How To Prepare For A Thru-Hike

Hikers making the step up from day-hikes or weekend hikes to their first, bona fide, long-distance thru-hike tend to approach the new challenge in one of two ways: breezily underestimating the true test of their mettle posed not only by the hike itself but also the logistics entailed in the weeks or months preceding it; or, hitting the panic button and spending so much time worrying and fretting about the hike.

It actually comes to pulling their boots and backpack on they’ve already sickened themselves with all things remotely hiking-related and decide to take up yoga, swimming, darts, or something altogether less stressful and all-consuming of their headspace.

In this article, we aim to guide you through these notable pitfalls by offering a practical, straightforward middle-way that will allow you to prep for your thru-hike in a way that’s efficient, methodical, and at the same time lets you bypass the many stresses experienced by so many newcomers to the game of long-distance thru-hiking.

What is a Thru-Hike?

Couple Hiking

In short, a thru-hike is any hike that starts in one place and ends in another, with a few overnight stopovers in between, but more commonly the term is used to denote a number of longer-distance trails around the globe that might take weeks or even several months to complete.

Some of the most famous thru-hikes in the world include:

  • The Triple Crown of Hiking (USA)
  • u The Pacific Crest Trail
  • u The Appalachian Trail
  • u The Continental Divide Trail
  • The Great Himalayan Trail, Nepal
  • Sentiero Italia, Italy
  • GR20, Corsica (France)
  • Alta Via 1, the Italian Dolomites
  • Te Araroa, New Zealand
  • Hokkaido Nature Trail, Japan
  • The Transcaucasian Trail, Georgia and Armenia
  • The Haute Route, France and Switzerland

Thru-hikes vary greatly in terms of not only the type of terrain encountered en route but also the weather conditions, total ascent and descent, trail regulations and, importantly, the facilities and accommodation available.

While some trails can boast a network of handy mountain huts at the end of each stage or day’s hiking (Alta Via 1, for example), others are far more remote, wild, and offer little or nothing in the way of infrastructure, services, or lodging. 

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Taking on a Thru-Hike

Illustration Of Question Marks

Taking on a thru-hike is, for the adventurously inclined, almost without exception a life-changing experience that will be fondly recalled for years and decades to come as among best times of their lives.

But choosing to spend several months on the trail is a big life decision impacted by a great number of variables and one, therefore, that should not be taken lightly.

As much as we’d love to tell you just to load your pack, get your boots on, and get out there and do it, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t mention associated caveats and counterweights to the slew of good times you’re sure to have out on the trails.

To that end, we recommend asking yourself the following questions before handing in that letter of resignation, selling your car, and/or finding a friendly neighbor to water your plants (!):

1. Can I afford it?

Many first-time thru-hikers underestimate the financial outlay required to complete a hike successfully. While this will be covered in more detail below, as a primer we’d suggest that anyone in the early stages of planning take a good look at the costs involved before booking any tickets or buying their permits.

The cost of gear, permits, transport to and from the start and end points, food, food drops, accommodation, and insurance, all adds up and calculating an accurate, realistic estimate of the total expenses entailed before setting off is, we assure you, better than finding yourself sorely short of $ somewhere in the middle of your trip.

2. Am I willing to give up my creature comforts for X months?

Man Sitting In Chair And Watching TV

This is a biggie. Just how attached are you to your smartphone, laptop, favorite TV series, bed, home-cooked meals, and gourmet coffee? Would you be able to go without them for several weeks or even months on end?

While some trails will have telephone reception at various points along the way, it’s unlikely you’ll have the same kind of access you would do back home and, as for the rest of those home comforts, your chances of enjoying any of them while on your hike range from slim to zero.

3. Am I willing to put in the weeks or even months of prep required to give myself the best chance of completing my hike?

Most peeps who have completed a thru-hike will agree that the biggest challenge posed was not the mile upon mile of toil through rough terrain, dealing with the inevitable mishaps along the way, hitting a physical or psychological wall, or even missing their friends, families, and home-cooked meals, but the often grueling logistical slog that you need to endure beforehand in order to ensure everything can go not just smoothly but just plain go!

