Everything you Need to Know about Thru-Hiking the Arizona Trail

In February of 2017, I decided to hike the AZT on a whim. The trail is an 803 mile trail running North and South from the borders of Mexico to Utah. I gave myself not even two weeks to prepare for this trip. It turned out great, but depending on how thorough you want to plan it, I would give it more time. In reality though, it isn’t all that difficult to plan for this trip. I’m going to make this process as easy as I can for you! 

As far as the AZT goes, it is a hike that is still under the radar. Not many people know about it. Roughly 100 people thru-hike it a year and that’s half the people traveling northbound (to Utah) starting late Feb to March, and the other half starting in October traveling Southbound to Mexico. It takes most people 1 1/2 to 2 months to accomplish this hike. 

Trail Angels: 

Hiking the trail gives you a lot of solitude, but having this said you still meet other people on the trail. The few people I met, roughly thirty other thru-hikers, were amazing people that are going to be impossible for me to forget. You will also naturally meet trail angels along the way which makes the experience even more magical. The link below will bring you to a list of registered trail angels on the trail. If you don’t know what trail angels are, they are just good-hearted people that genuinely want to help you accomplish the trail. 

As far as the southern section goes, it is very common for trail angels to drop gallons and gallons of water at water caches along the trail, as water is a rare commodity. You can get this set up independently as well if you have people to help you along the trail. They will just put your name and expected arrive date on the water jugs and leave it along the trail for you. Most people that hike the trail are amazing, so theft really isn’t an issue. 

If you use the link up above, many of the trail angels offer accommodation for a night. All trail angels are different and all of them offer different help. Some let you pitch a tent in their yard, some let you sleep in their house, some invite you into their home, some let you use their laundry and take a shower, and some will even shuttle you to the trail and back. It all depends on the trail angel and how you treat them as well. Remember these people don’t have to do this. So any generosity given, make sure you are very appreciative of their kindness and if you can, do something nice for them back. It’s just common courtesy. 

So on the trail, you will not meet too many thru-hikers since not many do it, but you will meet mostly day hikers. Many of the day hikers I met were very nice! Some of them even ended up being a trail angel for me without them even knowing it! 

Gear: 

The trail is physically demanding and it will take a huge toll on your body. Depending on how much gear you bring will obviously determine how heavy your pack will be. I’m going to give you a list of gear that most people bring on the trail and it’s up to you to opt anything out. Obviously if you want a light pack you’re going to have to make sacrifices. If people opt out of gear to make their pack lighter, it usually is….. 

Cookware: Some people just pack ready-to-eat items and eat cold meals so they can save weight on a stove, pot, gas, etc. Now with that said, many ready-to-eat meals are heavier than dehydrated meals you can cook. Plus, you can get ultra-light cooking gear and bring minimal equipment to make this not over-bearing. The exception is you need to bring an adequate amount of gas because many of the towns that you pass through do not have gas for sale. You need to decide on whether it is worth it to you to carry the extra weight to have hot meals on the trail. 

Tent/Shelter: Some people choose to “cowboy camp” on the trail and to not carry a tent/hammock, etc. to save weight. They literally just bring a ground cloth, a bed mat and a sleeping bag. For me the extra weight is worth it. You can get ultra-light weight options. My tent is one pound. 

Gear that you need: 

Water Purifier and a way to clean your water purifier- You need to backwash your water if you have a water filter quite often on the AZT on account of the water quality. You will be drinking brown water, water filled with algae, stagnant pond water, cow water, rivers that are filled with soot….. So you need to make sure you have a purification device that works! Not to scare you off. You will be fine. Just make sure you take care of your water filtration device. 

*A trick for saving weight- If you happen to have a Sawyer water filter, you can save weight on the bags that they give you. You don’t need to bring them! And those heavy Nalgene bottles, you don’t have to bring those either! Simply buy a few smart water bottles (super light) for your hike. You will designate one or two of those bottles as “dirty water.” They twist right on to your water purifier and you will filter your “dirty water” through the sawyer into your clean smart water bottle. Just somehow make sure you can tell which bottles are for your dirty water and which ones are for your clean water. I just put duct tape around mine. Wrap it around the bottle a few times. That way, if you ever need duct tape, you have it. 

Backpack– If overall weight with food and water included is 35 pounds or less, then you can invest in an ultra-light backpack. I have this pack.  The company ULA is for ultra-light backpacking gear and they make really good durable equipment. Investing in an ultra-light pack will also save you a couple pounds. 

