Hiking the Appalachian and related trails

The major trail is the Appalachian Trail or AT. Trails which intersect or extend the Appalachian Trail include the Long Trail in Vermont, the Long Path in New York, the Benton MacKaye trail in Tennessee and Georgia, the Pinhoti trail in Georgia and Alabama, the Alabama trail, and the Florida trail.

Links

Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)
Source of maps and Thru-Hikers Companion, which is the official guidebook. As of 2008, most durably constructed of the guidebooks for the AT, but also the heaviest.
TrailPlace
Alternate guidebook, sometimes called the "Wingfoot Guide", because that was the trailname of the original author (the book and associated website are now owned and maintained by another person). Almost as complete as the ATC guide, with more readable format better town maps, but the binding not very durable as of 2008, which I consider a serious drawback for a book that will be referenced several times a day for several months on end in outdoor conditions.
Whiteblaze
Lots of info related to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Bartram Trail
Guidebook for Bartram Trail, which connects with AT near Franklin, and allows walking into Franklin rather than hitching. This trail is shown on the AT maps, so the guidebook is not really necessary if you have the AT maps.
Benton Mackaye Trail
Serves as connector between Pinhoti and Appalachian trails. Runs parallel to and connects with the southern Appalachian trail in several places. Trail covered by the National Geographic Topo maps for: Springer and Cohutta mountain; Cherokee National Forest; Great Smoky Mountains.
Pinhoti Trail Alliance
Alabama Trails Association
Georgia Pinhoti Trail
Pinhoti trail passes through northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia, and terminates at intersection with Benton Mackaye trail.
Alabama Hiking Trail Society
Has guide for walking from Florida-Alabama border to start of Appalachian trail, including the Alabama road walk, the Pinhoti trail and the Benton Mackaye trail.
Florida Trail Association
Trail that runs from Key West to Pensacola, with spur trail leading to border with Alabama, where it intersects with the Alabama roadwalk.
Orlando area bus service
Bus transportation in Orlando, Florida area. Route 11 to get from airport to Lynx central station. Route 4 to get from Lynx central station to downtown Kissimmee, which is on the Florida trail western corridor. Routes 102 and 103 to get from Lynx central station to Seminole Center, which is near the Florida trail eastern corridor.

Alternative thru-hiking schedule

The ideal hiking season on the Appalachian Trail is mid-August to mid-September for Maine and New Hampshire and late September through October elsewhere. For someone determined to hike the entire trail in a single season, flip-flopping is the best idea. That is, start walking south from Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania no sooner than March, reach Georgia no sooner than mid-July, flip to Maine and start walking south again, finishing at Delaware Water Gap mid-November. This allows a total of 8 months to complete the trail, or a leisurely 9 miles a day. A faster walker can start later and finish earlier. What is important is to avoid flipping to Maine sooner than mid-July, since there are too many mosquitoes and black flies before then. Another possibility, especially attractive to those who live in the eastern United States, is to return home after reaching Georgia in early June and take a break before resuming in Maine in early August. Flip-flopping like this has numerous advantages:

Another flip-flop possibility is to start southbound from Maine in mid-July, then flip to Georgia at Harper's Ferry (which has commuter train access to the Washington-Baltimore area) and begin walking north. This scheme works better than a straight-through southbound thru-hike because winter is milder in northern Virginia, due to the lower elevation, than in the mountains further south. A southbounder should be able to reach Harper's Ferry by late September, flip to Georgia and start walking north, and reach Harper's Ferry again by the end of November, which is normally when winter sets in. In 2010, a little north of Pearisburg, Virginia, at 4000 feet elevation, I experienced several inches of snow on November 5 and temperatures in the low teens at night. As is typical with such early storms, the sun came out the next afternoon, the snow melted and temperatures were mild for several weeks afterwards. Storms like this can thus typically be dealt with by simply waiting them out. On the other hand, in 2009, winter arrived early and there was permanent snow on the ground and sub-freezing temperatures throughout the southern Appalachians at elevations above 3000 starting from late October until March of the next year. If necessary to bail-out due to an early winter, Greyhound service to Washington stops at Marion, Roanoke or Charlottesville. Marion and Roanoke are within walking distance of the trail. To get to Charlottesville, take a taxi from Waynesboro. A resupply schedule for the above scheme, assuming 15 miles/day other than in the White Mountains and southern Maine and a desire to avoid hitch-hiking, is as follows (information valid as of 2008 and 2010, the years I hiked the AT):

Other notes

As of 2010, Hiker Hostel provides reasonably priced shuttles from Atlanta to the trailhead. But if they stop this service and no other shuttle can be found, then an alternative is to take Greyhound from the Atlanta airport to Dalton, then a taxi from Dalton to Chatsworth (about 15 miles), walk about 5 miles to the trailhead for the Chattahoochee segment of the Georgia Pinhoti trail, follow that trail for about 30 miles to where it intersects with the Benton MacKaye trail, follow the BMT for about 70 miles to Mount Springer. The Pinhoti and BMT trail segments, plus the road walk from Chatsworth to the Pinhoti trailhead, are clearly shown on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Springer and Cohutta Mountains map. There are plenty of motels in both Dalton or Chatsworth, in case of a late arrival into town.

It is possible to walk the AT without maps, though they are nice to have, especially for first-timers. By trimming away unneeded parts, the weight of the entire map set can be reduced from about 2140 grams (almost 5 pounds) to perhaps 1400 grams (about 3 pounds). This is low enough that carrying the entire map set from the start is feasible. Alternatively, carry a pound of maps or so at a time, and thus reduce the number of maildrops required to three. For example, a hiker doing the flip-flop described above could start with maps for Delaware Water Gap (PA) to Damascus (VA), then replace with maps for Damascus to Mount Springer (GA), then replace with maps for Mount Katahdin (ME) to Glencliff (NH), and finally replace with maps for Glencliff to Delaware Water Gap.

[Update as of 2013: Now that almost everyone has a smartphone, and many people have a mapping GPS as well, it probably makes more sense to use electronic rather than paper maps for the Appalachian Trail. Electronics can fail, of course, but getting lost on the AT is very unlikely. Aside from saving money and reducing weight, using electronic rather than paper maps eliminates the maildrop problem for the most part. A few food maildrops will still be necessary, but those can be arranged on the fly, buying in big towns and mailing to small towns further down the trail. See the GPS page for more on this topic.]]

Camping is not allowed along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains national park. Rather, all hikers must stay in huts if hiking the AT there. Those who prefer camping can take the Benton MacKaye trail through the Smokies rather than the AT, since hiking is allowed along the Benton MacKaye trail. The Benton MacKaye trail is about 20 miles longer than the AT, and involves more elevation changes.

Be careful with maildrops that are not sent to post offices, since these are sometimes insecure. For example, I sent a mail drop to the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harper's Ferry, but then had to get off the trail and so couldn't pick up this maildrop in person. When I called the ATC later to ask them to return the package, they said they couldn't find it, though they did have record of having received it. I talked to two people in the office, and both started laughing nervously and telling me obvious lies when I asked them what their procedures were for giving out maildrops to hikers. Eventually, I gathered that they simply leave packages out where anyone can take them, rather than requiring photo IDs before handing over packages. Though I didn't myself use hostels or stores for maildrops along the AT, I got the impression that most of these had the same lack of security as the ATC. By comparison, post offices always require a photo ID for picking up packages. Post offices have limited office hours and sometimes won't hold packages for more than two weeks, which is why I sent my package to the ATC and why many hikers use hostels and stores for maildrops. Of course, having longer hours and holding periods is not much of an advantage if a package gets lost or stolen.