What It’s Really Like to Hike a Long-Distance Trail
While the idea of hiking for days or weeks on end through some of the country’s most scenic terrain can sound like the trip of a lifetime—and it often is—taking on a long-distance hike is a daunting endeavor. Whether you’re covering the entire length of the Appalachian Trail or spending a week exploring a national forest, a long-distance hike is challenging both mentally and physically.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s a test of your preparation skills as you first must navigate all that goes into surviving off the grid for an extended period of time. The rewards are plentiful, but only if you’re able to put yourself in a position to succeed. Before hitting the trail, here are some ideas for getting you started on the right foot (pun intended).
There are as many different ways to prepare for a thru-hike as there are thru-hikers. But some questions are paramount as you plan for life on the trail—those dealing with your day-to-day needs of water, food, shelter, and comfort.
Where do I find water along the way? The amount of water you’ll need is heavily dependent on the weather conditions and difficulty of your route, but expect to consume (and carry) at least two liters a day, which adds four pounds of weight to your back. Learning the sources of potable water on the trail and carrying the equipment to purify water is instrumental in any long-distance excursion.
How much food do I need? When it comes to food, most hikers need between one and a half and two and a half pounds of food a day to stay fueled. Do the math, and you’ll realize that the weight of food and water will be the limiting factors on the amount of time you can be self-sufficient without resupplying. The logistics of maintaining your food and water supply will take up the bulk of your planning. What you eat is also incredibly important. For a day hike, whatever trail-mix, energy bars, or sandwiches you have on hand generally gets the job done. But once you’re on the trail for multiple days, you need to consider your bodies full nutritional needs, including sources of protein, salt, and vitamins. (Check out some suggestions here.)
If you’re taking on a very long-distance hike like the AT or Continental Divide Trail, you’ll generally rely on a support person to send prepared boxes of supplies to various locations along the route. Of course, you can also mix in trips to town as well, where you can get a hot meal or pick up supplies on your own. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants method can be appealing, but keep in mind that you aren’t guaranteed the next trail town will have what you need, and it’s much more expensive to shop for foods at a convenience store than buying in bulk ahead of time. Of course, a combination of resupply boxes in addition to treats on the town work as well.
Where will you be camping while on the trail? After food and water, shelter is your next biggest challenge. Most significant trails tackled by thru-hikers have a straightforward list of rules for where you can camp. But you need to read the details. For instance, the Colorado Trail permits camping on the vast majority of the trail, but there are some sections where it is prohibited. Many trails have huts or lean-tos that welcome thru-hikers, but you need to know the rules for how you can use them. Do you need reservations, or is it first-come, first-served? What permits do you need to camp? What equipment will you need, depending on the time of the year you’re hiking?
No matter when you take your trip, staying dry is a big part of being safe and comfortable on the trail. You hope for the best weather, but plan for the worst. Are you going to be prepared for that three-day rainstorm? You should have rain gear for your body, and your equipment should be rated to withstand the toughest conditions you expect to find on your route. But it takes more than just the right equipment to be prepared. Plan for the rain and put any wet-sensitive gear and maps into a dry sack or zipper-top storage bag.
Open your pack as little as possible in wet conditions, so that means having things you need handy in outside pockets and attached via loops to the outside of the pack. Know how to use your rain cover and be ready to install it in a hurry. Once you’re camping, try and keep wet gear outside of the tent as much as possible. Much as you try to keep them separate, those wet jackets, hats, or boots inevitably get your sleeping bag wet as well, which is no fun.
Of course, even once you figure out every detail (Ha!), you still have to design a way to carry everything with you. The rule of thumb is to try to limit the weight of your pack to 20 percent of your body weight. People have written books on how to make the weight of your backpack manageable, but some suggestions include:
- Know your pack’s base weight. This is the pack’s weight minus the food, water, and fuel, known as consumables. If you’re already close to the 20 percent figure without these, perhaps it’s time to invest in lighter weight equipment.
- If you don’t need it, don’t take it. After every hike, go through what you brought along and see if you used it. Some items may be luxuries you don’t need.
- Ditch the packaging. Sure, the cliché is that you can cut down the handle of your toothbrush, but you can really save some weight by doing away with bulky cardboard boxes and other containers. Put items like sunscreen and toothpaste in plastic bags to eliminate their heavy bottles. Just don’t mix them up.
The deeper you dive into preparations for your hike, the harder it can be to see the forest for the trees. At the end of the day, you can only spreadsheet out so much of your hike. It isn’t possible, or even advisable, to plan for every water refill or every campsite. And it is inevitable that certain aspects of your hike won’t go to plan, be it from injury, weather, or something else entirely.