First-Aid Kit This is also optional. You can have a kit as big or small as you want or just not carry one at all. I’ve seen it all! Most people are concerned with every ounce of weight they carry. So most items that come recommend in a first-aid kit, most people won’t carry. So ointment for sore muscles, nope. You’re going to be sore no matter what. Alcohol wipes, nope. You can find a way to clean it. Band aids, nope. It will heal. I’m not saying don’t bring a first-aid kit. I’m just stating the fact that most people on the trail don’t. At the beginning of the trail, I had a pretty big first aid kit with all the bells and whistles. At the end, I had a pair of tweezers, some Ibuprofen and something for my blisters. That was it. As far as blisters go, it is important you take care of your feet. So whatever it is you like doing whether its duct tape, moleskin, the needle and thread method, make sure you bring something for your blisters. 

Headlamp You might be doing some night hiking to skip the blistering sun during the day. Plus it’s nice to have light at your camp. 

Trowel Don’t need it! Save some weight and find a rock, a stick, or use your hiking poles. 

Hygiene Kit Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, hairbrush, bio-degradable soap-use it as shampoo, washing dishes, wash your body, etc. I cut my hair before the trip, so no brush for me. 

Baby Wipes Essential for me. You can use this as toilet paper and not even bring any. I brought both, but used baby wipes to clean my body every night! One piece of advice I have is always keep your feet clean! Your feet are pretty much the most important asset on your body. So wipe your feet with baby wipes every night! 

Shelter We already talked about this, but you can bring a tent/a hammock-even though difficult at times to find a place to set up, and/or cowboy camp. Also Sleeping bag, down or synthetic. There are pros and cons to both. A Sleeping Pad such as a thermorest. You can go heavier and invest in those self-inflating ones as well. It’s more comfortable but also more heavier and takes up more space. 

Cook Set- You need a stove (I have a pocket-rocket.) There are plenty of ultra-light backpacking stoves out there. A pot. I just carry one small pot. Gas cans. Make sure it works with your stove. A lighter. Make sure you carry an adequate amount of gas. There are very few places along the trail to purchase gas. Basically only in the bigger towns…. Flagstaff, Pine, Phoenix (far off trail), Tucson (far off trail). 

Clothes– This is what I brought….  (everything polyester/synthetic/wool/fleece.) 

1 Short-sleeve shirt 

1 Long-sleeve shirt 

Sweatshirt(s)  You do need to dress warm for this hike. It might be Arizona but the weather fluctuates a lot. 

Jacket- Preferably puffy, it’s warm, light and compressible. 

Rain Jacket- It’s all about the layering. So when it’s cold, most people have a synthetic long-sleeve shirt on. Followed by a sweatshirt either wool or fleece, followed by a down puffy jacket followed by a rain-jacket. Even if it is not raining a rain-jacket becomes a very useful tool because it keeps your body heat in. It also acts as a wind-breaker so it really is useful in cold and wet-weather climates. 

Hat- warm and regular baseball cap hat. When it’s cold, it’s nice to wear a warm hat and when it’s hot, wearing a hat helps keep water in your body. When you are hiking the AZT it is imperative you stay hydrated and with the little water some places have, you need a hat to keep the sun off your head! One of the most important elements is a hat. Some people even attach an umbrella to their pack for shade. This might add on weight but you will need to drink less water, which saves weight. 

Shorts- 1 Pair 

Pants- 1 Pair 

Underwear/Bra I only brought 1 bra but 4 pairs of underwear. 

Socks- 2-3 Pairs 

Hiking Shoes/Hiking Boots Whatever is most comfortable for you. For me, I use trail running shoes. They have great traction and are lightweight. 

Flip Flops This really was worth the extra weight for me. Just to take off your shoes at the end of the day is a remarkable experience!!!! 

Sun glasses 

Sun screen You need to protect your skin. 

Lip Balm I got burned on my lips and it was not fun! Protect your lips! 

Hiking Poles These helped me so much getting up and down those huge mountains!!! I use the brand Leki.  I’ve had the same poles for a few years now, and they are still going strong.

  

Weather: 

Even though mostly desert, weather changes dramatically and you need to keep warm! In the Southern region, it’s blistering hot during the day and cold at night. The weather can fluctuate around 30 degrees between night and day. Or more for that matter. Then in the North from Utah to Pine, it is pretty cold! You are really high up in elevation for most of the time and most likely will be encountering snow. 

Re-supply for the trail: 

Roughly every 7 days or less, you will be passing by a re-supply town. You have options. There is a link that helped me the most on picking my re-supply towns. Re-supply 

When reading through the list, there are towns listed that say recommended for care package. True but not true. You really do not need to send a care package to yourself along the Arizona Trail. In very small towns, it will be pricey to purchase food, but it will be just as much if not more to send a care package to a small town. I sent a package to three towns along the AZT and regretted all three of them.  Research said there was nowhere to re-supply in that town (Oracle) but it was false. I was able to re-supply just fine. One town (Roosevelt) I had to hitch-hike down the road for ten miles to get to a store but I got there and it really wasn’t that difficult. But with that said, it all depends on how flexible you are with food. Some people take their time and dehydrate their food and send a care package every part of the way. You can do it either way. I did both. I sent three to the least populated tows, but even then I was able to resupply so it was a waste of money for me. There is a term of HIKE YOUR OWN HIKE. There is no right and wrong answer to hike the AZT. 

