It doesn't matter where you do it or how long the hike is, if you are a hiker, completing a multi-day thru-hike is a transformative experience. Hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest can take months, but it will be one of the biggest achievements in your life. Even shorter trails that take a few weeks will be an achievement you can look back on when you are old and grey.
However, unlike your average day hike, thru-hikes are not just the sort of thing you just get off the couch and go do. Thru-hikes actually require quite a bit of planning as well as mental and physical preparation unless you intend on quitting halfway through.
If you are looking to attempt one of these lifetime achievements, or at least go on something a little longer than a day hike just to see if you can, here are a few tips to prepare for your long thru-hikes.
Do Your Research
This is the first and most important step of any thru-hiking trip. If you go on a trail not knowing anything about it, it could end up being potentially dangerous for you. Here's what you will want to study up on.
- Your Own Abilities – There isn't a website out there that will tell you how fast you can hike or how many miles you can do in consecutive days. However, having knowledge of your own abilities is something you will need to know.
- All the Legs of a Trail – You will want to know which leg is difficult, where any trail shelters are, will they be so packed that it is better to pack a tent, trail conditions, as well as the presence of any spur trails that might mix you up.
- Nearby Towns – On a hike that might take weeks or months, you physically can't carry enough provisions on you. You will need to know where all the common resupply spots are as well as towns that you can get to in case of inclement weather.
- Local Ecosystem – This is rather optional, but it could be a huge help if you manage to get lost. It never hurts to read up about the ecosystems along the trail. Such as what animals live around it or what wild edibles grow there, especially those that are in season during your hike. A few blueberries of fiddlehead ferns make great trail snacks, but only if you know what you are looking at while hiking.
Submit a Trail Plan
You wouldn't think that people get lost along well-established trails, but it does happen. You want to create a trail plan firstly for yourself, and then secondly so that you can give it to friends or family in case you haven't checked in.
If you create a trail plan, you don't need to stick to it to the letter, but it will let search and rescue know the general area to search if the worst happens and you go missing.
Assess and Re-assess Your Gear
Finding out what sort of things you should pack for a thru-hike is simple. The recommendations are all pretty standard. However, the first time thru-hiker should pack whatever they think they need, then try to cut their pack weight down by at least a fourth.
Any veteran thru-hiker will tell you that the lighter your pack is, the better. This means you will want to give preference to multi-tools and ultra-light gear instead of your traditional camping garb.
If you are training for a long cross-country trail, you might want to test your gear out on a few shorter trails. First-time thru-hikers will often ditch a few pounds of unnecessary gear within their first weeks of the hike. So by doing a few dry runs, you can decide quickly what is slowing you down and what you don't really need for the real deal.
As they say, you can't just get off the couch and run a marathon. It is the same with hiking a couple of hundred miles. If you are already an avid hiker, then you are about halfway there. It means that you are fit enough to handle some long hiking, but are you fit enough to handle long hikes every single day for a few months?
The best training is to get out there and keep doing challenging hikes. You will want to work on your uphill because obviously that is the most challenging part. However, if you don't live near any mountains, you can practice by taking the stairs of tall office buildings. It works the same muscles.
However, whether you are just hiking or doing stairs, you will want to do so with some added weight on your back. Hiking with a full pack is much different than doing it without, so you will want to be well used to the experience by the time you actually hit the trail.
You should also find a stretching routine that hits all your sore spots and do it frequently. Staying limber not only cuts down on potential soreness, but it will help prevent injury on the trail as well. When hiking, always stretch before and after each day's hike.
Acknowledge and Prepare for Mental Fatigue
Thru-hiking is a physically-challenging experience, but it is also a mentally-challenging one. There is going to come a point, probably several times throughout your hike, that you will be so bored/tired/sore/hungry/wet that you just want to give up and go home to watch Netflix on the couch. You need to be able to endure and power through those moments so you can get to the next point in your hike that makes all the work worth it.
It is also worthwhile to find a way to stave off the boredom and mental fatigue. You need a way that doesn't add a bunch of weight to your pack and doesn't need much recharging to take your mind off how sore and tired you are. Consider reading, photography, music (via harmonica or other light instruments), whittling, writing, or drawing as a way to mentally reinvigorate yourself.