10 Appalachian Trail Tips for Women
If you’re a woman who dreams of walking the Appalachian Trail as either a thru-hike or in sections, you probably have thoughts and questions you’d prefer answered with a female perspective. Based on my experience preparing for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike and what I discovered during my trip, I’d like to offer 10 helpful tips and considerations before you set out to hike that trail with those iconic white blazes.
1. You’re Not Alone
The percentage of women hiking the Appalachian Trail has risen steadily over the years and 40% of thru-hikers are now women. What this means is that women are out there with you! Yes, there are a lot of smelly, hiking dudes with big beards hiking the AT, but there are also a lot of women to buddy up with if you wish.
There’s also network of amazing human beings off of the AT who are around, everywhere. Communities in the towns close to the trail are filled with incredible people who are actually eager to help you on your journey. With the exception of the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, you are never very far from a town on the AT. The distances between resupplies can be as few as two or three days in some places.
2. The Female Hiking Community Wants to Support You
I happened to be one of those people who decided a month beforehand that I was hiking the AT, which means I had a decent amount to crash-course on in a short time period. Even with considerable backpacking and hiking background, I still felt a bit overwhelmed and sought out some help. One of the first things I did was head over to my local REI store and asked if there were any women on staff who had hiked the AT before. After a walkie-talkie call between team members, a woman named Aylin (trail name ‘Maps’) walked toward me with a smile. Rooted in her experience and confidence, Aylin gave me abundant tips on gear, what to wear, and the trail itself. But above all else, she assured me of my capabilities to go out and do it. Like many other women hikers, she cheered me on and wanted me to succeed. We’re still friends to this day, encouraging each other when we set out on other long hikes and adventures.
These are some other ways the female hiking community has your back:
- Blogs, journals, and videos by women – There are tons of inspiring women who share their experiences via all sorts of mediums. They offer advice and thoughts based on their background for you to scope out and consider. I myself am always thrilled to answer any questions I get, in order to get more women on trails.
- Social media groups – There are many groups on Facebook geared toward women who hike. For AT specific advice, check out Appalachian Trail: Women’s Thru Hiker Group.
- Strong women want to see more strong women in the world – In a world where sometimes women compete, judge, and attempt to squash one another, it was extremely uplifting to be around women hikers who didn’t do this. On the AT, I encountered positive, powerhouse women who offered their stories and tips willingly, without being caddy or judgy. Know that if you hike the AT, you’re in store for a new relationship with authentic connection and sisterhood.
3. People Will Try to Scare You Out of It
I hate to share that despite the jubilation in your voice when you tell people you’re about to hike the A.T, some are going to gasp in sheer horror. You’ll hear comments like, “You’re going alone? Will you carry a gun? Don’t you know there are crazy people who live in the woods who want to hurt you? But…you’re a woman!”
This can be a real downer, and my advice is to not listen. Of course, you want to feel informed and have a sense of what you’re getting into, but there are probably way more crazy people walking down the street in the town you live in than those hiking the AT.
If you’re wondering if hiking the Appalachian. is safe for women, I personally believe it is. Anything in life can be risky; we can only do our best to be prepared and use our sense of intuition to guide us. With that said, I offer these safety tips which I practiced on the AT.
- Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is part of the Appalachian Trail reality because most towns aren’t right off the trail. If you get to a road alone, give it a little time for a few other hikers to join you and hitch together. I will admit that there were some occasions I hitched alone, and I felt safe doing this because the people who live around trail towns are usually very supportive of picking up hikers. However, I always kept my phone, wallet, and pocket knife handy rather than in my backpack that was hauled in the trunk of the car.
- Avoid camping within a mile of a road, because this is where the party-folk who might bug you tend to camp.
- When in doubt, walk or camp near other hikers if you happen to have unsettling feelings about something or people you’ve encountered. Always trust your gut.
4. Know a Little, Not A Lot
When I was getting ready for my AT hike, my basic philosophy was that I wanted to know enough to keep me safe and feel prepared, yet I didn’t want to know everything. I craved the element of surprise and wonder that comes in not knowing what’s ahead. I had no idea until a few days before I got to Damascus, Virginia that every year in May there’s a famous weekend event that celebrates the Appalachian Trail called Trail Days. It was pretty darn cool to be surprised by that.
One of the best parts about the AT is that there’s magic of all shapes and forms. There are trail angels who will give you rides and offer their homes for a shower. There’s trail magic at a road crossing with cold drinks and food on the grill. There are beautiful friendships created that last an hour, a month, or a lifetime. There are wondrous moments of cotton candy sunrises and blood-orange sunsets. There is a ridiculous amount of awe, inspiration, and downright joy that is stirred up on those steps of walking the AT. There is equally a considerable amount of intense emotion, pain, and frustration that can quiver in your bones as you keep hiking on. But yet all of these are the forms of magic that are alive on the Appalachian Trail. And because I want you to experience their surprises for yourself, I sit with my case that it’s sometimes better to know a little and not a lot.
