The Appalachian Trail isn't just about mind-blowing scenery and a sense of accomplishment. It's about the people
I sold my house, and then my car. I quit my job and stored my belongings. It was the beginning of a commitment to live a life of my own making. To celebrate, and test my newfound conviction, I fulfilled a lifelong goal by hiking the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail. While thru-hikers--people who do the trail in one trip, as I did--get all the attention, most of the folks on the A.T. are hiking much shorter distances, many hoping at some point to cover the entire thing. (Not everyone can set aside six months to take a long walk.) However you arrange it, your time spent on the A.T. will challenge you physically, mentally, and, sometimes, emotionally.
Know the basics: The trail starts in the south at Springer Mountain, Ga., winding its way north through 14 states to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Thru-hikers typically start the journey in the spring so they can make it to the end of the trail before the cold weather arrives. Section hikers, liberated from the timetable imposed by Maine's early snowstorms, have considerably more flexibility.
Do your research: The Appalachian Trail Conference (appalachiantrail.org), which oversees this National Scenic Trail, is a fine place to begin. Another site, trailplace.com, run by seven-time thru-hiker Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, is uncommonly informative, plus it has an active community of hikers willing to share their wisdom. Bruce is also the author of the indispensable Thru-hiker's Handbook.
Choose wisely: Base your itinerary on more than just scenery. If you're hiking just a section, do it near one of the many hiker-friendly towns along the way. My favorites were Hot Springs, N.C.; Damascus, Va., the home of Trail Days, a hiker festival that takes place each May; Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the A.T.C. is headquartered; Delaware Water Gap, Pa.; and Hanover, N.H. They all have good outfitters that will drive you to the trail and then pick you up at a prearranged time and place, simplifying the logistics. If crowds aren't your thing, make sure the northbound swell has either passed by already or not yet reached the area that you intend to focus on (call the A.T.C. at 304/535-6331 for updates).
Pack light: Novice backpackers often ruin their experience by lugging around 50 pounds or more. Seasoned hikers can easily keep the weight of a full pack under 30 pounds, including a week's supply of food. Each pound matters. Ray Jardine's Beyond Backpacking (rayjardine.com) is the bible of ultralight backpacking.
Slow down: You'll hear about hikers chalking up more than 30 miles a day, but for beginners, a daily average of 10 miles is plenty--and it's more rewarding. I never regretted relaxing on mountaintops or alongside streams longer than I probably should have.
Know the natives: Bears, bobcats, moose, porcupines, river otters, and rattlesnakes are just a few of the animals you might come across. Whether you're sidling around a timber rattler or being awakened at dawn by a bull moose just yards from the shelter, as I was, you can minimize risk by becoming knowledgeable beforehand about wildlife. Most of your critter-related worries will come from smaller denizens: mice, which will gnaw into your food cache at night if you don't learn to store it properly, and mosquitoes and blackflies, which can be an itchy, scratchy nuisance if you forget insect repellent.
Take shelter: Rustic lean-tos are spaced approximately every 10 miles, so you can forgo bringing along a tent, which will significantly cut your pack weight and expenses. (Make room for a lightweight, waterproof tarp just in case.) Don't be surprised if you don't have the lean-tos--or the Trail, for that matter--to yourself. The A.T. is more popular than ever, and the shelters are the nexus of the trail community. Even those who choose not to stay in them stop by for breaks or to leave entries in the shelter journals.
Go with the flow: I often adjusted my schedule, once hiking at night by a full moon to make up for a lazy day spent swimming, and I took plenty of unplanned breaks to talk with curious day hikers. (The people I met along the way, such as the Virginia couple who invited me into their home for a steak dinner, turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of my trip.) Being open to alternatives, a skill I polished on the Trail, enlivened my imagination and served me well after I finished hiking. Just months after leaving Maine I moved to New York City--something I'd never previously considered--and landed my dream job.