Tips For The First Time Thru-Hiker
Have you ever thought about getting away from it all and exploring some of the magnificent trails and roads in this big, beautiful world we live in? Imagine how amazing it would be to be “off the grid” for months on end. If you love hiking and you’ve always dreamed of seeing the world at a leisurely pace, then thru-hiking may be for you.
Thru-hiking is simply hiking for an extended period. The average thru-hike lasts for several months, usually from spring to autumn. However, some thru-hikers have extended their travels to an entire year. Some consider thru-hiking to be similar to backpacking, and in many ways it is. The main difference is that thru-hiking focuses on covering great distances in and deciding on reaching a certain point at the end of each day. The main aim is to cover as much distance as possible each day, and moving on to a new destination the next day.
If you’ve ever entertained the idea of thru-hiking, it’s not something you can decide to do at the last minute. A thru-hike takes considerable planning and you need to consider how to finance your trip. If you still want to go on an extended thru-hike, here are 15 tips for first timers that may help you on your way.
1. Planning And Research
Planning a thru-hike can take months, even years. There is so much to contemplate before you even take your first step. Your first decision is to decide where you want to thru-hike. It may be a country abroad or several different countries on a continent like Europe. You may simply want to explore your own country on foot and see as much of it as you possibly can. The choice is entirely your own and will depend as much on time as it will on your disposable income. Once you have decided where you’d like to thru-hike, you’ll need to do your research to find out things like where you can sleep when you’re not hiking, what equipment and supplies you need to pack with you and emergency contact information in case you need help. Don’t think you can just hit the road and see how you go. Thru-hiking can be difficult enough without having a clear plan of what you want to achieve.
2. Expect The Unexpected
Even the best thought out plans can unravel in the blink of an eye and sometimes things change without notice. Be prepared for things to go wrong. You may feel unwell on certain days or the weather could go seriously haywire meaning you need to seek shelter and stay put. You will also face days when you are bored with the scenery, feeling sore and fatigued and you just want to turn home because you miss your family and friends. You may be looking at your finances and they’re looking a little lacking. Perhaps you imagined your thru-hike being this exciting adventure so your expectations may be a little unrealistic. These are all reasons that have sent many a thru-hiker back to the comforts of civilization. If you have realistic expectations for your thru-hike, and you physically and mentally prepare yourself for the journey, you will be more likely to go the distance and complete your thru-hike.
3. Set Your Own Goals
Thru-hiking is a very individual endeavor. The worst thing you can do is plan your trip according to someone else’s itinerary or expectations. Think about what you’d like to achieve and what you’d like to see. Do you plan on walking every step of the way, or will you allow yourself a bus or train ride when you feel time slipping away from you? You, and you alone are the master of your own thru-hike so don’t worry about who did what or who plans on doing things differently. By keeping your plans and goals solely your own, you are more likely to succeed because you are only taking your needs and desires into consideration. You can listen to the advice of family and friends, but take it with a grain of salt and do things your way.
4. It’s Time To Be A Minimalist
Many first-time thru-hikers make the mistake of thinking that if they don’t pack too many things, their backpack won’t weigh them down. Then they end up over packing anyway or didn’t consider the weight of their equipment. Choose lightweight, yet sturdy hiking shoes and when you go to purchase a backpacking backpack, choose the lightest one you can. All of your other necessary equipment should be chosen to minimize the weight of what you need to carry. Also, only pack the absolute essentials. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to wash and dry your hiking pants or hiking gloves so you only need a couple of days’ worth. You’ll also be able to buy a few things as needed which will further eliminate the need to pack to excess.
5. Practice Makes Perfect
A thru-hike is a massive undertaking that will test your endurance both physically and mentally. It’s a good idea to go on a few shorter hikes before you take on what may very well be the hike of your life. Go on a few weekend hikes or even a couple that last a week or two. These will prepare you for life on the road and give you an indication of whether or not this is something you’d like to do for several months. You’ll also start to learn what you do and don’t need to take with you so you will be able to avoid unnecessary weight on your thru-hike.
6. Plan And Track Your Budget
One of the main reasons many first-time thru-hikers bail out early is a depletion of their finances. This is one aspect you will need to plan extremely well. There will be times when you won’t find budget accommodation or you’re sick of trail food and feel like dinner in a restaurant. And you may need to replace some of your equipment along the way and purchase supplies when you run short or run out. You should realistically plan to budget for a few hundred dollars each week. Some weeks you may be able to get away with a lot less, but some weeks may take out huge chunks of your budget. You should also track your spending so you can see where your money is going. This will show you where you may be able to cut down when you need to and hopefully see you with enough funds to complete your thru-hike.
7. Stay In Touch With Home
The road can become very lonely on a thru-hike. There will be times when you will make new friends and share some of the time hiking with them. Other times you may be completely on your own. This is when you’ll really start to miss your family. It’s perfectly normal to feel a little homesick so stay in touch with your family and friends back home. Also, leave a copy with your hiking plans with your family so they know where you are supposed to be at the end of each day. This will be useful information for them to be able to send you care packages, but staying in touch is also important in case you lose contact or become lost. By knowing your last known location and your next expected one, they will have enough information to provide local authorities to track you down. But it’s best to avoid such drama so carry a portable power bank, keep your phone charged at all times and check in with your family often.
