For serious hikers, tackling the Appalachian Trail is the great white whale. Stretching more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, it was developed nearly a century ago by Benton MacKaye, who had visions of a path that stretched from New England to the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Today, the Appalachian Trail is a part of the national park system and visited by thousands of people each year. Some visit for a short day-hike, some go for trips that last several days and some – called thru-hikers – attempt to travel the entire trail in one continuous stretch. Those who complete the journey, which generally takes between five and seven months, are known as "2,000 milers." Fewer than 15,000 are a part of this prestigious group. If you are taking aim to become a 2,000 miler, or just spend a few hours exploring a section of the trail, here are a few tips to make sure you have a safe and enjoyable experience:
Where and when to start
If you are planning a thru-hike, or just a hike that lasts a week or two, the decisions of when and where to start should be made together. For example, if you're heading out during the dog days of summer, it's probably a good idea to plan your hike a bit further north, whereas for an early spring or late fall trip, consider staying closer to Georgia to take advantage of the warmer weather. There are other considerations, as well. For example, Baxter State Park in Maine closes in mid-October, so if you're starting at the south end, make sure you time your trip to get there by then.
Where to stay
Because the Appalachian Trail was designed for hikers, there are shelters and tent sites set up along the way. The vast majority of hikers who are planning on spending several days on the trail bring their own tents. While you can use the provided shelters – they are strategically placed to be about a day's hike apart – it also gives you the flexibility to take it easy one day and find a campsite of your own.
If you're going to be on the trail for more than a couple of days, it's likely you'll need to restock your food or water. You've got a few options here. If you're planning on taking a long hike, you may use mail drops. Just send yourself packages to points along the way that will keep you well-stocked until the next mail drop. There are also plenty of towns – the trail crosses roads once every four miles on average – so you can usually find a store if needed. Remember that the Appalachian Trail will take you through some pretty small towns, so you may have trouble shopping at night.
Every rule that applies to hiking safety should be remembered when tackling the Appalachian Trail. This means dressing appropriately for the weather you will likely encounter, eating regularly and drinking plenty of water. While you should keep a cell phone with you, remember that service along the trail will be spotty at best in places, so have a contingency plan ready for emergencies. Keep a whistle or flashlight with you at all times. In case of an emergency, three short calls repeated at regular intervals is the standard distress signal. This can mean blowing your whistle, shouting, flashing your light or even smoke puffs. If you hear such a signal, two short calls means you heard them and are coming to help.
If you are alone and hurt, it's important not to panic. Because the trail is relatively well-traveled, there is a good chance someone will come along before too long. Make sure you always have a map, understand how to use it and are aware of your location, so if your phone does work, you can describe your location and get help sent as quickly as possible.
Always stay aware of where you are heading, and let someone know what your plans are each day. It's rarely a good idea to hike alone, or even with a single partner or dog. Groups of three or more are the best way for everyone to stay safe.
Currently, it is legal to carry a handgun on National Park Service land. If you chose to do so – or for any other valuables, electronics or important paperwork you may be carrying with you – consider bringing along a portable safe to ensure your belongings are secure at all times.
Most importantly, do plenty of research before setting out. There are lots of stops along the way that hikers before you have found and shared in books or on blogs. Using the experience of those before you will ensure you have a great trip, whether you're hiking 2 miles or 2,000.