How to Plan For a Thru-Hike
From Planning to Packing
Deciding to attempt a thru-hike of one of the three long-distance trails in the United States is a big decision,
but getting prepared to start the hike can seem like an equally daunting series of tasks.
Between the gear, the maps, the planning, and creating a budget, it’s hard to know where to start. Here's a breakdown of the biggest decisions, and a reminder that –
when you really dig into the concept – all you're doing is walking a long distance. It's not a lunar exploration.
- Appalachian Trail: Springer Mtn, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. 2,189 miles along the Appalachian Mountain range and the eastern United States.
- Continental Divide Trail: Antelope Wells, New Mexico to Glacier National Park, Montana. Travels from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada through the Rockies – 3,100 miles.
- Pacific Crest Trail: Campo, California to Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada. 2,660 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains.
The first decision is when to start. This choice can be informed by a number of factors, including the length of time you have available and the logistics of the trail you've chosen.
Find out when the trailheads for the trail are open and what seasons are most friendly for hikers. For example, Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT),
has a strict window of availability that closes in October. If you don't make it there on time, you don’t get to finish your hike. The second part of the decision is to choose a direction –
are you going to hike north or south? For the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), it's common to hike northbound. The AT is doable in either direction, but it’s more popular northbound.
Once you've decided on your dates, it's time to figure out what you’ll be carrying.
For every piece of gear you consider buying, there are countless options from which to choose.
Luckily, there's no such thing as the perfect setup, despite what some hikers will try to tell you. Every decision comes down to a very basic ratio: weight versus comfort (plus price).
You can choose to go lightweight, which means considering every ounce of every piece of gear, or you can look for items that provide a mix of comfort and performance (and that, ideally, don’t break the bank).
Here are some tips for what to look for when considering lightweight, standard gear in each of the major categories.
The actual pieces of clothing don’t matter too much. You want to be sure you have the right clothes for the time of year and the probable weather conditions.
This includes t-shirts, pants or shorts, long underwear, long-sleeve shirt, rain jacket, puffy jacket, rain pants, underwear, socks.
A wind jacket can be nice, especially during the spring and summer. If you're looking to go lightweight, leave out some of the heavier layers and invest in pieces that serve dual purposes.
For example, skip the rain pants and long-sleeve shirt and invest in a lightweight jacket that will work in a variety of seasons.
It’s easy to stop at a post office and send gear home as the seasons change and the use of pieces dwindles.
Tent vs. Tarp
Tent: Usually a tent consists of a body (which is the inner part and is often partially constructed of bug netting), and a fly (which keeps out the rain), and a set of poles (which give the tent its shape).
What to look for: A three-season, one-person tent will work well on any thru-hike. Look for the lighter weight options, which are designed for backpacking and will be easier on your back.
Spending a little extra money on a tent is generally a good investment as the pricier options hold up better in the rain and are made of lighter material.
Tarps: Most tarps are a rectangular piece of high-tech, lightweight fabric that can be strung between trees or a pair of trekking poles.
What to look for: If you're going to buy a tarp, invest in one that's made of a high-quality, lightweight material, like Hyperlite Mountain’s Echo.
These tarps are designed to withstand heavy winds and rain. Ideally, your tarp will set up with trekking poles, which eliminates some of the challenges of finding nearby trees to which to tie your shelter.
If you’re on a budget, a traditional blue tarp will work, but be sure to reinforce the grommets so they don’t pull out during a windstorm.
Backpack choice can be contentious. Although there are a lot of options, it’s often difficult to tell which components matter and which ones are trivial.
As with all gear, there is a clear division between packs that are stripped down to work well in a lightweight set-up and those that retain more of their structural elements.
If you're pursuing lightweight options, look for a pack that will hold all of your items, but doesn't have a very elaborate frame.
Avoid packs with a lot of pockets and buckles, which add unnecessary weight. If weight isn’t your primary concern, search for a pack that fits comfortably and which is just a little larger than you think you'll need.
Successful thru-hikers use a wide range of pack sizes – everywhere from 30L to 85L packs – so don't fret about whether you made the correct decision; the only person it has to work for is you.
The classic image of a hiker is someone decked out in over-the-ankle leather boots tramping through the mountains.
While this type of footwear works well for many people, the variety of useful trail shoes has grown exponentially in the past few decades.
It’s another choice that people can have strong opinions about, but it boils down to what works best for your feet.
If you have weak ankles and don't trust your feet in a low-profile shoe, then look for a solid boot.
Lightweight does have its benefits when it comes to footwear – heavier shoes simply require more energy to move.
If you're interested in testing out something other than a boot, there are a lot of different options.
Some thru-hikers like to wear trail runners, which are a lightweight shoe with an aggressive tread, sort of like a bulked-up running shoe.
These won't last for the whole trail, in fact most people have to replace lighter shoes every 400 miles, which means the cost can add up.
Another lightweight option with a lot of traction is an approach shoe.
Both FiveTen and La Sportiva make lightweight shoes with a tread made of climbing shoe rubber, which makes it easy to grip uneven and wet rocks.
Some people opt to hike in minimalist shoes, like the Vibram FiveFingers, while a few hardy hikers go shoeless for the entirety of the trail.
Once you have your gear all sorted, the rest is pretty straightforward.
Invest in the trail’s maps or a comprehensive guidebook, both of which will show where public shelters are available and how to get to the nearest towns for resupplies.
The last step is to prepare yourself for the mental challenges of the hike.
The one consistent piece of advice on the AT is to hike your own hike, which means doing it the way that fits you best.
But you have to want to do it, no matter how hard it gets. Then it's as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, day after day.