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Appalachian Trail 101: The Complete Guide For Beginners

Trip Planning & Navigation 9 Comments

So you’ve decided to explore the Appalachian Trail. And you’re struggling to find up-to-date information regarding this trail…

You did not come here in vain.

Just keep reading, and you will find the ultimate AT trail guide. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner or an experienced hiker, this guidebook is for you.

A.T. Approach Trail

Covering everything from general information and how to plan your hike to the best resources and most important regulations, this ultimate handbook about hiking the Appalachian Trail will make it easy for you to find the answers to all your questions!

Appalachian Trail Where to Start
Plan Your Appalachian Trail Thru-hike
Prepare Your Appalachian Trail Map
Check your A.T. permits
Take Care of Your Safety and Security before Appalachian Trail hiking
Bonus Best Guide Books for Hikers

Don’t waste your time!

Just check out our guide below—and don’t forget to share it with your friends!

Appalachian Trail Where to Start

Chapter 1. Appalachian Trail: Where to Start

First of all, let’s take a look at some Appalachian Trail history facts.

The idea of creating the AT was first discussed in October of 1921.

It all started when Benton MacKaye (1879-1975) published an article called “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.

Then in 1925, the first conference devoted to the creation of the trail was held. As a result, an independent organization known as the Appalachian Trail Conference was established. Major William Welch (1868-1941) served as its first chairman.

Over the next decade, volunteers built the trail. A huge contribution to the trail-building project was made by Myron Avery (1899-1952). He became the first 2000-miler, organized by trail crews, and in 1937, directed the Trail to the Mt. Katahdin terminus.

Thirty years later, in 1968, the trail was moved to more picturesque areas to ensure wilderness protection and comply with the National Trails System Act.

National Trails System Act

In 2005, the Appalachian Trail Conference became the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The AT may not be the oldest trail in the US, but it ranks among the longest hiking trails in America. From start to finish, its length is 2,178 miles.

Want to know the best part?

The Appalachian Trail thru-hike is equivalent to 16 climbs and descents of Mount Everest!

But this isn’t even the whole story about the AT.

Geographically, the trail is divided into five sections.

Five section of appalachian trail

1. Northern New England.

This section lies in the center of Maine and western New Hampshire. The path has some pretty severe conditions, especially for beginners: mountainous terrain and unpredictable weather conditions. Nevertheless, along these 280 miles, you will find spectacular landscapes.

In the western part of Mahoosuc Notch, you will have to overcome mountain terrain one mile long. This site is considered one of the most difficult parts of the entire trail.

By the way, in Maine, you can see moose.

The most isolated section of the AT is called the “Hundred-Mile Wilderness.” It starts northeast of the small town of Monson and ends outside Baxter State Park.

100 Mile Wilderness Facts

The White Mountains, a site in New Hampshire, are also not the easiest and extremely rocky part of the trail.  Although you will have the opportunity to observe spectacular views from the top of Mount Washington—which is 6,288 feet above the sea—you’ll have to be prepared for drastic weather changes. Snow may even fall in the middle of summer! If you are planning to conquer this section, take care to bring warm clothes, no matter what season it is.

Northern New England

2. Southern New England

The next part of these hiking trails runs from eastern Vermont to the eastern parts of New York and Connecticut. In comparison with the previous section, this area is less demanding in terms of preparation.

Nevertheless, you will certainly still sweat. You will overcome the Berkshires’ glacial mountains, climb the picturesque Green Mountains, and then go down into unblemished river valleys. The most famous Appalachian Trail day hikes are located right here.

You might be wondering why this area is so popular.

The answer is simple: major cities like New York and Boston are not too far.

3. Mid-Atlantic

John Muir quote

The Mid-Atlantic section of the Appalachian Trail may seem the busiest. The route runs alongside highways and roads, the big cities. And it’s not surprising: just an hour’s drive is the most densely inhabited part of the United States.

Nevertheless, you will have to overcome several mountain ridges at an altitude of several thousand feet above sea level.

Mid-Atlantic

4. The Virginias

The next section of the AT runs from the eastern part of West Virginia. The path passes by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Wall of the Appalachian Mountains.

Hiking over this section of the Appalachian Trail, you’ll see Shenandoah National Park, famous for its beautiful views and untouched wildlife.

The famous Skyline Drive lies very close to this section of the trail and offers perhaps more amenities than the part from Maine to Georgia.

Virginias is the longest section of the AT at 554 miles.

The Virginias

5. Southern Appalachians

The southern part starts in northeastern Tennessee and ends at Springer Mountain.

Along this section is situated the highest point on the Appalachian Trail: Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The route involves quite challenging climbs. Moreover, the mountain ranges on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee have weather conditions very similar to Northern New England.

Southern Appalachians

By now you may be wondering…

How do I get to the trail? Is there an Appalachian Trail shuttle service? Certainly! Various types of transportation are available for tourists of the trail. Check the list below.

