Thru-Hiking Tips Part 1

Finishing my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike

Thru-hiking is backpacking an entire trail from beginning to end in a single trip. Typically, fewer than 50% of thru-hikers will complete their hikes.

If you are planning a thru-hike (whether 210 miles on the John Muir Trail or 2,000+ miles on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail here are some tips to help you prepare you for some of the obstacles and challenges you will face on a long-distance backpacking trip.

As simple as it may sound, the most important rule of thru-hiking is just to not quit…

5 Common Reasons Why Thru-Hikers Quit

  • Unrealistic Expectations (Thru-hiking may be less glamorous than you think)
  • Home Sickness (You may miss your spouse, kids, friends, work mates, pets)
  • Stress Injuries (Foot problems, blisters, exhaustion, giardisis)
  • Running Out Of Money (Hiking is cheap, but it ain’t free)
  • Boredom (Even hiking can get old after a while)

Make Thru-hiking Your No. 1 Priority

We all lead busy lives and thru-hiking is one way to escape them for a while. But even when you are on a long hike the “real world” has a way of finding you and trying to pull you back into it’s clutches from time to time.

One reason a lot of thru-hikers fail to complete their hikes is they cannot learn to let their old lives go for as long as they need to be on the trail.

Even though our lives can be stressful, they do give us a place in society and our families that makes us feel important and needed. It can be a shock to discover that when you get out on the trail the world keeps turning without you, almost as if you are not missed. You may struggle with accepting this blow to your sense of identity and sabotage your own efforts to escape.

The solution is to treat hiking like your new “job” or “calling”. Direct all of the physical and mental energy you would normally spend at work and home toward your hiking objectives.

Get Fit Before You Start Your Hike

This is one that not everyone does. I know some hikers whose only form of pre-hike training is drinking beer and reading trail journals all winter… But they are usually people with lots of previous thru-hiking experience, so they already know what to expect.

If you are new to thru-hiking getting in good physical condition before you start your hike will be a great benefit (especially during those first few weeks on the trail).

The best type of training for backpacking is hiking, because it works the same parts of the body that will get the most abuse on a thru-hike. Whenever you get a chance, grab your pack and hit the trails. This gives you an opportunity to test out your gear as well.

In some areas snow makes it hard to do much backpacking and hiking during the winter months. Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are good winter alternatives. You can also do traditional cardio exercise and strength training. That won’t necessarily prepare you for the rigors of thru-hiking, but will help your general fitness. I have been doing P90X to stay fit.

It is good to get in the habit of waking up early when it’s cold out and you are still sore from the day before, and getting up to exercise. This is a skill that you will need for thru-hiking.

Pace Yourself In The Beginning

Often there are time restrictions on how long you can take to complete a hike. Maybe you have to be back to work by a certain date, or there is a short weather window during which you can safely hike a trail (as is the case with most of the longer trails).

To complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail you probably want to average at least 15 miles per day. On the Pacific Crest Trail it would be 20+. But remember, this is only an average and you don’t have to start out doing that much. A lot of hikers burn out trying to hike too many miles too quickly before they have had enough time to get in “trail shape”.

I’ve done quite a bit of hiking, but if I got out of this chair right now I doubt I could do more than 15 mile days for the first couple weeks until I got back into the swing of things. After a couple hundred miles I could work my way back up to doing 20s and 30s again.

Coming straight off the couch there is nothing wrong with doing 10 miles a day for the first week. Then slowly work your way up to 12 miles a day, 15 miles a day, 17 miles a day and 20+ miles a day (if you need to go that high) over the course of the first 3-4 weeks.

Don’t be afraid of zero days either. If you are exhausted and you need to take more days off in the beginning to recuperate, go for it. Later, when you get in 20-30 mile per day shape you can get back on schedule, and it will be much easier then.

Be Flexible With Your Schedule (But Don’t Slack Off)

This one may contradict my last tip a little bit. But once you get up to speed, it’s a good idea to keep one eye on the calendar to make sure you aren’t falling too far behind.

Over the course of several months a difference of just 1-2 miles per day can really add up. The trick is to strike a balance between pushing too hard and burning out versus slacking off and falling so far behind that you cannot finish the trail in the time you have available.

In my experience it is a mistake to try and follow a strictly regimented itinerary where you have to be at X spot by X date. It is better to remain flexible and adapt to changing trail conditions, because you never know what the trail is going to throw at you (injuries, closures, weather, re-routes, etc.). But recognize the difference between true obstacles and plain old laziness.

For you spreadsheet geeks, here is a tool I created to help you plan a thru-hike, including  resupply stops, days off, etc. If you use this, I don’t recommend trying to follow it to the letter, but it can be useful for planning out a “best case scenario” outline for your trip.