AZT App- Necessity 

As far as directions go, the AZT is not as popular as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. So the trail in some areas can be a bit difficult to follow. With this app you can get it on your phone for ten dollars, it is 100 percent worth every penny. You can simply put your phone on airplane mode to save your battery and the whole trail is GPS for you so you never have to worry about getting lost. 

It also comes in handy for other things. It tells you the mileage, shows some campsites, shows where every water source is, shows the elevation, the towns, etc. I don’t know what I would have done without this app! When doing your research, many websites will tell you to buy the Arizona Trail book. If you have this app, you do not need this book. I wish I didn’t have to tell people to not buy a book, but I brought it on the AZT and ended up spending money to get it, and then ended up spending more money to ship it home because I did not need it. 

What to expect on the trail 

For the 803 miles of the trail, it mostly consists of National Forests and Private Land. Each of these you do not have to pay for to camp. You do go through a couple state parks, all of which you can pass through in a day and don’t have to pay for camping. With that said, some campgrounds forgive thru-hikers. If you are interested in staying in the campground, mention you are a thru-hiker and most likely they will take care of you. You will be surprised on how much support you receive from hiking the AZT. Some hotels in the towns you pass by will give you a discount. The state of Arizona loves thru-hikers because we bring in revenue to the small towns. 

You will also pass thru two National Parks; Saguaro and Grand Canyon. Saguaro you can camp for free right before you enter the boundary line of the park. Then get a permit beforehand at one of the two campsites here that trail passes. This part of the trail will be one of your toughest days because you are going up 6000 feet and then down 6000 feet. The two campsites are pretty much near the top on the North side of the trail, and they are roughly three miles apart so you really only need to stay one night. You really don’t want to try and go through this whole National Park in one day. It will be really tough to do so. Also chancing it without a permit is not recommended. I did not get asked but everyone before me did. I just got lucky, but I also had a permit. 

Then there is the Grand Canyon. As far as the Grand Canyon goes, they say to call for a backpacking permit 1-2 weeks before you show up. Definitely mention you are a thru-hiker and they generally put you in overflow camping with the equestrians. That or book way in advance and try to get in one of the campgrounds right off the trail. You can do the same here as in Saguaro. Most people do it by reserving one campsite for one night and hiking out the next day. So you will head down to the Colorado River. The Campsites are near the bottom. Then hike out the next day. It’s very difficult to do it all in one day. So in reality for the entire trail, you only need to reserve for two nights of camping. Not bad! 

Private Land- You pass through many farms and the private lands have gates that you will open and close every time entering and exiting these pieces of land. One thing you need to know is these owners didn’t have to let the Arizona Trail run through their land so make sure you are respectful. Do not take their water, unless you are in dire need, always close the gates (they most likely have livestock,) and make sure you leave no trace. They do not want you to camp on their land either.  You can educate yourself on Leave No Trace if you do not know what it is below. 

National Forests- You spend most of your time in National Forests. There is free camping and many times you will find pre-existing campsites. If you have the choice, always stay at an existing campsite to minimize impact rather than making one of your own. These National Forests are very beautiful! I’m sure you will very much enjoy your time in them. 

Experience: 

As far as experience goes, I would not suggest to attempt this hike for first-time backpackers. You need to relatively know how all your gear works and be prepared. If this is your dream and you have none to little experience, go on a couple over-night backpacking trips beforehand and get more familiar with all your equipment and get more experienced. As far as thru-hiking goes, this was my first thru-hike. Most people have their first thru-hike on the PCT or AT. I was one of few who chose the AZT to be their first thru-hike experience. It is difficult but doable. 

Wildlife: 

Hanging Food- There are mountain lions and bears throughout Arizona. The bears are small and only black bears (there are no grizzlies) and the mountain lions are very rare to run into. Now with that said, mountain lions are not to be underestimated. They are cats and very stealthy. You will not know they are there until they pretty much have a hold on you. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to prevent an attack. Every activity you do in life has some kind of risk. To prevent this the best you can do is hike in groups and bring some kind of defense weapon. I had a knife on me at all times. 

As far as hanging your food, rangers and some websites are going to recommend you do so because it’s safer. With that said, pretty much every person you run into on the trail literally just sleep with their food in their tent every night. It’s up to you on what you want to do. When I first heard of this, I thought everyone was crazy and for the first three weeks I hung my food. 