If you’re not willing to put in those hours of research, planning, and preparation, then you might well be setting yourself up for a fall—winging it on a day hike is one thing, doing so on a multi-week, thousand-mile adventure is another entirely.

While many a romantically minded hiker has headed for the trailhead of various thru-hikes equipped with just a full pack and admirable (but often misguided) can-do attitude, in our experience these are the ones who usually have the roughest time of things or end up heading home with their tail between the legs just a few weeks or days in.

4. Can I deal with the inevitable loneliness?

Man Hiking

Even if hiking with a partner, loneliness—or at least solitude—is an integral part of the thru-hiking experience. Even on more frequented routes, there will be days where you see very few other humans and those, quite often, only in passing.

If you happen to be a very social animal who craves interaction, ask yourself whether the benefits of your time on the trail will outweigh the hardship entailed in the lack of human contact.

5. Can I make hiking and enjoying my freedom my number one priority long-term?

While many of us may instinctively think “oh, hell yeah!”, this one is a little trickier than you might expect. For those of us with busy lives, making the change to doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other for a very long period of time can leave something of a void.

As strange as it may sound, in many cases the freedom inherent to thru-hiking can scare the absolute life out of many hikers new to the game of long-term walking and cause them to feel a little disoriented.

And we choose our words carefully… Walking, after all, will make up the lion’s share of what you’ll be doing with your wakened hours.

Mile after mile, day after day, week after week. If that doesn’t sound like an absolutely awesome use of your time, then it might be worth reconsidering your plans.

6. Am I fit enough for this type of challenge?

Hiking On Trail

One of the gravest misconceptions held by novice thru-hikers is that their performance on day hikes will somehow equate to comparable performance on thru-hikes. This is, sadly, akin to a 100-meter sprinter assuming his or her physical conditioning for sprints will see them through an ultramarathon without any issues.

Before setting off on a thru-hike, we’d highly recommend you break yourself in with a few week-long hikes so you get a feel for how it is to put in a 6, 7, or 10-hour hike and then get up and do the same again the next day. And then the next day. And then…you get the point!

As magical as the thru-hiking experience can be, this hike-eat-sleep-repeat routine can be grueling if you are not used to it.

While many are apt to think they will adapt to the rigors of the trail as they go and even succeed in pulling themselves through the inevitable fatigue that’s bound to kick in after a week or even just a few days, you’ll enjoy the trip a whole lot more if your body has some familiarity with the demands you’ll be placing on it before you set off.

7. Do I have the necessary experience to tackle this type of trek?

While most thru-hikes in North America are very well signed, have frequent resupply points, and require little or no technical expertise, on many thru-hikes elsewhere around the world you might go for days without any signpost or marker guiding you in the right direction, have to carry a week’s worth (or more) of food between resupply points, and be forced to cross snow-bound sections that require proficiency with crampons and an ice-axe.

8. Am I doing this to prove a point, or just for personal satisfaction and pleasure?

Man Looking In Distance

When push comes to shove, the motivating factors that will get you through the almost inevitable hard times you’ll face on any thru-hike are those of a more personal nature (joy, curiosity, a sense of adventure, and a desire to test yourself for your own sake all score highly) as opposed to any wish to show others what you’re made of.

9. Am I likely to regret taking a thru-hike on?

In my experience, if none of the information included above has put you off already, then the answer to this one is very, very likely to be a resounding “no”. In fact, of all the thru-hikers I’ve met who have successfully completed a trail, I haven’t met one who regretted taking it on.

And while I’ve met dozens of others who have looked back on failed attempts with various regrets, for the most part these regrets stemmed from failures to plan or budget properly—and, thus, complete their hike—rather than any quibble or qualm with their time on the trail itself.

10. Am I willing to have my heart broken by all the beautiful scenery I’ll see, all the amazing experiences I’ll have, and all the cool people I’ll meet along the way and then have to leave behind?

Group Of Thru Hikers

This, we assure you, is a perfectly serious and legitimate question. Thru-hiking is a heartbreaker. If you are at all an emotional sort, a few months or even years down the line you’ll shed tears reminiscing over the experiences you had on your hike.

