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“The Appalachian Trail is both intimate and majestic,” says hiker and author Jennifer Pharr Davis, who has through-hiked the megatrail three times and holds the speed record (46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes).

Completed in 1937 and stretching 2,180 mountainous miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail (AT) provides a classic American adventure, drawing up to three million visitors a year.  

Bottles of water left for hikers on the AT, an example of "trail magic."  (Photograph by Brian Vallelunga, Flickr)

Bottles of water left for hikers on the AT, an example of “trail magic.” (Photograph by Brian Vallelunga, Flickr)

> Getting Started

From New York City: Head to Pawling, where the AT crosses the train tracks, to hike a few miles to the Dover Oak, a huge, 250-year-old tree.

From Washington, D.C.: Drive on Route 7 to Snickers Gap in Virginia on the Loudoun County border. Hike south to the Bears Den Hostel, a charming mountaintop stone fortress. 

From Asheville, N.C.: The AT runs right down Bridge Street in Hot Springs, a charming Blue Ridge mountain town where you can soak in hot water, stay at an inn, and fill up on homemade biscuits at the Smoky Mountain Diner.

> Trail Tested

Pharr Davis recommends packing a pocket mirror. “It can reflect the sun for aircraft in case of emergencies, and help you check out a bug bite in a hard-to-view location. Bring duct tape for repairing tears in gear.”

> Local Color

Bascom Lodge in the Berkshires (Photograph by Rusty Clark, Flickr)

Bascom Lodge in the Berkshires (Photograph by Rusty Clark, Flickr)

“One of my favorite traditions along the trail is ‘trail magic’—doing something nice for fellow hikers,” Pharr Davis says. Examples include leaving a cooler filled with sodas or offering essentials such as toilet paper and bug spray. Providers are called “trail angels.” “The trail teaches you how to give and receive,” she says. “It restores your faith in humanity.”

> Camping Optional

Hike by day and spend nights in a hostel, hut, or hotel. Recommended: Bascom Lodge on top of Mount Greylock in the Massachusetts Berkshires. “This is a far cry from a tent but still offers direct access to the wilderness,” Pharr Davis says.

> Ready for Anything

The weather will change dramatically and unpredictably, so pack accordingly. “I find creative ways to stay warm,” says Pharr Davis. “I’ve used an extra pair of wool socks as mittens and turned a plastic trash bag into a rainproof vest.”

Mary Anne Potts is the editor of National Geographic Adventure, including the Beyond the Edge blog. Join our adventure community on Twitter @NGAdventure. This piece originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.