angels? What is trail magic? If I want to do trail magic, how can I plan one?
Trail angels are the loves of my life. They are incredible, and those who make it their life’s work are even better. Trail angels are people who provide aid to hikers by sharing food, offering rides, or allowing hikers to stay in their homes. Bob Peoples in Tennessee comes to mind. He picked me up, took me to Hampton, and had me stay at his hostel overnight. He is passionate about trail maintenance and has decades of experience to his name.
Trail magic is unexpected help or food offered to hikers. Trail magic comes in many forms, one being coolers full of soda or beer. My dad (Hardhead) and I were making a beeline for Hot Springs and got sidelined for a couple of hours by trail angels who were hosting a Good Friday cookout with plenty of food, soda, alcohol, and boxes full of supplies.
If you want to do trail magic, you can set up a table at a trailhead with fruit, candy, coffee, juice, and fresh water. Alternatively, if you don’t have time to sit all day, you can leave bags full of food hanging in trees (within easy reach), or coolers full of drinks, or water jugs in drought-stricken areas (New Jersey and New York is notorious for having bad water). To get the best bang for your buck, be sure to check to see peak hiker traffic in your area. If you’re in Georgia, for example, peak times would be in March and April. You can also use social media (The Appalachian Trials/The Trek group is a good one!) to inform people of your intentions. These people may know hikers currently on the trail or in the area who could benefit from your goodwill.
What can I bring on a thru-hike?
Two words: bare necessities. You truly don’t need much, and you should be mainly concerned with your Big Three, food, and clothing. The rest are small details that will work themselves out. A fantastic resource is the gear list from The Trek.
How do I prepare for a thru-hike?
I personally learned everything I could about the Appalachian Trail. I read AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, Appalachian Trials, and various memoirs (A Walk in the Woods, countless blogs, Trail Journals). Out of all of these, I found Appalachian Trials to be the most valuable one since Zach Davis approaches mentally preparing for the trail from three different points – before the trail, on the trail, and after the trail.
Physically, I took up running. I would run anywhere between three to five miles a few times a week in hopes that running could translate well to hiking. Generally, it did build up my cardio and my legs, but I should have done more work with my core. I plan to work out at the gym while wearing my fully loaded pack to build up my core strength before I hit the trail again.
Honestly, the best way to get in shape for hiking is to hike. And don’t worry, your first few weeks on the trail will whip your butt in shape. Your legs will get stronger. Your skin will become tougher.
What is the reality out there?
I’m going to be brutally honest. Some days you will love it. Some days you will hate it. I had to learn quickly what worked and what didn’t – I ditched my sunscreen early on because I realized I preferred backpacking with sunburn than waving off bugs. You’re going to get rained on. You’re going to hike through snow. You’re going to fall over, a lot. You’ll get sick of your food. You’ll go thirsty if you’re hiking through a drought-stricken area. Your feet are going to develop monster blisters (a la my third eye). Some blisters might get infected. You’re going to get scraped up. You’re going to wind up with mystery bruises. Your pack will hurt your back. Your feet will hurt. You will think about creature comforts.
But. At the same time. You’re going to love it. You’re going to love the burn in your legs as you power up a mountain. You’re going to love napping under trees in meadows. You’re going to love transversing balds. You’re going to love interacting with fellow hikers. You’re going to love receiving trail magic. You’re going to love every drop of that overly sugary Gatorade. You’re going to love clearing out buffets. You’re going to love making progress, bit by bit by bit, day by day by day.
Do not quit on a bad day. If you have the best day ever and still hate the trail, go home. You have to learn to embrace the suck and the monotony, and appreciate every little bit of the wilderness that America offers.
Prospective Thru-Hiker Resources
- The Appalachian Trail: A How-to Guide
- WhiteBlaze: An Appalachian Trail Forum
- /r/AppalachianTrail – Reddit
- For laughs – the $300 Gear List Challenge
- If you prefer to use tarps – how to set up a tarp
- Shelter Detail
- The Trail in 30 Days
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- The A.T. Conservancy Blog
- Hike the Appalachian Trail – run by RIT alums
- ATC Store
- How to Hike Safely
- Appalachian Trail Girl
- Thru-Hiker Code of Conduct
- 35 Reasons to Hike the Appalachian Trail
- Gear List Example
- Advice from a Triple Crowner
- Just 2 Hikers
- National Park Service on the AT
- AT Interactive Map
- Another AT Interactive Map
- Drinking Water Conditions
- Trail Updates
- Free Outside – trail journal of Legend, 2016 Calendar Triple Crowner
- Jupiter Hikes
- Adventure Athlete: AT’14, PCT’16
- Sprinkles Hikes: AT’12, BMT’15, Long Trail’15, GSMNP 900 miler, trail guide
- The Trek: An USA Today’s Best Hiking and Outdoors Blog (formerly known as Appalachian Trials)