Doctor Grumpy's Ten Tips for Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

Not sure if this hiker I met on Blood Mountain made it all the way. ~~ Photograph by Robert Sutherland

Not sure if this hiker I met on Blood Mountain made it all the way. ~~ Photograph by Robert Sutherland

Hello. Doctor Grumpy here with ten tips for those planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

This list has grown over the years. For example, I came across a Facebook post from a nice man who said he was about to attempt a thru-hike of the AT. He wrote, "Never done this or even seen the AT only in pics." I offered a couple of suggestions: Start slow. Hike a day at a time. Don't kill yourself. Georgia is tougher than people expect. Don't take the Approach Trail. In my humble opinion.

You and I might never thru-hike the AT. Sad but true. What's more sad is 75% of those planning to thru-hike the AT are not going to make it.

The Internet is crammed with inquiries from folks who are "going to thru-hike the AT" and whose comments begin with "I've never done anything like this before but I'm going to thru-hike the AT and I need to know what book to read to help me." The worst? "I'm going to hike the Appalachian Trail next month. Where is it and how do I get there?"

That makes Doctor Grumpy crazy. So that more hikers make the trek and I stop losing the final fragments of my mind, let's review what it takes to thru-hike.

#1: To successfully hike from Georgia to Maine (or vice-versa) you must walk up and down a zillion hills carrying everything you need on your back.

Sorry, but knowing the gram weight of every possible hiking accessory or being able to dazzle your Average Clerk at REI with your knowledge of why you want a hammock vs a tent or why you want hiking shoes vs boots (or vice-versa) will not help you carry your pack ten feet in the rain on a cold morning.

Hiking the AT is about (ready?) hiking the AT.

#2: Stop reading blogs and writing blogs and posting on AT sites and reading AT Facebook pages.

Go outside and carry something heavy up a hill. In the rain. When it's cold and you're tired and hungry.

You cannot learn how to swim by studying swimming. You must get into the water. You cannot learn how to hike up and down countless hills without going outside and climbing the highest sucker you can find while carrying the most weight you can carry.

Why? Because a thru-hike of the AT is about carrying your butt and your pack more than 2,000 miles. It's the daily grind of 10-20 miles every day. For months.

Getting from Georgia to Maine means walking there. Carrying your own weight. Helping others along the way.

It's all about the hike, no matter what you carry or who you walk alongside.

#3: Practice pooping in the woods.

Do you even have a clue how to poop in the woods without covering your pants or boots with poop? Give it a shot before you find yourself in the woods looking for a tree.

Speaking of trees, they come in handy for Doing the Deed. You can use a downed limb as a seat. You can back up to a tree for pooping support. Or, you can hold onto a limb while leaning backward to Do the Deed. The Squat and Thrust is a handy option too.

You won't learn how to poop in the woods online.

Go outside. Go poop in the woods.

#4: Stop asking people if you should wear undies on the Trail or go commando. You are making Doctor Grumpy crazy.

Go outside. Go for a hike. Abandon your drawers somewhere along the way. Figure out which is best for you. Stop obsessing on this stuff, indoors and online.

Go outside. Figure it out for yourself.

#5: Ladies: Don't waste time wondering if the Trail is dangerous.

There's a certain amount of danger to everything. Use that time and energy to learn a few tips on how to protect yourself instead.

I have two daughters and one granddaughter. They're smart but we can all be fooled by strangers, and sometimes by people we know. Trust your instincts, but learn to defend yourself.

If you cannot outrun someone or call for help, take action.

  • Stomp -- as hard as you can -- on the top of an attacker's foot.
  • Kick a male attacker -- as hard as you can -- in the groin. (No, do not pause to smirk while he writhes in pain before you get away.)
  • Claw his/her eyes -- as hard as needed.
  • Learn how to head-butt somebody.
  • This is tricky, but try to kick them in the knees or punch them in the neck.
  • Bend an attacker's finger or hand backwards.
  • Bite them -- as hard as you can.
  • Fight like hell. Don't be afraid. Seriously. You are tougher than you think.

#6: This is America. You are free to do what ever you want.

Doctor Grumpy's advice? Avoid trouble and you'll avoid trouble. If you don't avoid trouble, you won't avoid trouble.

Trouble is often a foolish choice. Have fun. Choose wisely.

#7: If you ever look out your window this winter and say, "Good golly, Miss Molly! I sure am glad I'm not outside today," abandon your vapid hopes to hike the AT.

If, however, you at LEAST pitch your tent in your dang backyard and sleep (hello?) outside a dozen times in bad weather, you might make it.

Thru-hiking the AT is about living outside for six months, not reading about the outdoors.

Go outside! Play in the woods! Sleep in the woods! Carry rocks up a hill. Carry rocks up a steep staircase. Get wet. Don't come in when it rains.

That's what it's like on a thru-hike.

#8: Stop obsessing on mail-drops.

Most hikers are never going to fetch their packages. Sorry. Ugly truth.

The hikers who actually make it to their mail-drops will be the ones who can carry their packs hundreds of miles up and down a zillion hills. In the rain.

If you insist on scoping out every possible mail-drop, do it while you're outside ... hiking ... carrying rocks up and down hills ... in the rain.

That's what it takes to hike the Appalachian Trail. It's about the hike, people. It's all about carrying all your junk from Georgia to Maine.

#9: Yes, prepare your heart, mind & soul for your trip.

Your muscles will carry you up and down a thousand hills. How's your bod? Do you have any clue how many people abandon their quest on Blood Mountain in Georgia because they cannot hike up and down a thousand hills?

Contact Mountain Crossings Outfitters at Blood Mountain and ask.

