Winter Hiking: What to Know Before You Go
For many, winter can be the ideal time to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail — or pretty much any trail! Leafless trees allow for miles-long views, the cool air keeps the crowds at bay, and there isn’t much that is more satisfying that sipping hot cocoa next to a hot campfire (in a designated fire ring, of course). However, winter has earned its reputation for danger for many good reasons, and being prepared for your winter hike is one of the best ways to ensure that your cold-temperature adventures are both safe and enjoyable.
Before setting out on your winter A.T. adventure, remember these tips for a successful cold-weather hike.
Don’t forget that winter weather can change from week to week. Howling winds, temperatures in the teens, and almost a foot of snow to trudge through are not exactly the ingredients for a “wonderful, completely uneventful night” on Trail. It’s not uncommon to see February days in the 60s and April days below freezing along the A.T., so be flexible with your dates and go when the weather is kind.
Do your research.
During winter, many facilities on public lands are closed, meaning that spigot you were depending on to fill up your water bottles before your hike may not be so dependable. Visit the website of the local land manager and contact them if necessary, to find out what’s open and what’s not, including things like roads, bathrooms and campgrounds.
Be an underachiever.
You may crush 20-mile days in the summer, but the winter is a different ballgame. There could be snow or mud that slows your progress; moreover, it’ll be dark by five o’clock. Always bring a headlamp, even on a short day hike, and plan fewer miles than you normally would — better to watch the sunset from your living room than to be shivering your way down a dark Trail.
Get the right gear.
Layering is crucial in the winter, as you want to stay warm without getting too sweaty since moisture will chill you quickly as soon as you stop moving. Your base layer should fit snugly, as moisture-wicking material has to be in direct contact with skin to work well; and don’t wear any cotton, because it holds moisture.
As far as footwear goes, traction support is necessary if the Trail is covered in snow or ice — wear snowshoes for snow, and MICROspikes®, which you strap on to your normal hiking shoes, or even crampons for ice. Bring an emergency shelter and a headlamp even on a short day hike, because the days themselves are short and this is one case where a few ounces can save your life. And remember to have a plan for human waste — a trowel is a good start, but consider bringing a “wag bag” if the ground may be frozen and/or covered in snow.
Appalachian Trail: Choosing the Best Time to Start a Thru-Hike
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When it comes to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, there is no one perfect time to start. Everyone’s situation is different, and there are a number of factors that come into play when making the decision. But with that said, here are a few things to consider when choosing the best time to start your Appalachian Trail thru-hike.
For NoBo thru-hikers, the best time to start would be April for the best weather and more hikers on the trail with you. For SoBo thru-hikers the most common start time is June which is limited to when Katahdin clears and opens. Though many may vary start dates NoBo from January to even May depending on needs and life.
Since the time for when you start when heading northbound or southbound can cause a big difference within your hike overall you really want to understand the times to start and what the impact that timeframe may have on your thru-hike itself.
Deciding when to start hiking the Appalachian Trail will change based on the direction you plan to hike from, whether northbound or southbound along with the gear you have and the conditions it can keep you safe from.
Why Does the Time Matter?
There is a huge difference in what you will encounter on the 2100+ mile long Appalachian Trail, the biggest one for people who decide to start early will be the weather’s impact on their ability to move with speed.
The number one thing that someone undertaking an AT thru-hike should be prepared for is the weather and more importantly, the temperature changes.
The average temperature in Georgia can widely range from sunny and decent days to sleet and snow the next hour, this is not the only state that has drastic changes in temperature but it does set the stage for what you can expect when you start your AT thru-hike.
Temperature is not the only thing to pay attention to when preparing for your Appalachian Trail thru-hike, precipitation is also a large factor. The AT is a very wet place, and the weather can change very quickly.
One moment it could be raining, the next it could be sleeting, and then snowing. It is important to be prepared for all types of weather when you start your thru-hike.
What does all this mean?
Simply put, the weather on the Appalachian Trail can be very unpredictable and it is important to be prepared for anything when you start your thru-hike.
There are a few things that you can do to help you be prepared for the weather when you start your thru-hike outside of having the right gear.
Weather leads to impacts on gear and if you are trying to hike early with gear that can’t make the temperatures you may be caught in it could end in total catastrophe, you don’t want to trust your life to improper gear when it can be avoided.
This means gearing for the worst weather and this may mean a bigger and heavier pack to ensure you can make it through when conditions turn for the worse, you also want to ensure that your gear is able to withstand the rigors of an AT thru-hike.
