Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Appalachian Trail: Our Guide To The Longest Hiking-Only Footpath In The World

So you want to hike the Appalachian Trail? Read on...

Photo: iStock

The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in the USA is famous for being the longest hiking only footpath in the world. Starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it stretches a whopping 2,200 miles up to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

It follows the ridge line of the Appalachian Mountains on the east coast of America, passing through eight national forests, two national parks and 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

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The trail was completed in 1937 and is currently managed by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. You are only allowed to follow the trail on foot, although there are some very small sections where cycling is allowed too.

There are two types of hikers found on the Appalachian Trail: thru-hikers and section-hikers. Thru-hikers are people who attempt to hike the entire trail in one go. As the name suggests, section-hikers hike sections of the Appalachian Trail in stages over multiple trips.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy honour everyone that hikes over 2,000 miles of the trail on their website, both thru-hikers and section hikers. They are given the name ‘2000 Miler’.

In September 2015, Heather Anderson became the fastest person to hike the Appalachian Trail unsupported, which means she didn’t have a vehicle or crew to support her, so she carried her gear herself. It took her 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes. She also holds the same record for the Pacific Crest Trail.

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As you have probably guessed by now, the A.T. is no mean feat. It’s a difficult hike with many strenuous sections. But it is also highly rewarding and beautiful. There’s a reason millions of people hike sections of the A.T. every year.

Travel writer Bill Bryson wrote a hilarious book about attempting to tackle the Appalachian Trail. It’s called A Walk In The Woods and it was recently made into a film starring Nick Nolte and Robert Redford.

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View across the Linville River in North Carolina, part of the Appalachian Trail. Photo: iStock

Hiking the whole Appalachian Trail in one go takes between five and seven months to complete. Some people have done it in three months. Trail running enthusiasts have finished the route in even less time.

Most people hike it south to north, starting in Georgia and finishing in Maine. It is estimated 29 per cent of those who attempt to thru-hike the A.T. actually manage to finish it. There are a number of obstacles that prevent hikers from going all the way – including injury, severe weather and illness. Black bears, venomous snakes and wild boar also live along sections of the trail, so watch out.

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Autumn is one of the best times to hike the Appalachian Trail. Photo: iStock

Most people hike the Appalachian Trail between early spring and autumn. Thru-hikers tend to set off in March or April and finish in October. This is the best time to avoid snowfall which falls on the Appalachian Mountains during the winter.

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You need a good level of fitness to hike the A.T. Photo: iStock

It’s a notoriously difficult hike over mountainous terrain with long uphill stretches. Some sections aren’t just hiking but scrambling over rocks and tree roots. So the short answer: you need to be pretty damn fit.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy suggests training by, well, hiking in mountainous terrain. You want to train by mimicking the conditions on the trail as close as possible. Make sure you do a few overnight practice trips before you start the real thing.

When you first start out on the trail, you want to aim to cover eight miles per day and then gradually increasing your mileage as you get stronger and used to the trail. You don’t have to be a super athlete – you’ve just got have have a decent level of fitness as well as some serious determination.

Another important tip: make sure you break in your hiking boots before you set off. There’s nothing worse than dealing with blisters on day one.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is a great website with plenty of handy advice and information to check out before you hike the A.T.

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Most people will camp on the A.T. – either in a campsite or in the wild. Photo: iStock

Huge portions of the Appalachian Trail are in the wilderness with no towns nearby. Multi-day hikers will need to bring a tent to sleep in overnight. You will either be able to camp in a campsite or just out in the wild. It is best to stay in a designated campsite to minimise impact on the wildlife around you.

There are also more than 250 shelters dotted along the A.T. They are great places to stay dry during a downpour. Backpackers can sleep under these shelters in on a first-come first-serve basis. Most of these are free, some may charge a minimal cost for a night’s stay.

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