Outside magazine, May 1996
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.
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
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.
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