Completing your first thru-hike is guaranteed to be a life-changing experience. You’ll meet amazing people, share unforgettable stories, and accomplish something that few people ever will.
Chances are you’re reading this because that all sounds appealing, but are you up for the task? Preparing for a thru-hike is unlike anything you’ve ever done. These 12 tips will get you a dozen steps closer to undertaking this monumental adventure.
1. Train – Physically And Mentally – With The Gear You Plan To Use
Because this is your first thru-hike, you probably haven’t done something like this ever. Seriously, thru-hiking is a physical and mental slog that’s impossible to understand until you get out there.
Just like a runner wouldn’t shouldn’t run their first 26.2-mile marathon without months of training slowly building up to race day, neither should you hit the trail without sufficient training time. Head out for progressively longer backpacking trips, starting with simple one-day excursions and ramping up to at least overnight outings.
Take the gear you’re planning to use and put it to the test. How hard is it to carry, set up, and re-pack? Do you even need it?
Oh, and don’t just wait for a nice mid-70s and sunny day. Got a storm moving in? Get out there and go overnight! You’re guaranteed to hit a lot of bad weather on the trail, so you absolutely have to see how both you and your gear stand up to it.
2. And Then Pack Lighter
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is 2,180 miles long stretching from Georgia to Maine. If you want to accomplish that in six months, you need to average over 12 miles per day. Every day. For 26 grueling weeks.
You want your gear to be as light and versatile as possible. It’s all about quality over quantity. Get the best hydrophobic down jacket you can find with 800-plus fill weight down. The same thing goes for your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking gear, and clothing.
Anthony Thomas of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL completed a fascinating (but incredibly in-depth) study of AT hikers to see if he could predict if a hiker would complete that 2,180 mile trail. His model successfully predicted whether a hiker would complete the entire AT 82.1% of the time with just four factors accounting for 70% of the variance:
- Pack weight
- Load percentage (pack weight as percentage of body weight)
- Average miles
Those are in order, meaning the top two predictors are both related to how much you’re carrying. So, if you want to maximize your chances of success, pack as little as possible.
Ideally you should cap your pack weight at 20% of your total body weight. As a 175-pound male, that means I shouldn’t be carrying more than 35 pounds, and even that sounds like a few pounds more than I’d prefer!
3. Give Yourself Ways To Mentally Escape
We’ve established why it’s important to pack light and calculated a target pack weight, so now you’ve cut the fat and only packed what you truly need.
I hope it includes a few ways to occupy your mind!
That doesn’t mean bring a portable glass chess set and full Cards Against Humanity deck. Instead, think about packing a book or two—you can even grab new ones at each town. What about photography, podcasts, music, drawing, or the harmonica?
While these items may not help you survive in the physical sense, they will help you survive mentally. And as most thru-hikers will tell you, that’s the bigger battle.
4. Choose Food With Lots of Calories And Carbs
Food will account for a large percentage of your pack weight. Backpacker recommends carrying 1.5 pounds of food per day at the start, scaling up to three pounds per day by the end.
You want that food to be nutrient and calorie dense so you don’t need to bring as much. Peanut butter, protein bars, and powdered meal replacement shakes are great ideas. You’ll eat a lot like a kindergartener when you’re on the trail, so make sure to fill up on copious amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables when you stop at a town.
5. Embrace The Pain, Especially Going Uphill
We’re only on tip number five and already we’ve mentioned the mental battle three times. It’s that important!
Look, you’re going to hurt. You’re going to be cold, your feet will be wet and sore, and you’re not going to want to tackle another day of steady uphill climbs. When you feel that way, listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Pain makes me grow. Growing is what I want. Therefore, for me pain is pleasure.”
6. Be Ready For Bugs
I’ve had more hikes and camping trips ruined by bugs than I care to remember. Whether it’s mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, or other menaces, there are lightweight ways you can protect your body (and keep yourself sane).