Maine

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

New Hampshire

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Vermont

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Massachusetts, Connecticut

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

New York

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C.

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Virginia

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

North Carolina, Tennessee

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Georgia

1. Airports:

2. Shuttles:

Trailwide shuttles

Plan Your Appalachian Trail Thru-hike

Chapter 2. Plan Your Thru-Hike

So after reading about the sections of the AT, you may still be wondering, “Where does the Appalachian Trail end and start off?” You may even be thinking, “I want to do the trail from beginning to end!” To do this, though, you need to be sure that you can overcome all the obstacles.

If you’re going to be an AT thru-hiker, you need to be prepared for the challenges.

Climbing steep slopes while hiking mountains and staying a long distance from the nearest settlement can be a challenging adventure.

That’s why most travelers prefer day and weekend hiking trips. And not many can conquer the great AT about which you can also read in the Walking and Hiking the Appalachian Trail guide.

Appalachian trail infographics

Before starting the hike, answer yourself to a few questions: Are you ready to climb to a height of 4000 feet? Have you ever practiced outdoor hiking? And if this is your first trip, are you prepared to go away from civilization for a week? How much quality gear do you have?

If you still want to go through the Appalachian Trail, we have prepared some tips for you.

1. Think about the season

The number of hikers walking the Appalachian Trail varies depending on the time of year and the starting point. For example, if you are planning to start your journey at Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, you should consider that the trails are most crowded in July and June.

For other sites, the data may vary slightly.

Love people but hate insects?

Then keep in mind that mosquitoes, black flies, and beetles plague the AT from May to late August.

2. Understand your experience level

If you are just a beginner, you should not expect the results of Karl Meltzer, who conquered the 2,190 miles in just 45 days and 22 hours.

Karl Meltzer record

Beginners should count on a hiking speed of about 1 mile per hour, even on simple sections.

3. Plan your nights

If you are planning a long trip for a few days or weeks, think about where you’re going to spend nights.

Over the entire trail, there are more than 270 shelters, most of which are near water. Shelters are typically designed for small groups of hikers. Large tourist groups on the trail can use campsites and set up tents.

Even if you are planning to stay at a motel, hostel, or shelter, you still should carry a tent in case you lag behind schedule and do not have time to get to your planned stopover before dark.

Please note that in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, camping is not allowed except at the Birch Spring Gap campsite.

Plan your nights

4. Learn the seven principles of Leave No Trace

When preparing for hiking, carefully study the principles of Leave No Trace. These seven postulates underlie the Leave No Trace program. The primary purpose of these principles is to minimize human impact on the environment. You can find more details on the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website.

5. Do not forget about your cell phone

Mobile gadgets are tightly integrated into our lives, which is why many travelers prefer to leave their phones at home when outdoor hiking. However, during emergencies, your phone can be your salvation.

Besides, it can help you reduce the weight of your luggage.

How?

It’s simple—install apps with helpful maps and download survival hike apps, and you’ll be much more confident about what to bring and what to do.

6. Take care of hiking equipment and clothes

Your choice of gear depends directly on your route, its duration, and the season. On average, brand-new camping supplies can cost $1,000 or more.

Renting or buying used camping equipment will save you some money.

Get more detailed information on what gear you’ll need in our hiking trips preparation checklist.

Checklist for backpacking

Consider choosing synthetic clothes. Wet cotton can lead to hypothermia—one of the most serious threats lying in wait for hikers. Note that cotton socks would cause blisters when wet. Wool socks would probably work best for you.

High-quality, comfortable shoes will help prevent calluses and swollen feet. For a day hike, your best choice may be comfortable old sneakers or worn-in tennis shoes rather than new shoes.

But if your route passes rocky trail sections, you should definitely consider wearing hiking boots.

If you are planning for extended hiking trips, then you should choose shoes that are a half-size larger because your legs will swell under the weight of your backpack or on the rocky terrain. Also, for a hike in the mountains, it is worth considering specialized hiking boots.

Average budget spent on gear

Here are some great sites where you can browse recommended hiking gear:

  1. Amazon
  2. Backcountry Gear
  3. REI
  4. DICK’S Sporting Goods
  5. GearBest
  6. Mountain Hardwear
  7. Mountain Gear
  8. Fjallraven
  9. Mountain Warehouse
  10. U.S. Outdoor Store

Prepare Your Appalachian Trail Map

Chapter 3. Prepare Your Appalachian Trail Map

Successful travels depend on quality training. When planning to hit the road, first check your maps.

First of all, select the section in which you want to travel.

As we mentioned in the first chapter, the Appalachian Trail is divided into five sections. Each part has different weather and hiking conditions.

Your next step should be to determine your speed. Beginners should plan for an average speed of 1 mile per hour. More experienced hikers can count on a faster pace.

