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By Alan Smith, Meteorologist Posted 1 month ago April 19, 2024

How To Plan An Appalachian Trail Hike Around The Weather

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a long-distance hike that spans 2,197 miles through the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. Hundreds of people completed successful thru-hikes of the AT every year, while many more enjoy day hikes, weekend hikes, and section hikes on the AT.

Most thru-hikers hike from south to north ("northbound"), starting in Georgia in the spring and ending in Maine in late summer/early fall. A smaller percentage of thru-hikers choose to hike southbound, beginning in Maine in early summer and finishing in Georgia in late fall. 

The AT offers something for hikers of all abilities from short day hikes to months-long journeys. However, inclement weather can impact hiking conditions on the AT no matter the season and it's important to study weather forecasts in detail leading up to your hike.

Weather conditions can vary substantially by location and elevation, with elevations on the trail ranging from 124 feet in Bear Mountain State Park (Lower New York) to 6,643 feet atop Clingman's Dome on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.

What are some of the weather hazards that can occur on the AT?

Heat, cold, snow, rain, thunderstorms, high winds, hurricanes... You name it, the AT has got it!

This makes planning your adventures around the weather of utmost importance, no matter which section of the AT you are hiking, how long or how far you are hiking, or what time of year you are hiking. 

The harshest climates along the AT are found in New England (due to latitude and elevation) and across the Southern Appalachians (due to elevation), while the Mid-Atlantic is comparatively milder due to its lower elevation, but also features the hottest temperatures during mid-summer.

Also, precipitation is evenly distributed throughout the year across the Appalachian Mountains. As a result, there is not a wet or dry season, and rain is a regular occurrence in all months of the year. 

Here is a rundown by region...

Southern Appalachians (Georgia to Southwest Virginia):

This region contains the highest elevations in the entire Appalachian Mountain Range, with most of the trail traversing terrain between 2,000 and 6,000 feet. The highest point on the AT is Clingman's Dome along the NC/TN border in the Great Smoky Mountains, which sits at an elevation of 6,643 feet. 

The AT crosses a total of 5 peaks above 6,000 feet in the Southern Appalachians and many more above 5,000 feet. Most shelters are located between 3,500 and 5,500 feet. Very seldom does the AT dip below 2,000 feet in this region. 

Winter – Despite the southerly latitude, the Southern Appalachians are high enough in altitude to experience periods of severe winter conditions including heavy snow and subzero temperatures. The higher peaks along the North Carolina/Tennessee border and into Southwest Virginia average 70-100 inches of snowfall per year, while the lower valleys below 2,500 feet average around a foot or less per year.

Day hikes and overnight hikes can be very pleasant during more benign stretches in the winter as snow cover is typically light (except after big storms) and does not stay on the ground all winter. However, thru-hikers typically do not begin their hikes until March or April when severe winter conditions are less common.

Spring – March to May is the most popular time for thru-hiking in this region, and it can be a wonderful time of year for day hikers and overnight hikers as well due to milder temperatures.

However, rapid weather changes also occur during the spring. Heavy snow can fall in March and April (less common in April than March), and on infrequent occasions, the highest peaks can even see snow in May. 

On the other hand, storm systems can bring periods of heavy rain in the spring, and severe thunderstorms can also occur at this time of year, producing frequent lightning, hail, and high winds.

Summer – Thru-hikers have typically moved further north by the time summer arrives. However, this is still a popular time of year for day hikers and overnight hikers.

The lower elevations of the Southern Appalachians experience hot and humid summers with highs in the 80s, but the higher elevations offer relief from the heat. Average highs above 6,000 feet are only in the 60s in July and August. 

Afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence at this time of year, with lightning and heavy downpours posting the biggest threats to hikers. Locations in the Southern Appalachians average 45-60 thunderstorm days per year, with the majority occurring during the summer.

Autumn – This is one of the most beautiful times of the year with cooler temperatures and fall foliage. It is a popular time of year for day and overnight hikers, while southbound hikers typically reach the Southern Appalachians at this time of year, too.

Rainfall frequency also dips slightly at this time of year compared to other seasons as multi-day dry stretches are more common. However, occasional tropical systems can bring heavy rainfall.

By October and November, the threat of cold snaps and snow increases across the higher elevations, though major snow events are uncommon prior to December. 

