advice for the beginner Hiker on the Appalachian Trail

sash, folks, this is a Boy Scout Merit badge sash, with the 21 Merit Badges I earned to become an Eagle Scout. Troop 4 of Marlboro, MA, Algonquin Council BSA, 1969.

the dawn of time

I have backpacked since joining the Boy Scouts ( 1966…) and many of the things that I take for granted seem to fade into my own psyche until I see somebody else struggling with the obvious elements of how to have a successful trip. Yes, folks, at present I am old and fat, but I still know how to have a good time and to feel comfortable when hiking….. I suppose this is because I have had my share of terrible camping experiences, and learned from each time.


On this present trip I got up close and personal with a few hikers that were totally new to this sport. I could have stayed my distance, experiencing the schadenfreude of their trip, but I tried to be useful without being too directive. I do have some advice, before you go.


first and foremost, if you have never backpacked, be advised that this is more than just a walk in the woods, especially if it is for a multi-day trip where you land in a different spot each evening. you need to deal with weather, terrain, your own physical conditioning, how much to put in the pack, minor injuries/stresses/strains, nighttime critters etc.

I introduced my two daughters to hiking at an early age, and this is us on a “mountain” of Acadia National Park, Maine. the one of the right later did a through-hike. The one on the left has section-hiked with her sister (the Mahoosucs, 2001, the Bigelows, 2002; NY, 2010)  and also with me (part of Ver Mont).


The intrepid team later known as “Snafu,” “Whoopie Pie,” and “Catch-Up” on a summit after a daring climb in Acadia National Park. Note that the protective equipment consists mainly of sweaters hand knit by grandma.

For a beginner, I recommend the book “How to hike the A.T. = the nitty gritty details of a long distance hike” by Michelle Ray.  This is a good introduction to the wide variety of problems and situations you will encounter, written in a readable style. (Be advised, there is no connection between myself and the author and this is an unsolicited testimonial).


One thing I found myself saying to a few of the beginners I met this week, was that to take a hike on the Appalachian Trail is akin to joining a cult. There are certain practices and etiquette that are followed. All the equipment that is used is specialized, more than you would think. So – among other things, if you get new stuff such as a backpacker’s stove or a water filter, make sure you have gotten it out of the box and learned how to use it before the actual hike. For example, if a backpacker’s stove is being used at a picnic table, any person sitting nearby is at risk of a burn or scald if it tips over….. not like at home!

when you plan a menu, try the recipes at home so you will know what to expect. camp in your backyard, at the very least.

Resist the urge to buy buy buy

when you first go out, you will get a lot of new stuff. soon you will discover that you didn’t actually need half of it! what you put in the pack is what you will carry. for example, if you are going on a seven day trip you do not need seven pairs of underwear. all you need is two – the one you are wearing, and the other pair which you wore yesterday and which has now been washed and is hanging on your pack to dry.

two most important pieces of equipment:

1) boots get them two sizes larger than your usual shoe size.

2) hip strap on the backpack. the weight of the pack should never be on the shoulders.

3) nowadays I would add a third:  hiking poles.

you are not conquering the wilderness

you are living in a different sense of harmony with natural elements.

it’s a marathon, not a sprint

I met two guys from a church group who said that the first day, they chose the same pace they had trained on using a treadmill at 24-hour fitness – i.e., fifteen-minute miles. four miles per hour. at that rate they could have gone ten miles in 2 1/2 hours.

oooooh nooooo….. after a half hour with packs going up hill these two newbies told me they flopped to the ground and figuratively, died. Then they had the good sense to laugh at themselves and ask what were we thinking? they recalculated a new pace. and got over their pride.

for me? I plan on 1.25 miles per hour ( including breaks). On those occasions when I go 1.75 miles per hour with a pack, I know I am zooming along!

things never to bring

an axe. too heavy

frying pans or kitchen cook ware. also too heavy

anything that is heavy.

an expensive folding knife. you generally shouldn’t expect to be gutting any deer on a backpacking trip…… likewise, leave the “heat” home. the ammo is – too heavy!

a folding chair. yes, there are legends of guys who actually brought these……it’s been done, but don’t bother. you can sit on a rock or a tree stump or a log. trust me.

any food that is half liquid such as canned beans. or, canned food in general.

soap. some people will shudder at this. trust me. there are alternative ways to clean stuff.

more utensils than, say, one cup. you don’t need a separate plate for each person.

things to always bring:

the ten essentials,as defined  by The Mountaineers in their classic book, The Freedom of the Hills. ( actually, the ten essentials omits toilet paper, so it should really be eleven essentials….)

always bring  a good attitude and team spirit

know that this is a team event

when you go with a group, or just one special partner, this is an intense interpersonal experience for the two of you, and lifetime bonds get forged. I have always been very particular about who I will take with me, and have been fortunate to find such legendary partners as Gummi Bear, Whoopie Pie, Snafu, and Sam Gamgee.

