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Hiking the Appalachian Trail

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Not long after the end of World War I, a Massachussetts regional planner named Benton MacKaye envisoned a footpath along the crests of the mountains from New England to the southern Appalachians. Today, the Appalachian Trail is America's best known footpath. It runs from Springer Mountain in southern Georgia for 2,175 miles to Katahdin peak in northern Maine. The AT is a linear trail that can be enjoyed in small pieces or large chunks.

The AT is marked for daylight travel in both directions, using a system of painted "blazes" on trees, posts, and rocks. A blaze is a rectangle of paint in a prominent place along a trail. White-paint blazes two inches wide and six inches high mark the AT itself. Side trails and shelter trails use blue blazes; blazes of other colors and shapes mark other intersecting trails. Two white blazes, one above the other, signal an obscure turn, route change, incoming side trail, or other situation that requires you to be especially alert to changes in direction. If you have gone a quarater-mile without seeing a blaze, stop. Retrace your steps until you locate a blaze. Then, check to ensure that you haven't missed a turn. Often a good glance backward will reveal blazes meant for hikers travelling in the opposite direction.

If you become lost, stay calm; panic is your greatest enemy. If you are on a trail, don't leave it. If you are off a trail, following a drainage or stream downhill often will lead you to a road. Don't travel at night if you are injured or exhausted or the weather is bad. Stay warm, save your energy, and periodically give off a distress signal (shout or whistle) in bursts of three. The AT is frequently traveled during daylight hours, someone should eventually hear you.

Make sure you have appropriate clothing and footwear for weather conditions you may encounter, and enough food and water for the contemplated hike. The greastest dangers you're likely to encounter are from hypothermia, lightining, or dehydration. A cold rain can be the most dangerous weather of all. Avoid hypothermia by dressing in layers of synthetic clothing, eating well, staying hydrated and holing up if a sheltered place is available. The odds of being struck by lightning are low, but an open ridge is no place to be in a thunderstorm. Boulders, rocky overhangs, and shallow caves offer no protection from lightning. A better alternative is to take shelter in a stand of small trees or in the forest. To avoid dehydration, bring lots of water and drink it often.

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