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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.

Here’s how to master the big–and little–details of life on the Appalachian Trail.

Compared to the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, the AT offers easy access to towns and stores along the way. So skip the complicated (and expensive) mail drops. Shopping as you go allows more flexibility (eat what you crave instead of whatever you boxed up months before) and lets you adjust amounts more precisely as you learn real-world needs. In fact, there’s just one mail drop we suggest using: the post office at Fontana Village, North Carolina, where laundry and lodging are available. The village caters to thru-hikers, and the alternatives for resupply are inconvenient. Some hikers also recommend a mail drop at Kincora Hostel, in Dennis Cove, Tennessee; alternatively, Kincora’s owner often drives hikers to the grocery store.

Forget the map and compass. The AT is so well-marked and obvious for its entire length, you won’t need them. In fact, if your footpath ever grows faint or overgrown, you’ve taken a wrong turn; double back. The only conditions where navigating can be difficult are after a fresh snowfall or above treeline in heavy fog. It’s better to wait out bad weather than to risk getting far off track.

There are more than 250 backcountry shelters along the AT, but veteran thru-hikers recommend tenting over bunking in a crowded or loud shelter. However, even if you’re not spending the night, they’re useful places to stop for trail beta and hiker news (read the shelter’s log), mooch food from short-term hikers (who are often happy to unload extra weight), and minimize impact by using the outhouse. Find a list of AT shelters at

NOBO thru-hikers who begin in mid-April must average 12 to 13 miles per day of hiking (while taking a rest day every week) to reach Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes on October 15. But remember, that’s an average. In some sections you should aim for more miles, in others, less. Here’s a guide.

Start at a comfortable pace This is an ultramarathon, not a sprint; hikers who blast out of the gate often suffer overuse injuries like knee, foot, or iliotibial (IT) band problems, exhaustion, and mental burnout that can end a trip prematurely. But you need to steadily increase your daily mileage to build fitness and prepare your body to crank out the big days when you need them.

The first 40 days Hit the trail at Springer in reasonable shape and plan to hike no more than 10 miles per day for the first two weeks. Start ramping up to 12 miles per day in week three. Set a goal of ticking off some 15-mile days by the end of your first month and reaching Damascus, Virginia, within about 40 days. By then, you’ll have your trail legs and be on pace for reaching Katahdin in September.

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