Are you ready to take your hiking life to the next level? Do you daydream about the trail, wishing you could be out in the wilderness for days, weeks or even months at a time? It’s time for you to start planning that epic thru-hike you’ve always wanted to attempt. But with all there is to consider in such a massive undertaking, how do you get started thru-hiking?
Here at the Adventure Junkies, we understand the persistent tug and call of the thru-hike. We know what it’s like to want to always be hiking. We also know that planning and completing a thru-hike is a daunting, life-altering challenge, especially when you’re just starting out. In this article, we answer your questions about getting started thru-hiking, defining the fundamentals and explaining the risks and rewards.
1. WHAT TURNS A REGULAR HIKE INTO A THRU-HIKE
Completing a “long trail” in a single hiking season, which is generally March or April through September or October — that’s the short definition of thru-hiking. But there’s no fixed definition of what exactly makes a trail “long.”
Some say a trail becomes “long” at the 50-mile mark, but most experienced thru-hikers would consider that a brief stroll. For most who do it, thru-hiking is truly defined by its legendary top end: Thousands of miles, up to half a year on the trail, and hiking experiences from which you never return unchanged.
2. WOW. SO I GUESS I NEED TO BE AN ELITE ATHLETE TO DO IT?
Not at all. Ideally, you should already be an experienced hiker before taking on a thru-hike but more important to success on the long trail is a strong mind, a solid will and a flexible nature.
Thru-hikers are often middle-aged or retired, even elderly. They’re often at a crossroads in life, looking for new challenges and new answers. Hikers who complete a 2,000-plus mile thru-hike typically have one thing in common — they really, really wanted to do it.
3. WILL I BE ON THE TRAIL FOR MONTHS?
Yes, if your ambition is to thru-hike one or more of America’s classic long trails. A typical south-to-north thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,190 miles across 14 states, takes five to six months.
But there are other long trails on which a thru-hike could take far less time. The 800-mile Arizona Trail, for example, could take less than two months to complete, crossing the state from Mexico to Utah.
Hiking a state-traversing or state-looping long trail close to home is a good way to get thru-hiking experience before taking one of the big multi-state hikes.
4. HOW WILL I FIND MY WAY?
Most of the long trails popular with thru-hikers are well marked and well traveled, and there’s a kind of thru-hiking subculture on the three big U.S. trails that looks out for its own. But you still need to take a compass or GPS, trail guides and maps just in case.
5. SHOULD I GO ALONE, WITH A FRIEND OR A GROUP?
Those who thru-hike alone, especially on the most popular long trails, aren’t always alone. There’s a thru-hiking social scene and sub-culture on the big trails, and one of the many rewards of the thru-hiking experience is meeting new and interesting people and creating close friendships strengthened by adversity and joy.
If you’re thinking about hiking with friends, relatives or your spouse, think again. Is your relationship strong enough to withstand the trials and petty annoyances that are sure to come up during several months in the wilderness? The company you keep on the trail can easily become the cause of your failure, just as it can be the main cause of your success.
6. AM I GOING TO BE SAFE OUT THERE?
That all depends on you and your decisions, your planning and your stamina. Are you starting your thru-hike at the right time to avoid dangerous weather? Do you have the right gear and the right attitude? Have you trained enough to safely complete this grueling walk?
That said, many long trails pass by towns with medical services and all the other comforts of civilization. You can always take a break and stay a few nights in a hotel. Also, along with the three big thru-hiking trails in the U.S., a network of “trail angels” gives thru-hikers aid, advice, necessities and treats.
7. WILL I HAVE TO BUY A BUNCH OF EXPENSIVE NEW GEAR?
Maybe. The tools of the thru-hike are essentially the same as those of a standard backpacking trip, so if you already have gear that you like there’s no reason to replace it. It all depends on how much weight you want to carry. Many thru-hikers use lightweight or ultralight gear, carrying only essentials and sleeping under tarps or in hammocks rather than tents.
8. WHAT’S THE ESSENTIAL GEAR FOR THRU-HIKING?
You’ll need a backpack that you’ve tested and grown to love; you’ll need a lightweight but warm sleeping bag and pad; and you’ll need a lightweight, durable and waterproof tarp or tent.
9. WHERE CAN I FIND ADVICE ABOUT BUYING GEAR?
Browse online and check out the many blogs, articles, posts, and podcasts by successful thru-hikers.
Here at The Adventure Junkies, we offer gear reviews and guides. Here are a few of our gear articles to get you started.
READY TO GO
10. HOW DO I PLAN A THRU-HIKE?
Carefully. You will spend more time planning than hiking. You’ll have to gather multiple permits, find and test your gear, save money and work through a long list of other details. You should start researching and planning for your thru-hike at least a year out.
11. HOW DO I TRAIN FOR A THRU-HIKE?
In the year before your hike, follow a training schedule for as long as you can keep it up. You’re going to have to be driven, disciplined and tough-minded to complete a thru-hike, so you should start getting used to it. Also, spend as much time as possible day hiking and backpacking.
The important thing to remember is that this is your journey and your decision. Do you want it bad enough to work out and eat right?
12. WHAT ARE THE MOST POPULAR THRU-HIKING TRAILS?
The three big thru-hiking experiences in the U.S. are the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Thru-hikers who complete all three are called “Triple Crowners.” There are also many similarly long trails around the world on which thru-hikers test their mettle and search for answers.
13. WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT THRU-HIKING?
The websites for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition have a lot of information on thru-hiking, including advice and tips from successful thru-hikers. There are many blogs by thru-hikers that feature stories, lessons, wisdom and tips from the trail.
There are several good guidebooks on thru-hiking as well. One of the best is Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide To Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking (Falcon Guides, 2013) by Triple Crowner Justin Lichter.