For all the non-skiers/snowboarders, cabin fever means it might be a good time to start planning a spring long-distance hike. There are still nearly two months until the southern end of the Appalachian Trail thaws out, giving you plenty of time to start planning now. Anyone itching to hike the Pacific Crest Trail has until late April/early May before the pressure is on to head north, and for people hoping to do the Continental Divide—are you sure? Just kidding. You have time to plan for that, too.
Deciding what to wear and what to carry can easily become the most confusing part of planning a long distance hike because the options are limitless. Should you wear boots or trail runners? Will you bring maps or guidebooks? Do you want to haul an efficient stove or no stove? Making these decisions is easier if you start by answering two questions: Is cost an issue? Do you prefer a light pack or are you willing to carry more creature comforts? (Some will argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, but finding the balance comes with experience.) These parameters will make decision-making less stressful.
If you’re looking for information about specific items, check out the forum on WhiteBlaze or look through trail journals on the Pacific Crest Trail Association site. People often have strong opinions about what gear is “correct” and what is “wrong,” but successful thru-hikes are completed in all manner of clothing and with a variety of gear. There are no “right” choices, but it is good to have enough gear to cover the myriad of conditions you’re likely to encounter. In the East, this means warm and dry layers for the start of the trail, while in the West it may mean packing a lot of sunscreen and lighter layers for the desert sections.
Long-distance hiking is fraught with logistical obstacles and each trail poses unique challenges. The best way to prepare for your hike is to read about the trail and about the experience of other thru-hikes. This is a quick way to learn from people’s mistakes, as well as from they’re successes. Food drops are a common challenge in any long-distance scenario: find out if there are section of trail where you’ll need to carry a larger supply (like the 100-mile wilderness of the AT) or where hitch-hiking to town is a good solution. If you can find a friend who’s willing to give you hand, leave them with pre-packed boxes of food (and cash for postage). They can ship your food to any post office care of general delivery, which is especially helpful in areas with limited grocery options.
Maps and permits are another consideration. Some trails are so well-marked that a guidebook is more useful than a map. On the other hand, there are sections of the Continental Divide that are either poorly marked or incomplete, which makes carrying a map (and a compass or GPS) critical. Permitting is entirely dependent on the trail and the region’s you’ll be hiking through. Some areas have strict regulations, so be sure to read up on the required documentation before you leave for the trail.
Long distance hiking is hard. It’s physically challenging, and it’s mentally taxing. There are a lot of miserable moments and a lot of repetition. If you’re on the AT, it’s probably going to rain really hard, possibly for weeks on end. If you’re on the CDT, keep an eye out for grizzlies. The mosquitoes will chase you down the trail during the day and whine in your ear at night. The trail will be laced with ankle-twisters, endless ascents, and knee-wrenching descents.
When you get to the top of a mountain, you’ll look out on a sea of other peaks, each as difficult as the one you just climbed, and you’ll know that the trail will take you over as many of these mountains as possible. The key to successful long-distance hikes is desire; above all else, you have to want to finish the trail.