A Guide to Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail Hiking: Preparation for the Trek

Whether you're just going out for a day hike with the family or trekking from Georgia to Maine, you want to be ready for whatever you might encounter out in the woods. Every year, thousands of people abandon their dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail because of one thing: They were unprepared for it. Injuries can derail even the strongest hiker's trip, and financial issues have also stopped many thru-hikers in their tracks.

There are many occasions in life where a sense of spontaneity will work to your advantage, but long-distance hiking isn't one of them. Being well prepared for the hike is the best insurance you can have that you'll be able to reach the end of the trail.

Preparation for the AT begins with getting yourself psychologically ready for the hike. "It's just walking," you might tell yourself. "Just put one foot in front of the other." True, but it's walking up and down steep, sometimes forbidding terrain, often with blisters on your feet. It's carrying everything you'll need on your back and sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. And don't even get us started on the heat and humidity you're sure to encounter in the summer months.

A long hike will test your determination, and it requires some serious mental fortitude. The best way to get mentally prepared for the hike is to be as well informed about it as possible. That means heading to the library and checking out every book you can find on thru-hiking in general and the Appalachian Trail specifically. The two must-read books for anyone who is thinking about hiking the AT are "The Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion," which is a guide produced by The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, and the "Appalachian Trail Data Book," which is a bible of information about the trail that is updated every year. It's also a good idea to read personal Web sites and blogs, and to talk to as many people who have already hiked the trail as you can in order to glean trail wisdom from them.

Being properly prepared for Appalachian Trail Hiking also means having the proper gear (we'll get to that later), and budgeting enough money to cover travel expenses and any unforeseeable events. And whether you're hiking from Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain, or just going for a short day hike, every visitor to the Appalachian Trail should go with a map and compass -- and should know how to use them before hitting the trail. You should also be sure to go equipped with enough food and water, and for long-distance hikers, a way to purify water (the Appalachian Trail doesn't have many drinking fountains). You should also remember to pack a well-stocked first-aid kit, sunglasses and sunscreen, and a trash bag to pack out your waste [source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy].