How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail
People who section hike the Appalachian Trail, hike it a segment at a time, on weekends or whenever it’s convenient for them to get away for a few days. There’s no need to quit your job or school. While it’s not as glamorous or social as a thru-hike, you can still relish in the joy of hiking the trail and face many of the same challenges that thru-hikers face.
Section Hiking has many advantages who have families they can’t abandon for the 6 months required to complete a thru-hike. You can hike the trail in whatever direction you want, mixing northbound and southbound sections as needed. You can day hike portions and backpack others. You can hike sections out of sequence or hike the trail during the times of year when its less crowded and the weather is better. The only requirement is that you complete hiking the 2000 miles of trail required by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (click for application) to be recognized as an AT finisher.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the best section of the Appalachian Trail to hike first?
The best section is the one that’s easiest for you to get to. If you’re still trying to decide whether section hiking the Appalachian Trail is a good idea or you’re a beginner backpacker, ease into it by planning a few short one or two night backpacking trips covering 10-15 miles to try it out and get used to using your camping gear before you tackle a big section hike. Planning a long trip to a distant but scenic section of the Appalachian Trail puts too much pressure on yourself. Plan a section hike you can drive to or that’s located near your extended members, so you can bail out without financial ruin if things don’t go as planned.
How expensive is it to section hike the Appalachian Trail?
The biggest expense for section hikers are shuttle driver fees when you drop a car at one end of a section and take a shuttle to the other end so you can hike back. After that, hostel and motel fees will probably be your next biggest expense depending on how frequently you go to town for a shower and a clean bed.
How do you find shuttle drivers and how much do shuttles cost?
The best place to find the shuttle drivers and their phone numbers/email addresses is in David Miller’s AT Guide. Different drivers charge different fees so it’s best to ask how much the fare will be before you get in their vehicle. Some charge $1 a mile, some $2 a mile, but it varies.
Is it safe to park at Appalachian Trail Head parking lots?
It used to be safer. Your best bet is to stay with a hostel or B&B in town and ask them if you can leave you car there for a few days while you go hike your section. You might have to pay them for shuttles at both ends, but it’s one way to keep your car safe. You can also park in municipal lots and garages if towns have them or in Walmarts and grocery store lots, although it’s best to ask permission to avoid getting towed. Wherever you do park, don’t leave anything valuable in your car and don’t make it obvious that you’re a hiker by plastering bumperstickers all over it.
How much advance planning is required to hike a section of trail?
Some people take planning to an extreme and chart out a day by day itinerary when section hiking the trail. But the trail and the weather have a tendency to derail rigid schedules. Your best bet to to plan out your travel arrangements to and from the trail including shuttles and to make sure you know where and when you need to visit towns to resupply. Other than that you can largely wing it when hiking the trail and take it as it comes. (See also – Different Styles of Section Hiking.)
Can you day hike the Appalachian Trail?
Absolutely. You can day hike sections or mix and match, day hiking some and backpacking others.
Do you need maps to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Most thru-hikers and section hikers don’t carry maps on the Appalachian Trail anymore because the trail is so well blazed and signed. Navigating trail towns to find grocery stores, hostels, and restaurants that are hiker friendly is a different matter entirely. Everyone carries pages torn from David Miller’s AT Guide with them (not the entire book), which lists all of the services, campsites, shelters, water sources and road crossings mile-by-mile on the trail. If you want to carry a map, your best bet is to use Guthook’s AT Guide which is a GPS cell phone app that runs on iPhone and Android phones.
Do you need a tent to hike the Appalachian Trail?
It’s a good idea to bring a tent, hammock, or tarp shelter when hiking the AT, just in case the shelters are full or they’re full of snoring obnoxious people you’d rather not sleep with. Bringing your own shelter also means you can stop when you want and set up camp without having to hike to the next shelter or when you’re tired and want to rest. The best shelter for the AT is probably a hammock because you can sent it up just about anywhere, especially when all of the campsites at shelters are already taken. See What is the Best Tent for the Appalachian Trail for a discussion about the pros and cons of each tent and shelter type.
How many days of food do you need to carry on the Appalachian Trail?
It varies, but most people carry three or four days max to keep their pack weight comfortable, popping into town more frequently to resupply. There are some longer sections like the 100 mile Wilderness where you have to pack more food, but the Appalachian Trail is close to many towns so you need to carry less food than you would for a true wilderness hike.
How prevalent is Lyme Disease on the Appalachian Trail?
Lyme disease carrying ticks remain a serious concern on the Appalachian Trail so it’s best to take precautions. Spraying or soaking your clothing and sleep system gear with Permethrin, wearing gaiters, and rubbing DEET or Picaridan on your skin are good precautions to take.
Are dogs allowed on the Appalachian Trail?
Dogs are not allowed on the Appalachian Trail in three areas:
- Baxter State Park, Maine
- Bear Mountain State Park Trailside Museum and Wildlife Center, New York (an alternate road walk is available)
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Leaches are also required for dogs along 40% of the Appalachian Trail. See the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for more information.
Do you have to worry about bears and snakes on the Appalachian Trail?
Black bears are quite active on the trail and while human attacks are rare, it’s best to hang your food at night or store it in the bear boxes that many shelters have to prevent bears from stealing it. If a bear approaches you, wave your arms and scream at it and it should run away (See Eastern Black bears and Safety.) There are poisonous snakes including copperheads and rattlesnakes on the trail from Georgia thru Massachusetts, but they’re shy and easily avoided if you stay away from their habitat. If you encounter a snake, don’t aggravate it to try to pick it up. This results in more snakebite incidents than any other cause.
Can you get a cell phone signal on the Appalachian Trail?
You can get a cell phone signal almost everywhere on the trail at this point, even in Maine’s 100 mile Wilderness. Verizon, by far, has the best network connectivity (See The Appalachian Trail Cell Phone Guide). People who carry cell phones keep them charged up by carrying battery rechargers.
Do you need a gun to hike the Appalachian Trail?
No. You don’t need to hunt animals to obtain food on the Appalachian Trail and there’s very little danger that wildlife will attack you. The people you meet are generally very friendly and you shouldn’t fear for your personal safety. If you’d still feel safer carrying a gun, be sure to check each state’s local gun laws in advance to make sure you’re properly licensed and permitted before carrying a weapon across state lines.
How crowded is the Appalachian Trail?
The trail can get crowded when the wave of northbound thru-hikers passes through an area or on weekends when local day hikers and backpackers share the resource, particularly in popular recreation areas. Other than that, you’re likely to see other hikers every day and at shelters, but they won’t be crowded.
Should you hike with a partner on the Appalachian Trail?
While hiking with a partner can make shuttle logistics easier, provided you both drive your own vehicles, it’s not strictly necessary. You’ll meet plenty of people on the trail and you may end up hiking with them informally for a few days. If you’re looking for a partner to hike the Appalachian Trail with, your best bet is to meet them on local trail club hikes or backpacking trips where you can assess your backpacking partner compatibility in less trying circumstances.
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