backcountry travel learn from other trailblazers

Notes On HOW to Hike the Appalachian Trail

By: Scott Payne
Trip Date: 1999

I recently completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Taking those final steps up Springer Mountain in Georgia after walking from Maine to complete that 2,160 mile trek was the result of a seed planted in my mind by my father when I was a child. It was an incredible experience and I would not trade it for anything.

There are usually two responses that people give when I tell them about this trip. One is “What kind of insane individual would want to spend five months in the woods lugging a backpack up all those mountains while bugs and bears are constantly harassing them?!”. The other is typically a more positive response. “Man, I have always wanted to do something like that. Maybe one day…” Well, I must be one of those crazy people who love to spend time outdoors, and any of you who find yourself agreeing know exactly what I mean.

There are a lot of books out on this subject that describe how to plan a trip of this length and include descriptions of gear selection, food preparation, etc. Some are better than others and I can assure you there are a lot of differing opinions about it. For those of you who are interested, here are a few thoughts on how I did it that might be helpful.

I believe the single most important factor in completing such a journey is a desire that overwhelms you so much that no matter what happens you know you will finish. The other planning will come together as you go and a lot of the fun is in that process.

I spent eight months on the particulars, using my spare time after work and on some weekends to plan. Buying all the necessary gear is not as big a deal as it may seem. I made a list of the gear that I needed, decided on the quality and weight I wanted and then picked up items a little at a time as I could afford it. You will have to replace some of your gear along the way but a lot of the items will last the entire trail if you take proper care of them. As you make your choices remember that you might spend five to seven months with that item. It can be very helpful to check with your local outfitter when making those choices.

There are three primary ways to handle food along the way. If you tend toward the creative side, there are lots of other different ideas you can come up with, but most folks use a variation of one of these three. The first is to prepare boxes of food in advance and have them pre-addressed and ready to ship. Leave these at home for a friend or family member to send to you in mail-drops on an itinerary determined in advance. The second idea is to have a helper back home that will buy food for you and send it to you as needed. The third way is to buy food at stores, campgrounds and outfitters along the way.

I incorporated a little bit of both the second and third ideas. This allowed for more variety and freedom to try new things. At breakfast and lunch I had a lot of oatmeal, granola, G.O.R.P., dried fruit, summer sausage and numerous other snack ideas. However, after a long day of hiking, most would agree that the meals they looked forward to the most were the main meals in the evening. Of course, while you are out you will be eating constantly and will always look forward to eating, but you will usually have a main course meal in the evening. I tried a lot of different meals, but I can say with all honesty that the best meals I ate out in the woods are put out by Mary Jane Butters. When I first tried one of her packages of organic alfredo pasta and cheese, I had a hard time believing it was dehydrated backpacking food. It tasted like a home-cooked meal. I used it to re-supply myself for about one month of evening meals and wish that I had used it the entire trip. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. There are a lot of other issues for you to think about as you plan your trip and it will all be exciting. If you get a chance to speak with a few folks that have done it, you might get some ideas to help you figure out which route in planning you want to take. Good hiking y’all!

Scott Payne
“Doc Alley”
Maine to Georgia, 1999