Each year, 3 million people trek at least a portion of the trail, with just a fraction of those walking its entire length. Those "thru-hikers" learn a lot during early days of their journey, and most will tell you there is no way to fully prepare for the challenge of walking the AT end-to-end other than just doing it.
WHEN TO START AND WHICH DIRECTION TO GO
Those two questions are closely related, as the time of year you begin your hike could dictate whether you travel north to south or vice versa. Most thru-hikers start at the southernmost trailhead located on Springer Mountain in Georgia. If you're getting under way in late winter or early spring, you'll want to start in Georgia so you can avoid the cold conditions and heavy snows that are common at the north end of the trail at that time of year.
If you're getting under way during the summer, it may be best to start on Katahdin where the temperatures will be much cooler than down south. Should you decide to start during the fall, start in Maine and travel south at a rapid pace, as you'll want to avoid the early onset of winter and get into the warmer sections before the snow begins to fly. Either way, plan on spending a considerable amount of time on the trail.
On average, most thru-hikers end up spending about six months on the AT traveling from end to end. The record for the fastest time is just 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes.
TRAVEL LIGHT … BUT NOT TOO LIGHT
Ultralight hiking is all the rage these days, and everyone is looking for ways to cut ounces from their packs. Lightweight backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and stoves have helped greatly in this endeavor. For example, a lightweight camping chair will seem like a comfortable recliner at the end of a long day, while a French press coffee maker just might make rolling out of the sleeping bag in the morning a bit easier too. Yes, true ultralight hikers will scoff at this bit of advice, but the rest of us appreciate a few simple creature comforts when things aren't going our way.
IT'S POSSIBLE TO HIKE END TO END WITHOUT CARRYING A TENT
It isn't widely known, but the trail has more than 250 huts located along its length, all of which can be used for free. The shelters were built to be roughly a day's hike apart, although the distance between them varies wildly at times. If you know how far you have to go to the next hut and plan you very well could leave your tent at home.
TEST YOUR GEAR BEFORE YOU GO
The Appalachian Trail is no place to test new gear for the very first time. Be sure to give all of your equipment a try before you set out on your hike. If you can, take a weekend backpacking excursion along a local trail to make sure everything performs up to your expectations. Blisters can be the bane of your existence on the trail.
GET IN SHAPE BEFORE YOU HIT THE TRAIL, TOO
Your body will get used to the demands of the trails and you won't think twice about covering serious mileage each day. In the weeks leading up to the hike, head out to your local trails and go for a walk while carrying a full pack. By the time you set out on your trek, you'll be much more prepared for what the trail throws at you.
YOU'LL ENCOUNTER MORE CARS THAN YOU EXPECT
While it is true that the Appalachian Trail winds its way through some of the most remote areas of the Eastern United States, it also crosses more roads than you might expect along the way. It happens more frequently than you might think, and while it may disrupt the illusion of hiking through an uninterrupted wilderness, it's part of life on the AT. Besides, some of those roads will invariably lead to a nearby town where you might find a place to resupply, or even treat yourself to a luxury or two that you've been missing before resuming the trek.
YOU'LL GO UP AND DOWN—A LOT
The highest point along the Appalachian Trail is found near Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. There, hikers climb up to a height of 6,625 feet. The total amount of climbing for the entire 2,000-plus-mile route is roughly 515,000 feet, or the equivalent of going to the summit of Mt. Everest more than 17 times.
BEWARE OF BEARS
Most of the animals will scurry off without giving you a second look, but the one thing you need to be wary of are the bears - although probably not for the reasons you might expect. The black bear found in the Eastern U.S. tend to be shy and nonaggressive for the most part, usually making themselves scarce at the sound of approaching hikers. Than, before turning in for the night, hang it from the branch of a tree where it is well out of reach.
Bonus Tip: In celebration of the summer solstice, June 21st has been declared Naked Hiking Day. If you happen to find yourself on the Appalachian Trail on that date, chances are you might run into some fellow hikers who are observing the tradition. And should you decide to join in, be sure to use sunscreen.