It 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 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 Great Smoky Mountains 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 sources include elevation gain in their stats, which is pretty useful for trip planning.
Grab a copy of the AT Thru-Hiker's Companion or AT Data Book
The AT Thru-Hiker’s Companion (published by the Appalachian Long Distance Hiker’s Association) 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 condenses the trail data from all the official trail guides into one book) but doesn’t go into the level of detail the AT Thru-Hiker’s Companion does.
Make your food and cooking fuel choices 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 (i.e., more days on the trail and fewer days in towns). Everyone is wired differently. Some people want to make more side trips. But because we planned on taking no side trips, we would pack enough food and fuel for the entire section hike. Our packs were heavier at the beginning, but we enjoyed the flexibility.
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 anywhere between Maine and southern Connecticut. 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. The 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. Whatever service you choose (whether it’s a ride share service or a shuttle you’ve arranged through a recommended provider), I suggest contacting your “end of trip” shuttle a few days before your meeting date to verify their ability (refresh their memory). Reception is generally greater up on the ridge tops than down in the valleys where trips often terminate. Thus, it’s better to be buttoned up in advance than trying to create a “plan B” with spotty or non-existent cell coverage.
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.
Note: This post is updated periodically to reflect the availability of new information.