The 14 States of an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker
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Despite growing up on the east coast, I first learned about the Appalachian Trail in 2011 when I was 25.
I met my best friend, Jeremy, while we were serving together in the Air Force. We lived in Georgia, about 200 miles from the Appalachian Trail, or the AT. We bonded over outdoor activities like mountain biking and hiking, and we spent several weekends backpacking in local state parks.
Jeremy discovered the Appalachian Trail while planning a hike, and he excitedly told me about it. He said the entire trail runs almost 2200 miles from its southern peak in Springer Mountain, Georgia to its final peak — the northern terminus — at Mount Katahdin in Maine. From Georgia to Maine!
The Appalachian Trail covers 14 states in all.
But Jeremy discovered more than just the trail. He discovered something called thru-hiking. Thru-hiking is when someone hikes the entire trail from start-to-finish in one year, usually in a single go. Jeremy told me there were people who actually thru-hiked long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail.
He thought this was amazing and awesome and somehow desirable. I thought this was silly and insane and a waste of time.
Jeremy started planning to thru-hike when he got out of the Air Force. I swore I’d never do anything of the sort. And so began my journey through the 14 states an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.
The 14 States of an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker
The Appalachian Trail passes through 14 physical states on its long path from Georgia to Maine.
An AT thru-hiker travels through at least that many mental and emotional states.
Let’s travel through some of them together.
1. Disbelief (Georgia)
The first state of a (soon-to-be) thru-hiker is disbelief.
“There’s no way people hike 2200 miles in one go. Is that even possible?”
“Even if it’s possible, why would you want to?”
“Thru-hikers sound crazy. No way I would ever do that.”
Thru-hiking the AT sounds impossible. It sounds grueling. It sounds like the opposite of fun. But something about the idea of hiking for months at a time — over 2,000 miles — sticks in your head. The outdoors. The challenge. The freedom.
But no way.
I mean, it feels good to backpack for a weekend. It’s a great way to get away, and it offers a much-needed break from video games and the internet and Netflix.
But actually hiking for months at a time? 2200 miles? No way.
2. Intrigue (North Carolina)
But now you’re aware the Appalachian Trail exists in 2200 miles of outdoor beauty. And you start thinking about it.
You realize that if thru-hiking is a thing, clearly hikers get something out of the experience.
You start to wonder what it would be like to actually backpack for days, weeks, then months at a time. You think about all the places you’d see and the people you might meet.
Then you start to research. You find YouTube channels and blogs dedicated to thru-hiking. There’s a huge community of hikers who connect over the Appalachian Trail. And you discover that not only is thru-hiking possible, but people from all ages and walks of life set out to thru-hike the AT every year.
You also learn that only 25% of those who start make it. Some drop out due to injury. Some to fatigue. Others to boredom. Some run out of time. Some people just run out of money.
You start to wonder if you’d be among the few who make it. I mean, of course you would. Right?
3. Addiction (Tennessee)
You realize — or your friends point out — the only thing you think about, talk about, and research is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
In your free time, for fun, you read the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website. You learn about the “White Blaze” — the term for the white mark painted on rocks, signs, and trees that guides you along the Appalachian Trail.
You start to pick up books about the AT. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials. And How to Hike the Appalachian Trail by Chris Cage.
You start to daydream at work. You imagine saying goodbye to colorless walls and fluorescent lights and saying hello to fresh air and sunshine. You fantasize about hiking through the natural beauty of the eastern United States during the day and sleeping in a new location every night. You imagine watching the seasons change before your very eyes.
You spend hours on Amazon and REI reading hiking gear reviews. You spend days comparing tools and gear that, just a few weeks ago, you didn’t even know existed.
Down versus synthetic sleeping bags.
Summer versus 3-season tents.
Hiking boots versus hiking shoes.
You research how to carry food. What kinds of food to carry. Are there bears on the AT? (Yes.) How do I keep my food away from bears??
You become an arm-chair thru-hiking expert.
4. Setting the Date (Virginia)
One day, something just clicks. You can feel it. Something changes.
You realize you need to do it. You need to thru-hike the AT.
Armed with months of research, you start thinking about the logistics.
How long does it take to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail? (In their article on surprising facts about the Appalachian Trail, REI reports it takes an average of 165 days — or about 5 and a half months.) When could you start? When would you finish? What kind of gear do you need to prepare for the seasons changing?
You start doing math.
How many miles a day will you walk? (About 16 miles a day, on average.)
How often will you reach a town to resupply? (Every 4-6 days, depending on the location, the weather, and your hiking speed.)