On a daily basis, you’ll see things that you’ll be nostalgic about the next day, meet people you’ll sorely wish you could’ve spent more time with, and forge memories that will tug at the heartstrings for many a year to come.

Common Thru-Hiker Mistakes

1. The “Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink” Approach

Overpacked Backpack

Very, very few thru-hikers reach any point on their journey and think “Gee, I really wish I had brought a lot more stuff!” While there are, of course, a list of absolute necessities that every thru-hiker needs to carry, for the most part, the greatest and gravest error of newcomers to thru-hiking is to pack way too much stuff.

Overpacking—or the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach—is usually motivated by nerves or fear of leaving something important out or trying to ensure every eventuality or possibility will be covered. Not having everything covered, however, is part and parcel of the thru-hiking experience.

Once you’ve taken care of the bare essentials—heat, shelter, food, hydration, navigation—pretty much everything else is simply a luxury. Or, to put it a touch more brutally, superfluous.

In the past, I’ve seen game consoles, fondue kits, pedicure kits, portable TVs, laptops, numerous copies of Harry Potter, snowshoes on snow-free terrain, climbing rope on routes with naught in the way of climbing, pillows, cans of energy drinks, teddy bears…the list goes on. 

All of these, you might have noticed, were carried in an attempt to make the trail experience as homely—or home-like—as possible. While understandable, doing so not only detracts from the experience of being out in nature but also means that:

  • you’re going to make yourself miserable carrying all the extra weight
  • you’re overlooking the fact that certain hardships are par for the course when thru-hiking and that you’ll simply be creating new hardships in an effort to avoid or diminish them
  • depriving yourself of some serious (and possibly much-needed) downtime from the net and other distractors that can prevent you from being fully present and reaping the full benefits of the wilderness experience.

My advice? If you can live without it, leave without it.

2. Not Knowing Your Gear

Man Packing Hiking Gear

An old saying tells us that “a poor tradesman blames his tools.” Over my many years as a thru-hiker, I’ve witnessed dozens of “tradesmen” (hikers) pointing an accusing finger at their “tools” (tents, stoves, GPS devices, compasses, boots, maps, you name it) for failing to live up to their wishes or expectations.

In every case, of course, the accused item of kit was entirely blameless, but the accusing hiker had failed to put in the time required to get to know how to use it correctly.

The take-home? Before setting off on your thru-hike, get to know every item in your pack inside and out so you’ll be able to make use of it when need be. A few steps you can take towards achieving this goal include:

  • Practice pitching your tent in your garden, at a local park, on a local trail until it you have it “dialed in”
  • Practice navigation by pinpointing locations—both on and off established trails—on a map and navigating to them with both a compass and your GPS device (ideally in low-visibility!)
  • Break your boots in thoroughly
  • Read up on how to use every item in your first aid kit and consider taking a course in Wilderness First Aid
  • Learn how to use repair kits for your tent, sleeping bag, boots, and clothes

3. Underestimating the Physical Demands of Life on the Trail

Thru Hiking

Putting in several miles of hiking day after day, week after week is an experience most of us just aren’t used to. Add to this the additional strains posed by a heavy pack, rough terrain, less comfortable sleeping setup, adverse weather conditions, the absence of hearty home cooking, and its easy to understand that the thru-hiker’s life, although sure to shave off a few pounds and elevate our fitness levels, is not one that fails to take its toll on our body.

Many first-time thru-hikers are apt to think that they can hit the ground running without putting in any pre-trip physical prep and simply adapt to the rigors of trail life as they go along. While this is certainly doable, we wouldn’t recommend it.

Those who take this approach are, in most cases, liable to “hit the wall” far sooner than those who take the time to train properly and end up putting themselves through something of a suffer-fest until their bodies get up to speed—which might, we should add, take quite some time.

To make sure you’re in trail-ready shape before leaving on your thru-hike, the best course of action is to start a training program around 2 to 3 months before your intended departure date.

Ideally, this training should include a couple of overnight or multi-day trips with daily mileages comparable to those you expect to put in on your thru-hike. Not only will this prep your body but also allow you to “dial in” your camp setup and get familiar with all your gear.

