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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.

Northbound vs. Southbound
The only significant navigation decision you’ll make on the whole AT is whether to walk northbound (NOBO in thru-hiker slang) or southbound (SOBO). Here’s what to consider:

NOBO
The chief reason to hike northward is simply tradition: It’s the direction of travel chosen by some 90 percent of thru-hikers. NOBOs start between mid-March and mid-April and finish in the fall. This itinerary means wintry weather for the first several weeks or more; heat and bugs from the mid-Atlantic states to New England; and a crowd of fellow northbounders, which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Also, slow hikers risk missing the big finale on Katahdin: Baxter State Park closes October 15.

SOBO
Southbounders start later (Baxter opens June 1) and usually finish in November or even December. The downsides: You’ll endure thick black flies and challenging stream crossings in Maine (start after July 1 to avoid the worst); hike during hunting season in the south; and walk into winter instead of out of it. Upsides, according to successful SOBO Francis Tapon: get Maine and New Hampshire–the AT’s hardest section–over with first; enjoy more solitude; walk out of mosquito season instead of into it; pass through Virginia during prime-time fall colors; and hike with no time pressure, since Springer Mountain doesn’t close for the winter.

Transportation

Getting there and away Private shuttles serve both Springer and Katahdin. Get a list of options at appalachiantrail.org/site/c.jkLXJ8MQKtH/b.806835/.

On the trail For resupply rides to town, hitchhiking is generally safe and easy, as locals are accustomed to picking up hikers. Or ask about shuttles or "trail angels" (people who freely help AT hikers) at hostels and shelters.

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