There will always be planning involved with a venture into the backcountry but when the venture means weeks or months of travel on foot carrying all of your supplies, there is a lot to think about and no perfect way to do so! It is daunting to think about all the logistics that will have to be mapped out for your adventure. (Pun intended)
When you first sit down to start the planning process, it is helpful to make a list of what topics you feel will be most important when it comes to the success of your endeavor. Before you head into the woods, let’s dive into few key areas to consider and helpful tips about how to plan for your thru-hike:
- Length and location of your chosen trail
- Gear that will work for you based on your personal fitness level and the variety of weather you may encounter
- Food and gear resupply options throughout the hike
- Logistics of “home life” while you are away
- Your personal reasons for choosing to thru-hike
Trail Length and Location
There are eleven national scenic trails in the US that range from a distance of around 200 miles up to 4000 miles. The most popular are the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. Hikers who complete all three are known triple-crowners, and according to records, only 400-500 people in the world have completed this feat of almost 8,000 miles hiked.
There is no ‘right’ way or ‘best’ trail to start with for your first thru-hiking experience – it simply depends on your available time and what trail draws your interest. Some people choose to take on the extremely long distance of one of the Triple Crown trails as their first backpacking trip while others opt for a shorter one in order to get a feel for what long-distance backpacking is really like. Regardless of the length, choose the trail that you think will offer you the best experience.
Do you hate the rain and the feeling of being constantly damp from head to toe? Then East Coast hiking may not be your jam since it usually rains a minimum of once every three days in the summer months.
Are you not a fan of extreme weather changes and carrying the gear needed for varying degrees? Maybe stay clear of the Southwest where it can be 101 degrees in the desert sections of the Continental Divide and sub-32 degrees at the high elevations through northern New Mexico and the Colorado Rockies.
To be candid, there is no perfect trail and no perfect weather.
You will be uncomfortable at one point or another no matter where you choose to hike. Part of the long-distance backpacking experience is the process of learning to overcome challenges and is one of the reasons why we go out in the first place. Research the trails that look interesting to you regardless of weather patterns — you may learn that you are more capable of handling surprises from Mother Nature than you previously believed.
A common phrase used along the Appalachian Trail is, “No pain, no rain, no Maine!” The majority of people hike in the Northbound direction, referred to as NOBO, and the only way to get to Mount Katahdin in Maine where the trail ends is to experience all the negatives that come along with the positives. Nature presents us the opportunity to learn to embrace the suck in order to reach the mountaintops and it’s your decision to hike on or go home.
Due to the increasing popularity of long-distance backpacking and the most sought-after miles, logistics are not as challenging as they may seem. Even lesser-known trails are beginning to cater to hikers thanks to the growth of resources like hostels, trail angels, water caches, trail towns, frequent post offices, and shuttle services. Thanks to these developments, hikers can rely on a lot of support along their way. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail requires hikers to go extremely long distances that are scarce of water, but trail angels have begun providing water caches within these miles in order to help prevent hikers from becoming dehydrated in the desert.
Chosen Trail Navigation
One of the best resources available for hikers is an application called Guthook. This smartphone app offers over 50 guides to trails around the world that will track your location, offer detailed waypoints, and connect you with the trail community.
Users are able to leave comments about each checkpoint along the trails which is immensely helpful when planning both before and during your hike. Helpful advice is often shared in real-time within the comment sections which can sometimes save your butt knowing ahead of time that the water source you’re headed to is dry or that the shelter you thought you wanted to sleep in has an active bear nearby that has been bothering hikers!
You are able to use the GPS locator even when you have your phone’s data off, which will help conserve the battery. The app will also tell you your distance away from water sources, established campsites, viewpoints, and towns.
Guthook was created by a thru-hiker for other thru-hikers and is extremely user-friendly, as it continues to be updated with features like social check-ins for the friends and family members of hikers to be kept in the know about the whereabouts of the adventurous people they sometimes worry about!
Getting to Your Chosen Trail
When it comes to choosing a longer trail to embark on, the main arrangement to consider is how you are going to get to the trailhead that you would like to start your hike from.
Do you live close enough to have a friend drive you? Is it possible to fly and then use public transportation? Thankfully, there are many people willing to shuttle hikers to and from trailheads all over the country so the trick is finding these people and calling them to see when they are available. Information about shuttle services is often described within the town icons on Guthook for quick access when in a pinch to find a ride!
As for getting home? Well, you have a couple of hundred miles to think about that and the worst-case scenario would be to just walk back to where you began, right?!
