Do A Thru-Hike, Sans Pack

All it takes is $7,000 and a man named "Pittsburgh" to become a weightless thru-hiker.

Say you fancy hiking the 2,158-mile Appalachian Trail, but can't get past the notion of carrying a 50-pound-pack for 6 months? Shed it...for a price.

For $7,000, Hike-USA, an outfit headed by Richard "Pittsburgh" Mann, will haul your gear in a van and meet you at selected road crossings. Mann said last year he supported 30 clients.

"I relieve the pressures of everything but hiking," he explains. Mann, an engineer by trade, attempted a solo thru-hike in 1996, but bad knees and a weak back limited him to 900 miles. That experience sparked his business plan.

So is he a trail enabler who's creating an easy-out for slackpackers? "They can hike their own hike, but those people are going to miss the best part of the journey," says Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies in Hot Springs, North Carolina, who's completed the AT seven times.

Not everyone agrees. "If it's not impacting the re-sources and it's not impacting someone else's experience, (Mann's clients) should be free to hike their own hike,"

says thru-hiker Kevin "Hawk" Metheny, who supervises AT campsites in New Hampshire and teaches AT prep classes.

The bottom line is that Mann's clients who finish the AT are considered thru-hikers. According to Brian King of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), the ATC recognizes anyone who completes the route on foot, no matter what they carry, how long it takes, or even if they do it in stages.

Contact: Hike-USA, (800) 803-2767; www.hike-usa.com.