How much money do you need to cover a thru-hike? Plan to spend about $1,000 each month of your hike. To start saving and track your money during your hike, you can use free personal finance software like Personal Capital, or a paid service like Tiller Money. (I use and recommend both.)
You start to research the popular thru-hiking season.
You find out the majority of people start hiking from Springer Mountain in late March or early April. Baxter State Park in Maine encourages thru-hikers to finish by October 15 due to weather and safety.
You look at your calendar. You look at your bank account. And you finally do it.
You set a date.
You’re going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
5. Gearing Up (West Virginia)
Now that you’ve set a date, your thru-hike feels real. And you realize your start date is going to be here before you know it.
Months of research help you gear up for your trip.
You know you’ll need at least the essential hiking gear. A first aid kit. Water bladder. Water filtration.
You get a sleeping bag. A sleeping pad (you’ll want one). A tent. And trekking poles.
You pick up a weather-proof camera to document your journey.
With every new piece of gear, you get more excited. It’s happening! You can already see yourself drinking water from a crystal clear spring. Building a fire. Settling into your tent after a gorgeous day of hiking.
And, of course, you get THE Appalachian Trail thru-hiker guide.
You have everything you need.
And now you just have to wait while your excitement grows.
6. Setting Out (Maryland)
Finally, the day arrives!
By some combination of boat, plane, train, car, and foot you make your way to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
You’re ecstatic. You’re setting out on the adventure of a lifetime!
All those months spent planning. All those days and weeks of research. They all led to this moment.
You have everything you need to survive in your backpack. You feel like you could take on the world.
Like thousands of hikers before you, you start your journey by touching the plaque honoring the Appalachian Trail. It reads:
Appalachian Trail. Georgia to Maine. A Footpath for Those who seek Fellowship with the Wilderness – The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, 1934
You’re becoming part of the trail’s history.
You enter your name into the hiker register. You take a deep breath. And you start walking north.
7. The Honeymoon (Pennsylvania)
The first days on the trail are perfect.
The air feels good. You breathe freely, maybe for the first time in months. It feels good to be moving! Yes, your pack is a bit heavy and you’re forced to take lots of breaks. But you feel good.
Even though the temperature is cold, your spirits are high.
You meet other thru-hikers and you make friends easily.
In the early days of thru-hiking, hikers earn their trail names. A trail name is your hiker identity. Your alter-ego. You become your trail name. Your trail name becomes you.
You can pick your own trail name, but often names are given. (Mine is Ambassador. Jeremy gave it to me. His trail name is Timber because he likes to start fires, and also because he had a hilarious mishap with a large falling log.)
With nothing but a trail name and a singular goal — walk north — things are easy. Life is good.
Miles start slow at first but quickly build. 4 miles one day. 5 miles the next. Soon, you’re hiking 15 miles a day and feeling great.
Could there be anything better than this?
8. Reality Sets In (New Jersey)
But somewhere along the way, little things that used to make you smile now frustrate you.
The blisters on your feet aren’t going away. (They’re getting worse.)
You wonder why it feels like you’re always walking up-hill. (It’s because you are.)
It’s hot. It’s humid. You can’t carry enough bug spray to keep the entire east coast mosquito population away. (Those suckers love you.)
It starts to rain more, and you often wake up with condensation dripping on your head.
One day, you wake up to find an entire colony of black ants somehow made your backpack into their mobile home.
Or you wake up to realize a mouse has chewed a hole in your tent to get to the pack of nuts you accidentally left in your pocket.
You wake up and realize you have to hike all day. Again.
Your legs hurt. Your feet hurt. You trip on rocks and roots.
The forest all looks the same.
This feels like work.
9. Questioning It All (New York)
You realize you don’t have to be doing this. No one is forcing you to hike in the cold, or snow, or heat, or rain.
You could be relaxing in a bed. In air-conditioning. With Netflix. And a beer.
“What am I doing?”
“Why am I doing this!?”
Are you crazy? Why did you think this sounded fun?
You could go back home. You could book a flight right now and be home in a couple of days.
But you don’t.
You told yourself you wouldn’t quit.
Yes, some days, things absolutely suck. But you just don’t quit.
There’s a saying you’ll hear on-trail:
Never quit going up-hill in the rain. – Anonymous Wise Hiker
10. The Work Begins (Connecticut)
You start to embrace the daily grind.
You chose this, and you own it. You start to treat it like your job.
Wake up. Eat breakfast. Refill water. Pack up. Hike.
Take a break. Have a snack. Refill water. Hike.
Reach your campsite. Unpack. Set up your tent. Eat dinner. Sleep.
You start to enjoy your days more. You rediscover some of the bliss from your early hiking days. Being hungry stops bothering you. You no longer mind hiking in the rain. It’s just part of the journey.
