Through-hiking the Appalachian Trail
Question: My girlfriend and I are thinking of through-hiking the AT. We would like some input on how long and what to be prepared for.
M. Ryan MacDonald
Adventure Adviser: No two ways about it: You'll need to set aside a good six months for the 1,267-mile trek. Timing differs with direction, so if you opt to walk south to north, like most hikers, you'll need to leave Springer Mountain, Georgia, no later than April 1 if you hope it make to Katahdin before early-season snow kicks in in early October. The southbound route has developed a decent following in recent years, mostly because it means you'll dodge the crowds of through-hikers thronging north from the Georgia terminus. Take this route, however, and you'll need to wait for the snow to melt in higher Maine elevations (plan for a June 1 departure), with an aim to finish by December 1.
Once you settle on a direction, you'll need to figure out food logistics. Since you'll likely only be able to haul about five days' worth in your pack, you can food shop as you go--you'll emerge from the backcountry and pass by small-town convenience stores with great frequency. Your other option is to buy groceries in bulk before you start, divvy the food up into mail drops, and mail them to yourself in care of general delivery at 20 or so conveniently located post offices along the way. The advantage to this strategy is that you'll probably save a little cash, but the uncertainty of rural P.O. hours may throw a wrench into your hiking schedule.
Plan also on investing in a sturdy pair of mountaineering boots, hefty enough to withstand the 50-pound pack on your back and the stress of hiking the trail's boulder-strewn sections through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Other essentials: a lightweight tent (AT shelters can be crowded), sleeping bag and pad, campstove, 50-some-odd feet of rope to hang your food, and appropriate topo maps. The Appalachian Trail Conference (304-535-6331) sells a full set to the trail for $162 and can provide sage advice on route-planning and preparation. It's also worth picking seven-time through-hiker Dan Bruce's brain at the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies in North Carolina (704-622-7601). For $11.95 he'll send you his own addition to literature of the trail, The Thru-Hiker's Planning Guide. For other information, consult Outside's own take on the subject, "Walking the Walk," in the May 1996 issue.