Walking the Walk

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1996

Walking the Walk
By Brad Wetzler

Veteran through-hikers like to answer the question, "How do you go about hiking the Appalachian Trail?" with the chest-thumping response, "Drive to Springer Mountain and start walking." Don't believe them. Most undergo a Kennedy-Space-Center-style preparation program before ever taking a step.

Decisions, Decisions
Your first and most basic one will be ... which way? Georgia to Maine is by far the most popular direction. Northbounders leave Springer Mountain around April 1, at the first hint of spring, and arrive at Katahdin in late September, at summer's end. More and more hikers, however, are starting at Katahdin around June 1 and finishing in Georgia in mid-December. The advantage of a southerly march, among other things, is that it avoids the spring-break-like rush at Springer Mountain. (The crowds don't seem to thin out till you reach southern Virginia.) If you don't have six consecutive months to spare, break the trail into sections and hike them as time permits. The Appalachian Trail Conference, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (304-535-6331), and the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, in Hot Springs, North Carolina (704-622-7601), can help you decide on a section hike that suits you, as well as get you started planning the logistics.

Food is a major consideration. Weight will limit you to carrying five to eight days' worth, so once a week or so you'll have to stop in towns along the way to resupply. There are basically two ways to handle the problem: buy groceries as you go or set up "mail drops" before you leave home. With mail drops, you organize your food into boxes and mail them to yourself in care of general delivery at 15 or 20 strategic post offices along the way. As you pull into a town, you stop by the post office and pick up your supplies. Mail drops tend to be a little cheaper than shopping as you go, since you can buy food in bulk, but the odd rural PO with quirky hours can bring your hike to a grinding halt for a few days. Either way, count on spending about a dollar per mile, or $2,200 for the whole trip.

What You'll Need
Boots are without doubt the most important equipment you'll buy. If you don't pay scrupulous attention to proper fit, you'll wind up at home nursing blisters before you reach the North Carolina line. Opinions abound about what's best; suffice it to say that everything from lightweight trail-running shoes to heavy-duty mountaineering boots has made the journey. A caveat about going lightweight: "Plan on wearing through about five pairs," says Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, founder of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies and a seven-time through-hiker.

You'll need the usual backpacking stuff: a lightweight tent (AT shelters are sometimes full of people or infested with mice), stove and cookware, sleeping bag and pad, a filter or iodine for purifying your water, and about 50 feet of cord to hang your food out of the reach of bears. Many through-hikers swear by walking staffs, be they "technical" commercial versions or fallen tree limbs--either can take some of the load off your knees. You should carry maps, even though the trail is marked with some 20,000 white blazes. The Appalachian Trail Conference (304-535-6331) sells a full set of 60 topos for $162.14, plus shipping.

Walking the Appalachian Trail, by Larry Luxenberg ($16.95, from Stackpole Books, 800-732-3669). The Thru-Hiker's Handbook ($10.95) and The Thru-Hiker's Planning Guide ($11.95), by Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce (from the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, 800-282-3963). The Thru-Hiker's Starter Pack ($15.95, from the Appalachian Trail Conference, 304-535-6331).

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