8. Avoid Over Buying Provisions
Having enough food and water in your backpack is crucial when you are thru-hiking, but too much can be a heavy burden. Most stores along hiking trails stock basic provisions and most towns you come across will also have a store where you can stock up on a few essentials. Avoid buying more than you need for a few days at a time. For one, you may get sick of eating the same thing for days on end and you also run the risk of some foods spoiling if you have them in your backpack for too long. In some cases, you can purchase your own re-supply packages and send them ahead to your next destinations if you are worried about certain items not being available on the road ahead. Also, there will be days when you want a hot meal so you’ll stop at a restaurant for something freshly cooked.
9. Keep Stretching
Hiking for any length of time can be torturous on your muscles, but when you are thru-hiking for several months your muscles will feel the burn. Make sure you stretch your whole body as often as you can. This is something you should do at the start and end of each day, but also when you stop for a meal or a break during the day. Stretching will keep your muscles from becoming too tight and get out any kinks in your joints.
10. Listen To Your Body’s Signals
You know your own body and the limitations it has. If you are feeling ill, consider this as a signal from your body to rest and recover. The same applies to any pain you may be feeling in your muscles or joints. Some pain is natural, but if the pain is quite strong and comes on unexpectedly, take a day to rest. Prolonged pain will get worse if you keep pushing yourself so listen to your body and rest when you need to. Also, any feelings of illness that last longer than a couple of days should warrant a visit to a doctor.
11. Go At Your Own Pace
Thru-hiking is not a race so don’t feel the need to beat a previous hiker’s record or keep up with hikers ahead of you. Thru-hiking is as much about achieving a goal as it is about enjoying the scenery. You’re going to miss out on a lot of amazing views if you lose your focus and only zoom in on keeping up with others. Take your own time and take in the sights. You’ll have plenty of time to socialize and meet new people when you stop to rest.
12. Take Care Of Your Feet
Your most valuable piece of equipment on a thru-hike are your feet. They will be doing almost all of the work and will take you to all the places on your hiking itinerary. Make sure you take good care of them. Get yourself a couple of pairs of lightweight, yet comfy hiking boots or shoes and alternate them each day so that any sweatiness can dry in between you wearing them so you prevent blisters when hiking. Also, invest in good hiking socks. These are designed to keep your feet warm and dry, thanks to moisture-wicking technology and they are cushioned in all the right places for added support. Whenever you stop to rest, take off your shoes and socks and let your feet breathe. If there is a river or creek nearby, soak your feet in the water for a real treat. Just make sure they are completely dry before you gear up and hit the road again. At the end of each hiking day, treat your feet to a massage and soak in a hot bath whenever possible.
13. Forget The Strict Schedule
Sticking to a strict schedule on a thru-hike is a great accomplishment, but it’s not always possible to plan each and every day of your journey. If you’ve planned your thru-hike properly, you’ll allow yourself a few days here and there to break your schedule. This is super important as you will have days when you need some extra rest or you may decide to stay put due to adverse weather conditions. Or maybe you have just fallen in love with a particular town or hiking trail and you’d like to stay for an extra day or two. Stick to your schedule but also keep it flexible. A thru-hike should be memorable and enjoyable and not a chore you need to endure. If you find yourself falling behind, you can always jump on public transport to get you to your next location a little faster and then continue on as planned. You’re not failing if you do this, you’re just making certain parts of your journey a little easier and more time efficient.
14. Get Fit, Get Strong
You will need to be physically and mentally fit and strong to endure the many months of thru-hiking. You can mentally prepare yourself by taking shorter hikes when possible, but also by carefully planning how you plan on undertaking this amazing adventure. You will also need to prepare yourself physically. You can do this by hitting the gym for a few months before you’re due to begin your thru-hike. Do some cardio workouts to increase your lung capacity and do some high-intensity interval training as well. The other thing you can do is walk. Grab a pair of walking shoes and walk to work, or anywhere you need to go. Try and get some walking done every day, even if it’s just during your lunch break. Get your feet used to the exercise. Talk to experienced thru-hikers and ask them what they did to prepare themselves physically.
15. Don’t Delay
If you’ve truly decided to thru-hike, start making your plans as soon as you can. Don’t put it off for too long. Thru-hiking takes many months of planning and preparation and if you keep telling yourself you’ll start next month or next year, you may never get started. Decide on a definite time frame and start planning. Speak to experienced thru-hikers and ask them how they planned their trip and how long it took them to make all the necessary arrangements. Once you have all the information you need, plan your trip without delay. Procrastination has ended many thru-hikes before they’ve even started.
A thru-hike will invoke every emotion you can think of. You’ll have days when you feel on top of the world, and days when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom. One thing is for certain, you will never feel more alive than you will after spending several months on the road. You’ll explore new places, meet amazing new people and you’ll also grow spiritually and mentally as a person. You’ll discover new things about yourself and when you finally come back to your home, you’ll know you have achieved something phenomenal.
A journey of this magnitude is all about you. It’s your thru-hike, planned and executed your way. You may have a certain route planned and you may even have a date when you want to complete your expedition. That’s all fantastic but don’t be disappointed if somewhere along the way, you miss a certain location or don’t make it to your final destination. What is important is that you set realistic goals and don’t pin your desired achievements exclusively to a timetable.