You have a responsibility to your team, you can never be alone.

think about this.

meditate on it.

it’s a terrain sport like golf

the A.T. for example, is famous. There is a nationwide community which knows every spot on the Trail just as intimately as the golf-viewing public knows the Augusta National. Strategy plays a part in a successful hike. there are days when the only logical thing to do is to wait for the weather to clear; there are days when calculated risks are taken by experienced hikers that would be dangerous for a less experienced person. for that reason, you can’t lock yourself into a pre-set benchmark of mileage per day, or try to be competitive about it.

the last thing

when you are on the Trail, be friendly to all you meet. that is what life is about, and hiking is a reflection of real life.

Oh, and buy my novel (which is about a different sort of travel) It’s titled The Sacrament of the Goddess and it’s available on Amazon


Once you finish the A.T., you will dream of trekking in Nepal and other locations. I still enjoy long-distance hiking in USA, and I teach (not hike) in Nepal when I am there. But this book is a cult classic among medical volunteers to South Asia. Why not?



Filed under Appalachian Trail, Joe Niemczura

12 responses to “advice for the beginner Hiker on the Appalachian Trail

  1. Auntie Mame and I agree 100% that your post is marvelous. Such good info!

    • Aw shucks.

      Uncle Tom, you have inspired me with your own writing on similar topics. That’s why I put the link to your blog on my blogroll. Please share a recent experience or observation as to how best to introduce this sport to new people?

      • Dave Nunley

        Joe speaks from experience, although he has been guilty of carrying, ahem pulling heavy stuff. I seem to recall the Chimney Pond bunkhouse in the early 80’s having pulled in heavy stuff on sleds. Dinners in which Joe added a pint of sour cream to the Beef Stroganof, bottles of wine, sandwiches made from great bread with avocados and sprouts! The looks on the faces of the Maine Bound students camping in the leantos who came in to the cabin to get warm was priceless. If you have access to a heated cabin at the base of a grand mountain and you can bring your stuff on a sled, make the experience grand.

      • I plead guilty as charged!

        I made three trips to climb Katahdin in winter in the early 1980s. The trips involved skiing in fifteen miles to get to Roaring Brook then Chimney Pond the next day, using the cabin there for base camp as some in the party ice climbed and others winter hiked to the summit.

        Winter hiking rules for an experienced party are different than what is discussed here. One of the best defenses against hypothermia is a full belly. We hauled in stuff for a six-day stay at Baxter State Park, using those blue plastic sleds.

        and yes, there were groups of college kids there eating granola and staying in the lean-ros during bitter cold. they were not having fun. Fun is what it is all about though…..

      • My one winter trip into Baxter was the roughest winter trip I’ve ever had. Eight went in, three of the group only summited ( I made it) , after we did the whole 17 miles into Chieny from the Golden Road in one day. The two other guys I summited with skied down the Saddle. I was terrified on the ice coming straight down alone on my cleated snowshoes. Four people suffered blackened , frostbitten toes. Never again.

      • Of my three trips, we always planned the intermediary stop at Roaring Brook; one time it rained at 33 degrees for the last three miles and we were all covered in ice by the time we arrived, in which case the hearty menu may have been lifesaving.

        that same trip we had drizzly weather all three days and never went up as far as the Table lands.

        somewhere, I have a picture of us on a different trip, at the A.T. sign, with our shirts off. that day it was warm and we did the Knife Edge ( with crampons). we saw the Atlantic Ocean as well.

        I also recall needing to chop steps into the thick ice at The Saddle on the first trip – backbreaking and slow work to break out the trail that way. we prolly made 200 steps……

        Never have winter camped at Tuck’s, but similar stories of winter hiking Mt Washington. One time we summited then the weather turned to windchill of -110 and poor visibility we had an exciting and scary ski down the Auto Road behind the tractor. (!)

        I admire your trips to Moosehead and Jackman, those sounded as though you were having fun….

      • Joe, I can’t conceive of hiking in 90 plus degrees with the humidity in VA. If you can resist gorging, going to be a dramatic weight loss program.

      • In TN just recently it was cool up at higher elevations. Now that I am past Roan Highlands, though, I am cosnidering switching to my other pack, and making significant efforts to lighten things. I am also debating whether I want to go back to TN, or whether to move a bit north…. either way it is still the height of summer….

  2. Pingback: Advice for the beginner hiker on the Appalachian Trail « Tjamrog’s Weblog

  3. I have stumbled on your blog, through a series of insomniac internet clicks and I am writing to tell you that I am inspired by your blog posts, personally, professionally and spiritually. Keep up the great work, and carpe diem!

  4. Reblogged this on Tjamrog’s Weblog and commented:
    Just when winter turn to bitter cold, the snow deepens , and we dream of spring. Thoughts turn to the possibility of a long walk. Here’s some sound advice for those if you who are considering a walk in the woods, from my friend Joe.

  5. Pingback: Is “A Walk in the Woods” a good thing for the Appalachian Trail, or a bad thing? | Joe's Junk Drawer

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