4. Running Out of “Gas” and Time

Bearded Man Resting

Almost all first-time thru-hikers underestimate just how long it will take them to complete their route and overestimate their own capabilities when it comes to daily mileages.

From the comfort of our homes, it’s all too easy to pore over maps and tick off huge swathes of terrain we hope to cover, failing to account for the many variables that might make doing so trickier than expected: fatigue, the need for rest days, days off for bad weather, mishaps, detours, side-trips, injuries, significant elevation gain, etc.

As a general rule, hikers start off close to what will be their max daily mileage capacity in the first few weeks and thereafter see these mileages tail off as their time on the trail progresses.

This means, for instance, that if your max daily mileage is 25 miles, then for the last third or quarter of your trip you should expect to be putting in somewhere between 15 and 18 per day.

Another frequent omission in pre-trip calculations is the need for rest days. To give your body the time it needs to fully recover, I’d recommend throwing in at least one full “zero day*” every seven to ten days, using bad-weather days if possible. More importantly, be flexible, listen to your body, and don’t get hung up on schedules when it’s telling you it needs a break.

*In trailspeak, a “zero day” is one in which you put in absolutely no mileage, as opposed to a “rest day” in which you do maybe half of your usual mileage.

5. Getting Lost

Lost In Woods

Taking an overly lackadaisical approach to navigation on popular thru-hikes is an error common to newbies and old hands alike. And in most cases, you’ll probably get away with it. But what if you feel like throwing in a small side trip?

Or if you’re on one of the many trails around the globe that aren’t quite so blessed with the signage and foot traffic found on the Big Three in North America or popular European trails? Or, more importantly, if you just so happen to get caught in low visibility and can barely make out up from down, never mind one of the four cardinal directions from the other?

Carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them is, simply put, something every thru-hiker should do. First up, it will allow you to give your bearings to emergency services in the event of an accident.

Secondly, it gives you the freedom to roam off-trail and explore areas not on your route without fear of getting lost. Thirdly, it can save you a lot of time on those odd occasions where there’s an unsigned fork in the trail or visibility is poor.

Ten Steps to Thru-Hiking Success

Prepping for your first big thru-hike can be an overwhelming experience. Once the initial excitement has been tempered by the cold reality of arranging funding, applying for permits, and so on, many aspirants soon begin to feel like they’re spinning plates, and few make it to the first day on the trail without at least a few crashes of their proverbial crockery.

The following list of ten steps is designed to provide a methodical approach that will help to ensure you don’t leave out any important aspect of planning and avoid the hassles and frustrations experienced by so many—the author of this article included!

Step One: Choose Your Challenge

Appalachian Trail

Whether you’re keen on a two-week wander or a multi-month epic, there are dozens of thru-hikes out there that will be suited to the time frame you’re hoping to work within and the challenge you’re looking for.

But the duration of the trip isn’t the only consideration. Other factors to bear in mind when choosing the thru-hike you’ll take on include:

  • Location
  • Costs (bank-breaking epic overseas or a more “budget” version closer to home?)
  • Difficulty (are there any technical skills involved?)
  • Remoteness (how comfortable are you being several days or even a week from civilization?)
  • Services/facilities/accommodation en route
  • Weather conditions
  • Altitude
  • Total ascent

When choosing your route, we highly recommend taking into account your own capabilities as regards fitness, any technical skills required, navigation, and perseverance.

While opting to take on a trail that’s going to pose a true challenge to each of the above will certainly add to the thrill, it’s best to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.

Step Two: Research, Research, Research

Thru Hike Research

For the most part, those who fail to complete their thru-hikes, have a rougher time in doing so, or throw in the towel before even making it to the trailhead on day one are those who fail to do the requisite research at the outset of their planning.

While it would be great to just rock up at the trailhead with a full pack, plenty of optimism, and a strong resolve to see it through to the end come what may, the chances are that such an approach will land you in trouble somewhere further down the line.

