The United States is home to some of the most rugged and remote long-distance hiking trails in the world. Traversing through a range of landscapes, these trails attracts hikers from all over the globe.
The common three long-distance hiking trails, referred as the “triple crown” of trails include the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails. Any of these trails will challenge your skills and reward you with beautiful scenery.
Whether you desire trekking the heavily trafficked wet and forested Appalachian mountains, the remote crest of the central Rocky Mountain range of the CDT, or a mix of high-desert and mountains characterized by the PCT…which trail you choose ultimately depends on the type of experience you’re after. Here we’ll cover more information about each trail so that you can decide which one is right for you.
First, you want to make sure you can get to the United States.
How to Enter the United States
The United States government regulates who can travel into the country. Permission to enter can be time-consuming and difficult.
- If you will be in the United States for fewer than 90 days, you may not need a visa and instead may be eligible for a Visa Waiver. To understand the rules for your country, please consult the Visa Waiver webpage.
- If you expect to travel longer than 90 days, you will need to obtain a six-month multiple entry Tourism B-2 visa. For information about applying for a visitor visa, including documentation and fee requirements, visit travel.state.gov. For specific visa application procedures or visa ineligibilities, you will need to review the website for your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate. You can find a list of U.S. embassies and consulates here.
- To apply for a B-2 visa, follow the steps from the U.S. State Department website. You’ll be required to fill out the form, upload a photo, pay a fee and schedule an interview. On the application, you’ll be asked for a contact in the United States. If you have ordered from Outdoor Herbivore and need a U.S. contact, please send us a note requesting assistance.
- Keep in mind, that having a visa does not guarantee you entry to the United States. It allows you to travel to a U.S. airport or other point of entry. Once you arrive, you must obtain permission from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to enter. Learn more about admissions and entry requirements by reviewing the CBP website. See also traveling with backpacking gear and food products to learn about airline and customs restrictions.
Consider Travel Insurance
Although you are likely healthy now, there is always the chance of developing a sudden illness or injury while here. If you are planning to stay in the United States for several weeks or more, we recommend you get travel health insurance. Medical care in America is exceptionally costly without coverage. You absolutely do not want to be treated in an emergency without it. Coverage varies based on your country of origin, the hiking conditions (high vs. low altitude), length of stay, pre-existing medical conditions, etc. Generally, coverage will be easier to find if you stay below 4,000 meters.
According to followingthearrows.com, there are certain keywords insurance companies don’t like to hear :
- Ice-axe, crampons/spikes
- Hiking at altitude over 4,000m / 13,000 feet
- Hiking solo / without a guide
Shop around for quotes. One place to start is World Nomads insurance.
Getting to Trails
The most surprising aspect to foreigners about America is how huge it is. Driving across the country without stopping or sleeping will take a full 2 days. Most of the country also lacks public transportation. Don’t expect to get to the trailhead without a car. We recommend you book a flight to the nearest airport where you will be starting on the trail and then using a rideshare app to get to the trailhead. Download Lyft and Uber because these two are available in most locations. Be aware that when leaving the trail, cell coverage may not be available in smaller towns. Therefore, getting transportation off of the trail may be a challenge.
What to Expect on American Hiking Trails
If you are coming to hike in the United States for the first time, you can expect solitude on the trail. Outside of National Parks, guided hikes and large tour groups are not a common occurrence on trails. Americans value independence and tend to trek alone or with a partner. Outside of major cities and during the off-season, trails are relatively unfrequented. Accordingly, you should know how to navigate with a paper map. If you prefer downloading maps to your smartphone, the Guthook Guides app is a favorite among U.S. hikers.
You are expected to keep trails pristine. Hiking trails in the U.S. traverse through federally protected wilderness areas. Some wilderness areas prohibit campfires or require a fire permit. Regardless of the path that you hike, you should always abide by Leave No Trace ethics which includes carrying out all trash, camping a minimum of 61 m from water sources, and staying on marked trails.
Wilderness permits are required on certain trail sections. Be sure to do plenty of research to understand what permits are needed. Give yourself ample time ahead of travel to secure them.
Pacific Crest Trail Permits
If you plan to hike 500 or more continuous miles on the PCT in a single trip, the Pacific Crest Trail Association can issue you an interagency trail-wide single permit. If you are hiking a shorter distance on the PCT, you’ll need to apply for permits for the sections from each agency that manages those sections of trail.
Appalachian Trail Permits
There is no single interagency permit for the AT. You must obtain separate permits for backcountry camping in these two national parks: The Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah.
Continental Divide Trail Permits
There is no single interagency permit for the CDT. CDT travelers are required to obtain permits for camping in several areas, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Blackfeet Reservation, and Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado. Some of these areas require no advance planning because the permits can be filled out at the trailhead for free. More information on permits is available on the “Permits” tab on the CDT planning page.
Which Hiking Trail is Right for You?
Because the US is incredibly vast, it has diverse terrain and culture. From miles of beaches to snow-covered mountains to volcanoes and swamps, it is all here. Your experience is largely determined by where you go. You’ll have to decide what type of experience you’re after.
- The Pacific Crest Trail has fewer people, minimal cell coverage, and offers a more remote wilderness experience. Expect to be on your own for most of the trail. Be prepared to spend the night alone in the wilderness without access to business services. Trail signage is minimal. You should be familiar with basic survival skills and wayfinding. Bring your own shelter because there are no trail shelters.
- Are you the type of person that enjoys the social aspect of hiking? Consider hiking the Appalachian Trail starting in Georgia during the prime season. Most of the trail has good cell coverage and passes near and through numerous towns. Many nearby businesses accommodate hikers needs with restaurants, post offices, lodging, laundry facilities, and shuttle services. The AT is well-marked. You can get by without a map, but we recommend having a paper map as a backup.
- Are you an experienced hiker that desires solitude and a challenge? The Continental Divide might be right for you. Be warned that route finding can be difficult on this trail because some of it is incomplete. About 30% of this trail will not have signage, and you will have to walk on roads or make your own path.
- Of course, there are many others less known trails to choose from. See the map below for more.
Planning your Hike & Food Supply
Some useful resources to start with for planning your hike and ordering backpacking food is Trail Supply Co. It is particularly helpful for international hikers because it gives you a single dedicated point of contact for your resupply. As a member, you can get everything you need for your hike, including toiletries, gear, and food from multiple retailers and have them combined into a single order and shipped directly to your resupply destination.
More useful websites for researching your hike
To read the real-life accounts of an American backpacker, check out the quick and dirty guides by pmags.
Other Trails: The Best Short(er) Thru-Hikes in America