Climate Tables for high and low elevation portions of the AT in the Southern Appalachians:

Mid-Atlantic (Central Virginia to Lower New York):

The central portion of the AT is lower in elevation than the southern and northern portions and experiences a milder hiking season climate as a result. However, inclement weather still occurs in this region, and mid-summer temperatures are also hotter here.

Central and Northern Virginia is still very mountainous with elevations ranging from 1,000-4,000 feet. The AT traverses terrain between 3,000 and 4,000 feet frequently in Nelson County and Shenandoah National Park, cresting the 4,000-foot mark on multiple occasions.

The portion of the AT from Maryland to Lower New York is much lower, generally ranging from 500 to 2,000 feet in elevation, with a low point of 134 feet in Lower New York. 

Winter – Despite being lower in elevation, winters are cold across Pennsylvania and New Jersey/New York due to the more northerly latitude. Shenandoah National Park and Nelson County in Virginia also experience similarly cold temperatures due to their higher altitude compared to areas further north. 

Winters are less extreme in this region compared to New England, but occasionally, severe cold snaps can send temperatures below zero. Average annual snowfall in this region ranges from 20-50 inches, and significant snow or ice events are always a possibility.

Day hikes and overnight hikes can be pleasant during more benign stretches in the winter as snow cover is typically light and does not stay on the ground all winter. However, Northeast Pennsylvania is known for its rocky terrain and could be treacherous with snowy and icy conditions. 

Spring – Spring is one of the better seasons for hiking along this section due to longer days and milder temperatures, especially in April and May. Northbound thru-hikers typically do not reach this region until the summer, but it's an excellent time of year for day hikes and overnight/weekend hikes.

Despite the overall warming trend, rapid weather changes can occur with spells of cool and rainy conditions. Snow remains a possibility during March and early April, but is rare beyond mid-April. Freezing temperatures can occur as late as May.

By late spring, thunderstorms start to occur with more regularity with lightning posing a hazard to hikers. Severe thunderstorms can also occur, which can produce large hail, high winds, and heavy rain.

Summer – This is the most popular season on the AT for thru-hikers who start in Georgia in the spring and reach this region by the summer. 

Hot and humid conditions are typical at this time of year, and this is often the biggest weather nuisance for AT hikers. Average high temperatures are in the mid 80s across much of this region, and highs in the 90s occur during hotter stretches.

Nelson County and Shenandoah National Park are higher in elevation and see more comfortable summer temperatures as a result. Average highs above 3,000 feet are in the mid 70s and average lows are in the 50s.

Afternoon thunderstorms are common at this time of year, with lightning and heavy downpours possible. Locations in the Mid-Atlantic average 25-45 thunderstorm days per year, with storms being more common across the higher terrain of Virginia compared to areas further north. 

Autumn – This is the best season for hiking in the Mid-Atlantic due to cooler temperatures and a decrease in the frequency of rain events compared to spring and summer. Fall colors also put on a brilliant show during October.

This is a popular time of year for day and overnight hikers, and southbound thru-hikers also pass through the region during this season. 

Occasional cool and rainy stretches can occur in the fall, while the biggest threat for heavy rain events is often from tropical systems.

Freezing temperatures occur with more regularity by late in the fall. The higher peaks of Shenandoah can be dusted with snow as early as October, while the Northern Mid-Atlantic typically sees its first snowflakes in November. 

Climate Tables for high and low elevation portions of the AT in the Mid-Atlantic:

New England (Connecticut to Maine):

The northern section of the AT contains some of the most difficult terrain and some of the most extreme weather on the entire trail. The hiking season is also much shorter compared to the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Appalachians as winters here feature deep snow cover and extreme temperatures. 

Elevations range from 1,000 to 5,000 feet for most of this portion of the trail, but the trail also passes over numerous 5,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire and Maine, including the summit of Mt. Washington at 6,267 feet and the summit of Mt. Katahdin at the northern terminus of the AT at 5,270 feet.

Mt. Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world. The weather station at the summit records wind gusts of 100 mph per hour on 30-40 days per year and holds the world record for the strongest recorded wind gust of 231 mph in 1934. Snow is also possible at any time of the year. 

Winter – This is the off-season for hiking on the AT in New England. Heavy snow cover is typical for most of this region, as the mid to higher elevations receive an average of 200-300 inches of snowfall per year. Subzero temperatures are also a regular occurrence.

