The Mountains-to-Sea Trail represents a creative partnership involving local communities and trail groups, land trusts, federal and state land agencies, private landowners, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, and Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Friends).
The trail is an official part of the state parks system, but segments of it are managed by different agencies and local governments. Local communities help connect the trail through links to greenways and urban trails. Land trusts help acquire land. Friends provides volunteers, support and serves as a clearinghouse for information.
Trail planners began by making use of existing trails on public lands and connected them to key natural features across North Carolina. By doing this, they developed a generalized trail corridor. After the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was adopted as part of the state parks system, parks planners worked with local communities and Friends to develop plans for for particular areas.
The current route of the MST includes 680 miles of trail and about 500 miles of connecting roads. Our goal is a continuous off-road trail across North Carolina, and each year, as new trail opens, Friends adjusts the current route to incorporate that new trail. Over the last ten years, an average of 15 new miles of trail have opened each year. We expect that this rate of change is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
Although many miles of the trail are still on roads, most people who complete the entire trail greatly enjoy the experience. However, if you are a person who does not want to walk on connecting roads, the MST has many long stretches of trail that are completely off road. Look at the trail segment page of this website to find parts of the trail that most suit your interests.
The trail is open for hiking across the state. About 680 miles of trail — more than half the planned length— has been completed to date. A series of connectors on bicycle routes and back roads knit together finished sections to span the state. The Coastal Plain region includes a paddle route option following the Neuse River.
Spring and fall months in North Carolina offer the best combination of cooler weather, scenic beauty and fewer biting insects.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is as diverse as the state it showcases. Depending on the section of the trail, you may see mountain vistas, rolling Piedmont farms, picture postcard colonial towns, weathered tobacco barns, old textile villages, country churches, rushing mountain streams, coastal swamps, hardwood and pine forests, lighthouses, sand dunes and miles of seashore. There is so much to see — a little bit of most everything that makes North Carolina special including friendly people.
Backcountry permits are required for camping in the following areas:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Segments 1A and 1B)
- Sylva’s Pinnacle Park (Segment 1B)
- From May 1-Oct. 31, the Linville Gorge Wilderness, Wilson Creek, and Lost Cove Creek areas (Segment 4)
Permits cost $4.00 per person, per night, in GSMNP and are free in the other areas. See the trail guides for these segments for more information about permits in these areas.
Permits are not required for hikers elsewhere on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The blaze designating the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a white dot, about three inches in diameter.
Read the trail guide for the segment you plan to hike for information about Trail Angels and outfitters.
The MST does not have a system of campsites and shelters such as the Appalachian Trail. If you plan to be on the MST overnight, consult the resources provided under trail segments for the latest information. Friends does not condone any illegal camping, trespassing on public or private lands, or stealth camping. Some areas, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, have very limited campgrounds. Park rangers are known to give citations for camping at unauthorized locations.
Attend a first aid course offered by a local YMCA or Red Cross Center before beginning a long-distance hike. Several books are available in bookstores about wilderness first aid, but hands-on classes are the best. We only highlight a few first aid issues here.
- One of hikers’ worst nightmares is blistered feet. Always break-in your boots properly and carry mole skin or duct tape for wrapping your feet.
- The importance of treating all drinking water cannot be stressed enough. Catching giardiasis from parasites in untreated water will put you off the trail for weeks. Stop for water frequently to avoid dehydration.You are only truly self-sufficient when you have enough water in your pack. Another way to stay healthy is to wash your dishes properly.
- You will encounter insects, especially in the coastal section. Make sure you have adequate bug repellent. Snakes are often seen but bites are rare, unless provoked. Watch for bears in the mountains and the coastal section. The state’s largest bear, weighing 880 pounds, was shot near New Bern. Make sure you hang all food and anything with an odor to avoid attracting unwanted visitors. Bear spray is recommended for your MST trip.
- Sunburn can easily ruin portions of a long-distance trip. Apply sunscreen. Some brands of sunscreen come with insect repellent.
- Frostbite, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are real issues that you must be aware of depending on the time of year you hike the MST. Familiarize yourself with signs of each of these conditions, and always make sure someone knows your general location on the trail.
Typically people are friendly along the MST, although you will need to use common sense.
No. In some places along the MST, firearms are not allowed.
Dogs are occasionally a problem along the road sections of the MST. Dogs may be startled by bikes or strangers with poles and, although it is rare, may attack. If you see a dog while hiking or biking, talk to the dog in a soft friendly tone and pause for a few moments before proceeding. To a dog, you may appear threatening as you barrel down the trail towards them. If you feel threatened by an off leash dog and the owner is present, simply ask the owner to please leash their dog. If you are attacked by a dog, you can protect yourself with hiking poles or bear spray.
See the list of people who have completed the trail. New hikers attempt it every year.
Hiking time varies depending on the speed and fitness of the hiker. A fair estimate for planning a hike is to allow three to four months to walk the trail. The sections currently located on roads can be covered more quickly on bicycles and the alternate Neuse River paddle (segments 11A-16A) will shorten your trip through the Coastal Plain.