However, these are a couple of things I do recommend knowing about before you get on the trail.
- Know your gear and how to use it: It’s not a great time to try out that new tent your first night camping. Figure out the quirks of your gear beforehand by practicing so you can use it quickly and efficiently if need be (think how to set up your tent fast in a sudden rainstorm or how to set up a bear hang easily when you’re exhausted after a long day of hiking). Also take some time to see if you actually like the gear you have or bought, in case you need to try something else.
- Buy a backpack that fits your body frame: it’s not one size fits all in terms of packs and you may prefer one designed specifically for women.
- Consider a bigger shoe size: Many hikers find their feet swell when hiking so much, which means going up a half to a whole shoe size is necessary. I didn’t have this issue on the Appalachian Traiul, but I did on the Pacific Crest Trail. Food for thought.
- Know your body’s needs: This may take a bit of trial and error once on-trail, but there are ways you can tune into your body’s needs in advance with questions like the following. Do you sleep hot or cold? This could determine what kind of sleep system you need. In general, do you get cold easily? Knowing that can direct which way you go with clothing and layers. Do you typically have issues with your feet? If so, you may want to carry moleskin and bandaids made for blisters. What’s your hiking pace? There’s no shame in hiking slowly, but you need to plan for that when setting a healthy timeline so as not to push yourself. Are you a big eater? This will likely increase as you develop hiker hunger, yet I find I don’t need to eat a ton, so I carry a bit less food.
5. Don’t Be Intimidated By What Anyone Else is Doing
You can hike the Appalachian Trail any way you want to, and so can anyone else. Skip the comparing and focus on your hike, whether it’s piecing the trail together over a string of years in sections, or doing it as a thru-hike. Sometimes as women we can feel intimidated when a space feels dominated by men, yet because the AT has a large number of women on it, rest assured that you have your place there.
These are some tactics I used that may help you in focusing on your journey and not someone else’s.
- Get clear on your ‘Why’ before going – I took some time to write out why I was hiking the Appalachian before I went. People do long hikes for different reasons, and I wanted to get clear on what was true for me, what I wanted to focus on mentally, how I wanted to feel, etc. This way in the hard moments, I could reflect back and remember why I was out there and it also prevented me from getting caught up in what other people were doing.
- You can change your mind – There are no rules on-trail, which means you can change your mind about your gear, your mileage, your direction (flip-flopping is a big thing on the AT; I did it), whether you hike solo or with a trail family, and anything else you can conjure up. The important thing is staying aligned with your commitment to the trail, whatever that may be, and that relationship is between you and no one else.
- Sometimes your mind is changed for you – There are things beyond our control, like weather and how your body handles hiking many miles every single day. Be open to adapting when needed, rather than pushing through when it’s not the wisest idea to do so.
- You don’t have to keep up with anyone – I personally am not the fastest hiker and I used to really beat myself up about that (okay, sometimes I still do). But here’s the beauty of the Appalachian – there’s a really big weather window you can hike it, especially in the more mild climate of the southern section. You don’t have to hike huge daily miles to finish it; steady is effective and often more sustainable. You can put together the trail any way you want to, skipping around with the seasons, giving yourself ample time. I mean, if you’re not out there to enjoy it, what’s the point?
- Listen to everything, and then do what works for you. Some time back I got that really solid advice from another thru-hiker and it’s one of my favorite tips because it implies both open-mindedness and freedom to choose.
- It’s okay to ask for help – you should have seen me when I was seeking tips on the best way to pack my food bag from a fellow female hiker my second day on the AT. Asking for help shouldn’t intimidate you and doesn’t mean you’re incapable; it means you’re smart and open to learning new tricks.
6. What To Do About Your Period?
I advocate using a menstrual cup while hiking the Appalachian Trail. or on any long trail. I first started using one in 2006 when I set out for a nine-month adventure in South America which entailed a lot of backpacking trips. I’ve never looked back since and I encourage you to give it some thought with these reasons why.
- It’s way better for the environment – Think about all the garbage and waste those pads and tampons accumulate to be. Now think about having to carry them soiled for days upon end in your backpack until you can dispose of them properly. Enough said there.
- It’s way better for your body – Most pads and tampons are filled with bleach and chemicals and who wants that inside her body?
- Less stuff in your pack – When space is a premium in your pack and you’re trying to be as light as possible, why bother filling it up with extra pads and tampons when you can have a super light, small menstrual cup instead?
- It’s more sanitary than you think – You can keep your menstrual cup inside of you for up to 12 hours and when you do need to empty it, handle it like you would any other toilet moment on-trail with water to rinse it and hand sanitizer. Voila.