It is possible to hike here in the winter with proper traction, clothing, and preparation, but it is a serious endeavor and is only recommended if you are an experienced winter hiker who is weather savvy. Also, hiking is not recommended during winter storms or severe cold snaps.

Many hikers have died in the wintertime in New England, especially above treeline in the White Mountains where whiteout conditions make it easy to become disoriented and where hypothermia can quickly set in.

Spring – April and May is mud season in New England, and hiking on the AT is less than ideal as a result. New England (especially Maine) is also infamous for its black flies and mosquitoes in late spring and early summer.

Summer – This is when hiking season comes into form with northbound thru-hikers typically reaching this area by late summer. Temperature-wise, summers are more comfortable compared to areas further south with average highs in the 70s in most locations.

Higher peaks in the 4,000-5,000 foot range see average highs in the 60s while the top of Mt. Washington remains chilly even in mid-summer with average highs only in the 50s. When hiking through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with many peaks exceeding 5,000 feet, you'll need to pack for cooler weather.

While the climate is cooler overall, occasional heatwaves can send temperatures soaring into the 80s or 90s in the lower elevations, and high humidity is often a factor as well.

Rain showers are still common, with rain occurring on approximately 50% of days in the summer. In terms of overall rainfall, August and September are slightly drier than June and July, but not by much.

Thunderstorms are not as common compared to areas further south, with locations in New England averaging 10-25 thunderstorm days per year. However, the AT frequently rises above treeline in the White Mountains, making this area much more vulnerable to lightning when thunderstorms do occur. 

Autumn – Early fall is a wonderful time to hike the AT in New England when the leaves are changing, and this is also when most north-bound hikers reach the summit of Mt. Katahdin to finish their thru-hikes.

September is often the best hiking month with mild temperatures and a comparatively lower frequency of rainfall. However, the remnants of tropical systems can occasionally bring heavy rain to New England at this time of year.

By October, average temperatures decrease more rapidly with rainfall becoming more frequent, while snow becomes a factor across the higher elevations. Early October is typically the latest you will see thru-hikers in New England due to the change in weather, and because Mt. Katahdin closes for the season on October 15.

Winter begins to set in across the higher elevations during November. Lower elevations on the AT may remain snow-free, but muddy conditions are likely to be a factor due to colder temperatures and less sunlight.

Climate Tables for high and low elevation portions of the AT in New England:

Forecasting Tools

There are numerous weather factors to take into account when planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail. We offer point forecasts for any location and elevation in the world to help you plan your trip around the weather. 

Tap on the search icon at the bottom of the app or the search bar at the top of the website. From here, you can enter the name of a peak, town, park, etc.

Once the location pops up, tap on the star icon above the header and add it to your Summer Favorites List.

Is the location you entered not showing up in our search results?

Not to worry, as you can view and save custom points forecasts using our Forecast Anywhere feature.

Go to Maps, and then use our interactive map to zoom, point, and tap anywhere on the map you would like a forecast for. The elevation and lat-long of the point will display, and you can also name your custom point and save it to your favorites.

Weather Tab

Once you have the forecast page for a location pulled up, make sure you select the Weather tab as this will display the most relevant information for warm-season trail activities (as opposed to skiing or winter sports).

This view will display the current estimated weather (based on our forecast data) along with 10-day and hourly forecasts for numerous weather variables.

Temperature

Under the 10-Day Forecast, you can quickly view the high and low-temperature forecasts for each day. For hourly forecasts, select the relevant day and then tap on the Temp tab underneath the daily forecast.

Next to Temp, you can tap on "Feels Like" which shows you what the temperature will feel like, based on a formula that accounts for wind speeds in cooler weather and humidity in warmer weather.

Also, we display hourly temperature forecasts out to 2 days in our high-resolution temperature map overlay. This is based on data from NOAA's high-resolution weather model. This gives a good idea of how temperature changes by location, elevation, and time.

View → Temperature Map

Precipitation

Under the 10-Day Forecast, select Precip % to view hourly rain probability for any of the next 10 days. This will give you an idea of what time of day rain is more or less likely.

We also display the forecast rainfall amount for each day underneath the hourly graph. And if trails are expected to be wet or snowy based on recent precipitation, then we will display this under "Insight".

You can also use our Radar and Forecast Radar map overlays to track rainfall.

