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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.

Your biggest challenge on a thru-hike is not fatigue or weather or injury. It’s a mental letdown. Here are five ways to stay motivated when doubt invades:

1) Make friends. There’s always strength in numbers, and the camaraderie inspires a shared sense of mission.
2) Plug in. Pack an iPod with motivational music or books. This also combats the boredom you’ll inevitably encounter from time to time.
3) Laugh. "Without a good sense of humor, you don’t have a prayer," says eight-time AT thru-hiker "Baltimore Jack" Tarlin.
4) Take a break. Feeling totally burned out? Treat yourself to something special–a nice hotel and a steak dinner, a visit with family or friends. Alternatively, spend a few days camping without hiking. A tranquil wilderness interlude can help focus your mind on why you’re out there in the first place.
5) Don’t look 2,000 miles ahead. That can be discouraging, says 2001 thru-hiker Jason "The Goat" Knight. Instead, he advises, "Divide the trail into smaller goals, like where you’ll hike to that day or week."

Yes, you’ll get one. But tradition dictates that you wait until one is bestowed. Don’t show up calling yourself Walks Like Wind. And while the AT is a famously social trail–you’ll make lifelong friends, maybe even find a spouse–don’t get distracted by shelter parties at the outset. You’ll have time enough to celebrate after you’ve earned it.

Avoid injury and illness

  • According to a study in The Journal of Sports Medicine, trekking poles reduce compressive force on the knees by up to 25 percent. They also prevent falls and provide balance for stream crossings.
  • Wash hands and utensils religiously, and always treat water (use lightweight and foolproof chlorine dioxide drops, like McNett’s Aquamira drops, or a chemical-free ultralight filter, like MSR’s Hyperflow). According to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, gastrointestinal illness is the number one cause of thru-hiker attrition.
  • Treat open wounds appropriately and immediately, by washing thoroughly and applying antibiotic ointment and a bandage.
  • Let your feet air-dry at rest breaks to prevent blisters.
  • Take rest days ("zero days" in AT parlance), generally one each week, to avoid overuse injuries, exhaustion, and mental burnout.

This box is repeatedly shipped ahead; it typically contains extra batteries and other items purchased in bulk, as well as extra gear or clothing. Stock the box with packing tape, labels, and markers. And always keep a list of any mail drops sent (where they are and what they contain). For mail-drop locations, check The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook ($23, or

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