Your gear should be properly tested and able to take a beating, this isn’t the time for brand new unproven gear!
Lastly, crowds, for some the party atmosphere is exactly what they are looking for, for others it may be a deterrent but what time you start your AT thru-hike will also play largely into the crowds you will encounter.
Starting in early spring means you are more likely to run into college kids on break, people taking time off work, or those just looking to have a good time and hike with others, this also comes with more support on the trail.
If you want a more solitary experience you may want to consider starting your thru-hike in the late fall when most have already finished or when winter conditions have started to set in and people have gone home.
Now let’s jump into what to be aware of when you start your thru-hike northbound broken down by the months and what you’ll need to expect.
When to Start the Appalachian Trail Northbound & Expectations
For most thru-hikers the AT will start in Georgia, this works out to roughly 95% of all people who register start from Amicalola Falls, grabbing their hiker tag and starting their trek north, so when is the best time to start the Appalachian Trail when heading north?
The best time to start is April, this gives you some of the mildest weather to start along with being in the bubble will provide others on the trail with you and numerous people and businesses to cater to your needs.
While April is the best time there are people leaving from Springer Mountain earlier and earlier each year, some this year starting around the beginning of January. While this can help you get done you will face far more difficulties due to the weather impact slowing progress each day to skip crowds.
January & February
An early start is almost always going to provide lots of very cold weather and temperatures, rain, sleet, snow, ice, and possibly huge storms that can leave you isolated for days at a time when you are the most vulnerable being new to the trail.
You will need to be aware of not only the weather but also your cold weather or winter gear to make sure you and it can handle the conditions and have a plan B when things go wrong, such as being able to get off the trail when necessary.
This is when higher-cost quality gear like a Katabatic Flex 15 Degree Quilt with its comfort rating can keep you warm.
This time will have very few others starting around you, there could be days between registrants and there will be no day hikers, meaning you could have the entire trail to yourself some days.
There are also fewer businesses prepared and open this time of year and when they are they may have limited stock or accessibility and hours, be prepared to hunker down when necessary and know it could take longer for help to arrive if you need it.
You will also not experience as much trail magic as many won’t even know or be aware to put it out there for you.
March & April
This is the most common start time for the vast majority of thru-hike attempts made on the Appalachian Trail, this time lends itself to fewer extremes in weather while cold can still occur it is more the exception than the rule versus the first months of the year.
This timeframe brings on the full social aspect of the trail as this is when you will be more a part of the “bubble” or a large gathering of consistent hikers, this also leads to more trail help and support and trail magic offerings.
If you want to avoid some of the crowds but still have all the social aspects and support you can start in late March when people are just getting going, this is when you may skip some of the party-like atmosphere and more college students.
You will find towns are much more prepared for your business and needs as they know when to expect large influxes of customers and when to staff up, you will also find more business options open in many cases.
May & Later
As you move into May the weather continues to warm up but now you are on a severe time crunch itself as Katahdin closes when it closes due to weather and every month later you start means the faster you need to move on trail maximizing your mileage to be successful.
This will also allow you to hike with less and less cold weather gear which will lighten your pack and in theory, this will also help you to hike faster and with more efficiency than when you started earlier in the year.
You will still find people on the trail but not as many and you could possibly see large gaps between others for days at a time when starting this late, meaning more self-reliance is required.
Between May and September is only five months, so you will need to manage higher miles per day and take many fewer zeros than others to complete before the shutdown of Baxter happens.
When to Start the Appalachian Trail Southbound & Expectations
Just like the northbound above a southbound hike is growing in popularity but still nowhere near as many people will start from this direction due to the isolation overall and the starting hike is much more difficult in general.
But should you choose to take on the pain and suffering you may be wondering then when you should look to start your SOBO Appalachian Trail thru-hike?
In general, you are unable to start a thru-hike SOBO before late May into early June due to Baxter State Park being closed for weather and conditions. You will not be able to start before this timeframe as the trail to reach Katahdin will be closed and inaccessible.
Let’s look now though at leaving after this point and what you will encounter along the way:
June & July
Any SOBO thru-hiker will be. running counter to the entire trail support system, this means you will need to hitch far more than having reliable shuttle options and that you will be facing a trail straight out of winter and it will have more fallen trees and quite possibly runoff making larger water crossing with ice-cold water.
While you will be in warmer weather you will find the bugs to be horrendous and you could face hypothermia when fording rivers and creeks along the way you will need to pay more attention to these more minor issues in addition to ticks.
Ticks in this warm area will be out and looking for their next meal, you will need to do more consistent daily and nightly tick checks and this can be mentally draining when starting your hike.