Getting an outside perspective can be invaluable. Talk to others who have already done your hike. Most of the established thru-hikes in the United States have Facebook groups where hikers can discuss questions specific to their route. Even better: the American Long Distance Hiking Association holds annual Rucks, or get-togethers, to help bring hikers together.
Preparing Yourself Physically
Preparing for your hike physically is essential for the success of your hike. Get used to carrying that backpack on the trail by going on day hikes or weekend trips. Use what’s available around you to increase your fitness. Go running, biking, or walking. Hit the stair machine at the gym. Focus on your cardio fitness before the hike, and you’ll be rewarded on the trail.
At the end of the day, however, the only way to truly prepare for a thru-hike is to start thru-hiking. That means that the first few weeks on the trail are always some of the hardest, as you continuously push your body to go further and faster. And then get up and do it again the next day. And again.
Over the first month of your thru-hike, your body will undergo some changes. Yes, your leg muscles will get stronger, but so will your joints. Three-thousand feet of elevation gain will feel routine. Your metabolism will switch gears and burn through your fat reserves. And the blisters that plagued you in the first few weeks will solidify into hardened calluses.
Of course, not all the changes will be welcome. The excitement of eating as much as you want each and every day will be replaced by the dread of having to carry that much food. Your flexibility will go down the drain as your joints stiffen. Your feet will hurt. A lot. To get through the pain, the exhaustion, and, yes, sometimes the boredom, you’ll need to be mentally prepared.
The Mental Game
The photos don’t lie. All those breathtaking scenes you’ve scrolled through on social media of other people’s hikes really are that breathtaking in person. But what those beautiful shots of snow-capped mountains, multi-colored wildflowers, and aquamarine lakes don’t show is the less photogenic sections of trail in-between, trapped below treeline for days, skirting the edge of yet another a subdivision, or even the infamous aqueduct walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. To get through these sections of the trail and overcome the physical pain and exhaustion of a thru-hike, it helps to have a strong mental game.
Part of this, for many hikers, is finding their trail family (affectionately dubbed a “Tramily”). Trail families are typically formed in the early days of a thru-hike when everyone is starting acclimatize to their new, shared reality. They are invariably looking for ideas on how to troubleshoot the multitude of problems that crop up. Building relationships with other hikers help in dealing with these day-to-day problems, and it’s nice to have a bit of company when you’re in the middle of one of those long sections when the trail is not quite as breathtaking as one would hope.
Another essential strategy for upping your mental game is to remove as many of the unknowns from your hiking routine as possible. This can be as simple as picking out your intended campsite the night before, allocating the next day’s food and stashing it in an easily accessible spot in your pack, and reviewing maps before you head out for a new section. Freeing yourself from as many variables relieves stress and allows you to stay in the moment and focused on the experience of hiking.
But everyone has an off-day. For many hikers, a prolonged period of low morale can keep them from completing their journey. Know in advance that this is going to happen and take steps before you start to counteract it. Make sure those resupply packages includes a favorite snack or treat. Take along that lightweight inflatable pillow if it helps you sleep better. And be sure that your pack is distributing the weight of its loads efficiently. If you aren’t sure, go to an outdoor store and get it checked out.
Those low points pass. Before long you’ll be meandering by an idyllic stream or on top of the ridge with views for miles, and your hike will start to feel worth it all over again.
Your Post-Hike Recovery
You did it! You made it to the end of your long-distance trail. Now that all that hiking is over, it’s time to kick back and enjoy the admiration of friends and family, right? Not quite. Of course, you’ll want to indulge in all the Netflix and air conditioning and fresh laundry that you’ve been dreaming about for the last few months, but the appeal of these front-country luxuries wears off surprisingly fast.
Many hikers find that the hardest part of their thru-hike is going back to the “real world” when it’s all over. And no wonder: after months of being outside all day and working towards a single goal, getting back to paying bills and holding down a 9-to-5 job can be a rude awakening. Having a plan for after your thru-hike is almost as important as your plan for the thru-hike itself.
So, while you are on your journey, think about what your next big goal will be at the end of the road—whether it’s going back to school for a master’s degree, making a big career shift you’ve always dreamed of, or, dare I say it, getting back on the trail for another thru-hike.
A significant thru-hike requires a lot of sacrifices and hard work. It isn’t for everyone. But for those who do take to the trail for weeks or months at a time, it’s an experience that stays with you the rest of your life.
Written by Laura Lancaster for RootsRated in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Will Saunders