The third step is to choose your destinations and expected overnight stays (if you’re planning multi-day hikes).

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Guidebooks

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has published 11 guidebooks that describe all the details of the trail and contain relevant trail maps.

Even if you’ve downloaded maps to your smartphone, it’s a good idea to bring along an additional waterproof map.

And here’s why:

Your smartphone may die or you may get no signal—meaning you won’t be able to connect to online maps. In the end, like any other device, your smartphone might just break down.

  1. Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s interactive map
  2. Rhodesmill’s printable AT maps
  3. PATC Maps
  4. The Trek’s interactive map
  5. Appalachian Regional Commission’s printable map
  6. Backpacker’s interactive Appalachian Trail map
  7. Appalachian Trail Interactive Map by Google
  8. Appalachian Trail app by HikerBot for Android
  9. BACKPACKER GPS Trails Lite for iOS
  10. RouteBuddy Atlas for iOS
  11. Appalachian Trail app by SPORz for Android

By the way, the Appalachian Trail Distance Calculator will definitely come in handy. This online software calculates the approximate walking distance of each particular sector along the Appalachian Trail.

Check your A.T. permits

Chapter 4. Check Your Permits

Have you already packed your backpack and planned your route?

Then it’s time to take care of the necessary permits.

As a rule, passage of the trail is free, and permits are also issued without charge.

Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind that there are some paid campsites. And you’ll have to get permission for backcountry hiking in national parks.

So let’s go into more detail on the permits that hikers need to obtain and the requirements that need to be followed.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

1. Tennessee and North Carolina

If you are planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, you need to get permission for backcountry camping through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The cost of the permit is $20. It is valid for 38 days from the date of issue and grants up to 8 days of passage through the trail in the park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park policy requires tourists to stay overnight in shelters.

Each shelter holds between 12-14 people, four 4 spots per night are reserved for thru-hikers. All other thru-hikers must set up tents at the shelter site.

Hikers are also required to stay at the shelter sites, regardless if they have a spot to sleep inside. Non-thru hikers get the priority shelter spots with their reservations.

And do not forget to bring a printed copy of your permit!

Emma Grandma Gatewood quote

2. Virginia

In Shenandoah National Park, all hikers must apply for a permit, regardless of the duration of the hike. Permissions are granted on a free basis and can be obtained at visitor centers.

At Shenandoah National Park, you are not limited to designated campsites. The park regulations allow the use of pre-existing campsites or camp previously undisturbed area. Please use “pristine site camping” and follow Leave No Trace policy.
Shenandoah National Park

3. Pennsylvania

Camping in Pennsylvania Game Commission lands is allowed only for thru-hikers. Do not forget to bring orange clothes and head coverings.

Why is this important?

In state game lands, hunting is allowed. And orange fluorescent clothing is needed to ensure your safety during hunting season.

4. Vermont

This section of the AT does not require any additional fees or permits. However, in some frequently used camping places, a small fee may be charged. The income from these fees is used to equip field facilities and perform routine trail maintenance.

5. Maine
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods quoteAll long-distance hikers must obtain a mandatory permit card. This card can be taken personally at Baxter State Park Headquarters or Katahdin Stream Campground.

The cards must be stamped at the Katahdin Stream Ranger Station.

If you’re going to be camping overnight, a camping fee is charged. Short-distance hikers must also make a reservation.

Ryel Kestenbaum quote

Find more information about permits and regulations at the links below:

  1. Permits for Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Shenandoah National Park permissions and regulations
  3. Pennsylvania Game Commission regulations
  4. Baxter State Park Day Use Parking Reservation (DUPR)
  5. Baxter State Park campground reservation

Take Care of Your Safety and Security before Appalachian Trail hiking

Chapter 5. Take Care of Your Safety and Security

The AT is a reasonably safe place, especially if you consider how many people conquer the trail every year.

Nevertheless, over the last hundred years, the police have encountered several Appalachian Trail murders. And surely none of you would like to be the next victim.

A.T. Safer than most places

So how can you protect yourself?

Attention and conscientiousness are the keys to your safety. During your camping tour, be vigilant and attentive to what you’re doing, where you’re going, and with whom you are communicating.

Several simple rules can help you safely overcome the distance of 2,190 miles.

1. Trust your hiking partner

Hiking alone has its benefits. You can make decisions that are best for you and don’t have to take into account the opinions of others.

But if you decide to find a hiking buddy, he or she can save your life. This applies both to extreme situations on the trail and potentially dangerous strangers.

Trust your hiking partner

2. Make a schedule and inform your relatives about your movement

You’ve already planned your route in detail, right?

Be sure to inform your relatives and friends about your planned checkpoints and the times at which you plan to get there. Regularly update them about your location while hiking the AT.

And do not forget to give them the ATC contact numbers.

