While certain members of the backpacking community are satisfied with hiking partial trails and the easier routes that can that can be completed in just a day or two, there is another group of individuals with an entirely different view of hiking: the thru-hikers.
Thru-hikers can only be described as master outdoorspeople, and they come in various shapes, sizes and ages and possess very different physical skills.
They are known to hike for weeks or months on end with a heavy pack on their back, stopping only to sleep and occasionally rest their weary bones. It is these hikers—the thru-hikers—that we will talk about more about in this brief article.
Here we will discuss some of the basics and fundamentals of thru-hiking—a type of hiking that will test your resolve and endurance while also giving you front-row access to some of the most majestic scenery on the planet.
Thru-Hiking Basics: Introduction
Thru-hiking is not an easy pursuit, but it can be very, very rewarding with the proper planning and a little knowledge about what you will encounter.
The process can also be broken up into different phases: the planning stage, the hiking stage and the post-hiking stage, where you evaluate the hike, rest and eat, and even check your gear, etc. To help you better understand these three phases of thru-hiking, below we will cover each phase in a little more detail, and let you know the fundamental steps you will need to take in each.
We will also cover some of the advantages and disadvantages of thru-hiking, and allow you to decide for yourself if the activity is for you.
Phase One: The Planning Phase
Before we talk about some of the things you will need to do in the planning phase, let us first say that thru-hiking is definitely not for everyone.
It involves a lot of time away from your home base, some very rough hiking and sleeping conditions, and a lot of mettle and fortitude to keep pushing on even when your body is saying “I’ve had enough.”
It is a very tough pursuit, so you will have to be sure you are fully committed to the activity before setting out to create your own memories.
Now that the sermon is out of the way, let’s talk about some of the planning steps you will need to take in order to get yourself ready for a major thru-hike. Here is just a small sample of what you will need to consider and do:
Get in Shape
Regardless of how fit you “think” you are; you will need to make sure you are in hiking shape before setting out on a long thru-hike. Walking may not seem like a very taxing activity, but walking with a weighty pack on your back, sometimes 10-20 miles a day for weeks or months at a time, will quickly change your mind.
Talk to your thru-hiking friends (if you have any) or meet with a fitness trainer and tell them exactly what you plan to do—the miles you plan to walk in a single day and in totality, the number of pounds you will be carrying, and the intensity of the trails you intend to hike. Then, ask them to create a fitness plan that will get you ready for the actual event.
You should also hike a lot of smaller/shorter trails with a pack on your back as a way to build your hiking endurance. Keep in mind that parts of your thru-hike may take you through very mountainous country at high elevation, where breathing and endurance will be greatly affected, and then plan for that by hiking shorter trails at elevation.
Simply put, the more actual hiking you do, the better prepared you will be—both physically and mentally—when it comes time to set off on your thru-hike.
Unlike shorter backpacking trips through the backcountry, when going on a thru-hike it will be impossible to carry all the food you will need for the whole trip—it would simply be too heavy and would not all fit in a backpack. Instead, you will have to resupply at various pit stops along the thru-hiking route, where prices are not always as cheap as your local grocery store.
Also, unless you are hiking strictly on your vacation, a thru-hike will also take you away from work for weeks or months at a time. And even though you will be away from home, things like rent, utilities and other bills will still need to be paid.
Saving money before your upcoming thru-hike will ensure that you can pay all those expenses up front, instead of having to worry about them on the trail or when you get home.
A heavy pack might be fine when backpacking shorter routes, but when backpacking non-stop for weeks on end that pack will quickly begin to feel like a bag full of bricks. This is why many backpackers turn to ultra-light backpacking, where everything in your pack, from your food to your clothes to your gear, are very lightweight.
The Internet is loaded with articles that will help you lighten your pack when thru-hiking and explain the items you need to bring vs. the non-crucial items that can usually be left behind.
Do Not Overschedule
As a new thru-hiker, you might be tempted to completely map out your schedule, creating documents that will show exactly what area of the trail and what supply post you will be staying at each day and night. This is admirable but, quite frankly, foolish, and once you begin hiking you will know exactly why we say that.
