If you’ve read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, a riveting account of her several-month-long journey through the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), you have some semblance of an idea as to how physically and emotionally demanding a thru-hike can be. But to prepare for the challenging twists and turns inherent in thru-hikes, you’ll need to carve out some serious preparation time. Here’s what to keep in mind before you plan your trip.
What it is
A thru-hike is nothing like a leisurely trek you’d do up a hill with a fanny pack and a pair of headphones. So what is it exactly? “This is a big philosophical question,” said Liz Thomas, editor-in-chief at the gear website Treeline Review, who has hiked 20 long-distance trails including the Appalachian Trail and PCT. Thompson said that unlike day hikes, thru-hikes require resupplying resources since they’re impossible to carry the entire distance. The goal isn’t to relax and hang out, but move quickly and see as many sights as possible. There aren’t any specific guidelines as to how many miles a thru-hike should be, but it should be long enough that finishing all or a significant chunk of it within one calendar year is a remarkable feet of strength (not unlike hiking Everest!). For reference, the PCT along the west coast clocks in at 2,650 miles, and the Appalachian Trail on the east coast clocks in at around 2,200 miles, give or take a few miles each year due to changes in routing.
What to pack
What you pack largely depends on the trail itself, the season and anticipated weather conditions. For colder climates, pack thin, buildable layers — thick material might produce excess sweating, which can make you colder and lead to hypothermia. Universal packing requirements include a backpack, sleeping bag and sleeping pad regardless if you’re hiking in an alpine, desert or rainforest area, according to Thompson. A small first-aid kit should include the likes of bandages, hand-sanitizer, antiseptic ointment, safety pins, bug bite relief, ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and nail scissors.
How to practice
Think of every possible scenario ahead of time, and map out exactly where you’ll find resources or help. Locate water supply, camp locations and re-stocking centers. Practice with your gear. “I try championing day hikes by yourself. Set up your tent, take a nap in it, and pack it up and go home,” Thompson said. As a bonus, schedule your day hike for a rainy day to practice keeping water out of your shelter. Practice using your stove. Look at your gear list and make sure you have everything you need, and not an ounce more to weigh you down.
Even hikers with a substantial athletic foundation require six months to a year to get their bodies acclimated to this type of taxing undertaking. The same way reading textbooks won’t prepare you for the real world quite like hands-on practice on the field, so too will a thru-hike feel impossible unless you’re familiar with the feeling of weight on your back for extended periods of time.
“Hiking is the best way to learn about hiking. Wear a weighted backpack with all your clothes, gear and shoes, and that will tell you when something feels off. Learn it at home when you can fix it,” she said.
While weight-lifting and walking on a treadmill on an incline can help build muscles that facilitate hiking, she said it might add another layer of stress and intimidation to a first-timer’s experience.
Thompson learned the hard way that you want to go through at least five or six shoe changes during your trip after having failed to switch them out for 1,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail. “Either a gear store or the miracle of the internet makes it possible to Amazon Prime yourself some shoes,” she said. “Go into a brick and mortar gear store near the trail. Talk to someone who knows a lot about shoes and make sure you’re switching out your shoes pretty often. Your feet are the wheels on your car.”
Unfortunately, you can’t just show up at a national park and crash for the night. Do your research ahead of time to check what sort of permits you need for overnight stays. Apply for the permit as soon as you’ve settled on your itinerary because a limited number of hikers are permitted on these trails at a time.
If you’re completing a thru-hike outside of your native country, you might want to consider a visa that will allow you to extend your visitor status since most hikes will take up to a year, said Thompson. And, of course, if you’re crossing the U.S.-Canada boarder, you will require a valid passport.
It can be tempting to stay put at a certain stop when you’re feeling particularly drained, but that’s dangerous since friends or family might expect you to be reachable on given days.
Dole out a copy of your itinerary to loved ones before you depart. Offer them a list of emergency numbers they should contact if they expect to hear from you on given days and do not. Thompson said you might also want to consider a satellite transmitter so they can track your location.
Hiking alone shouldn’t deter you from the trip, but it will require you to keep your guard up in specific ways. “Don’t go on some Reddit forum asking for a hiking buddy. It’s much better to find people you’re hiking with organically. If you don’t like them you don’t owe them anything. Trails like the Appalachian Trail, PCT or John Muir are so popular you’ll find people to hike with for a few hours or even months, and they might become your best friends for life,” she said. “There’s a lot of fear wrapped around hiking solo. There’s so much to be gained and it’s so empowering.”