How to Plan for a Thru-Hike

how-to-plan-a-backpacking-tripFor 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.