Inform your relatives about your movement

3. Do not ignore trail registers

Trail registers are required to document your ATC locations. In the event of a crime, law enforcement agencies will first view trail register records.

4. Do not dress differently

When you’re hiking, leave the sexy clothes at home. By doing so, you can avoid unnecessary attention and provocation.

5. Remember the possibility of theft

Do not leave your things unattended. If you’re using public transport, put as little as possible in the common luggage storage area. Hide the rest of your money and documents deep in your backpack.

6. Leave firearms at home

Guns should be left at home. In some areas of the AT trail, carrying and using weapons are strictly prohibited. Besides, weapons can be used against you or accidentally discharged.

7. Beware of suspicious strangers

On the trail, you will meet a lot of strangers. And not only hikers.

The hiking community is friendly. Moreover, a hike is a great opportunity to make new friends.

However, try to avoid drunken and hostile strangers. If your intuition suggests that this person can hurt you—then minimize contact.

8. Be sure to inform local authorities and the ATC about any crimes

Remember, not only your life but the lives of others may depend on this.

In an emergency that requires a medical or law-enforcement response, you should call 911 or the local emergency number.

Appalachian Trail local emergency number

All incidents should be reported to the ATC headquarters via email, phone at 304-535-6331, or fax at 304-535-2667.

You can find local emergency numbers on all official AT trail maps.

Walking the Appalachian Trail is a challenge, so being prepared for safe hiking is essential. Tell us about your AT experience in the comments!

List of guide books for hikers

Bonus: Best Guide Books for Hikers

  1. How to Hike the Appalachian Trail: A Comprehensive Guide to Plan and Prepare for a Successful Thru-Hike
  2. App. Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion (2017)
  3. Complete Set of App. Trail Guide Books and Maps
  4. Maps by the Bundle–Whole Trail
  5. App. Trail Thru-Hike Planner
  6. App. Trail Data Book (2017)
  7. The App. Trail: Hiking the People’s Path
  8. The A.T. Guide Northbound 2017
  9. The A.T. Guide Southbound 2017
  10. The App. Trail Girl’s Guide
  11. The Best of the App. Trail: Day Hikes
  12. The Best of the App. Trail: Overnight Hikes
  13. The App. Trail Hiker
  14. App. Trail Book of Profiles
  15. Quick Starter Guide to HIKING
  16. The App. Trail, Step by Step: How to Prepare for a Thru or Long Distance Section Hike

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Comments9

Tom Terry October, 1st 2017

WOW, Information packed article. I have move “Hike the Appalachian Trail” up on my hiking list, can’t wait!!

Reply
Cosmo October, 5th 2017

Information in this blog is very basic, and in some cases not accurate (one quart of water per day?!). PLEASE do some more comprehensive research before undertaking your hike. ATC is probably the best place to start. For hiking short sections, contact the local Trail Club for the most up to date info. Contact info for each club can be found at the ATC website. Other info can be found at ALDHA.org, Whiteblaze.net and TheTrek.co

Reply
Kathryn Wilde
Kathryn Wilde October, 6th 2017

Hi! Of course, in our research, we used websites you recommended. And thanks for the correction. It was my typo. Indeed, 1 quart of water is for a two-hour hike.

Reply
Steve October, 22nd 2017

Hi Kathryn – great article and appreciate the detailed information. I’m hoping to get onto the NC portion of the trail this year – need to convince my bride to join me. Thanks again – I’ll be referring back to this article for help. Steve

Reply
Scott November, 5th 2017

Nice article! Here’s one correction: Shenandoah National Park does allow back country camping throughout much of the park. You need to know and abide by SNP’s regulations, but you are not limited to just the immediate vicinity of the huts.

Reply
Kathryn Wilde
Kathryn Wilde November, 13th 2017

Thanks for the corrections, Scott!

Reply
Jen November, 6th 2017

Please doublecheck your Smokies information as it is NOT correct. Shelters (not huts or cabins as these are NOT in our park) are NOT reserved for thru hikers. Each shelter holds between 12-14 people and only 4 spots per night are reserved for thru hikers. All other thru hikers must set up tents at the shelter site. You don’t need the permit to hike, but you do need it to camp. You are also required to stay at the shelter sites, regardless if you have a spot to sleep inside. Non-thru hikers get the priority shelter spots with their reservations.

Reply
Kathryn Wilde
Kathryn Wilde November, 13th 2017

Thanks for the corrections, Jen!

Reply
Steve Livingstone November, 28th 2017

Kathryn, While I’m not an expert (or even a neophyte, really) on web design or the AT, I appreciate your sharing this terrific piece of work with us at NC State Parks! I’ve also shared it with Katie and Liz, our Public Information Officer and website manager, respectively. I think your work is solid and I admire your willingness to open it up to a forum for recommendations on its enhancements.

Reply

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