Making the decision to go on your first thru hike is an electrifying feeling. Your experience begins the moment you resolve to hike, and with all of the planning, researching gear, studying logistics, reading books and combing through online forums, it can be overwhelming.
When I set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015, I had spent my free time on short backpacking trips around the southeast. Sure, I learned a lot from those trips, but nothing could quite prepare me for life on trail, like that first month through the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts of southern California.
Fortunately, that first month of my thru hike was a great crash course on what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong, and because you are out there for up to half a year, you have time to make corrections to gear, your plans and your mindset.
Over the course of the trail, you become more of an expert on your hike. You will make a full transformation from the giddy hiker with two headlamps, one for backup, or who couldn’t set their tent up just right or who had not quite mastered the art of trail mac & cheese, resulting in lumps of cheese powder in chalky water with crunchy macaroni. Trust me. But every thru hiker has to start somewhere.
So, to help you prepare for your thru hike or long-distance trek, we’ve made a list of seven things we wish we’d known before our first day on the trail. Hopefully, this list helps you avoid some classic first-timer mistakes.
1. Do not over plan your thru hike
Thru hiking will change you. It will change your body, your perception of the world and it will change all of your plans that you spent months or years preparing. It is easy to over-prepare for a thru hike, and it really takes doing one to learn what balance works best for you. So much is out of your control when it comes to trail, from weather to trail closures to unexpected trail magic to unplanned detours. So stay flexible, and don’t feel defeated when your plans change.
2. Pack out real food
Cheese, avocados, frozen burritos and beer. Somewhere there became a misconception that the only things hikers eat are dehydrated or freeze-dried meals and trail mix. Yes, these are awesome options for low weight, calorie-rich meals, but they can not fulfill hiker hunger quite like real food. Plus, real food will save you money and can be found more readily in towns.
3. Listen to your body
There is no perfect solution to train for life on a thru hike. The best thing you can do is to stay active and healthy leading up to your start date. Once you are on trail, ease into the mileage, and whether it is your first week or final month, keep stretching. Your body will go through a lot of changes in the first month you are out there. Allow your body the time to adjust to walking all day under the weight of a pack. Remember that your hiker legs will come soon enough, and your daily mileage will go up naturally.
It is also important to trust your instincts. No worries if you have trouble doing that at first, you will learn quickly.
And finally, foot care. You will be as happy as your feet are healthy. Do your research on shoes and socks that work for you, and by that I mean do all your training hikes in your shoes and socks. Sure, it is something that can be changed once you are out there, but typically, you will pay the price in blisters and pain. My number one trick for foot treatment in town is soaking your feet in an Epsom salt bath. And my number one trick for foot treatment on trail is to change your socks out every couple of hours and invest in sleep socks. Sleep socks are to be only worn for sleeping; do not hike in your sleep socks. Trust me this a trail luxury.
4. Do not quit your thru hike on a bad day
The thought of quitting is sure to scroll across your mind at least once. This is normal in every way, shape and form. You will experience some really hard days- they are inevitable. However, the most beneficial deal that you can make with yourself before passing the first blaze is that you will not quit on a bad day. It is far too easy to quit when the weather is nasty, the trail is tough or you are down in the dumps. So just don’t do it. Wait for a good day to make a decision. Chances are you will choose to stay on trail, but if you still want to quit on a beautiful day where each bit of trail has a postcard view, then that’s just fine.
5. Talk to other thru hikers
One thing I did not do before starting my first thru hike was talking to previous thru hikers. Thru hikers will be able to give you a proper gear shakedown before you start, so don’t be afraid to ask for one. As well as let you in on some thru hiker hacks like using the sport cap of a SmartWater bottle to backflush your filter, instead of the provided syringe. Even though trail conditions change year to year, a former thru hiker’s advice is priceless. Aside from tips to cut weight in your pack, a thru hiker will be able to ignite your excitement for trail and help to calm down any pre-hike worries.
6. Embrace the change
Again, thru hiking will change you. From the way that you connect with your community to the way, you view the natural world to your relationship with yourself. Trail teaches you about vulnerability and impermanence. While also teaching you about your ability to persevere and your physical capabilities and strength. Trail provides you the place to form relationships with other thru hikers as well as the people supporting the trail in the surrounding communities. Trail will break you down in order to build you back up into something different, and it is important to accept this change by welcoming it and embracing it.
7. Consider post thru hike finances
While considering money for returning home may be obvious to most people, I forgot to save money for after my hike. I spent so much time reading about how much money I would need for each month of hiking, I forgot to consider the money I would need when I got back. After buying my plane ticket home, I only had a five dollar bill in my pocket and rocks in my shoes. There is no perfect formula for how much money it costs to thru hike. Since finances are as subjective, or “hike your own hike”, as thru hiking, it is best to take into consideration your cost of living for a month, to finance for your thru hike. This includes food, shipping resupply boxes, gear and in-town accommodations. A good place to start is $1,000 a month. And do not forget to save at least a month’s worth of living expenses to cushion you when you return to the real world.
Hike Your Own Hike
When it all comes down to it, thru hiking is all about hiking your own hike. And yes, you will hear this so often that you will either want to scream or weep tears of joy in the beauty of it all. But the most toxic thing you can do as a thru hiker is trying to fit your hike into the mold of another. Your daily mileage will not always be the same as her daily mileage. Your zero days, days where you hike zero miles, will not always fall on the days when his zero days are. You may decide to take an on-trail nero, nearly zero miles for the day, at an alpine lake because it is refreshing and just want you wanted. You may decide to take three hitches into Sante Fe, NM to explore an interactive art exhibit that transports you into fantastic realms, and that is okay too.
At the end of it all, your hike is for you. Remember to follow Leave No Trace practices. Be kind to fellow hikers. Be respectful to trail angels and the gateway communities. And hike on.