Hiking the entire 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail is considered by many to be the journey of a lifetime.

 

The AT is the most famous footpath in the world, after all, attracting millions of visitors each year, for a few hours, a day, a week, and sometimes many months.

Conceived in 1921 and completed 16 years later in 1937, the trail is a model of bold vision, amazing cooperation, volunteer spirit and hard work.

It was designated America’s first National Scenic Trail in 1968, setting into motion an extraordinary effort to protect and preserve a continuous trail through the woods and mountains of 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

Today the trail is overseen by the National Park Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and 31 volunteer maintaining clubs. Our own Maine Appalachian Trail Club maintains most of the sinuous 281-mile route from the Mahoosucs to Katahdin.

“99.5 percent of the trail is now in public ownership,” said Laurie Potteiger, information services manager with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is dedicated to preserving and managing the natural, scenic, historic and cultural resources of the trail for primitive outdoor recreation and environmental education. “The footpath is a living, breathing entity through a corridor of land that’s continuously being improved.”

Through-hikers are those hearty souls who trek the whole route in a single year. To go the distance takes five to six months of steady walking, up and down hundreds of mountains, over elevations ranging from 6,600 feet in the Smoky Mountains to near sea level at the Hudson River, all the while toting a sizeable load of gear.

“It’s a common theme that hiking the entire trail is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” said Potteiger, a veteran of a 1987 through-hike and one of more than 10,000 individuals who have completed the trail. “It’s a daunting challenge, but doable with discipline and desire.”

Potteiger calls the Appalachian Trail a great American adventure, a unique chance to get out into the woods and back to nature in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, to see the country on foot much as they did, and experience the beauty of our natural heritage.

Do you dream of making the big hike, of dropping out of civilization for a while, of paring down to just the simple essentials of life that can be carried in a backpack, to take on a challenge that’s bigger than yourself?

If so, I say, what are you waiting for?

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” goes the quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Well, it takes an estimated 5 million steps to hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end. No doubt, those real first steps — to make the decision to go and to map out a plan — are the most difficult.

“If you have the ability to walk you can hike the trail,” notes Potteiger. “No special skills are required. You don’t have to be an expert to succeed.”

Potteiger has seen thousands of hikers come through the ATC office, located just off the trail in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. By that point, hikers have developed tremendous confidence, great pride in their accomplishment and a gratitude for the little things in life. Most have found the trail experience to be different from what they expected — perhaps because they have changed. There’s a newfound appreciation for life, family, people, the trail itself.

“They’re so happy,” said Potteiger, who never tires of witnessing the elated faces at her door.

There are plenty of resources available to help you plan and prepare for an AT through-hike. Start by getting a copy of “Step by Step: An Introduction to Walking the Appalachian Trail,” an 18-page booklet produced by the ATC staff.

Then try an Internet search for everything from trail journals of former through-hikers, maps and guidebooks to how-to workshops, suggested equipment lists, mail drop schedules and food resupply points.

The traditional hike starts at Springer Mountain, Ga., in March or April, heads north with the seasons and finishes atop Mount Katahdin in September or early October. Some 85 percent of hikers choose this route.

Another option is to head south from Baxter State Park in late spring or early summer, completing the trek in Georgia around Thanksgiving time.

Carey Kish of Bowdoin is a freelance writer and avid hiker. Send comments and hike suggestions to:

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