by Alyson Browett

On the Right Foot: ATC to Offer “Start Well” Hiking Classes for Northbound Thru-Hikers

February 13, 2018

UPDATED 3/27/18

This is it. This is the year you are going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

You’ve been preparing for months, maybe years, for this adventure of walking over 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine.

Or maybe you haven’t prepared much. Maybe not at all.

However you prepared your journey, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has developed a new class aimed to help aspiring thru-hikers get off on the right foot.

The ATC — in partnership with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Forest Service — will be holding daily half-hour “Start Well” classes from mid-February through April at Amicalola Falls State Park, the unofficial southern beginning of the A.T. These no-cost classes are designed with thru-hikers in mind, but any hiker can attend. Multiple classes will be taught each day to ensure hikers of all starting times are able to join in.

According to ATC Southern Regional Director and 2,000-miler Morgan Sommerville, the goal of the class is to ensure northbound thru-hikers — or “NOBOs” — understand the essential items and skills they need to have a safe and successful hike and to protect the Trail as they proceed north.

“Every year we see hundreds of aspiring thru-hikers set themselves up for discomfort, abandoned thru-hikes and potential danger due to a lack of expert advice and preparation,” said Sommerville. “This class is designed to help engrain some of these valuable skills before NOBO hikers begin their journeys north, simultaneously increasing their chances for success and, ideally, decreasing the impact they will have on the Trail itself.”

The ATC-led thru-hiker class will help aspiring 2,000-milers start on the right foot as they set out on their adventures to Maine. Photo by Melissa “Moment” Guziak

The ATC also hopes the classes will foster more open communication among hikers and partner agencies, as well as increase the number of volunteers on the Trail.

Experienced thru-hikers and ridgerunners will teach the classes, providing essential information and providing time for questions. Some of the topics that will be covered include:

  • How to leave the A.T. better than you find it and sharpen your Leave No Trace skills.
  • Tips for a great hike, including how to choose and carry the proper gear; prevent injuries and illness; maintain adequate nutrition and hydration; avoid wildlife encounters; and minimize more specific threats, such as “widowmakers” — large tree limbs at risk of falling on unsuspecting hikers — created by decay, recent wildfires or extreme weather.
  • Myths about thru-hiking, such as “you don’t need a trowel” (yes, you do) and “you can sleep with your food” (no you can’t, because bears).
  • Statistics about the increasing number of A.T. hikers and how the estimated 4,000 NOBO thru-hikers potentially can impact natural resources and the hiking experience.
  • How the Trail is supported by the Cooperative Management System, a unique partnership arrangement between public and private groups.
  • Roles of ridgerunners, trail maintenance crews and partner agencies.
  • Permits and regulations for specific areas of the Trail, including bear canister regulations for Georgia, backcountry permits for the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks, and permits and quotas for Baxter State Park.


“All of this information is important to get into thru-hikers’ hands before they begin,” said Sommerville. “Though individual impacts to the Trail might seem inconsequential, the collective impact of all hikers, if they misuse the Trail, will be great.”

With the number of hikers increasing each year, efforts to even out the flow of hikers and maintain the Trail’s sense of wilderness have become more challenging. When too many people begin their hikes at the same time and place, A.T. shelters and campsites can quickly become overcrowded, leading to trampled vegetation, polluted water sources, wildlife habituated to human food and unsanitary conditions that can ruin the Trail’s natural experience.

For more information on ATC’s efforts to reduce thru-hikers’ impacts on the Trail, visit the Voluntary Thru-Hiker Registration page. There, you can learn about when and where other thru-hikers plan to begin their hikes and register your own hiking plans.

Hikers who register their thru-hike attempts will receive a commemorative 2018 A.T. hang tag at the Amicalola State Park visitor center or other A.T. visitor centers. By using the registration information to spread out their start dates and locations, hikers can also help avoid competing for limited sleeping space with other campers.

Most importantly, you will be helping to preserve the A.T. experience not just for yourself and those around you, but also for future generations of hikers.

To view updated times for the A.T. thru-hiking class and register your 2018 thru-hike, visit