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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.

Turn ultralight into ultra-comfortable.

Zealous gram-counters achieve pack weights that are startlingly low. Don’t join them in a race to the bottom. Winton Porter, who may be responsible for outfitting more successful thru-hikers than anyone else on the planet, says the ideal weight for a fully loaded pack, including food and water, is 25 pounds in the summer, and up to 35 pounds during shoulder seasons. These loads encourage a good balance between on-trail and in-camp comfort.


6 Thru-Hiker Packing Secrets

Carry hand sanitizer and use it before eating and after going to the bathroom. Always. Most hiker illnesses are spread by hand.

Pack extra insect repellent (at least 30 percent DEET) for the gnats, skeeters, and black flies that plague the AT May to August.

Bring ear plugs for noisy shelters, a groundsheet for dirty ones.

Keep a small notebook and pen accessible so you can jot down contact info or tips when you meet people on the trail.

Skip the town clothes; they’re not worth the weight.

Stock your first-aid kit with Imodium, ibuprofen, and cold medicine; you won’t be near a pharmacy when you need them.


Key strategies for cutting pack weight

  • Downsize: If you’re carrying more than you need of anything–excess fuel or sunscreen–you’re carrying dead weight.
  • Eliminate: Trowel, chair kit, pillow, an extra mug or bowl, War and Peace–are they really necessary?



  • Wear lightweight shoes; add after-market insoles for improved support. Replace worn-out shoes every 250 to 400 miles.
  • Don’t buy replacements in advance. Your shoe size will increase during the trek, and you may want to switch models entirely.
  • Top picks Vasque Velocity VST GTX ($120,; Montrail Continental Divide GTX ($120,


  • Your pack (empty) should weigh less than four pounds.
  • Capacity should be about 3,000-4,000 cubic inches.
  • Top picks Granite Gear Meridian Vapor ($195; 2 lbs. 14 oz.;; Gregory Z55 ($199; 3 lbs. 5 oz.;


  • Don’t forgo a tent, but make it minimalist. Many thru-hikers prefer their own wilderness refuge to crowded or loud shelters.
  • Top picks Solo hikers: MontBell Crescent 1 ($229; 2 lbs. 1 oz.;; two-person: Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 ($320; 2 lbs. 14 oz.;

Sleeping bag

  • Don’t try to hike the whole AT with one bag: It’ll either be too heavy in the summer or not warm enough in the shoulder seasons.
  • Top picks GoLite Adrenaline 20 for spring and fall ($325; 1 lb. 13 oz.;; Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina 45 for summer ($170; 1 lb. 8 oz.;

Sleeping pad

  • First, decide what you need to sleep well, then get the lightest version. No sense saving a pound if you’re sleepless at night, exhausted all day.
  • Top picks Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite ($35; 15 oz.;; Big Agnes Insulated Air Core ($65; 1 lb. 6 oz.;


  • Alcohol stoves are popular on the AT, since they’re ultralight, require zero maintenance, and fuel is easily found at hostels, as well as hardware stores and gas stations.
  • Canister stoves are also a good choice, as they burn hotter, are only negligibly heavier, and canister fuel is widely available at hostels and regularly spaced outfitters.
  • Top picks Alcohol: Trangia Westwind ($25, 7 oz.;; canister: MSR PocketRocket ($40; 3 oz.;
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