5 Survival Tips to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

John M. Dabbs

An experienced waffle stomper gives you the dirt.


Photo by Clayton Cardinalli on Unsplash

The hemlock boughs hung low, as the shadowy trail snaked beneath their towering trunks. Yes, it was right out of a horror movie. Before long we could hear the loud, repetitive noise of the wild. Barking with the enthusiasm which comes from a long slumber as it's time to feed. Would we survive?

It took a quarter of a mile before the crescendo reached its fever-pitch. We rounded a turn and saw the water churning. Boiling with activity near the dead leaves of autumn, rotting at the water's edge. The frogs had awakened. What else might be resurrected by the warmth of this sun-drenched weekend?


Frogs in a beaver-dam lake — John Dabbs

Beware of animals

The Appalachian Trail (AT) near me is convenient to access in multiple areas. In my youth, I’d hike sections for a day trip, and others an overnighter with a friend.

We always prepared for the Appalachian Trail Killer, the AT Murders always being a possibility in our minds — especially as darkness approached and we heard what could be wildlife, a murderer, or the wind. There is quite a bit of wind in the mountains.

I’ve been very fortunate during my hikes to see a lot of wildlife. Now that I’m older, I find that I see much more wildlife without my glasses than when wearing them. There has been more than one instance when one of my friends wondered why I was stealthily backing away from a rock or stump. The sweat one generates when thinking they have stumbled upon a sleeping bear can be quite copious, or so I’m told.

There are only two big-game animals I’ve seen in the last 20 years while hiking the AT: White-tailed deer, and turkey.

Squirrels, birds, insects, and the like are usually quite plentiful. I’ve had the good fortune to spot a few deer on the Appalachian Trail, and even put up with the company of a few mice in the shelters. One bit of advice, do not eat anywhere near the shelters or put your backpack with any food in it within five feet of the ground near shelters. The mice will find it and eat their way through the pack to get it if they must.

Watching where you step can avoid problems with snakes and wildlife which may not have heard or felt you coming. I advise going around them when possible, and never, ever try to nudge a snake or other animal along to get off the trail. It could end badly for you.


Rattlesnake on Mountain Road, Holston Mountain, TN — John Dabbs

Maps and shelters

Anyone can hike the AT on the cheap, without the use of fancy equipment or even a tent. Though you may not have room to sleep in a shelter.

Shelters are dotted along the AT, some are big as a garage, while others are much smaller. One can usually be found every 10 miles or so, on average. It is best to plan your trip and where you plan to spend the night. I recommend using a map to track your whereabouts and plan. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)website has links to maps and other information. Most outfitter shops in the vicinity of the AT also stock maps and guidebooks.

It’s best to search out current maps and guides, as the ones I used when I first embarked on the trail are obsolete — except for most parts of the trail, which haven’t moved. There are areas of the trail that are upgraded and rerouted where necessary. This makes the Appalachian Trail length vary from time to time. The ATC published the trail’s official length at 2,189.2 miles as of January 2015. Use updated guides and maps to learn the location and condition of shelters, as they are maintained by volunteers.

During my first hike of the AT on Roan Mountain in 1984, my friend and I camped in the Applewood Shelter off of U.S. Hwy 19E. In the late 1990’s I camped there on an overnighter with my sons. I learned two years ago the shelter had been dismantled and found out for myself the last time I hiked through that section.

The world is my toilet

One might say we’ve really inherited a crappy world. I personally disagree with that sentiment, as I love this world and the many wonderful things it has to offer. It is quite true in one respect if you are camping.

You can make a nice toilet of about any patch of ground soft enough to dig about six to ten inches down and four inches across. Please be considerate when doing so, and keep if at least 10–20 yards off the trail, away from water sources, and for heaven’s sake — cover it up when you are finished!

Play it by the numbers. Even if you are only doing a number one, use the same rule of distance from the trail as for the number two. When doing a number two, please put all toilet paper into the hole too before filling it in. We are all appreciative of you following this bit of trail etiquette.

The ups and downs of life on the trail

If any of you have followed Patrick F. McManus, who has written several books and used to write a column for Outdoor Life, entitled — The Last Laugh, you’ll know what I mean as I restate some of his observations, now that I’m a bit older than when I first read them.

I have noticed that the mountains have become much steeper than they were in my youth and that the ground is much harder too. This must be a result of some geological phenomenon. The trails are steeper, and climate change has really taken its toll, as the air is much thinner than I remember.

Some may disagree, but I find it much easier going uphill than down. Hiking uphill with a 20–30-pound pack is strenuous. At sensible intervals, a brief rest and swig of water will help. At the crest, I’ll often have a salty snack and more water to hold off dehydration and electrolyte issues.

Taking on the down-hill is a different animal. It kills my knees from the repeated impact, and muscles working to absorb some of the shocks from each step. Did I mention I have bad knees? (Skiing accidents were the culprit.) After an as yet to be determined distance, every step becomes painful. Walking slower and using a staff/hiking stick or trekking poles can help, but there is still the possibility of knee damage.

Better than a therapist


discounted therapy — Frankie Leon

After settling into the hike, gear, and clothing adjusted, we are alone with our thoughts. This quiet in the woods is better than going to the gym for a workout. Our pack and its belongings give us an additional 20–30 pounds to work out as we get into our pace. The crescendo of our footfalls, bearly deft in the dirt and grass as we slog along.

Our senses are able to take everything in, as if on autopilot. We breathe, we look, we appreciate. Our subconscious churns the problems we’ve held in and begins to decipher the cryptic answers that plague our consciousness. The serenity of the outdoors, its majestic tranquility lends to healing.

Time Out

As my busy life took a time-out this past weekend, to go hiking with my family, My troubles also took a time-out. The achy legs from inactivity this winter succumbed to oxygen saturated blood, once again surging through their muscles. My boots, softly trodding, left me thinking about the deep-lug waffle stompers I used in my teens and twenties. Thankful for the technological advances that provided this lightweight, flexible, waterproof footwear with decent traction in spite of the shallow grip and non-marring soles.

The picturesque day has given me renewal. Was I suffering from Cabin Fever? I don’t think so. My belief is simply — Nature was calling. Will you answer the call?

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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