So you're thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail—awesome! You probably have a million questions, but don’t worry, with a little research and preparation you can do it. One of the biggest mistakes AT thru-hikers make is bringing too many clothes, and the wrong ones. As a Triple Crowner—having thru hiked the AT, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail—I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Here’s my advice to beginning thru-hikers, on how to select the best material and types of clothes for your AT thru-hike.
First, research what temperatures you’ll encounter based on your start date. The bulk of hikers start some time between the last week of February to the second week of April. That means you’re pretty much guaranteed to encounter snow of some kind, either snow on the ground or falling from the sky. Cold nights can be common as far north as the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Further north, hikers will trade the cold nights for humid days. The AT is a trail of extremes both physically and mentally when it comes to conditions you’ll encounter. It helps to have a wide range of clothing and gear to properly deal with everything you’ll encounter between Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin.
Before you choose what clothes to take, you need to know your own body and how it reacts to different temperatures. Do you often feel cold? Do you overheat easily? Knowing how you react to different temperatures and conditions will help you choose what clothes and gear works best for you. The more you know about yourself, the less likely you’ll be to overcompensate and pack too much or too little. It’s super helpful to choose clothing that serves more than one purpose, to make sure you don’t take to much. And remember: test, test, test your clothing and gear before you go.
Here’s what I recommend:
Cold Weather Clothes
When it comes to the cold, it’s not just about low temperatures—it’s also about the wind chill. Most of my cold days on the AT were accompanied by terrible wind. The best advice I can give is twofold: First, learn to layer, and, second, have a wind barrier. Layering will help you regulate your body temperature, which will both keep you warm but also dry. Avoiding overheating is critical. Overheating means sweating, which leads to being cold and wet. Trust me when I say you’re going to get sick of stopping to take off and put on layers. But don’t get lazy about it—regulate and stay dry. Convertible pants are a great way to save weight, by not having to carry both pants and shorts. They also help with regulating your body temperature and will help keep ticks off you further north.
Your hands will probably get cold. Having gloves is a given for most people, but if you start with one pair of gloves for the whole trail, consider some lightweight mittens to wear over them. Or, be prepared to hike with your hands in your pockets a lot.
When I hiked the AT, down wasn’t popular with AT thru-hikers—most people used fleece. Today I only use down and merino wool. Both wool and down offer amazing qualities for keeping you warm. And with proper care and storage, you don’t need to worry about a down jacket losing its ability to keep you warm when it gets wet.
Your rain jacket and pants can be used as protection against rain, but also from the wind. Just be sure to get some with good ventilation. The AT can be very wet! Make sure you select a jacket that is both breathable and durable.
If you plan to be in camp for an extend period of time, I highly recommend packing some sort of base layer or tights. Most hikers sleep in a long-sleeve top, and it’s a great idea to get one with a hood if you’re a cold sleeper. A down jacket is also great for camp, but might be too warm to hike in. So unless you generally run cold, a jacket like the Ascendant Hoody —which is warm yet breathes very well—might be a better overall option to hike in and sit around camp than a down jacket.
Hot Weather Clothes
As you get further north you’ll start sending home your cold weather gear and clothing. For most people, it happens someplace in Virginia. Humidity will be your big issue. You’ll go from trying to keep warm to trying not to get dehydrated from sweating. You will sweat a ton in the summer months on the AT, so make sure your clothing material isn’t heavy, thick, or slow at drying. It’s no fun to put on a wet damp shirt or shorts on at 6 a.m.
As the temperature goes up you’ll want lightweight clothes that breathe well and wick moisture away from your body, like the Astroman with its four-way stretch and quick drying material. Your convertible pants, that were keeping you warm in the south, now are converting into shorts to keep you cool. But remember the ticks—you might want to keep those pant legs on. Consider wearing light-colored clothes—not only do they better reflect the sun’s rays, they also make it easier to spot ticks.
Outdoor Research Appalachian Trail Clothing Kit