I’ve given advice to several people planning on thru-hiking the AT, so I figured I’d compile some of my thoughts here.
Budget – Make sure to save up your dollars. A thru hike can get expensive and range anywhere from $3,000-$7,000+. It's easy to drop a couple thousand dollars on gear before the trip and you can expect to spend up to $1000/month while on trail. In your budget, make sure to factor in any off-trail recurring payments (i.e. rent, insurance, car payment, etc.). While on trail, food and lodging are your main expenses. Keep in mind that your appetite will double in size and you’ll probably want to eat out every time you’re in town. You can save money using maildrops (See Mail Drop it Like It's Hot ). You’ll likely want to stay at a hotel/hostel in many towns for a shower, laundry, and your sanity. Leaving town is a lot more difficult than you expect it to be. (Especially Hot Springs). Finally, factor in how you will get home – you may need to buy a plane ticket or rent a car.
Gear - Make a packing list then start dropping dollars. You can find mine here. Also make sure to check out How the Hell do I Pack for 6 Months in the Woods? for notes and tips. Try to keep your pack weight as low as possible, but don't be afraid to bring items which will make you happy. I shave ounces, cutting straps and tags, but I also bring 6+ pounds of camera equipment. The Hiker Box has several other really helpful gear related resources.
Schedule - Make sure to give yourself enough time. Unfortunately, we had to get back by a certain date – September 15th (David only had 6 months off of work) . We summited Katahdin on September 12th, drove back to Atlanta that night, then Dave was at work a couple days later. Try to avoid that. An open ended schedule is the way to go. The trail is simply too magical to rush through.
Physical Prep – Truly there is no better training for hiking than hiking itself. Throwing on a pack and hiking miles will do you better than any trip to the gym. I had been lifting and running a decent amount before leaving for the AT, but definitely got my ass kicked the first few weeks. Don’t stress over this, there are people who hit the trail in TERRIBLE shape. You'll acclimate on the trail - just don't rush it at the beginning. For the first couple weeks, we kept our mileage between 7-15 and slowly built up. We didn't do our first 20 miler until we had been on the trail for over a month (at which point we did a 40 miler). Honestly, it's not so much about your legs acclimating to more miles, but its your mind acclimating to constant pain throughout the day.
Food – See Mail Drop it Like it's Hot. If you plan on doing mail drops, make sure to call any places you will be shipping to - check to make sure they are open and that you have the correct address. Here is our mail drop schedule from 2012.
North or South - This existential question defines AT thru-hikers. I was NOBO (northbounder), and I think it’s the only way to do it. Ending at Mount Katahdin is surreal.
If you have any other questions about how to prep or anything in general, shoot me an email - firstname.lastname@example.org
View more articles and resources in the Hiker Box