Some of the vital info you should be looking for when doing your initial research includes:

  • Total trail distance
  • Distance per stage
  • Permit requirements
  • Seasonal variations (weather, insects, allergy considerations, the presence of snow)
  • Total ascent/descent
  • Presence of wildlife (bears, snakes, elk, boars, wolves, ticks, midges, mosquitoes)
  • Special gear requirements (snowshoes, ice axe, crampons, rope)
  • Altitude of campsites and passes
  • Localized viruses or parasites (such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever)

If you have any doubts regarding your route, don’t feel shy about shooting an email off to past completers to get a better picture of what to expect and to answer any questions not answered in online route descriptions or guidebooks.

Step Three: Detailed Stage Planning

Map Of Thru Hiking

After selecting your route and familiarizing yourself with a broader overview of what to expect, the next step is to break the trail down into more manageable sections and get to know each of these inside out.

While this may seem like a fairly unromantic approach and one that may detract from the element of surprise that lends the sense of adventure and discovery to any thru-hike, it’s far preferable to discovering any surprises of a nastier or more unwelcome nature at a time—i.e. when you’re out on the trail—when you are less equipped to do avoid them or negotiate them safely.

Some of these unwanted surprises might include:

  • Trail closures
  • A shortage of water sources
  • Distant supply points
  • Tricky or dangerous sections (particularly true of routes with via ferrata sections or snow early or late in the season)
  • Rivers to be forded
  • Potentially troublesome flora or fauna
  • Closures of mountain huts or other accommodation
  • Elevation gains and drops
  • Permit requirements
  • Potentially snow-bound stretches of trail

To make sure you don’t get caught out by any of the above, we recommend getting your hands on the most up-to-date guidebook for your route and also hunting down reports from recent trail completers online.

Doing this detailed research will not only give you a better picture of what to expect and help you avoid any unexpected detours, but also let you gauge things more accurately when applying for permits and deciding how much food and water you will need to carry for each stage.

Step Four: Permit Applications

Post Box

Probably the most stressful and uninspiring part of the prep for your thru-hike comes when it’s time to submit your permit applications for any national parks or wilderness areas passed en route.

While most trails in Europe don’t require permits, the biggies in North America, South America, and Asia all have some form of permit regulations for either trail or campsite use.

To offer an example, the highly popular Appalachian Trail requires three park permits (Great Smoky Mountains NP, Shenandoah NP, Baxter State Park) and an AMC (American Mountain Club) pass for use of campsites in the White Mountains.

While the scheduling and timing of your permits is fairly simple with permit areas reached just a few days into your hike, on longer treks you may be hitting those permit areas several months after submitting your application.

Naturally, the chances of being at least a day or two off schedule are very high. As futile as it may seem to guesstimate an arrival (and, hence, permit) date for the latter stages of your hike, however, it’s a good idea to do so regardless because by entering your name into the system, you make it far easier to change your dates at a later time and will save yourself the hassle of dealing with all the requisite paperwork* while on the trail.

Finally, if your thru-hike happens to have stages in especially popular hiking destinations (The Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon, for example), be sure to submit your application on one of the first few days in which applications are accepted (usually 3 months before your anticipated arrival) because in peak season permits sell like hotcakes and campsite quotas may be filled if you put it off for too long.

*And by paperwork we mean paperwork—some permit authorities are still very old-school in their dealings and request permits applications be filed in hard-copy format. 

Step Five: Food

Thru Hiking Food

Staying healthy while on your thru-hike means paying close attention to nutrition. While many are apt to think that all the calories they are burning means they can take a more lax, anything-goes approach to what they put in their tummies, the reality is that what you eat is never more important than when you’re putting your body through the rigors and uncommon exertion faced on the trail on a long-distance hike.

While at home most of us spend our days trying to limit our calorie intake in the face of the thousands upon thousands of them at our disposal, on the trail just the opposite is true and the main challenge posed is trying to get in enough calories given the lack of readily available sources and our inability to carry all of the grub we’d like.

Logistically, ensuring we don’t go hungry while on our hike can be one of the trickiest aspects of planning. To help ensure you don’t succumb to starvation or even a minor dose of malnutrition, we’d recommend following a simple, three-step approach:

1) Choose Your Chow Carefully

Different Food For Hiking

While we all have different dietary requirements and tastes, there are a few food types out there that lend themselves better to trail life than all others.

