Backpacking the Appalachian Trail: A Journey Through 13 States

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The Appalachian Trail is a long-distance hiking trail that extends for more than 2,290 miles from Georgia to Maine along the eastern United States. It’s one of the most popular destinations for backpacking and outdoor adventure, attracting millions of visitors to its trails each year. This guide will provide a comprehensive overview of what you need to know to plan and embark on your backpacking journey along the Appalachian Trail, including tips on camping, food, and other important aspects of thru-hiking the trail.

History of the Appalachian Trail

The history of the Appalachian Trail dates back to the early 1920s, when a regional planner named Benton MacKaye proposed the idea of a long-distance hiking trail that would connect communities in the eastern United States. Over the next few decades, volunteers and organizations worked to clear and mark the trail, and in 1968, the Appalachian Trail was officially designated as the first national scenic trail in the United States. Today, the Appalachian Trail is maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works to protect and preserve the trail for future generations of AT hikers and backpackers to enjoy.

The Appalachian Trail Landscape

McAfee Knob, VA
User:Something Original, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Appalachian Trail passes through a variety of different landscapes and ecosystems, from dense forests to open meadows. This provides an ever-changing landscape for hikers to enjoy. The trail starts with the beautiful deciduous forests in the southern states, which transition into beautiful pine forests as you hike further north. Some of the most notable landmarks along the trail include Mount Katahdin in Maine, which is the highest peak on the trail and a popular destination for hikers, Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, which is the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains, and Springer Mountain in Georgia, which marks the southern terminus(starting point) of the trail.

Thru-Hiking the AT

There are several options for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, including north-bound (NOBO), south-bound (SOBO), flip-flopping, and section hiking. NOBO hikers start in Georgia and end in Maine, hiking end-to-end without stopping. This is the most popular option, but it can be crowded, especially during the months of March and April. SOBO hikers start in Maine and end in Georgia, and typically begin their thru-hikes in the late Spring or early Summer. This option is more challenging and is only recommended for experienced distance backpackers. Flip-flopping involves starting at a midpoint, such as Harper’s Ferry, and hiking one half of the trail before returning to the starting point and hiking the other half. This option offers more flexibility in terms of start dates and can help avoid the most crowded times and portions of the trail. Section hiking allows individuals who don’t have the ability to take months away from their everyday lives to experience the trail by hiking it piece by piece.

Camping on the Appalachian Trail

Cream Hill Shelter, Cornwall, CT
Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Camping along the Appalachian Trail is an essential part of the thru-hiking experience. Most thru-hikers choose to stay in shelters along the trail, which are spaced about a day’s hike apart. These shelters offer a place to sleep and provide a sense of community with other thru-hikers. When camping in a shelter, it’s important to follow the rules, such as using a tent if the shelter is full, and to be respectful of other hikers. In addition to shelters, there are also designated campsites along the trail, which offer more privacy and solitude.

Food on the Appalachian Trail

Food is an important aspect of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and must be carefully considered by every backpacker, as you’ll need to carry enough to last several days and to have enough energy to hike long distances. Popular foods among thru-hikers include energy bars, trail mix, and dehydrated meals, as they are lightweight, easy to carry, and provide quick energy. It’s also important to carry a water filter or purification tablets, as you’ll need to refill your water supply along the trail.

Essential Gear for the Appalachian Trail

When backpacking along the Appalachian Trail, it’s important to come prepared with the right gear and supplies. Essential items include a good backpack, hiking boots, waterproof clothing, a map and compass, a first aid kit, and plenty of food and water. It’s also important to let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back in case of an emergency. Other items to consider include a tent or sleeping bag, a camp stove, and a headlamp or flashlight.

Tips for Thru-Hiking the AT

  • Plan ahead: Research the trail, the gear you’ll need, and the conditions you can expect along the way. Plan your trip and make sure you have everything you need before you set out.
  • Train beforehand: Make sure you’re in good physical condition before you start your hike. Train and get used to carrying a backpack and hiking long distances.
  • Start early: Starting early in the day will give you plenty of time to hike, set up camp, and enjoy the scenery.
  • Stay on the trail: Stick to the designated trail and avoid taking shortcuts, as this can damage the trail and the surrounding ecosystem.
  • Respect other hikers: When camping in a shelter or designated campsite, be respectful of other hikers and follow the rules.
  • Pack enough food and water: Make sure you carry enough food and water to last several days, and carry a water filter or purification tablets to refill your water supply along the way.
  • Stay safe: Always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be back, and carry a first aid kit in case of an emergency.

By following these tips and being prepared, you can have a safe and successful thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking along the Appalachian Trail is a rewarding and unforgettable experience, offering a unique outdoor adventure for backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts. With its ever-changing landscape, challenging terrain, and beautiful sights, the Appalachian Trail is a journey like no other. So, if you’re looking for a challenging and rewarding outdoor adventure, consider backpacking the Appalachian Trail and discover the beauty of the eastern United States.