*Hiker Beta: You do not have to be 25 years of age to rent a U-Haul. Plus, it is cheaper than rental cars and there will be a ton of space to transport your trail family, gear, and other random hitchhikers you pick up along the way to the next adventure after you complete the best miles of your life!
There is a quote that goes something like, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing,” to which the outdoor community has tweaked a bit in order to express the importance of having appropriate gear. “There is no bad weather, only bad gear, and soft people!” Meaning that your gear choices can make or break the level of enjoyment you will experience if you are a creature of comfort much like many of us are!
The amount of information available regarding the “best” gear for a thru-hike is extensive and often based on certain people’s budget, experience level, and ability to carry different weight loads. The general rule of thumb is to go as light as possible and still have your needs met without compromising safety. Ask yourself what the most important things are as you look at the different options for gear. Are you trying to push big miles day after day over steep terrain that would require a lighter weight, or are you looking for a mellow adventure focused on smelling the roses and towing along a few luxury items?
Weight will play a factor no matter what type of hiker you are, but when it comes to the long-term effects on the shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and feet; you will most likely last longer out on the trails when there is less pressure on your body.
The common suggestion is to keep your pack weight at no more than 20% of your body weight, but that math is not always ideal since every human differs in size. The most manageable weight for anyone of any weight or stature is the 30lb rule. If you are a nerd about gear like some of us, you will quickly learn about the difference between base weight, full pack weight, and worn weight. By keeping your full pack weight at 30lbs or under, your body will thank you and the miles you cover will be filled with more pleasant memories than ones that could involve having to crawl up mountains or uncomfortable chafe from a heavy load weighing you down.
Finding the balance between comfort, cutting weight, and not breaking the bank takes a lot of time and effort. High-quality gear is not cheap, but there are ways to offset the upfront costs.
Most of your budget should be focused on the ‘big three’ when you first begin to build your setup: your backpack, your sleep system, and your shelter. These will be the most expensive items to acquire, but if you purchase quality products you should be set for years to come as you slowly work to save up and purchase the other lighter weight and more practical gear pieces. Create a list of the different gear options you have researched and be on the lookout for sales, browse second-hand gear stores (like our consignment basement), and chat to your friends to see if they have any gear they’d be willing to lend.
Like most outdoor hobbies, it is possible to venture out with the gear you already own before burning a hole in your wallet. Figuring out what works best for you is part of the process after each pack shakedown is performed, so do not let the fear of not having the most expensive gear stop you from getting out on the trails!
Here is are the basic pieces of gear that are recommended for backpacking:
- Shelter: tent, hammock, bivy, or tarp
- Sleeping bag or quilt
- Sleeping pad
- Rain gear: jacket, pants, or poncho
- Insulated jacket: Down or synthetic
- Base layers
- Hiking clothes
- Socks (two pairs!)
- Hiking shoes: lightweight boots or trail runners
- Cooking materials: Stove, fuel, pot, lighter, and spork
- Water purification system
- Headlamp and extra batteries
- Bathroom necessities: poop trowel, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer
- First aid kit
- Map and/or guidebook
*Hiker Beta: Some hikers become attached to their gear, specifically their backpack because it is the vessel that contains all we need to survive. We carry it each mile and learn how to utilize every inch of space and the exact methods to ensure it sits comfortably on our hips, shoulders, and backs!
Food will be both your favorite and least favorite thing to tow throughout the miles. Being one of the most vital components, we all understand that the calories are worth the weight. But there is still a limit on how much you can bring at once.
Planning out your resupply points along the way can prove to be slightly difficult if you have specific dietary modifications, lack of transportation other than your own two feet, and the unknown factor of how many miles you will hike on a daily basis. Consider mailing yourself boxes of food during the early sections of your hike to obtain a better understanding of your mileage and what you won’t want to eat out of the same five food items that continuously stare back at you from within your food bag.
Mailing Yourself Food
Most US Post Offices will hold packages for a short amount of time if you label your box as ‘general delivery’ and specify an estimated time of arrival that you will pick them up. Be sure to include your name as well as a note that you are a hiker!
It is also helpful to remember to check the business hours of the post office you will be picking up your package from. If you will not arrive in town before 5:00pm, you will likely have to wait until the following morning to grab your package. And if you arrive on a Sunday, you are out of luck no matter what time your feet get you there since they are all closed on this day of the week!
Once you begin to learn how to better navigate your level of hunger based on your mileage abilities, it will become easier and easier to plan stops along the way at the most convenient grocery stores. Depending on how long your hike will last, your hunger levels will also greatly increase as the miles and months tick away.
