8 Reasons Not to Be an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

How many times have you said to someone, “Someday I’m going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.” Probably a hundred times, at least? You’ve been reading AT books and trail journals, you drool over gear at the outfitter stores, you argue with your friends about how to hang a bear bag, and you brag about what great shape you’re in.

But maybe thru-hiking the AT is not for you. For every four thru hikers who start out at Springer Mountain, only one will make it all the way to Katahdin. Some don’t even make it up the approach trail. And why is this? It’s because thru hiking the AT is hard—really hard. Hikers drop out for all sorts of reasons, from injuries and family issues to boredom and loneliness.

But here’s the good thing: You don’t have to be an AT thru hiker to prove yourself to anyone, or to challenge your body beyond what it’s capable of doing. There are lots of fun challenges out there that will give you bragging rights and make you a well-rounded outdoor adventurer.

If you’re considering an upcoming thru hike, consider these 8 reasons not to do it, and what you can do instead. And just maybe, a thru hike on the Appalachian Trail will be in your future…or won’t!

Grayson Highlands is a favorite spot on the AT, known for its wild ponies, black bear, bobcat, red fox, ruffed grouse, deer, and wild turkey. | Credit: Troy Lair

Reason 1: Because you don’t want to sleep in the woods for 5 to 6 months.

Leaving your comfortable life to hike 5 to 6 months on the AT, covering over 2,000 grueling miles, sleeping on the hard ground in all sorts of terrible weather, is not for everyone, especially anyone who is a fan of their comfy bed at home, clean clothes, and food that wasn’t cooked on a Pocket Rocket.

Do this instead: Take a long section hike.

You don’t have to set aside 6 months to “complete” the AT—Section hiking, or doing it piece by piece as day hikes or shorter backpacking trips is an equally good way to get the Appalachian Trail experience. One of our favorite sections: Hike the AT from Damascus, VA to Pearisburg, VA for 165 miles. You’ll go through some of the most beautiful sections of the AT, including Grayson Highlands, with their wild horses and abundant wildlife, and if you’re in good shape you can probably do it in two weeks.

Avery Reekstin tackles the 4,000 footers of New Hampshire. | Credit: James Golisano

Reason 2: You don’t want to quit your job.

You’re young, you’re just out of college, and recently landed a great job in your field. Do you really want to give that up with the chance that you may not find another good job when you finish your thru hike?

Do this instead: Hike all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot summits.

You can have a major goal and impressive outdoor adventure in various different locations without giving up that much time. Instead, pick a peak bagging list like the New Hampshire 4000 and chip away at it on weekends.

Try a new sport if you’re not into hiking, like whitewater kayaking. | Courtesy: Nantahala Outdoor Center

Reason 3: Because you have bad knees.

You love to hike, but your knees say no way. Not everyone is built to take on a challenge like the AT. Your knees are not going to get any better or stronger on a long AT hike, in fact, you may very well suffer a painful injury walking miles a day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a new outdoor pursuit, and learn a new sport.

Do this instead: Take up whitewater kayaking.

There are lots of challenges out there besides long hiking trails, and whitewater kayaking is one of them. It’s a thrilling sport, an adrenaline rush like no other! But don’t just jump into the water quite yet. Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the heart of the Nantahala National Forest in NC, and take one or more of their whitewater kayaking courses. You’ll learn lots of new skills, like how to read the water, and how to “roll.” And since the Appalachian Trail passes right through their property, you’ll get to schmooze with thru hikers, too! And it’s easy on your knees.

Reason 4: Because you have small children at home.

You’re not getting any gold stars for leaving your kids at home while you’re hike the AT for 5-months. Your young children need you at home. But that doesn’t mean that an AT thru hike isn’t in your future.

Do this instead: Get your kids into hiking.

Kids love to hike in the woods. Start out with short walks, and keep them busy by identifying plants, trees, bird song, and insects. Take them on trails that have a wow-factor, like a beautiful waterfall, or swimming hole. Buy them their own hiking gear, like trekking poles and backpacks. Before long, they might want to join you for AT section hike trips, or other missions like these in the Adirondacks or these in New Hampshire.

Reason 5: Because you don’t have any money.

Let’s face it, you need money to hike the Appalachian Trail—It costs about $6,000 to support yourself on the trail, and that’s likely without any income. And that doesn’t even cover the cost of your gear. You may think you can live on less, and maybe you can, but you’re going to want to stay in towns, eat at restaurants, pay for shuttles, and have money at the end of your hike to rent a car to buy a plane ticket to get home.

Do this instead: Stick close to home.

Not everyone who hikes the Appalachian Trail does it as a thru-hike. Parcel it out into a section hike and take on the pieces closer to home which require less traveling and expense.

Fran Leyman hikes the Beehive Dome Loop Trail in Acadia National Park. | Credit: Carey Kish

Reason 6: Because you’d rather be at the beach.

Spending your summer in the mountains might be nice for a lot of us, but it means forgoing beach days and the ocean escapes you might be used to, here and there. What if there were a way to have the best of both worlds?

Do this instead: Visit Acadia National Park in Maine.

Acadia National Park is a coastal wonderland for folks who love the beach and love to hike. The Beehive Dome Loop Trail is a challenging hike that borders on exposed via ferratta. “The views of Great Head, Sand Beach, and Newport Coveen route are spectacular,” states Carey Kish, author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast, and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. “Over the top, the trail meanders on to the Bowl, a brilliant blue tarn tucked into the ridge below Champlain Mountain that makes a great place for a swim and a picnic lunch.”

Reason #7: Because you’ve had a recent surgery.

If you’ve had a recent surgery, spending 6 months walking probably isn’t in the cards. Save it for next year.

Do this instead: Get a professional personal hiking trainer.

For avid hiker Alys Spillman of Savannah, GA, who recently had foot surgery, she knew she’d have to get some help to get back on the trail safely. “I used Trailside Fitness to help with my recovery,” says Alys. “It’s an online training guide that’s helping me reach my fitness goals. I’m not ready for a thru hike yet, but these small shakedown hikes I’m doing on the weekend are getting me back in the game!”

Reason #8: Because your gear is old and heavy.

That old backpack and heavy boots might have been good enough for your grandfather, but they’re not right for you. A heavy tent and worn-out rain jacket will drag you down every minute you’re on the AT, causing you to get discouraged from the very first day out.

Do this instead: Spend a year buying new gear.

There’s no reason you need to rush to drop all that money on new gear in the month before you leave. Delay things a year, make a budget, do your research, and buy a piece of lightweight gear each month for a year. By next spring you’ll have everything you need for a successful thru hike!