For the most part, these foodstuffs are ones that give us the required fill of proteins, fats, and carbs but are also calorie dense and so offer a better energy-to-weight ratio that helps keep pack weight to a minimum.

Some foodstuffs that fall into this category include:

  • Peanut butter
  • Trail mix
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Jerkies
  • Oatmeal
  • Powder meals
  • Powder eggs
  • Dried fruits
  • Dehydrated meals
  • Greenbelly meals

On any given day, try to balance your food intake so it’s composed of roughly a quarter proteins, a quarter fats, and two quarters carbs.

2) Do the Math

Man Thru Hiking

When hiking with a heavy backpack we burn through calories at a scarily rapid rate—up to six hundred per hour at lower elevations and in excess of a thousand per hour above 7,000 feet.

To make sure we replenish our energy reserves and have “fuel in the tank,” it’s wise to calculate just how many calories we anticipate needing on a daily basis. This will help us gauge just how much food we really need to carry and eat between resupply points so we’re not running short or carrying more than we need.

While not an exact science, you can estimate your daily calorie usage a little more accurately by multiplying your body weight by 25. So, if you happen to weigh 180 pounds, then the number of calories you can expect to burn on any given day hiking will be around 4,500.

Given that most adults consume 2-3,500 a day back home, this should give you a good idea of just how much grub (and weight) you’ll have to carry and how hard it is to get in the necessary victuals while out on the trail.

Scary, right? Well, the good news is that you won’t have to carry it all with you, at least not over prohibitively long stretches of trail, as almost all thru-hikes around the globe have a number of resupply points and/or locations where you can mail-drop supplies for the next stage of your route.

3) Find Resupply Points and Mail-drop Locations

Man Thru Hiking

Naturally, trying to carry enough food for the duration of your trip is likely to be impossible unless you happen to have a team of Sherpas or sled dogs providing support and doing the carrying for you.

Luckily, however, very few long-distance trails cover excessively long stretches of terrain without passing villages or mountain huts where you can replenish food supplies.

On the most remote of these (the Hayduke Trail in Arizona and Utah or the Great Himalayan Trail, for example) the longest period you can expect to go without finding a store, mountain hut, or mail-drop locations should be in the region of 7-10 days, depending on the route and your speed of travel.

Before setting off, you should attempt to identify all of your route’s resupply points and calculate how much you’ll need to buy (or mail) there to see you through to the next resupply point.

Step Six: Additional Logistics

Group Of Thru Hikers

Sadly, getting your permit applications out of the way doesn’t mean that your trip’s logistical issues are all done and dusted. A few further practicalities we’d recommend seeing to before you set off include the following:

Arranging a Support Team

Having someone back home you can touch base with every now and then and who can take care of any unexpected contingencies is always a wise policy.

Not only can this help to give you peace of mind but also means you’ll have someone who knows roughly where you are in the case of an emergency, who can mail food supplies and replacement gear if need be, and, if hiking solo, provide a little bit of emotional support now and then if you hit upon tough times.

Accommodation

Sleeping in your tent for months on end might seem easily done while prepping from the comfort of your home, but given a few weeks of trail time—particularly in inclement weather—even the hardiest of trail-goers is likely to crave a night or two between four solid walls and on a real mattress.

If undertaking your thru-hike in the high season, however, many of the huts or hotels en route are likely to be fully booked if you leave things until the last minute.

Our advice? Once you’ve done your detailed, stage-by-stage planning (and factored in a day or so of leeway or buffer) book a two-night stopover—even if you only stay one of those nights, it’s far easier to cancel a night than to book one.

Travel

Given that the trailhead and endpoint of your chosen thru-hike may be thousands of miles apart and each of these even further from your home and in possibly remote locations, before leaving, ensure that you research available public transport to and from the trail’s beginning and endpoints and include the cost of tickets to your budget estimations.

Step Seven: Financial Planning

Holding Money

Sorry to get all anal and businesslike on you, but this is one aspect of your pre-trip planning that needs serious consideration, no matter how much of a buzz-kill it might be.

Many of us make the mistake of throwing together some casual calculations at the outset of our planning only to then discover, a few weeks or months down the line, that we’ve vastly underestimated just how much dough we’ll need to see us safely from our start point through to the end of our hike.