Long-sleeve shirts and pants will do wonders, and if you have lightweight, breathable clothing you can comfortably trek miles in warmer weather without overheating. Hats will protect the top of your head while simultaneously keeping the sun out of your eyes. Insect nets are lightweight and compact and will help you get some sleep at night. Bug sprays, especially those with 20-30% DEET, will neutralize a lot of pests.
But if you’re hiking for months on end, chances are you’ll get your fair share of bites. Make sure your first aid kit has Calamine or other anti-itch lotions. This article from Hiking Dude goes in-depth into bug bite prevention and treatment.
7. Plan And Track Your Finances Carefully
Beyond the initial outlay of cash to get the right gear, your complete thru-hike trip is going to cost you a pretty penny. Food, water, supplies, occasional accommodations, health insurance, transportation, cell phone—it adds up. (And that doesn’t even include your regular monthly expenses, such as rent, mortgage, or student loan payments.)
Adventure Possible recommends putting aside $1,000 per month that you expect to be on the trail, which can mean upwards of $6,000 for a full thru-hike.
Remember how pack weight was a huge predictor of whether a hiker will complete the trail? Money is another. If you run out of money halfway through, it’s game over. Track your spending carefully and plan properly.
8. Be Prepared To Be Flexible
But even the best laid plans can go to waste when a multi-day snowstorm rolls in out of nowhere. That could mean a few extra days stuck in a motel, potentially putting you dozens of miles behind schedule (or more!).
When that happens—and unexpected things will happen constantly—embrace it! Thru-hiking isn’t about the destination. It’s about the journey. Your whole half-year odyssey is just that: an epic adventure. Keep one eye on your money, plans, and pace, but keep your other eye on the amazing people and places you encounter along the way.
9. Take Care Of Your Feet
Keep a third eye on your feet, because you are going to punish those puppies. Proper socks and shoes will save you, but the challenge is that the terrain can vary dramatically as you progress along the trail.
Take the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for example. The first 700 miles are desert and require lightweight, ventilated shoes. Then you’ll hit the Sierra Mountains, which are much rockier and wetter. For that you may want a boot with good ankle support.
Infections aside, blisters are your biggest concern. Try a layered sock system with high-quality Merino wool over nylon. This helps reduce sock-to-foot friction, which means fewer blisters. And never wear cotton.
10. Pack A Poncho
A large poncho, big enough to cover you backpack and thighs, can be a lifesaver on the trail. It weighs (and costs) much less than a full rain suit, can be put on in under 30 seconds, and will cover your pack. Plus, it can be used to augment your tent or lean-to for extra wetness protection.
11. Reassess Your Gear Every Couple Weeks
The goal is to be as light as possible while still bringing everything you need. To that end, sometimes you bring a little more than you need. Or maybe something you used to need isn’t important any more.
This is an on-the-trail tip, but I think it’s good to prepare for the mindset: every couple weeks, reassess everything in your pack and ask yourself if you really need it. If not, toss it out or send it home.
12. Do Your Research, Respect The Trail, And Embrace The Journey
A full thru-hike will cross through several states, countless counties, and endless towns. The scenery will change, and so will the challenges, the dangers, and the laws. You need to know if you’re entering rattlesnake territory and where you’re allowed to camp.
When you combine proper research and preparation, the right attitude, and respect for both the trail and those you share it with, and incredible thing will happen: you’ll officially become a member of an exclusive community of tough-minded endurance enthusiasts. You’ll become a thru-hiker.
I’m Bryan, creator of The Outdoor Authority. While I’m from the United States, I have visited Europe and South America, including a life-changing trip to the Galapagos Islands, and currently live in the beautiful island paradise of Hawaii. My goal with The Outdoor Authority is to share my passion for all things outdoors, from camping and hiking to fishing and recreational activities. Come check it out and share your outdoors experiences, as we can all be outdoor authorities!