Free Download: Erik the Black’s Itinerary Planner Spreadsheet

Hike Your Own Hike

This is such a cliche, I’m almost embarrassed to say it. But “HYOH” is still good advice.

Different people hike for different reasons. For some people it’s about the journey, for others it’s about the destination. Some people enjoy the competitive aspects, for others it’s about companionship, solitude or nature. Everyone has different rules they invent for their own hike, and different standards they choose to hold themselves to.

“Hiking your own hike” just means don’t try to project your values onto other hikers, and don’t let anyone tell you how to hike, or pass judgment on you according to values you don’t share.

You will have much more fun on the trail (and make more friends) if you don’t alienate yourself from other hikers just because you disagree on a few things. Here are a few “hot button” backpacking issues you would do well to avoid getting an attitude about:

  • “Leave No Trace” environmental ethics
  • The definition of a “thru-hike” and hike purity
  • Rules and regulations (permits, camping regulations, bear canisters, etc.)
  • Guns & weapons
  • Gear weight*

*You might be surprised to find gear weight in this category since I’m such an advocate of ultralight backpacking. But that’s here on my blog where people come to read my opinions. On the trail I try to keep my mouth shut and respect other people’s gear choices.

Sometimes a fellow hiker will notice my small pack and ask me what kind of gear I use (and then I’m always happy to talk about it). But unless they bring it up first, I don’t mention it.

Make Friends (But Don’t Get Too Attached)

Believe it or not, walking in the woods with the sun on your face and birds serenading you can actually get boring after a while!

Nature is wonderful, but once you’ve seen a thousand pine trees and snow-capped peaks in the distance your jaw may not drop as much for the one-thousand-and-first as it did for the first… and you could find yourself craving human companionship.

It’s like Johnny Cash said: “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood…”

A good hiking companion or two can really pick up your spirits and give you a reason to keep going when the monotony and challenges of trail life start to wear you down.

Don’t worry if you don’t have anyone lined up to hike with. Most thru-hikers start out solo. But you will meet other people along the way and form fast friendships, and usually the memories of good times had with friends are the ones that stand out the most. I can barely remember all the places I have been, but I think about the people I met all the time.

The flip side of thru-hiking with others is you have to remember that trail relationships cannot last forever. They may end when you reach the end of the trail, or they may end sooner. If that happens you must be able to adapt quickly and keep hiking your own hike, without them.

This is Part 1 in this series…

Click here for Thru-hiking Tips Part 2…

23 Responses to “Thru-Hiking Tips Part 1”

  1. Uilleam Reply

    @Alexis, snowpack is down this year and I should know more in the next couple of weeks as I get out into some of the segments of the CT. I live about 30 minutes from the CT trailhead. I will be in Canada the week before you arrive and be back to Colorado just before Memorial Day, and if Erik can pass you my email, that would be fine. If you’re not from Colorado altitude, you may want to plan an acclimation day around Denver before you start the hike to begin to get used to the altitude. Stay well hydrated to help with potential altitude sickness. Here’s a link on relative snowfall to date.

    • Uilleam Reply

      @Alexis, I forgot about the Colorado Trail Foundation’s Facebook Page. There are usually notes there about current conditions. The recommendation is that you not begin a through hike until late June / early July. There are some photos posted from last weekend from Segment 4 (altitudes from 8000 to 10,000 ft)with plenty of snowpack still present.

  2. alexis Reply

    Hey Erik! I’ve been really pouring over your blog the past few weeks. I have an opening in my schedule to attempt the Colorado Trail this summer and was seeking some advice from you. I’ve heard about the snow issue, but I can only get off work May 23 – July 10. That would give me time to do it in roughly 6 weeks, so I could pace myself. I just do not want to be dumb about it, as I am a young female solo hiking. I climb and day hike often. This is the only window of opportunity for the foreseeable future so I am hoping to find options to work through or around the snow. Thanks!

    • @Alexis: Unfortunately, I don’t know what kind of conditions you are likely to find in late-May on the Colorado Trail. It varies from year to year. In 2010 I started in mid-June and there was almost no snow to be seen, but that was following a lower than average snow year. Based on my general knowledge of mountain conditions in the west my gut says that May is too early. If you are experienced at back-country snow travel, have a GPS and good navigation skills (and possibly ice axe and crampons) it is probably doable. But, otherwise I would not risk it. Unless you have first hand information that suggests there is not a lot of snow on the trail and it is easily passable at that time. There is a mailing list for the Continental Divide Trail (The CDT-L) that might be able to provide more information.

  3. Ray Rippel Reply

    Well put, Erik. Couldn’t agree more. One thing I might add, however, is that the “benefit” side of the “risk/benefit” equation is high. If she’s a climber, I doubt she has a confidence deficit, but completing something like this is a different kind of challenge and is well worth the investment, at least in my opinion. The time she spends hiking alone, she may find, is also time well spent. It’s a great way to get some perspective, but that usually doesn’t happen until the first week is behind you. Tell her good luck and great hiking!