- It’s easy to use – Definitely practice for a month or two with your cycle before getting on-trail so you can feel comfortable with using the cup, but it shouldn’t take long. I recommend a company called Saalt. They have different size menstrual cups and a very helpful customer service staff to assist you with any questions with the buying process or learning curve.
- On one last note, your cycle may change while hiking – It’s not unusual for your menstrual cycle to become different on such an arduous journey. I’ve gone for months at a time without my period while hiking long trails and traveling abroad, and when my body composition changed with weight loss. Don’t be alarmed if this happens; the female body likes regularity and once it recognizes hiking as your new normal, it should adjust.
7. You Don’t Need Any Beauty Products…But Do Have Style
You have full permission to ditch the hairbrush, make-up, deodorant, or anything else in the beauty care arena. However, if having a small comb so you can brush your hair every day makes you feel a wee bit more civilized, carry it. I know one AT female thru-hiker who swears by carrying a small mirror with her because she says you never know when you’ve got a big booger hanging out your nose in the morning.
The bottom line is that you’re going to smell bad and look a bit haggard anyway, but you may come to like the au naturel appearance. I remember my first long hike of 21 days I did in Nepal and somewhere in the midst of it, I caught a glance of myself in a mirror. I looked inquisitively for a moment and then realized I had never looked more beautiful in my life because I was happy, natural, and free. Give it a try.
You can go without beauty products, but I do recommend having a bit of your own style and flair. Hiking a long section of the AT or the whole thing can be a lot of time in the same, boring outfit. It may sound silly, but it can be a real pick-me-up when you like the design of your hiking shirt, the pattern of your buff, or if you hike in a fun skirt. I looked like a candy-cane on my AT thru-hike with hot pink shorts, a red shirt, and a Rainbow Unicorn trucker hat. It made me happy and often people who passed me got a laugh and smile out of my hat. I like to think I was offering a public service message to remember the playful side of life…or something like that.
8. A Pee Rag is Better Than Toilet Paper
Let’s face it – if you pee a lot, that’s a hefty amount of toilet paper you have to carry in and pack out. I prefer either using a pee rag to wipe, or I just drip dry. A pee rag is a piece of cloth you use to wipe after you pee instead of toilet paper. Many women hikers on the Appalachian Trail use them, and they can be anything from a bandana to one that is actually sold as a branded pee rag. You simply use it and then attach it to your pack to dry. The upside to the pee rag is that your underwear doesn’t get as funky as fast because the shake/drip dry method is only so effective. The downside is who has time or energy to take off her pack to undo the pee rag, use it, and put it back?
If you’re interested in a pee rag, check out Kula Cloth. It’s an antimicrobial cloth that won’t smell like I found bandanas do when I’ve used them as pee rags before. It’s not pleasant to get a whiff of your pee rag on your pack at lunch, let me tell you.
9. Do Not Buy All Your Food in Advance or Mail Boxes
I don’t think there’s a need to buy all your food in advance and send yourself boxes for a few key reasons.
- Your tastes will definitely change – All of that mac & cheese you bought before you started, well, you’ll probably get sick of it by Virginia.
- The joys of hiker boxes abound – One of my favorite delights from the AT was rummaging through a hiker box filled with discarded culinary goodies from other hikers. This often happens when a hiker carries too much food or they get sick of what they packed and mailed ahead of time in boxes. It’s super fun to see what you find in a hiker box that may awaken a new taste, and it can save you money to stock up before you shop.
- For the most part, the AT has easy access to towns with sizable grocery stores and resupply options. This equates that you don’t have to do all the extra planning, shopping, making boxes, and spending the cash to send them. I only sent myself one box before I entered the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Monson, Maine because I couldn’t see myself doing a resupply at a gas station or convenience store.
- Note that if you do have particular dietary needs, this would be a case to prepare and mail boxes. I’m a very healthy, conscious eater and I had no trouble eating well and shopping while on the A.; however, I’m not gluten-free, dairy-free, or vegetarian.
10. Be a Role Model for Other Women Hikers
Glennon Doyle, a writer I admire, talks about being humble. The definition of ‘humility’ comes from ‘of the earth.’ To be humble is to be grounded in who you are. It implies the responsibility to become what you were meant to become; to grow, to reach, to fully bloom as high and strong and grand as you were created to. This is different from modest or shrinking, which sometimes gets confused with humility. It’s not the way of a tree to shrink or disappear, nor is it for a woman.
If you choose to hike the Appalachian Trail, be humble like this. In this way, you’re being a role model for other women hikers to dream big, show up, and make her footprint alongside all the others who have hiked before her.
The biggest consideration I want to leave you with is that what works for one woman may not work for another. We all have varying experiences on the A.T. and they are all valid. Do your research, feel things out, and then just go. What you don’t learn ahead of time you’ll figure out on the way. Believe in yourself; you’re more capable than you think. Now go chase those white blazes.
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