The 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, longest footpath in the US, stretches through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. Elevation is 145' at the lowest point in New York and 6,625 feet on Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. When success seems imminent, the most challenging part of the trail is the final four-mile 3000' ascent up Mount Katahdin. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that only twenty-five percent of those who begin a "thru hike" actually complete the journey of about five million steps. Preparation makes all the difference.
The average thru hiker takes about six months to complete the journey. That usually means six months of consuming without earning. The cost of supplies, food, and gear averages about $5000 per person. For most people, then, the first step in preparation is to plan to meet financial needs and obligations.
Most inexperienced hikers will need to begin physical preparation months or even a year in advance. Strength training and aerobic conditioning are essential. Obtaining or moving toward ideal body weight or BMI increases the likelihood of success. In the final months of physical preparation, novice hikers should complete practice hikes of two to four days and nights with full pack and wearing hiking boots. (This is a good time to begin breaking in at least two pairs of quality hiking boots.)
Mental preparation is also crucial. "Know Before You Go" is the watchword. Almost eleven thousand people have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at least once--millions more have hiked just a part of it--creating a vast pool of information and experience available to the novice. Several websites and discussion groups are dedicated to the trail. Online communities of thru-hikers and hopefuls bond to share the experience. There are also reputable annual workshops and camps near the beginning of the trail just before peak season begins in March.
Only after months of physical and mental preparation is a novice ready to begin what some would call the fun part--shopping for gear. There is no one-size-fits-all list. A beginner must have, after some physical and mental preparation, a good sense of personal abilities and goals to make appropriate gear and clothing choices. Some will travel fast and light while others will carry heavier gear for night comfort or photography. Some may consider enduring nights on the hard ground part of the experience, while others will schedule daily legs to be near indoor lodging at night when possible.
On this journey of five million steps, the first step is preparation.