  4. Gene Reply

    Hey Erik. My soon to be 22 year old daughter wants to thru hike the CT solo this summer starting May 26th. She has never been backpacking before, but is in excellent shape and is a climber. My wife and I are extremely anxious about her going alone, being a young woman with no experience. Just wondered about your thoughts on this. Thanks

    • @Gene: I would recommend pushing the start date back a month to June 26th. The problem with starting in May is she is likely to encounter lingering snowfields in the high country which don’t start to melt until mid-june. These can be slippery and dangerous and also she will be out ahead of the main group of thru-hikers who leave from Denver each year around the first of July. If she starts a little later it will be easy to make friends on the trail, which I think makes hiking more fun, and it’s also safer for a young woman than traveling alone.

      Aside from that one caveat I don’t think you have any reason to worry as long as she is confident that she can do it. The Colorado Trail in the summer is pretty easy to follow, it is well maintained and there are quite a few hikers and mountain bikers out there. I know lots of women who start out hiking alone, but usually what they do is meet a couple of friends along the way and then travel in sort of a loose-knit, unofficial group. Even if she wants to do her own thing and follow her own schedule, if she leaves around the same time she will run into other hikers occasionally throughout the day, so in the unlikely event that she needs some assistance someone will be along shortly and she won’t be stranded.

      In my experience there are not many creeps and wierdos in the backcountry (well except for the harmless garden variety hiking wierdos like me). Most people who would want to do a young woman harm I feel hang out in towns or places that are easily accessible by road, but they don’t really want to expend all the effort of hiking deep into the backcountry. On thing she will need to think about is hitch-hiking into towns to resupply. It’s probably not a good idea to hitch-hike alone. It would be better for her to grab a male friend (there will be no shortage of volunteers, believe me) or a couple of friends and hitch-hike in together. This arrangement usually works well because we guys have a hard time getting rides (cuz we’re all scruffy and scary looking), but we can provide protection for the girls who have no problem attracting rides, but don’t want to ride alone.

      But I would not worry. She won’t be the only girl out there. Lots of people do it and it’s rare that anything bad happens. Tell her good luck and I hope she has a great hike!

  5. RJ Lewis Reply

    Just wanted to make a comment on the weapons issue. Getting a concealed carry permit isn’t easy to do unless you have a real need for it.
    Getting a weapon light enough to carry isn’t difficult. I’ve seen them down in the 1lb range, fully loaded with ammo. My personal carry weapon is a Taurus “Nightcourt” Judge with a 2.5″ barrel, can load 45 cal slugs or 410 shells in it. This particular weapon weighs in at an even 2lb, loaded.
    While it continues to be a debate until this day, my own concerns aren’t with the 4 legged wild critters in the woods, but rather the 2 legged ones who prey on women who are hiking solo. Until a few years ago, it wasn’t even a remote concern for me, but as times have changed, I have had to change with them. Sad, but a fact of life these days.
    Just a thought..carrying a weapon concealed isn’t going to do one much good in the woods anyway. You need to have it where you can reach it immediately, and you must know how to use it. With “rights” come “responsibilities”. With that thought, perhaps checking the open carry laws in each state would be helpful.

  6. BigWhiteDog Reply

    This article is the first that mentions weapons, which being in emergency services, I have thought of. What are your thoughts, what are some of the issues and what is the general consensus on them?

    • @BigWhiteDog: The general consensus among thru-hikers I know is that weapons are too heavy, inconvenient or illegal to carry and the chances of being attacked by wild animals or people on a thru-hike are slim enough to go unarmed and leave it up to fate.

      It’s hard to carry a gun legally, even if you wanted to, because of all the different laws and restrictions and permits in different states and jurisdictions. If going on a short hike in your home state this might not be a problem. But if you want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail or Continental Divide Trail, or any other long trail that passes through several states, it would be difficult to carry a gun legally without a concealed carry permit that is valid in all of the states.

      Knives are easier to carry, but not as effective a weapon. Most hikers carry a folding knife and some carry a fixed blade. A knife isn’t going to provide much protection against a bear or mountain lion (although I did read a story a few years ago about a man in Canada who killed a mountain lion with his pocket knife, but not before it ripped half of his face off). But a knife is better than nothing, and would be good protection against a human attacker if you know how to use it.

      Pepper spray or bear spray is another option. I’ve never tried it personally, but I guess it would be effective at deterring anything that comes your way, as long as you can get it out and use it quickly enough.

      If not for all of the red tape involved I would probably carry a small pistol in my hip belt pocket for personal protection. But, because I am more afraid of being harassed by rangers and police than being attacked by a bear or mountain lion, I don’t carry a weapon (except for a small knife).

