A Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Aug. 14, 2012, marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail. See more pictures of national parks.

There is a plaque at Springer Mountain in Georgia -- the southernmost point of the Appalachian Trail -- that describes the trail as "a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness." Ever since a continuous wilderness trail from Maine to Georgia was formed in 1937, it has meant different things to the people who have walked it, but most people who find themselves on the Appalachian Trail do so to get closer to the nature [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].

Early on in Bill Bryson's book, "A Walk in the Woods," one of the most popular first-hand accounts of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bryson's friend and hiking partner Katz arrives at the airport with a bag full of Snickers bars and pepperoni sausages. After only a few miles of hiking, Katz opens his pack and begins flinging food -- everything from coffee filters to cans of Spam -- over a cliff out of frustration (but he wisely spared the Snickers bars). The lesson? Poor planning can cause big problems on the Appalachian Trail [source: Bryson].

Along with the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide, the Appalachian Trail forms the Triple Crown of long distance hikes in the U.S., "but [the AT] will always be the first and greatest," as Bryson puts it, and many hikers share the sentiment. The trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, spanning 14 states and about 2,180 miles. Every year, thousands of people visit the Appalachian Trail; some set out to hike the entire thing, while others visit the trail for day hikes.

Hiking the entire trail is an enormous, often life-changing event, and since the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began keeping records in the 1930s, more than 10,000 people have hiked it. Some people hike it for speed, like Jennifer Pharr Davis, the record holder for the fastest-ever thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, who hiked it in 46 days, 11 hours [source: Horan]. For others, like Warren Doyle, who has hiked the entire trail an astounding 16 times, it's a way of life [source: Gifford]. But for most normal folks who hike the trail, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Whether you plan to join the 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) club or just want to go for a leisurely walk in the woods, the Appalachian Trail is one of the U.S.'s great treasures. In this article we'll walk you through the basics of hiking the trail, from what you put on your feet to where you sleep.