Thru-hiking will test your body and mind to extremes beyond what you’ll experience in a normal hiking or backpacking trip. The good news is when it comes to hiking a long trail, your age or even fitness level aren’t as important as what is in your head. Knowing what to expect and how to deal with challenges can make the difference between making your goal and going home early. In 2011, I broke the women’s self-supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail and have gone on to hike 19 other long distance hikes. Last year, BACKPACKER Magazine asked me to write and instruct a 6 week online course called Thru-hiking 101. Here are 6 lessons from that class that every prospective thru-hiker should learn to stop dreaming and start hiking: Start planning early
Visit the website of the trail you plan to hike. There is usually a detailed planning page including recommendations on what guidebooks, maps, and apps you need. For inspiration and details on what to expect in day-to-day life, read blogs of hikers who have come before you. Don’t forget to apply early for any permits your trail may require.
Learn Some Skills Before You Go
Remember how scary it was to merge lanes when you first learned to drive? Then, after a lot of practice, you can do it mid-conversation. Just like driving, hiking requires learning some new skills. It will be difficult at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be able to deal with whatever the trail throws at you and treat it like a routine occurrence. Your long trail will throw weather, wildlife, hunger, and physical discomfort your way. Your goal as a thru-hiker is to not let any of that take you off trail for good. Luckily, many of the skills you need to familiarize yourself with the hurdles of the hike can be learned at home. Your trail’s website and blogs should give you an idea of what skills you need to learn. Take classes, consult books, and practice these skills as soon as you can. The more you run through these drills, the more routine it will feel for you when obstacles happen during your hike.
It’s all about pacing and recovery
Whether you’re at home training or taking your first steps away from the trailhead, pace yourself. For thru-hiking, it’s smart to start the trail at 50% of your ability and, even on hard days, never push more than 80%. Expect to take a rest day—a day with no hiking at all—about once per week. Going slow and taking time off can be a hard for go-getters, but remember: unlike a running race, on a thru-hike, you have to get up and do the same thing again the next day, and then repeat that for months. You’ve heard the phrase “this isn’t a sprint, this is a marathon.” When you’re thru-hiking, a marathon starts looking like a sprint.
Get Your Gear Right
When you’re out in the woods for months at a time, the clothes on your back and what you carry in your pack is your lifeline. You’ll find that the type of gear most thru-hikers use often isn’t the same as you would use for normal backpacking. Much of the gear is specialized for thru-hiking and is much lighter weight than can be found in usual gear stores. Do research on what gear kits other hikers put together and what they wear. Know what’s going to stop you—and do everything you can to avoid it
However you define your goal, you need to know what’s going to get in the way of achieving it—and nip it in the bud. Injuries are a main reason hikers quit. Pacing yourself, recovery time, and using a pack and shoes that fit well can prevent that (See #3 and 4). Disease can be a hike-breaker, too. Talk with your doctor about prescribing prophylactics and keeping good hygiene on trail. Running out of money ends many hikes. Save more than you would expect to spend. When it’s cold and you’re wet, $7 for a hot cocoa starts sounding reasonable. Learning backcountry skills during your hike can take longer than you may expect. Generously pad your timeline and itinerary to allow for changes. Lastly, when obstacles are thrown your way, be flexible with your schedule and how you react. Sometimes, a positive attitude will help you push through even the biggest roadblocks.
Focus on Your Goal and Nothing Else
Write down your goal in as much detail as possible and announce it to others. Spend some time honestly making your intention reasonable for you, your skill set, and physical ability. A long hike can be harder, dirtier, and more painful that you can ever imagine. It’s not all rainbows and vistas. But if you are honest with yourself, your goals, and your expectations of what the trip will be ahead of time—and you know what you are willing to give up to achieve that goal—you will set yourself up for success. When you’re on trail, it’s easy to get swept up in what other hikers are doing. It’s tempting to compete or keep up with others. Set your intention, constantly remind yourself of it, and stick with it. By going for your dream, you will find that you are stronger and braver than you may have ever imagined.