Thru-Hiking Tips Part 1
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…
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.
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…