  7. Ray Rippel Reply

    Good day, Erik,

    Great post. One comment on “Hike Your Own Hike.” At least for me, it took a while to understand what “my hike” was. Why was I doing this? The scenery, the challenge, the bragging rights, the solitude (all my longish hikes are alone), what? I finally settled on, after more than a little time spent walking and thinking, that I liked the WALKING, itself. All the other stuff was important, but none of it really drove me get out there. The opportunity to just “walk” did. I’m sure other folks will feel differently. My only point is that sometimes discovering what drives you to hike that hike takes a little time and a lot of reflection.

    Thanks for all the great products and this terrific site.

    Cheers, Ray

  8. Aaron Sperling Reply

    Hey Erik, your blog is absolutely fantastic! I had a few questions for you pertaining to the PCT . First, when are the 2012 PCT Atlas books coming out? Second, I know you mentioned that pre-packaging food and shipping it to different spots was a bad idea. Is there a method to buying food or any other tips besides calorie count? For instance..did you ever end up buying too much at a one stop just because of the packaging held an extensive amount? You wouldn’t want to waste it but then if you brought all something…it would be heavy. Maybe you could just explain your food buying habits. Third, did you ever utilize the bounce box? If so, what did you bounce and how do you go about doing that. Sorry, I know thats a lot to answer!

    • @Aaron The first of the 3rd Edition PCT Atlases will be coming out this fall starting with Volume 1. I should have Volume 1,2, and 5 ready by Spring 2012 and possibly the entire set.

      I usually don’t count calories when buying hiking food but I have a general idea of how much food just by eyeballing it based on experience. I generally buy between 2-3 pounds of food for each resupply stop, which are usually about 5 days apart. I break it down into about 7 meals a day: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner and four snacks. I have never had a problem buying too much food, because no matter how much I pack I’ll eat it.

      Although I think that preparing food for an entire hike ahead of time and mailing it out is a waste of time, I will sometimes buy enough food for a couple weeks in a town and then send mail drops forward to the next couple of towns. This is a good thing to do if you are in a large or medium sized town with a good grocery store and the next few stops along the trail are small towns without a good selection of foods available.

      I do use a bounce box. I keep things in there like: spare socks, my laptop computer (a cheapo netbook that I bought just for trail use), maps and guidebooks, vitamins, a few extra batteries… anything you might need that isn’t readily available to buy along the way. I use a medium flat-rate Priority Mail box for this. Priority Mail is good because you can forward it for free if you don’t open it. Some hikers like to use a paint bucket, but I have found that is too large and expensive to ship and I don’t really need all that room.

      Here are some more posts with info about food:

      10 Ultralight Backpacking Foods
      Video: Whats Inside My Food Bag
      5,000 Calorie Hiking Diet

  9. Chainsaw Reply

    Erik, spot on regarding HYOH. While on the trail, I find some thru-hikers to be some of the most opinionated people out there when it comes to hiking technique. Everybody hikes for different reasons, period. I just bite my lip when I hear this, but it can be really annoying, especially regarding gear, the herd, and mileage. Another lesson I’ve learned is to not fall for all the hype regarding “the sky is falling” trail conditions. What’s impassable for one person may be no problem for another. It’s best to check the conditions out yourself in most cases. Only you know yourself what you are comfortable with. Fuller Ridge and Mt. Baden Powell come to mind as two early examples on the PCT where the hype of deep snow or “dangerous” conditions from inexperienced hikers often make many capable thru-hikers bypass these sections.

  10. vicky maki Reply

    Eric. Thanks for all the good tips. Any chance of you doing a book on the AT? Some day I would like to get out there to hike.

    • @Vicky Yes, I will be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail next year and the books will be soon to follow.

  11. RJ Lewis Reply

    Hey Erik!
    As always, great information! Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.


  12. Gerry Haugen Reply


    Spot on!


  13. Dennis Phelan Reply

    Excellent article and as always I appreciate you sharing your experiences and wisdom.

  14. Scott Reply

    Nice tips Eric. I’m hitting the CT this year as a starter and see what next year brings. Good tips and thanks for sharing. Oh btw, no place around SW Missouri sells those cook pots you suggest. Thanks again and happy trails.

  15. Brandon Reply

    Great tips Erik. I’ve enjoyed your website and it’s all been very helpful in planning my 2013 AT thruhike. You’ve done a great job…thank you.

  16. Great info as always Erik. Unrealistic expectations is a huge issue. You have to want to do it if your going to finish it, baring injury. It takes work and perseverance and at those times when I was worn out and wondering if I could get through the day I would stop and remind myself that at the end of every day I was always rewarded with a great sense of accomplishment At those moments I could go to sleep and rest peacefully and think with excitement of the day to come.