It’s easily done. How much, after all, can we really spend when sleeping in a tent and living on a diet of basic trail food and water sourced from streams and rivers? If only it were that simple…

Some of the expenses many newcomers to thru-hiking are apt to overlook or underestimate include the following:

  • Bills, bills, bills (just because you don’t have them on the trail doesn’t mean they won’t be piling up at home)
  • Food and postage costs (for food drops by mail)
  • Permits
  • Travel to the start point and back home from the endpoint
  • Accommodation at start/end of trail and at stopovers en route
  • New gear/replacement gear
  • Emergency fund
  • Insurance
  • Celebratory bottle(s) of champagne and the trail’s end!

Step Eight: Choosing What to Pack

Packing for hiking

While this is often one of the first steps enthusiastic first-timers take after deciding to do a thru-hike, we’d highly recommend you leave it until later in the planning process.

Why? Well, most who rush out and buy new gear hastily often later discover that much of that gear is a) unnecessary, b) inadequate, c) not going to merit its place in their pack.

The best advice I can give anyone with regard to gear is to wait until you’ve completed all of your research before rushing into any purchases.

This will not only help you avoid the temptation to overload your pack with newly purchased items that you don’t really need but also, in all likelihood, save you a load of $.

To get an idea of what will be required on your route, hunt down a few gear lists from past completers and compare this with your own “rough drafts” before finalizing your own list.

Step Nine: The Backup Plan

Standing On Rock

If I could give one piece of advice to prospective thru-hikers that will hold them in good stead more than any other while on their hike it would be this: be flexible.

On a long-term hike, countless variables can contrive to throw us off schedule—the weather, injuries, fatigue, emergencies back home, gear issues, trail closures, illness, or simply the decision to rest up and enjoy any particularly impressive trail stopover.

All this means that trying to stick to a tight schedule is likely to be a futile task and one that’s liable to diminish our enjoyment of our time on the trail.

The bottom line here can be summed up in three points:

  • Have a contingency plan in case things go wrong
  • Be willing to alter your plans
  • Factor a few “buffer” days into your scheduling to allow for delays

Step Ten: Shutting Up Shop

Shop For Adventurists

So, we’ve now got every part of our pre-trip prep taken care of and we’re good to go, right?

Well, yes and no…

At this stage, one potential party-pooper for your trip remains in the form of unexpected spanners in the works not encountered on the trail itself, but those arising back home while you’re on your hike.

Dealing with day-to-day problems or issues when there to take care of them is easy, but if we’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, then even relatively modest mishaps or overlooked obligations could seriously disrupt our adventure or, at worst, force us to head home early.

Some examples of hassles from home that have derailed many an adventure include forgetting to pay bills, co-workers or employers unaware that we’ll be very much “out of office” for the duration of our trip, similarly uninformed clients (if we run our own business), and fretting partners or family members.

To get around these potential problems, I’d recommend:

  • Setting up direct debits for all bills or having someone (responsible) back home take care of them
  • Having someone check on your house every so often
  • Alerting your neighbors
  • Disconnecting the gas, water, and electricity
  • Sending an “out of office” or “wish me luck” email to all your contacts
  • Leaving a detailed itinerary with your family, friends, and/or partner

Thru-Hiking FAQs

1. Solo or with a partner?

Hiking Couple

We can answer this one with another two questions:

  • How comfortable you with solitude and alone time?
  • Just how friendly are you with your would-be hiking friend?

Sharing the experience of a thru-hike with a good friend or hiking partner has many benefits, meaning you’ll have someone who can:

  • Share the weight of your tent with you
  • Help you avoid going bonkers because of loneliness
  • Help in case of an emergency, accident, or illness
  • Share cooking duties with you
  • Help you through the hard times
  • Help with decision-making

On the flipside, some of the drawbacks to hiking with a partner include:

  • The likelihood of killing each other when mildly irksome habits turn infuriating a few weeks into the trip
  • The possibility of being less open to meeting new people (duos tend to stick together and, as such, seek company elsewhere less than solo hikers)
  • One of you traveling much slower than the other and holding him/her up

The bottom line here is that any hiking partner should be someone you’ll be comfortable and happy to spend every day and night with for weeks or months on end.

