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November 2008

American Classic: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

In this ultimate guide to the country's favorite footpath, you'll find our picks for the best hiking and camping, and a complete plan for thru-hikers. Plus, meet a man who has made it his job to help AT hikers.

Unlike other long trails, the 2,175-mile AT is a true mountain path for virtually its entire distance. That makes it both more satisfying–and more difficult–than many hikers expect. Here’s what you’ll encounter on the AT’s four major sections on a northbound hike.

Southern Appalachians 456 miles, about 40 days
There’s no break at the beginning: Georgia’s 75 miles are second only to New Hampshire in terms of vertical gain, and North Carolina’s Nantahala and Stekoah Mountains get mighty steep. Plan on hiking fewer than 10 miles per day as your legs adjust. Expect to cover up to 15 miles in the Smokies, and even more through Tennessee’s balds.

Virginia and West Virginia 554 miles, about 40 days
This is where you’ll hit your stride. The path here is relatively easy, with modest elevation changes and good tread. Plus, you’ll have your trail legs under you after the first month; many thru-hikers crank out 20-mile days here. Stores are frequently accessible (often every few days), so you can keep your load light and really fly.

Mid-Atlantic states 430 miles, about 32 days
Smaller hills here allow 15 to 20 miles a day–except in the rockiest parts of Pennsylvania, where your mileage may be sliced in half. Don’t kill yourself on the rocks–there’s still a lot of trail ahead.

New England 734 miles, about 57 days
Fallen behind? Make up ground on the first part of the home stretch–through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and southern Vermont–which is easy compared to what comes after. In the White Mountains, the AT gets rockier and steeper; even strong hikers might cover only 10 miles a day. In Maine, you can expect fickle autumn weather. If you’re in shape and on schedule for the final kick to Katahdin, take rest days during the worst storms.

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