The ideal time to hike the MST is the spring or fall when temperatures are not extremely hot or cold. If you plan to start your hike early in the year, it often works best to hike west – leaving from the coast and heading toward the mountains. That way you’ll avoid high temperatures and bugs in the coastal areas and reach the mountains after snow and ice have melted. Snow is a possibility as late as April at high elevations in the mountains. If you plan to start in the summer or fall, begin at Clingmans Dome and head east to the coast as temperatures cool. Starting the trail in the fall would allow you the added bonus of colorful fall leaves. By the time you reach the coast in the fall, temperatures should still be favorable.
Based on the experience of past MST thru-hikers, it typically takes 3-4 months to complete this adventure. It can be shorter if you to bike the roads or paddle the Neuse (Segments 11A-16A). Make sure you plan for days off, or what are known as “zero days,” since you don’t add miles on those days. Your body will need rest, and you should plan to be off the trail a day or so. Some hikers take days off for bad weather and also to see attractions in the area.
To plan your hike, consult the trail guides and interactive google map and in other guidebooks. Develop a good estimate of how many miles you can travel in an average day. Most hikers start out hiking 10 to 12 miles a day, depending on physical condition (see also the fitness section). Create an itinerary and pencil in where you plan to stop each night. You may run ahead or behind schedule, but you still need a plan of attack before hitting the MST. For safety reasons, share your itinerary with several people.
Logistics will be an everyday issue while on the trail. The best way to change plans or coordinate food or supply drops is to carry a cell phone although coverage may be spotty in remote areas. The cell phone can also serve for emergency purposes. To save the battery, turn the phone off when not in use.
A typical hiker burns 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day on the trail. Therefore, large quantities of food are key! You will almost certainly lose weight on this cross-state adventure and gain lots of muscle too. There are three ways to get your food while hiking the MST. Choose one or more that will work best for you and plan your trip accordingly.
- Restock food supplies from local stores and gas stations you pass along the MST. You will be able to purchase fresh food, but this method can be very expensive because these stores often mark up their products since they cannot buy in bulk. Sometimes selections can be limited, and if the store is closed when you arrive you will not be able to shop. Hiking into town tacks on additional mileage, and on the way back you have added more weight to your back.
- Ship your food to a post office close to the MST. Post offices near the MST are listed in the trail guide for each segment. This option requires a family member or friend to ship packages of food, clothes, and extra gear to the indicated post office at specific times. In addition, you may also send home items that you do not need anymore, such as camera film or dirty clothes. This system is very commonly used along the Appalachian Trail. Post offices are usually open Monday to Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and closed on major holidays, so plan accordingly. The cost of shipping is another item to factor into your budget. (See cost section below.)
- You can obtain food along the trail by having family or friends meet you along the trail or on a nearby road to bring you supplies. Family or friends can arrive with another week or so of food — and a few treats to eat right away (e.g., cold soda or chocolate bars). In addition, you may have friends who plan to hike certain sections with you. They can assist you by bringing food and additional gear.
You can also arrange for your vehicle to “follow” you across the state with food and gear. Once every five-to-seven days, arrange to meet a friend who can give you a ride to your vehicle. Replenish your supplies, and then move your vehicle to the new starting point on the MST. If you do this, always park your vehicle in a secure place. This option requires that you carry a cell phone so you can change pick-up times and locations if necessary.
The types of food a thru-hiker eats can vary greatly. Most thru-hikers use dehydrated meals and prepackaged foods purchased in bulk. Super centers like Sam’s Wholesale, Costco, or BJ’s warehouse are good places to buy food in bulk for your trip. Dehydrating food yourself is a rewarding yet time-consuming option. Several books have been written on backcountry cooking and food. For long-distance hikes, canned goods are too heavy and bulky.
You may also want to consider a daily multivitamin tablet if you do not already take one.
“Trail legs” are hard to get and easy to lose. Walking, running, biking, cross-country skiing, and weight lifting before starting your trek will benefit you immensely. At a minimum, start an exercise program 3 to 6 months before hitting the trail. This is an excellent time to kick the smoking habit too, if necessary. In preparation for your trip, take several day hikes to break in your boots and weekend backpacking trips to make sure you have the right gear and your body is becoming conditioned. When you begin hiking the MST, stretch your legs well before and after a day of hiking. After about two weeks of hiking, you will feel the trail legs.
Developing a budget for a thru-hike is a must. A typical MST trip can cost between $1,500 and $5,000. Items to factor into your MST budget are health insurance, gear, food, gas, hotel/motel costs, shipping costs, phone cards or cell phone bills, mortgage/rent, income, etc
Hiking alone or with one or more hiking partners is a personal preference. A solo hike can and has been done on the MST, although having a partner has its advantages. Planning and logistics such as car shuttling can be easier with a partner, and it is always safer to have a partner when hiking any trail.
Good question! You can help in a variety of ways:
- You can volunteer to build trail and help in a variety of other ways.
- You can become a member by giving a tax-deductible donation to Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The non-profit Friends group promotes the trail, coordinates trail building activities and serves as a clearinghouse for information.
- You can sign up for our e-mail newsletter so we can keep you informed of progress and opportunities to get involved.