You start to embrace the experience. You’re lucky to be here. You’re lucky to be able to hike. You’re lucky to be alive.
You’re determined to complete your thru-hike. You’re more determined now than when you started. You’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears. You’ve worked for this, and you’ve come too far to quit.
11. The End is Nigh (Massachusetts)
You’re in the last several hundred miles of the trail.
A few hundred miles is nothing to you these days. Barring any injuries, illnesses, or bad weather, you can calculate almost to the day when you’ll be on Mount Katahdin.
You start to think about the person you’ve become. The grit and determination you’ve cultivated through daily effort. Through persistence. Through pushing on despite the pain.
You think about the experiences you’ve had. The people you’ve met. The places you’ve stayed. The views that brought you to tears with their natural beauty.
You think about the nights you spent alone in a tent wondering what you were doing. Questioning what you expected to discover out here. Wondering what’s the purpose of any of this.
And you remember the friends you’ve made and the laughter you shared.
You realize that this will all be over soon. In almost no time, you’ll be returning to the “real world”.
And, despite all the obstacles and pain, you’re not sure if you’re ready.
12. The Goal is In Sight (Vermont)
One day you’re hiking and you turn a corner. And then you see her. Way off in the distance.
You recognize her immediately. You couldn’t mistake her if you wanted to.
It’s Mount Katahdin standing in all 5,269 feet of glory.
You stop for a while and take it all in. You’ve walked over 2,000 miles to get here. It’s so close you can almost feel it under your feet.
You’re filled with lots of emotions. All of the emotions.
You’re ecstatic that you’ve made it this far. And you’re sad that you’re so close to the end.
You regret the time you spent complaining about the rain, the bugs, the blisters.
You’re thankful for the friends, the memories, the opportunity to experience it all.
It’s hard to believe, but you’re almost there. You’re near the end. Your goal is in sight.
13. The Peak Experience (New Hamshire)
Soon, you’re in Baxter State Park and preparing to climb Katahdin.
It feels surreal. You’ve spent months getting to this point. Every single step has led you here.
It took approximately 5,000,000 footsteps to carry you and everything you need to survive from Georgia to Maine.
The entire journey culminates here. All the laughter. All the tears. All the joy. All the profanity.
You’re excited to achieve your goal, and, with a skip in your step, you set out to summit Mount Katahdin.
As you begin your ascent, you can’t help but replay your first day on The Trail. You remember your first steps from Springer Mountain. Like a flash, your entire trip passes through your mind.
After what feels like no time at all, you look up and you see Katahdin’s summit. It’s just a few hundred feet away. You can make out the sign that reads “Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail”.
You move more quickly. You’re happy. You’re smiling. Your eyes are wet. You’re crying. And you’re laughing.
Suddenly, with one final step, you’ve made it. You’re there. Even though you’ve been walking here for months, the moment catches you by surprise.
You raise your fists to the sky and you let out a celebratory cheer.
You did it. You made it.
You’re officially a thru-hiker. You earned the title.
14. A Return to Normalcy (Maine)
You book a flight. You say your goodbyes. And, soon, you’re back home.
But you don’t feel like you’re home. You feel like part of you is still on the trail.
You’re happy to see your family and friends. They ask you about your trip, and you love to talk about your hike. But no one really gets it.
They think you “just hiked” for several months. You did, but it’s more than that. It’s a whole experience. It’s hard to share the excitement and struggles. The joy in the drudgery. The magic in the mundane.
It was so much fun! And it was so difficult. Some days were amazing and absolutely beautiful. Some days you cursed and complained. It was everything. It was your life for some months.
It was life.
You realize that even though you don’t seem wildly different, things will never be quite the same.
You carry the lessons that you learned from The Trail with you. The lessons are yours. You earned them. And these lessons continue to inform your life after your hike.
You practiced grit. You developed determination. You learned how to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
You know what it takes to accomplish big goals. First, it takes vision. Then it requires knowledge and a plan. Finally comes the longest and hardest part: daily action. Whether it feels good or not. Whether it’s extremely hot or freezing cold.
No matter what, you wake up. You pack up. And you hike.
Because you’re a hiker. And that’s what you do.
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- REI: 21 Appalachian Trail Statistics That Will Surprise, Entertain, and Inform You
- Baxter State Park Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Notice
- The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Guide
- Hiking for Beginners: 10 Tips to Start Exploring
- Hiking in Missouri: 5 Supreme Spots for The Perfect Missouri Day Hike
- Southwest U.S. Road Trip 4 Day Itinerary: Vegas, Grand Canyon, and Sedona
- Cabot Trail Road Trip: 3 Days in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
- The Best POC Hiking Groups to Join
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