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 many 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 is 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 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.
Assessing Your Readiness
Before committing to an early start date, create a checklist to evaluate your readiness:
- Do you have winter hiking experience and the stamina for long miles in cold conditions? Training with weighted packs on cold days can help prepare.
- Does your sleeping system have an adequate warmth rating for below freezing temps? A 0°F or lower sleeping bag or quilt is recommended.
- Are your shelter, clothing layers, cook system, and boots suitable for prolonged winter camping? Make a list of any gear gaps you need to fill.
- Do you know how to navigate trail conditions like ice and deep snow? Practice using trekking poles and traction devices.
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 quality gear like a Katabatic Flex 15 Degree Quilt with its better construciton and lower 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 entire 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 cannot 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 after 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, 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 several factors come into play when making the decision. But with that said, the best will be a northbound thru-hike from 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 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!