Jeff Ryan, Author & Speaker

Photo of Preacher Rock, Georgia. ©2017 www.jeffryanauthor.com

How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail MapIt took me 28 years to hike the Appalachian Trail, a feat I accomplished with my great friend, Wayne Cyr, and wrote a book about. This cutting the hike into pieces is also known as “section hiking.”

While touring the country doing book signings, I was struck by how often a “eureka moment” happened when people in the audience understood the broader implications of hiking the trail in sections. Suddenly, something they had mused about “getting to someday” turned to something within reach. An impressive number of folks said, “It never occurred to me to hike the trail this way. I thought you had to quit your job to hike the AT.”

No, you don’t need to quit your day job. And there are many satisfying reasons to do the trail in sections. Among them are that shorter hikes generally take less of a toll on your body and that doing the trail in pieces provides future trips to look forward to.

I go into more detail about the considerations for section hiking (including the mental and physical aspects) in Appalachian Odyssey, but to get started here are some pointers.

Determine how many trips you would like to take to complete the trail. This may seem easier than it is. If you are an experienced hiker, you can pretty accurately assess how many miles you can cover day after day (also factoring in rest days or days you can’t cover as much ground due to poor weather or fatigue). At almost 60 years old, I figure on covering ten miles per day when I’m out on the trail. When I was in my 20s, it was more like 17. If you have little hiking experience, I suggest taking a few shakedown trips to get a feel for how much ground you can predictably cover. And don’t forget, different sections offer different levels of challenge. Hiking through the Smokeys or the White Mountains is a lot harder than say, hiking through Maryland or New Jersey. In addition to that, some sections can be marginally more difficult based on whether you are hiking northbound (aka “Nobo”) or southbound (aka “Sobo”). Some descriptions include elevation gain in their stats.

Grab a copy of The AT Guide or the AT Data Book. The AT Guide is a comprehensive data book that gives you all the baseline data you need to plan a hike and a lot of info you can use on the trail. It is extremely helpful for determining places to get on and off the trail. The AT Data Book is a planning tool that provides great baseline info for planning your hikes (it consenses the trail data from all eleven official trail guides into one book) but doesn’t go into the level of detail the AT Guide does, which makes the AT Guide my preferred resource of the two.

Choose your food and gear carefully. As a rule, through-hikers take more detours from the trail for rest days and resupply stops than section hikers. We found that we didn’t want to make side trips unless there were burgers or groceries less than a mile or two from the trail. We wanted to be making as much forward progress as we could when we were out. Everyone is wired differently. Some people want to make more side trips. But because we planned on taking no side trips, we packed enough food for the entire trip. Our packs were heavier at the beginning, but we enjoyed the flexibility.

See also  Why you should never hit the Appalachian Trail (or any trail) without a map

Plan your transportation. Where you get on and off the trail is important as it relates to transportation. Both Wayne and I live in New England, so we could easily spot cars at either end of a section. But once we got out of New England, we used public transportation and private shuttles to get to and from the trail. There were two reasons. First was flexibility. If for some reason, we wanted or needed to cut a trip short, we wouldn’t have to work out getting to our car. Second, we wouldn’t be leaving cars unattended for days on end. Another option is to drive to one end of the section, have a shuttle driver take you to the other end and drop you off so you can hike back to your vehicle. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy publishes a list of shuttles.

A note about Uber and similar services. We have successfully used Uber for shuttles, but beware that cell phone coverage (and the availability of Uber and similar services) in some areas may be unreliable. When in doubt, I suggest planning your “end of trip” shuttle in advance. If plans change, you may be able to contact the provider from an area with reception along the trail.

I hope you have fun planning your section hikes and have a blast out on the hallowed path. If you have any questions or comments about what I’ve written or other topics, I’d love to hear from you.

Recommended Section Hikes by State

Map of Appalachian Trail in Maine from Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year Hike on America's Trail. ©2016, www.JeffRyanAuthor.comI have updated my individual state overview pages to provide some recommended section hikes (the same sections my friend Wayne and I hiked over our 28-year adventure). My hope is that you will find them useful for planning your trips as well. Each section is more fully described in my book, Appalachian Odyssey, which also provides profile maps, so you can see what the terrain is like.

Maine

New Hampshire

Vermont

Massachusetts

Connecticut

New York

New Jersey

Maryland

Pennsylvania

Virginia/West Virginia

North Carolina/Tennessee

Georgia

Note: This post was originally written March 25, 2017, and is updated to reflect new information.

Jeffrey H Ryan is an author, adventurer, photographer and historian. He has written several books about his outdoor exploits, his fascination with hiking trails and the people and places found just off the beaten path. His debut book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America's trail was hailed by the former Executive Editor of National Geographic as "a classic of nature and travel writing" and set off a national tour (in a 1985 VW camper, no less). His books are known for weaving a deep appreciation for history into walks across contemporary landscapes that give readers the feeling they are hiking right alongside. When Jeff isn't trekking, chasing down a great story or spinning yarns from his keyboard, he enjoys sharing his adventures with audiences who love the outdoors. He spends much of his time in his beloved native state of Maine.