Then I learned, mountain lions don’t want your food and the bears are extremely uncommon. Plus, there are raccoons and small critters around and there is a high chance small mammals can get to your food, and then you will wake up with no food which would be a disaster. I am not going to tell you to not hang a bear bag. I’m just letting you know what to expect on the Arizona Trail. One thing I would suggest is to get a Ursack. The link is below. This will allow you to not have the trouble into setting up your bear bag and being able to keep your food outside your tent. It’s just a very strong bag, that even bears cannot get into and all you need to do is tie it around something. A bush, a small tree, etc. 

Spoiler Alert: Most of the animals you will see are cows! You will also run into rattle snakes, most likely and Gila Monsters (which are one of two poisonous reptiles in all of North America.) As far as rattlesnakes go, I was very uneasy around them. Once you hear that rattle, your heart just drops into your stomach, until you see where their hiding. They’re all over the place. At first, I didn’t see them until the 200 mile mark and then all of the sudden I was seeing them every day. Eventually I got more use to them. All I can say is, keep an eye out. They’re going to blend in so you are not going to see them every time, but they will rattle when you get too close. As soon as you hear that rattle, start backing up the exact same way you came. You know the direction you came was safe. Until you spot them. Then reassess your situation. Many of them decide to bask in the sun right in the middle of the trail. So you have to figure out how to get around them without getting bit by another rattlesnake hiding in the bushes. Use your hiking poles as an advantage. Keep them in front of you and bang them on the ground so they will alert the rattlers. If you cannot get around the snakes or don’t feel comfortable, I don’t recommend this, but make them move. Throw rocks near them to scare them off. Do not hit them! 

The Gila Monsters are amazing to see because they are so rare and their bright colors and so beautiful. With this being said, they are aggressive and poisonous. Do not get too close. They will literally bite you and not let go! It’s painful, their poisonous, keep at a safe distance. 

Down-time: 

Every evening you will have a little bit of time for yourself. I chose to bring a notebook and a pen to journal every night. Some people bring a book and some people bring nothing. It is up to you to see if the extra weight is worth it. 

Water: 

Water is a vital component on the trip. I already talked about how you need to treat it. Every single time. It is not worth getting Giardia. The Southern portion can be difficult to retrieve water. Some spots have very little water and you will be drinking cow water. This is usually stagnant, green and brown water and looks questionable, but you have no choice. As long as you have a reliable water filter, it will do the trick and take all the harmful stuff out and you will be ok. 

Emergency Beacon: 

I highly suggest carrying one if hiking the trail solo. Even if not alone it wouldn’t hurt, but especially if you are alone in case an emergency happens. That’s why it’s called an emergency beacon. You never know what can happen and you may NEED to use it one day. Let’s hope not but you are prepared, just in case.  This is the one I used

Camp spots: 

I have to say, don’t look forward into getting a pre-existing campsite every night. This trail is still very new. So in more populated areas such as the Catalina Mountains and the Superstition Mountains, then yes. There are quite a few campsites. But most of the trail, you will be make-shifting most of your own campsites. Like I mentioned before, Leave No Trace. When making your own campsites, try and leave it as you found it if not better. If everyone left a mess and there were campsites all over, it would look very displeasing to the eye. 

I hope this helps you out! I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Arizona Trail. There are many mountains you have to conquer. It is a very difficult landscape, but also very versatile and beautiful. You go through so many different kinds of environments just in one state. It’s very interesting! When all this is said and done, you will come out a bit different. It changes you in a good way. You are stronger physically and mentally, and you will never forget the time you spent on the AZT. It definitely is one of my proudest moments. 

Thank you for reading!!!!

Sincerely,

Livingonthedirt/Shelly

About the Author:

Hi, I'm Shelly! A traveler, hiker and an outdoor enthusiast. My dream my whole life was to travel, so I stopped dreaming and started doing. I quit my job and I am currently doing whatever it takes to keep going. I'll pick up jobs along the way and do what it takes to keep being a full-time traveler! I can prove that you don't need to come from money or anywhere special to live your dream. You just have to have the power of your own life to finally say YES!

2 Comments

  1. Jack Darcy July 25, 2017 at 1:11 am - Reply

    I was living in Bellingham but now my family is in Burlington Vermont area come the end of this Summer. Let me know when you’re in northern Vermont (if ever) and my wife and I can show you some cool hikes. I did what you’re doing long ago and have always been glad I did. Check us out and we’ll show you a good hike or two. jack@blue.here or jack@beehivelounge.com.
    Love your writing. Be well!

    • shelly July 31, 2017 at 12:11 am - Reply

      Thank you Jack!!!!! I really appreciate that from the both of you!!! I don’t know if I am going to be in Vermont anytime soon, but when I do, I will be sure to take you up on your offer :).

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