Hikers will often begin their hikes with too much food and end up having to carry the extra weight around or ditching the extra calories along the way into the trash. After three or four weeks of hiking every day, our bodies tend to realize that we are constantly in need of more energy due to the fact that we are burning somewhere between 400-600 calories per hour of hiking. This is where hiker hunger kicks in and there seems to be no amount of intake that will satisfy your stomach!
*Hiker Beta: Ask friends and family to send care packages to you along your journey. This way you will have new foods waiting for you after becoming tired of the same resupply offerings for hundreds of miles. Make sure to suggest portions and proper packaging to people who want to send you treats. Nothing feels worse than having to toss out excess food or gear knowing that you cannot carry all of it out of town and up the next mountain you are headed toward. Request, everything in a separate ziplock bag. This way you won’t be sent too much at once and you can reuse the same ziplock for so many other things too!
Unless you end your lease, sell your car, quit both of your jobs, and cram all your belongings into a friend’s attic; there is a good chance that there will be bills to take care of while you are away sauntering through the woods and/or across the desert. This is the point in the planning process that many people put their dreams to the side and rationalize that it is too much of a sacrifice. Please do not believe this false statement! Instead, turn these “fears” into a reminder that nothing is more worth the effort than chasing your goals that once seemed impossible.
If you time it right, you may be able to find a reasonable solution to the financial burden that being unemployed for more than a few months presents. If you pay rent for your current living space, finding someone to sublet will help offset having to pay for the space while you are away if you do plan to return to the same location once your hike is over.
Call in a favor or two from friends and family if you need a secure spot to park your car, and use this time to declutter your life of all the unnecessary material possessions you’ve been holding on to for far too long. This is a great opportunity to make a few extra dollars from the excessive amount of clothes you haven’t worn in years or that old bike rack that has been sitting in your garage for months!
Kiss your loved ones goodbye, buckle up your pack and hit the trail! You will never regret trying to make it work even if you do have to end your hike early, but you will always wonder what would have happened if you had just taken a few steps out of your comfort zone to embark on a life-changing venture.
This category is a very personal one that only you can fully understand as you explore and plan a thru-hike. For some people, just the challenge of completing a long-distance trail is enough to motivate them through the great moments and the low points of any backpacking trip. Others hike long distances to find out more about themselves by taking a step back from the mundane and evaluating what they want their lives to look like in the future. Some hike out of grief, to combat PTSD, to get in shape, and to see things that some people will never get to experience in their entire life.
The Appalachian Trail specifically was blazed with the intention of being hiked to heal from trauma. For example, in 1948 Earl Shaffer became the first person to complete the trail by foot from one end to the other after returning home from his time serving in WWII and stating that he would, “walk off that war!”
Whatever your reasons are, it’s vital to remember them throughout the journey. Hiking with a purpose is more enjoyable compared to not having a reason to continuously put one foot in front of another when situations arise that are not all rainbows and sunshine.
*Hiker Beta: Make a list of why you originally wanted to take on the trail you’re planning on hiking. Keep this list handy as the doubt and fear try to creep in and set smaller goals within the overall goal of completing the entire length of the trail.
To Sum It All Up
The most common definition of a thru-hike is the act of hiking a trail from one end to the other within the timeframe of one calendar year. However, there are a million and one ways to cover each mile of a trail based on one’s own personal reasons or agenda. Consequently, the other most common phrase you will hear amongst the thru-hiking crowd is, “hike your own hike!”
It is important to note that planning is not the most crucial part of prepping for a long-distance backpacking trip. Like anything new or challenging, the knowledge that comes from experience and practice will be the best teacher and motivator when it comes time to confidently begin your journey. If you have the will, you will find a way!
Hiker Lingo Glossary
Base Weight: The weight of your backpack and all gear that is not considered consumable (ie food, fuel, and water).
Beta: Insider information, tips, tools, and recommendations from those who have “been there, done that!”
Full Pack Weight: The full weight of your pack, gear, and consumables.
Hiker Hunger: When the amount of calories you burn becomes greater than the number you can carry, consume, and be content with!
Shakedown: Laying out everything that you feel you need to pack for your trip and analyzing the gear choices. This helps to visually see what you are carrying that you do not need to and where you can cut weight.
Trail Angel: A person who goes out of their way to assist hikers in a variety of ways, including but not limited to; offering a ride, cooking food, bringing supplies, sharing a beer!
Trail Magic: The magical offerings that come from Trail Angels and even the trail. A good weather day, an empty shelter, or a clear flowing water source are just a few ways the trail itself provides the magic.
Worn Weight: The weight of the items you wear and carry while you hike (i.e. the clothes on your back, the shoes on your feet, and the poles you carry in your hands)