The Appalachian Trail, abbreviated to AT, is one of the most famous long-distance footpaths in the world and the Trail Conservancy describes it as the longest hiking-only trail in existence.
Stretching over 3,500 kilometres from Georgia all the way to Maine, the route passes through 14 states and takes approximately five million steps to complete.
The trail was completed in 1937 and is today maintained by 31 trail clubs, multiple partnerships and a network of volunteers. Every year, up to three million people trek at least a portion of the trail but just a small fraction of those take on its entire length.
The route follows the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, meaning that there is significant elevation gain and loss along the way. As a result, it is much more gruelling than the Pacific Crest Trail.
Over the course of the route the total amount of climbing is roughly 515,000 feet (157,000 metres) – the equivalent of summiting Mount Everest more than 17 times. For this reason, it should only be attempted by the steeliest of trekkers.
- A rite of passage and ultimate tick on the bucket list for long-distance hikers.
- Traverse the length of the east coast of the USA and experience diverse scenery, challenges, food and culture.
- Become part of a community, befriending people from around the world and trading stories about one of the toughest trails on the planet.
Anyone travelling northbound will start at Springer Mountain in Georgia and use the small town of Gainesville nearby as their jumping off point for the trip. Springer Mountain is a couple of hours’ drive from Gainesville and can be reached by either private taxi or shuttle.
To get to Gainesville you can either fly into Atlanta International Airport and then take public transportation (shuttle or bus) or go by train. Amtrak runs regular passenger trains through Gainesville and offers local and interstate connections.
A thru-hike of the 3,520 kilometre trail takes between five and seven months, dependent on each hiker’s abilities. Some athletes have done it in under 50 days, but anything under 100 days is not possible for the majority.
Most people find their pace is slower at the beginning of the trail but picks up as they gain muscle strength and confidence.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The highest point of the AT is Clingman’s Dome at 2,025 metres, which does not seem to be dauntingly high. However the trek involves a lot of up and down, descending peaks at less than one mile per hour, rock hopping for days at a time and clambering up steep, eroded sections of trail.
In the Mahoosuc Notch, hikers must grab tree roots to stabilise themselves on climbs and battle clouds of gnats and flies, making this section as mentally taxing as it is physical.
Due to its mountainous nature, the terrain of the Appalachian Trail is tough and strewn with rocks. There are rocks big enough to climb over, sharp enough to stick into the soles of your boots and small enough to make the path feel loose underfoot.
Due to its length and terrain, only hikers with experience should attempt the AT and even then a good level of fitness and mental grit are crucial.
Having said that, as the trail progresses your body adapts to the demands of the route and covering serious mileage each day will become more manageable.
No fees or paid permits are required to walk the AT but some New England campsites require fees and you must obtain permits for backcountry camping in two of the national parks en route.
There are also regulations pertaining to camping and fires at various points, which you will be made aware of on arrival or when booking in.
Guided or Self-Guided
Due to the length of the trail, it is not feasible or economically viable to undertake the trail as part of a paid tour group with a guide.
Thanks to the abundance of information online, it is relatively easy to go self-guided. Throughout its length, the AT is marked by white paint blazes and people often choose to walk sections with others that they have met along the way.
It is advisable to hike the AT during the snow-free season to ensure all high points are passable. Most people choose to start in Georgia in early spring to avoid the cold conditions and heavy snows that are common at the north end of the trail at that time of year.
Unlike many other long-distance trails, it is not necessary to plan an itinerary in advance of setting off.
Whilst it can be useful to look up some key resupply points that you might want to send packages onto or points of interest for days off, any attempt at a daily itinerary will likely go out the window after just a few days.
Over the course of five or six months, you can see how your plans may change according to weather, injuries or illness and to travel with people that you meet.
Hiking pace can also be difficult to predict, although most people cover 12 to 15 kilometres each day at the beginning of their hike and slowly work up to 22 to 25 kilometres per day.
Despite its length and at times remote route, resupplying on the Appalachian Trail is easier then you would think. The trail regularly comes within practical distances of towns and communities, taking hikers within reach of a town every three to six days on average.
These towns serve as useful resupply points and also offer accommodation options and laundry or medical services. Online you will find a list of the hundred or so resupply points along the way.
Due to the abundance of resupply points, everyone builds their itinerary differently and often on the fly. The best plan of attack is to figure out your average daily mileage, map out any definite stop-offs you want to make and then build a very loose plan around that.
If you are tight on time or want to lock down an exact schedule, this may not be the trail for you.
There is a variety of motels, inns, hotels and hostels near the trail, with something to suit most budgets and preferences. The trail allows hikers to immerse themselves in nature, intentionally routed away from towns and spending large amounts of time high on the mountains above.
This means that motels and inns aren’t often found directly along the AT but a short way off – reachable by hitchhiking or adding in a few miles walk at the end of the day.
Although you can keep your costs down by camping, it is possible to hike the Appalachian Trail without carrying a tent.
There are more than 250 garage-size shelters that sit roughly a day’s hike apart along the length of the AT. The best part is that they’re free but in peak season it is first come, first served.
As mentioned, resupplying is easy enough and you can either “buy as you go” (as long as you are not picky or don’t have dietary requirements) or send mail drops ahead to pre-chosen stops.
However the latter is not necessary as towns and resupply areas are generally not very far from the trail (occasionally they are right on it) and offer good-sized grocery stores.
That said, you can often achieve a successful resupply at a random crossroad petrol station and some hostels stock basic supplies for hiker resupply.
Along the way it is worth planning a few extra days here and there to stop in at some of the main towns and not only rest up but to enjoy what’s on offer locally.
From weekend markets, arts festivals or even just unwinding at a bar, the length of the trail means you’ll experience a diverse array of food, hospitality and culture.
Before you set off, make the most of your final days of normality in Georgia, which offers something for everyone – from the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains to numerous historic memorials and forts.
Sports fanatics can make the most of Georgia’s capital city Atlanta year-round, with its three major league sports, or for outdoor fun head to Georgia’s infamous water parks.
Equally, if you’d prefer to tag on a few days in Maine there is no shortage of things to do.
You can swim in the summit pond of Mount Tumbledown, go island hopping in a sea kayak (and visit the most remote part of Acadia National Park), have a relaxing picnic at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens or head out whale watching.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||Springer Mountain, Georgia 30513, USA|
|Finishes at||Mt Katahdin, Northeast Piscataquis, ME 04462, USA|
|Length of route||3520 Km|
|Average time to complete||5 - 7 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||2025 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, Poles if preferred, walking boots|
|Countries visited||United States|