Our Radar map shows current radar with the ability to loop back in time over the past 3 hours. While this is a great tool, keep in mind that terrain can interfere with radar beams and as a result, radar is not always representative of reality in complex terrain.

Our Forecast Radar map displays the projected radar over the next 2 days, and this is based on data from NOAA's high-resolution radar.

This is not always perfect in the case of pop-up "random" showers and thunderstorms, but it still gives a good general idea of what to expect in terms of movement and coverage of showers. This product also tends to be more accurate during widespread precipitation events. 

View → Current Radar Map

View → Forecast Radar Map

Snowfall & Snow Depth

We denote precipitation type when snow or mixed precipitation is expected. Purple bars are displayed when a rain/snow mix, sleet, or freezing rain is in the forecast, and blue bars are displayed when snow is forecast. Green bars are displayed when rain is forecast.

Forecast snowfall amounts are displayed underneath the hourly precipitation graph, as is forecast liquid-equivalent precipitation (in purple) when mixed precipitation is expected. 

You can also view more detailed snow information, such as snow levels (the forecast rain/snow line), by tapping on the Snow Summary tab at the top of the screen.

If you are wondering about snow cover on the trail, you can use our estimated snow depth map overlay

View → Snow Depth Map

Wind

Swipe left on the list of weather variables to find the wind forecast. We display sustained wind speeds with blue bars and wind gusts in red bars. At the top of each bar, we display the wind direction (where the wind will be blowing from), sustained wind speed, and wind gust denoted by "G".

We also have a map overlay for forecast wind gusts for the next 2 days. You can use this overlay to get a good idea of how winds will vary with elevation and over time.

View → Wind Gust Map

Cloud Cover

You can view hourly hourly cloud cover percentage forecasts out to 10 days.

We also have an hourly cloud cover map overlay, which displays forecast cloud coverage over the next 2 days.

View → Cloud Cover Map

Humidity

Humidity is certainly a factor in the Appalachians, especially during the warmer months.

We display hourly relative humidity to give you an idea of how much moisture is in the atmosphere. Relative humidity is typically higher in the mornings (when temperatures are cooler) and lower in the afternoons (when temperatures are warmer).

Lightning

Thunderstorms most frequently occur on the AT between late May and early September, with less frequent but often intense storms occurring in the Southern Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic during the spring. 

Swipe left over the weather variables and then tap on the Lightning tab to view hourly lightning forecasts for any given day. This will give you a good idea of the timeframes in which lightning is most likely. Note that even when "Low Chance" is displayed, you should still factor this into planning and decision-making.

If you are lucky enough to have service while hiking, you can also use our Lightning Density map to view lightning activity over the past 3 hours.

Note that while this map is useful for tracking storms, it should not be solely relied upon and you should be paying attention to the skies overhead as well.

View → Lightning Density Map

Hurricane Season

One wild card when it comes to weather and hiking on the Appalachian Trail is the possibility of tropical storms or hurricanes making landfall in the Eastern U.S. with remnants reaching the Appalachians.

While the most severe impacts with tropical systems occur in coastal areas, impacts can be significant in the Appalachians as well. When tropical moisture reaches mountainous terrain, the moisture is forced to rise via orographics and can produce incredible amounts of rainfall, along with flash flooding and mudslides. Strong winds are also possible from the remnants of these storms.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin runs from June to November, but the most likely window for tropical remnants to impact the Appalachians is from August through October.

If the remnants of a tropical system are ever forecast to hit a portion of the AT you are planning to hike, it is recommended that you postpone hiking until weather conditions improve as the threat of flooding and mudslides can make hiking dangerous. 

The National Weather Service will typically issue a Flash Flood Watch up to a couple of days in advance if heavy rainfall from a tropical system is expected.

In addition, NOAA's Excessive Rainfall Forecast is a good resource to get an idea of whether or not heavy rainfall and flash flooding is a threat on a given day, with a severity scale of 1-5 ranging from Marginal to Extreme.  


Questions? Send an email to [email protected] and we'll respond within 24 hours. You can also visit our Support Center to view frequently asked questions and feature guides.

Alan Smith 

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About The Author

Alan Smith

Meteorologist

Alan Smith received a B.S. in Meteorology from Metropolitan State University of Denver and has been working in the private sector since 2013. When he’s not watching the weather from the office, Alan loves to spend time outdoors skiing, hiking, and mountain biking, and of course keeping an eye on the sky for weather changes while recreating.

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