The last part is that this begins with the most physically demanding part of the entire Appalachian Trail and those who haven’t had the entire trail as preparation may find themselves getting injured and unable to continue their journey forcing a premature end.
August & Later
As you move into August you are going to start having to think more about the ending, the above information for June and July still applies and you will begin to run into NOBOs earlier in your thru-hike but now you will have weather issues at the conclusion of your hike to think about.
The 6000′ mountains in the south are definitely not to be trifled with should the cold come and the weather turns sour, so a hasty exit may be required when you are in the home stretch trying to reach Springer, thankfully it doesn’t close so you will be limited more by your cold-weather ability and gear.
Your support options will also begin to dwindle as the southern area will have gone through the traditional thru-hiker season and there will be fewer opportunities for those nice options that existed on a NOBO thru-hike in the same areas.
Final Thoughts on When to Start an AT Thru-Hike
There is no one perfect time to start a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Everyone’s situation is different, and there are a number of factors that come into play when making the decision. But with that said, for most the best will be a northbound thru-hike starting around March to April.
Ultimately, the best time to start your thru-hike is when it works best for you. There is no wrong answer, so long as you’re prepared for what lies ahead. Please leave a comment if you found this helpful or have useful information I can add, I work hard to help provide valuable information to make the right decisions to keep people safe!
1 thought on “Appalachian Trail: Choosing the Best Time to Start a Thru-Hike”
NoBo bubble sucks! Hotels and hostels no vacancy. Shuttle drivers to busy to pick you up for the next 4 hours. Trail magic crowded like a stadium concession stand. College kids rude and entitled. Gear weenies at every shelter that never STFU! Late January start for NoBo is perfect. Yes, you do run into some not yet open proprietors, but it is few. Best hike, early April flip flop out of Harpers Ferry going NoBo to Katahdin. Mild temps, low crowds, only real thru hikers. Then the flip SoBo to Springer is gorgeous in the fall. I can’t say it loud enough, March and April Nobo bubble SUCKS THE BIG ONE!
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I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!
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When To Start Hiking The Appalachian Trail? (Important Facts)
If you want to avoid crowds and winter weather, the best time to start is the first week of February. If you are planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in the winter, you will need to be prepared for cold temperatures, snow, and snowshoeing.
You will also need a good pair of hiking boots to keep your feet warm and dry. If you have never hiked the AT before, it is recommended that you take a few days to familiarize yourself with the trail before you begin your hike.
Table of Contents
Can a beginner hike the Appalachian Trail?
Even though it may seem intimidating, beginners can scale the numerous mountains of the Appalachian Trail and see some of the best views in the world.
What is the best month to start the Appalachian Trail?
If you start in Georgia and end in North Carolina, the best time to hike the AT is mid-March to early April. Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S., and it’s easy to see why.
The AT traverses more than 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also a great way to get to know the area and its people, as well as learn about the history and culture of this region. If you’ve never hiked the trail before, here are a few tips to help you get started.
What is a zero day hiking?
Resupply day is when you lay over in a nearby town when you’re not gaining mileage toward the end of the trail. It was nearly a zero day on Nero Day. One hikes just a few miles, often spending most of the day in the woods, and then returns to town for the night. The second day of Nero.
This day is spent in town, eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. It’s also a good time to get some rest, since you’ll be hiking for a long time. You’ll also have a chance to catch up with friends and family who have been hiking the same trail for months or even years.
Do you need a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail?
The trail is free for everyone to enjoy. Fees, memberships, and permits are not required to hike the trail. The trail is open year-round. For more information, please visit www.AT.gov.
Can you hike the Appalachian Trail in 3 months?
You will not have time to stop as you will not have time to look at the country. If you only have three months to do it, then you should do it in pieces over the course of several years.
I would recommend hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing. If you are looking for a place where you can enjoy the beauty of nature without the hassle, then this is the place for you.
Do people hike the Appalachian Trail alone?
The Appalachian Trail is hiked by hundreds of people every year. They travel through the amazing trail towns of the great smoky mountains in the United States. It is a right of passage for some and a way of life for others.
But for many, the trail is more than just a trip to the mountains. It is an escape from the everyday and a chance to reconnect with the people and places that make up their lives. This is the story of one of those people.
Can you hike the Appalachian Trail with no experience?
The Appalachian Trail spans 3,524 km and is no joke. A lot of people spend a lot of time in the wilderness and training to be able to complete the trail in one go. While it is possible to complete the AT with minimal experience, there are a few things you need to know to make the most of your time out there.