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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.

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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