While completing a thru-hike together has the potential to form a strong, lifelong bond between you and your partner, it could also potentially ruin a relationship if the various stresses and strains of trail life and spending all that time together prove to be too much.

2. Should I take my dog?

Woman Hiking With Dog

There’s no doubt that dogs make great trail partners, but taking your pooch along for the ride isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think.

First up, unless your dog happens to be of the sled variety and you’re hiking in snow, then you’re going to have to carry its food. Given that you’ll already be weighed down with all of your own provisions and kit, this is unlikely to be conducive to a good time or, for most mere mortals, even remotely feasible.

Secondly, park or trail regulations in many areas forbid dogs, so be sure to check these first—if, that is, the food portation problem hasn’t already put you off!

3. Can I get away without a permit?

Permit For Wilderness

In a word, no. While there’s a chance that you may somehow evade park authorities, the cost of getting caught far exceeds that of doing things legitimately and paying for your permit.

4. Should I carry a can of bear spray?

Holding Bear Spray

Before deciding whether or not you would like to carry bear spray, first check to make sure that bear spray is permitted in all of the areas you plan to hike through. In certain national parks (Yosemite NP, for example) bear spray is forbidden.

If you are headed into bear country, then carrying a spray can, at a bare minimum (no pun intended), give you peace of mind.

Even if you never have to use the thing, you’ll at least sleep more soundly and feel more comfortable on the trails knowing you will have some means of defending yourself should you happen to confront a bear.

5. Is it worth it?

Sticks In Air

Without a doubt, yes! It will break your heart, inflict a serious blow to your bank account, and leave your feet and potentially several other parts of your anatomy in a sorry state, but it will, I assure you, rank as one of the most unforgettable and rewarding experiences of your life.

Further Tips

1. Go for a dental checkup before leaving

Checking Theet
Dentist checks the teeth of a patient

Your chances of finding a dentist where you’re headed are decidedly slim…

2. Consider a quilt

If trekking in summer months and looking to save on pack weight and space

3. Get in the system

Appalachian Trail Permits

By requesting permits early, even if unsure of the exact dates you’ll be hiking in the permit area, your name and details will be in the national park system and modifying your dates or itinerary will be far easier than starting from scratch

4. Reproof your tent and waterproof gear before setting off

Once you’re on your way, it’ll be far, far trickier!

5. Go pole-free

Pole Free Tent

If using a traditional, two-pole ridge tent, you can save a little weight by leaving the poles at home and using your trekking poles instead.

6. Buy “Renewable” Boots

Certain stores (such as REI) have a “no questions asked” returns policy and will send your boots out to wherever you are on your trail should yours fall apart en route.

7. Consider trail shoes

Wearign Trail Shoes

Weight on your feet uses up 4 to 6 times more energy than weight carried on your back. If, therefore, you were to substitute your 3-pound hiking boots for pair of trails shoes weighing only one pound, that would equate to an equivalent saving of eight to ten pounds from your backpack. If trail conditions allow it, therefore, we’d highly recommend you consider leaving your high-tops at home.

8. Bring a pee bottle/bladder

Getting out of your tent in the middle of a downpour to answer nature’s calls is never fun. This handy little addition to your kit can save you the hassle—just remember to screw the lid on properly when you’re done!

9. Bring a (small) book…

Woman Reading Book On Camping

…for those inevitable days when the weather prevents you from leaving the tent.

10. Enjoy it!

One of the hardest things to see on any trail is hikers rushing around, trying to squeeze in every add-on available, meet “targets”, and, in general, take things all a little too seriously.

Thru-hiking is one of the few times in anyone’s life when they will be entirely free of the strictures and stresses that dominate most of our lives the rest of the time. As such, we suggest you take it easy, savor every moment, and make the most of it!

Conclusion

Making the jump from day-hiking to thru-hiking is not without its hassles and number of notable pitfalls and potential problems that can make things a lot more complicated than most would like.

However, by prepping and planning for your hike thoroughly and following the steps listed above, you’ll be one step ahead of the game and, we’re sure, well on your way to having the trip of a lifetime.

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