Uhh … how do you know where you’re going? Are you bringing a GPS? Printing out topo maps? Just gonna wander aimlessly?! Not to worry – navigating the AT is actually pretty easy these days with all the guidebooks, planning sites, and trail markings to aide you. Realistically, one could confidently hike the trail without any advanced planning or wilderness orientation skills. However, even though you may never truly feel lost, there’s no point in venturing out foolishly without some help, so here’s what I recommend (and plan to use):
Guidebook/Databook: There are a few to choose from, but The A.T. Guide by David Miller is the crowd favorite within the community. I already recommended AWOL’s AWOL’s other book, but this The AT Guide focuses solely on data – tracking all the AT waypoints like shelters, water sources, towns/roads, lodging, resupply options, and more. It includes maps for the major town crossings with additional information on what to find there, which can be very helpful. There are many other print and digital guide options available, but most hikers trust AWOL each year. I will bring the PDF version on my Kindle for daily route planning.
Trail Map: Not that you really need it, as the trail is pretty easy to follow and the AT Guide provides the same info, but it can be cumbersome to pull out a big book each time you reach a cross-section or milestone. You could rip out pages from the guide as you go (also a good trip for reducing pack weight), or bring small pocket versions like offered by AntiGravityGear – but another popular option is Guthook’s Mobile App. Using all the same data as the Guidebook, the app uses GPS to say exactly where you are on the trail and how far it is to the next waypoint. Very nifty, and works in airplane mode to preserve phone battery. Since my phone will always be with me as a camera and journal, I’ll use Guthook’s for real-time orientation on the trail.
Trail Blazes: Both of those tools are nice, but also useless if you accidentally wander off the trail! With so many side roads, game trails, and pedestrian paths coming to and from the AT, there is one more tool of note. The White Blaze! The AT is marked in both directions with white painted rectangles of 2×6 inches. Blazes are placed at eye level on trees, posts, and rocks to mark the primary trail route. Follow the White Blaze and you follow the AT! And since blazes are such a big part of the trail culture, there are other colored varieties one could follow as well to navigate a path (both real and symbolic). Here are some noteworthy ones to keep an eye out for along the trail:
- Blue Blaze – side trails to shelters, water sources, or shortcuts of the main trail.
- Yellow Blaze – stepping out of the woods and walking along the road instead.
- Aqua Blaze – bypassing the standard footpath for one by paddle, most commonly done along the Shenandoah River parallel to Shenandoah National Park.
- Pink Blaze – following a female hiker’s path; this is creepy so just don’t.
- Orange Blaze – following me, Hello Neiman!