How to hike 15 miles a day
There's only one sure-fire way I know of to hike some miles. Get on the trail early in the morning. I prefer to stop each day at 6 pm and be in the sack by 10 pm. I have a dinky little digital alarm clock and I set it for 7:30 am. The goal is to start walking at 8:30 or 9 am. If I am moving by 9, I can spend 9 hours on the trail. If I can manage to plug along at a measly 1.67 mph, I will walk 15 miles.
AT hills being what they are, sometimes 9 hours isn't enough time for me. In the summer, there's enough light to keep going until 9:30 pm. I heard a thru-hiker pull in at 11 one night. Variables in travel calculations include how tough the section of trail is and how far apart the shelters are.
Before I turn in, I collect and treat my water, hang the food bag and stow the cooking gear. I usually attempt to collect and treat the water as soon as I stop for the night.
I bought my first hiking pole to use with the Sil Shelter. Then I did a weekend trip at the moderately easy backpacking trail at Zaleski in southern Ohio. That convinced me I needed a second pole. It's much easier for me to climb hills with two poles, and much harder if I don't have them. If I put a modest 10 pounds of pressure on a pole with each step, that's 10 pounds my legs don't have to deal with.
I concede the super-strong won't need poles. Many young people don't use them. Many do. They also help when going downhill. If the hill is steep, going downhill quickly can make the knees sore. Leaning on the poles helps minimize this. The poles also have prevented many falls for me when I slid on loose dirt and lost my balance.
Many hiking-trekking poles (which look sorta like ski poles) have a spring system that compresses slightly when you push on the pole. I don't understand what springs are supposed to accomplish. It seems to me the energy spent compressing the spring is wasted because the pole isn't supporting you until the spring is compressed. Do people need these springs because they slam the pole down like they're swinging an ax? A further waste of energy, if they are.
Some people criticize poles because they "scratch rocks." True, I have seen rocks that looked as if scratched by the titanium tips on the poles. I have a pair of Leki's (no springs) with little rubber cleats that fit over the metal tips. The irony is that rocky terrain is likely to pull the rubber cleats off. I've seen a couple of thru-hikers carrying what obviously were sticks they picked up in the woods.
The wackiest thing I ever saw was a gal with a huge pack hiking with a thick wooden staff about 5 feet long. On top of the stick was fastened, somehow, a deer antler.
My Leki's weigh 10 ounces each. The most effective way to use them is to place the hands through the straps on each, pushing down mainly with the wrists on the straps as you climb.
I carry a big sewing needle in my ibuprofen bottle. If I need to make a sewing repair (which has happened) I use the needle and dental floss for the job. I wrap a length of duct tape around each of my hiking poles. I've needed to use that, too, to patch a hole.
Carry earplugs, so you can get some sleep if there is noise. One trip of mine went like this: Every night at about 8, two groups of insects in the trees started screaming at each other, at about 90 decibels. One group (of about 75 million bugs) would go, "SCREEEEEEECCCCHHHH" for about three seconds. Then it would rest while the second group (also about 75 million or so) went, "SCREEEEEEECCCCHHHH" for three seconds. (Now that I think of it, it might have been 150 million bugs screaming in unison.) And so on and so on, until 6 am. It was an unbelievable racket. Thanks to my earplugs, I slept through it.
Sooner or later, you'll need a pocket knife for something.
A little tube of Blistex is a good antiseptic if you get scratched or nicked.
I always carry a candle. If it's a little extra cool when I wake up, the candle will raise the temperature a few degrees in the tent.
My favorite camping-hiking flashlight is the Petzl Tikka headlamp. Most headlamps that have a hinge on the light end up with a broken hinge. I avoid them.
Here's the little plastic shovel I mentioned earlier:
As others have noted, the most dangerous part of an AT hike is driving to get there. Some sections of trail are large treeless expanses on the tops of big hills. If you see lightning anywhere, don't walk on such hills. Lightning has killed hikers on such hills.
Another risk is falling. Most hikers will trip and fall at least once on the trail. Try not to land on anything sharp. There are plenty of cliffs and near cliffs. Many sections of trail have extremely steep areas on each side. My advice is never jump off anything. I turned my ankle jumping off a rock 10 inches high.
Several times at night I have heard a thundering crash echoing through the hills, when a tree fell over. There are monstrous trees on the AT. Take a look at the ones nearby before you pitch a tent -- the big dead ones are the risk.
There are gaps in cell phone signals on the AT. The battery will last a lot longer if you keep the phone turned off.
If you get in an obvious jam, odds are good another hiker will help you. I have read in the journals at shelters of people helping others to the road to hitch-hike, or running to fetch medics in case of snake bites, bee sting allergies, leg injuries, etc.
Sometimes I hike all day and only stop when collecting water. If things are bad, I might stop 10 minutes every hour. Which really shows one down. Some thru-hikers take rest days, when they don't hike at all. A couple of guys who seemed to be moving up the trail fast told me they don't hike that fast; they just don't take many rest days. Apparently a lot of thru-hikers like to screw off a lot. It can be debated aesthetically if there are more benefits to hiking quickly or not so quickly. A thru-hiker, of course, risks running out of time if no consideration is given to the daily average mileage
If you are hiking toward a hostel, my advice is plan to spend the night there. I don't know how many are on the AT. I have passed three and stayed at two of them. My favorite is Bear's Den, in northern Virginia, owned by the ATC. It's a lovely place. I got to take a shower, make myself a pizza, play a guitar I found sitting in the lodge, eat a small bucket of ice cream, buy a few candy bars, drink a couple of Cokes, and send some e-mails. I paid a couple of bucks to camp in the yard and for a few more I could have rented a bunk inside.
Stop to shop
At a number of places, the AT passes right next to a store.
Expect, however, to have to hike a couple of weeks till you hit such a spot, on average. One exception is Shenandoah NP, where the AT goes by a number of stores.
There also are spots where the AT goes right through a town. One of them is Harper's Ferry, W.Va. On my hikes in SNP and through Harper's Ferry, I carried less food because I knew I could buy stuff along the way pretty easily. The exception was the entrees that I cooked every night. I carried all those from home. What I did buy in the stores was stuff like crackers and beef jerky, etc. Many trailside stores have meager selections when it comes to supermarkets.
In the SNP, you can leave your pack outside a store and no one will bother it. (Stores don't want you wearing a pack inside.) At Harper's Ferry, I walked to a KOA and rented a cabin for two nights. I spent a rest day visiting the tourist stops, with my gear locked in the cabin.
Thru-hikers either buy their food along the way, mainly by hitchhiking to towns, or they arrange to have supplies mailed (this is called "mail drops" in AT lingo) to post offices, campgrounds, etc, and they walk or hitch to pick the stuff up. Check out WhiteBlaze.com for posts and articles on how this is done.
I mentioned thru-hikers probably will want warmer stuff on the southernmost part of the trail. Ditto the northernmost. One could swap cold gear for warmer and vice versa by mailing stuff home and receiving mail drops (if there's someone home to mail it to you).
Some hikers tell me they buy food every five to seven days. One guy said he shopped for 10 days. I asked the 10-day guy what he does with his pack when shopping. When the AT goes through a town, he said, you can just leave the pack outside and it will be OK. When he has to hitch to a big town way off the trail (thru-hikers do a lot of hitch-hiking) the first thing he does is rent a motel room, so he can leave the pack there. Hikers traveling in a pair could take turns watching the packs while the other shops.
I have a piece of ripstop camouflage nylon I usually carry. A couple of times I hid my pack in the woods, covered with the camo and some sticks, while I made a shopping trip.