What exactly is the Appalachian Trail and where is it located?

The “A.T.,” as it’s called by hikers, is a national scenic trail stretching across 14 states. It traverses many of the highest mountains of the Appalachian Mountain range, often within a few hours’ drive of East-Coast cities. Though the A.T. most often traverses wooded slopes and ridges, it occasionally meanders across valleys and farmland. To keep its character as wild and primitive as possible, it avoids developed areas, and takes the hiker through only about dozen small towns.

The A.T. passes through more than 60 federal, state, and local parks and forests, including two National Parks – Great Smoky Mountain NP and Shenandoah NP. Between all of these protected areas, a corridor of land, averaging 1,000 feet in width, has been acquired to protect it. Hundreds of roads cross it, providing many access points to it.

What do hikers eat?

Hikers carry their food with them, but not all of it at once. As mentioned above, hikers come off the trail frequently to re-supply, and when they do, they often eat at local restaurants, cafés, snack shops, or anywhere where good food is easily obtained. It is advised to pick up a couple of pieces of fruit in town, and maybe even bring a sandwich or something that can easily be eaten for dinner that evening a little further up the trail.

Many hikers have food caches sent to them at various points along the trail. Hikers come off the trail and hike or hitch-hike to the town where they are expecting their package delivery. These little post offices in the little towns all along the A.T. are used to accepting hikers’ re-supply boxes, so they hold the packages until the intended recipients arrive to pick them up. Incidentally, in addition to food, re-supply boxes will often include a fresh new pair of socks, or clean underwear, or a fresh shirt, or even a new [hopefully already broken in] pair of hiking shoes or boots when necessary.

While not everyone has or wants someone back home to make food drops to them, opting instead to just resupply at the local market or grocery store, Fred plans to have his wife Laura mail food caches to him. This way he can have the food he wants on the trail. For him, this will include packages of dehydrated meals where he will just need to add water he has boiled on his little cook stove and wait for it all to “cook” – about 10 minutes. In addition to mailing a few dehydrated dinner packs in each box, Laura will also include his favorite energy and nutrition bars, Snickers bars, dried fruit, mixed nuts, and the like. It will take careful coordination to figure out where Fred will be 5-7 days out and then mailing a box to General Delivery at the post office in that little town, but this way Fred can count on having his high-calorie, pretty-darn-tasty Mountain House meals. Beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki, chicken noodles – all this delicious dehydrated trail food awaits him!

What is “Leave No Trace”?

Leave No Trace is a set of outdoor ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors. It consists of seven principles:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimize campfire impacts
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of other visitors
These principles have been adapted to different activities, including hiking on the A.T. and any other hiking trail. Since 1994, the non-profit organization, Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics, has educated people about their recreational impact on nature as well as the principles of Leave No Trace to prevent and minimize such impact.


Where do hikers sleep?

After a day of hiking, most hikers pitch a tent for sleeping, although some choose a hammock configuration. Some 270 backcountry shelters dot the A.T. and are welcome retreats for hikers, particularly in inclement weather. A typical shelter, often called a “lean-to” has an overhanging roof, a wooden floor, and three walls. Most are near a creek or spring, and many have a privy nearby. Shelters are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but as expected, fill up in the busier months along the trail. Most thru-hikers spend most of their nights in tents.

On the occasions that hikers pass through towns (not that frequently) or hikers choose to leave the trail to re-supply, shower, do laundry, etc., many find the creature comforts of a hotel room too good to pass up, and staying in a hotel or inn is perfectly acceptable.

Where do hikers get water?

Staying hydrated is vital to hiking, so hikers always need to be carrying enough water and know the location of the next water source. Guidebooks are critical resources to show each of the water sources on the trail.

On the more populated sections of the trail, actual water spigots are available. But more often than not water will come from rivers and streams. This means the water needs to be filtered and/or treated. The smart hiker tops off his/her water supply every chance s/he gets.

Fred figures he’ll carry, on average, about 3 liters of water, and when necessary, he’s got a Sawyer water filtration system with him when he needs to turn to a stream.

Through which 14 states does the A.T. travel?

From South to North (the direction Fred and most other hikers choose to hike it) they are: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.


How and when did the A.T. come about?

The A.T. was conceived in 1921. Over the years bits of land were acquired and cleared and assembled by private citizens. When it was finally completed in 1937, it became America’s premier long-distance footpath. For more specific information on the history of the A.T., see this really cool article:

How long is the A.T.?

The length of the A.T. has changed over the years but it is generally considered to be just under 2,190 miles in length. The route changes slightly each year – to provide better scenery, better treadway, or to move the trail away from threats. Ninety-nine percent of the A.T. is located on protected public lands.

How long does it take to thru-hike the entire A.T.?

Thru-hiking the entire A.T. is a mammoth physical and logistical undertaking. It is not to be entered into lightly as some 75 percent of the people who attempt to thru-hike it fail. In order to claim rights to thru-hiking the trail, a hiker needs to do so in one year. Those who do earn the title “2,000 Miler.”

In truth and practice, hikers don’t actually stay on the trail the entire time; they come off it all the time to purchase or pick up more food, enjoy a big meal at a café or restaurant, do laundry, stay in a hotel and sleep in a real bed, take a shower, meet up with friends and family, or for whatever reason. But a hiker who leaves the trail must return to the location s/he left the trail and resume the hike from there – no cheating!

Because weather dictates, most people begin at the Southern Terminus which is Springer Mountain, Georgia, and end at the Northern Terminus atop Mount Katahdin in Maine. Most start in late winter or early spring as beginning much before that time assures snow on the trail and freezing nights. The other factor that dictates the start is the end; Baxter State Park where Mount Katahdin is located closes on October 15th of each year, so the successful thru-hiker needs to be finished on or before that day.

The average person completes the hike in 5-1/2 months and that’s the length of time Fred is planning on.


Who oversees maintenance of the A.T.?

The National Park Service is the Administering Agency, but in practice, many organizations and hiking groups maintain and care for the trail. These include the US Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies, and thousands of volunteers.

Can anyone hike on the A.T.?

Yes, and millions of people do each year. The sections of the A.T. that run through Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Shenandoah National Park are particularly heavily trafficked, but so are other popular state parks and particularly scenic sections.

By far, most of the people on the trail are day-hikers who choose short, couple-mile day hikes or those who climb to an overlook to view the spectacular scenery below. Many people enjoy weekend backpacking trips on and around the trail. Some people opt for “section hikes” to hike longer portions of the trail; section hikes are often one to several weeks in duration. A very few people, like Fred, endeavor to thru-hike it.

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