Comments

  • Amy. Cody
    September 6, 2017

    Can you suggest a 7 day section hike for next week in Massachusetts, Vermont or Maine on A.T.? We were supposed to start at Springer Mountain on Saturday but now we’re worried about Irma hitting Georgia…..

    reply
  • Debbie Johnson
    December 5, 2017

    Hi Jeff,
    I would like to hike the NC section can you recommend the best place to start and end my hike? I did the GA section in May and would like to complete NC next year.

    thank you,
    Debbie

    reply
  • Debbie Johnson
    December 5, 2017

    I went to Bly Gap and then backtracked to Blue Ridge Gap for a shuttle to TOG Hostel.

    reply
      • Debbie Johnson
        December 5, 2017

        Thank you for your help!

        reply
  • December 14, 2017

    Thanks for writing this! I’m headed to a Appalachian Trail in a few weeks and plan on hitting up a few of these trails!

    reply
  • Kristen Idalski
    July 24, 2018

    Hi!

    I live in NY and have a life goal to section hike the AT. I’m a little old for such a goal (44) and I’ve only day hiked. I’m fit and have flexibility to do several s croons a year. Do you provide coaching for such an ambitious goal??

    reply
  • Jim Austin ("Skyline")
    December 27, 2018

    There is advice above to plan your end-of-hike shuttle well in advance. I’d like to offer another suggestion, and give the reasons for it.

    It is more sensible to get the shuttle at the BEGINNING of a section — meeting the shuttle provider wherever you park your vehicle. Then, get shuttled to where you want to start hiking, and hike back TO your vehicle.

    So many things can happen during a multi-day hike to make you early (and more often, late) arriving someplace to meet a shuttle driver at the end of a hike. Cell coverage in the mountains is iffy at best. You may not be able to call the driver to change the time, and even if you can, that driver may have other trips booked at the time you want to switch to.

    It also creates unnecessary and unwanted stress to keep to a tight schedule. Isn’t avoiding stress one reason we go to the mountains?

    Most shuttle providers recommend doing it this way. A few refuse to meet hikers at the end of their hike because they know they, or the hiker, will probably have to wait for the other party to show up. Some drivers do several trips per day and simply CANNOT wait, so the hiker meeting a driver at hike’s end is taking a chance on not getting that ride if he or she takes longer to hike than anticipated.

    Conversely, if you are able to finish your hike a day or a few hours ahead of anticipated, it’s better to simply arrive at your vehicle and be able to drive home than to have to wait hours (or until tomorrow) for your ride.

    There may be the rare exception why you might NEED to do it the other way, but these are all valid reasons not to.

    reply
  • Greg w
    March 2, 2019

    i am unable to do many multi-day section hikes beyond a weekend hiKe but would still like to meet my goal of hiking thE at. What adviCe can you give or resources can you point me to about how Do plan these shorter sections?

    reply
  • Dan Snyder
    March 16, 2019

    hi jeff. I am from delaware and i would like to take our youth group on an over night hike. I have hiked a section in virginia about 20 years ago. i do remember passing and even staying at a shelter along the trail. I was thinking Virginia, maryland or pennsylvania. i want them to see some beautiful mountain views, but also have some type of shelter if possible. thank you in advance.

    reply
  • Heather Locke
    July 13, 2019

    I was wondering if there is a way I can find section hikes that are jogging stroller friendly. Not sure where to look to find this information. I’d like to start out with a few days on a section hike and would like to bring the stroller with. What are your thoughts?

    reply
  • mark
    October 11, 2019

    Hi Jeff,
    Really loving the information you have up here, so informative! I am a novice and travelling from Ireland to NYC in two weeks, was hoping to do some the AT on my own and am wondering if you would have any recommendations for a 3 night (4 day) trail? Id be heading from NYC via public transport but have no idea where to even begin, was thinking of the section Pawling to Harriman State Park you mentioned above? Any advice would be greatly appreciated

    reply
  • Ami
    October 11, 2019

    Hi. I’m from Illinois and a group of six of us have some time off in june and want to do a thru hike. After figuring travel to and from we have five nights to spend on the trail. We are middle aged and above and in okay shape. I’m thinking no more than ten mikes a day. Any thoughts on your favorite six days/five nights thru hiking adventure?
    Thanks!
    Ami

    reply
  • Jacob
    December 27, 2020

    Hello! Any recommendations if I would like to complete a larger section, taking around a month or month and a half to complete?

    reply
  • Jacob
    December 29, 2020

    Most likely beginning in June

    reply

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