Have any friends with little kids? Offer to carry a couple of them around for a day or two, for practice.

Toughen up. Go outside. Hike the highest hill you can find. Sleep there. In the rain. That'll be better experience than anything you'll ever read on the Internet.

Except for this, obviously.

#10: You probably can thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, no matter the odds.

Ask any successful thru-hiker if they can look at somebody and instantly determine if they'll make it. Sometimes? Sure. Most times? Doubt it.

I have met old men, young girls with knee braces, health nuts, a moron or two, healthy hikers, folks who look like they're about to keel over and die, and people on the run from their unhappy lives along the Appalachian Trail. Any or all of them could make the hike.

Yes, figure out what gear you'll need and what's best for you. Then, USE IT before you hit the Trail.

The hikers who make Doctor Grumpy the craziest are the ones who approach their thru-hike like it's an appearance on Jeopardy!

It's not about having all the answers. It's about carrying your pack for 2,185 miles up and down a bazillion hills ... when you're tired ... when it's hot ... when there are bugs all around you.

If you're strong enough to make it. When your mind & body are in synch. When you can leap over tall buildings and wade rivers with ease. When you refuse to quit ...

You'll thru-hike the Appalachian Trail!

Unless something else goes wrong. If it does, just try again.

Tags: Attractions, Appalachian Trail, Hiking, News, Robert Sutherland Travel Writer, doctor grumpy ten tips for hiking appalachian trail, doctor grumpy appalachian trail, ten tips thru-hike appalachian trail, and Robert Sutherland Appalachian Trail

About the Author Robert Sutherland:
Robert Sutherland is a travel writer enjoying life. Robert has two adult daughters and six grandchildren.
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oso_loco on Jan 2, 2015
From a multiple thruhiker to a non-thruhiker - DAMN good post. I've gotten into furballs with prospective thruhikers over every one of your points in the past and I enthusiastically endorse this post.
Andrew on Jan 6, 2015
It's not the rain I hate, it's putting on all the crap that goes with it, rain pants, poncho, pack cover, etc. Then again, hypothermia sorta sucks worse.
Joanna on Jan 6, 2015
I don't think part of #7 is necessary. Nothing will physically prepare a future thru-hiker other than getting out on the trail itself. I sat on the couch all winter and spring leading up to my April start date. And I had never gone backpacking before. Slept in my tent one night in my backyard after setting it up a few times that day. Anything you might not know, SOMEONE out there will know and will be more than willing to help you out. If you're not physically fit, just start slow and keep going slowly for about a month. I do think mental preparation is the most important so I agree with that whole-heartedly.
Brad Aikins on Jan 8, 2015
Agree! Nice post.
Monica on Jan 9, 2015
Loved this article! My son finished the thru hike in Sept. I drove to Maine to pick him up. There were so many highs(the birds in the mornings) and lows(thank you mrs bear) but He had the time of his life! I would like to point out..... IT AINT CHEAP! He had money saved up for it but he said many people along the way had to quit because of no funds or they would practically beg you for food. He would do it again in a heartbeat but alas mama says you gotta get a job. We'll see........ the call of the wild is pretty loud in his ears!!
Kaitlin Blazejack on Jan 12, 2015
Doctor Grumpy is the best. His blog is awesome. And this list is simply awesome sauce. Happy trails, Doctor Grumpy! :-)
Robert Sutherland on Jan 20, 2015
Pfft. Leave me alone.


Doctor Grumpy
Pen Mar on Jan 12, 2015
Live on trail in Pa. More power to all. Have helped a few. Keep on Walking we love you all!
Michael Shields on Sep 28, 2015
Best thing I have read about the reality of what hiking is. Thank you.
john_c47 on Nov 5, 2015
Loved it.
George Richard on Jan 29, 2017
Dr. All is true, I'm a volunteer ranger at clingmans dome each yr we rescue dozens
in 8 plus inch of snow. Some warm up and move on some say I Quit.
Melvin Shadowen on Feb 21, 2017
Well Dr. Grumpy you seem to attract the best kind of people I like your common sense approach and I got a lot of that hiking in the 7th SFG around Ft, Bragg an 80 pound pack plus all the extras had me hauling over 100 Lbs. for over 18 hours a day to see if we were tough enough I was simply to insane or to proud to even think of giving up . It truly will be a mind game as are all such endeavors and its one step at a time with only 40 or so extra pounds . I am retired older beat up and scarred my debit card says money is there and I can walk all day and move at what ever speed the hills will allow . I do want to start in Maine though and would like to know whats been happening weather wise on the mountains as of late .I simply do not want to get snow bound.
Robbie B on Dec 26, 2017
Your guide is great! A lot of really practical advice.

I wanted to kindly point out that in bullet #5 ("Ladies: Don't waste time wondering if the Trail is dangerous.") was tough to read. As a woman who regularly solo hikes, it is important for me (and other women) to think about and plan for safety - and we are not wasting time evaluating new situations for danger. The reality is that women need to think about this ALL the time, regardless of we're in the woods or not. The best advice here was, "Trust your instincts, but learn to defend yourself." Learning how to defend yourself would also be most effective with professional guidance. Backpacker also has an article online, "18 Tips From Female Solo Hikers" that has a lot of great advice as well.

Also, I know that Dr. Grumpy is trying to insert some humor into his post, but "No, do not pause to smirk while he writhes in pain before you get away." truly misunderstands how terrifying it is to be in dangerous situations of assault and how women actually react.

Some advice I would also give it to be aware that many trekkers may have different boundaries of what they consider safe, and being conscious and respectful of those boundaries (regardless if it's a man or woman) will keep everything going smoothly.

Either way, I appreciate the tips - thank you for taking the time to write this.