Sure, the first couple of days may go exactly as planned, but there are going to be events and circumstances that slow you down (or, rarely, speed you up). The most noteworthy circumstance is the condition of your body.
If you begin to feel very tired and you push yourself to keep up with some schedule you created, you are bound to get injured. Instead, you should listen to your body and stop for rest along the trail, even if that means your schedule will not be realized.
Phase Two: The Thru-Hike
Now that you have properly planned for your upcoming trek, the day is finally here for you to set off on the trail for your thru-hike.
To help you enjoy the experience and ensure it is successful, here are just a few of the many tips that might help you do just that.
- Carry only what is necessary. When it comes to the food and water you will need for the first phase of your thru-hike, remember to bring only what you need. During this first phase, your body will have yet to adapt to burning more calories, and thus you will probably be able to eat normally. The same goes for the water you will need and the gear you bring. By packing only what is absolutely necessary, your pack will be lighter and your hike will be more enjoyable. Plus, if you ever run out of anything you need, there are always other hikers who are willing to lend a hand to a fellow thru-hiker.
- Take in the scenery. This thru-hike is the trip of a lifetime. And because it is, you should definitely take time to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Some people are so intent on getting to the next phase of the trail that they seldom stop to smell the roses. Do not let that happen to you.
- Talking helps. Talking with fellow hikers along the route is not only a great way to meet new friends and create lasting memories, it also distracts you from the grind of walking for miles and miles in a single day. Be friendly with the other hikers on the trail and they will be friendly to you.
- Create Memories. When walking along the thru-hiking trail, always make time to take pictures. You will no doubt come across some amazing scenery and people, and by taking pictures you can capture all those moments so you can cherish them for years to come.
Phase 3: After the Hike
Finally, once you have completed your thru-hike—tackled perhaps the biggest challenge of your life—chances are you will be feeling a mixture of exhaustion and euphoria. Congratulations, now it’s time to take it all in and get ready to slowly transition back into your normal life.
Once the hike is finished, make sure you take ample time to just rest and refuel. This could take a week or two until your body and mind are fully back to normal.
Be sure to eat well from a nutritional standpoint without gorging yourself. A treat or two is fine, but take advantage of the health benefits the hike afforded you.
Be sure to drink lots of water to get rehydrated, and avoid alcohol at least for a few days.
Transitioning back to your normal life after spending a month or more on a long thru-hiking trail is not always an easy thing to do, so make sure that you take your time and go at your own pace.
Only you will know when you are finally ready to get back to the grind, where you can use the skills you picked up on the trail to your benefit.
The Benefits and Downsides of Thru-Hiking
Now that you have read about the three phases of thru-hiking, let’s take just a minute to review some of the benefits and downsides associated with the activity, starting with the benefits.
Benefits of Thru-Hiking
The benefits of thru-hiking are many. They include things like:
- The scenery. Almost all thru-hiking routes will introduce you to some amazing scenery along the way, and because you are sometimes hiking for many months on end, you will get to see that scenery change with the seasons.
- The people. One of the best aspects of thru-hiking are the people you will meet along the trail and at the many supply pit stops—people that often become lifelong friends and trail partners.
- The challenge. Humans have an innate desire to challenge themselves. Some people surf big waves, while others jump from planes, and some lucky souls get to go on thru-hiking trips—an activity that, when completed, gives you a sense of accomplishment and self-appreciation like no other.
Downsides of Thru-Hiking
Of course, with any challenging and fun activity there are bound to be some downfalls associated with it. Here are just a few:
- The planning. Planning for a thru-hiking trip can actually take as long as the hike itself. This can simply be too much for some.
- Grueling Hikes. Certain portions of thru-hiking trails can be very intense and grueling, especially those in which there are major elevation gains and rocky or slippery terrain.
- The money. When you plan for a thru-hiking trip you will need to save lot of money. It can be difficult or impossible to stay away from work for months at a time, especially for those who live paycheck to paycheck.
Despite the planning that is involved with thru-hiking and the money you will have to spend, not to mention the many grueling miles you will need to walk, the advantages of thru-hiking simply outweigh the downsides, at least for that small percentage of the population that has tackled some of the world’s most coveted trails.