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How to get ready for thru-hiking

July 07, 2017

A few days ago we introduced the concept of thru-hiking for those who didn’t know much about it and we talked about the difference between thru-hiking and backpacking.

It is very clear that it’s a rather intense and somehow “complicated” kind of experience: it certainly needs lots of prepping under many points of view. Of course, if you are an experienced hiker everything is going to be easier and probably more obvious. However, if you have never thru-hiked before, don’t underestimate what’s coming next.

If you are looking for some thru-hiking advices and suggestions, or if you just want to double check if you have everything right, here are some tips on how to get ready for thru-hiking. It’s going to be both a guide to thru-hiking for beginners and a expert tricks for thru-hikers sort of recap. Let’s start!

Do your research and study

Before even talking about thru-hiking gear, or thru-hiking first aid kits, researching and studying for your thru-hike is the most important thing of all. Indeed, how will you know what you need and what is best for your adventure if you don’t know what it is going to expect you?

To read about the trail general description won’t be enough, nor it will be a good thing to just “go with the flow because I have all the ultimate gear I need". You will just end up in a lot of very uncomfortable situations, not to say dangerous, and more luckily you will have to refrain from your goal at some point.

As crazy and “obvious” as it may sounds, the number of first-time-thu-hikers who don’t prepare enough for their endeavor is just as incredible, and this just compromises the whole intent, even if it’s the simplest one.

As we said, thru-hiking and backpacking are not the same thing, so don’t get ready as if you were about to go on a backpacking experience. The best thing you can do is to scout the internet and bookshops for guides, instructions and directions for both thru-hiking in general and the trail you are getting ready for.

Open you mind and get ready to face all sorts of skills, and logistical and technical challenges. Whether it’s the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), or any other thru-hiking trail, they are all going to request specific abilities. Fortunately, because of their fame, you won’t have an hard time to find good material to study and get ready.

Practice

Whichever new skill you learn, or whatever new gear you buy, practice how to use it or how to accomplish it. Don’t wait until you actually need to do or to use something to understand how it works, or to actually see if you can do it.

Practice, again, and again. Go on long hikes and envision different scenarios, when you are out in the wild and no one and no connection is there to help you. If you decide to go on a thru-hike, you must be independent and 100% ready. This doesn’t mean you’ll have everything under control all the time, but at least you’ll know what your abilities and tools are and you can work with them.

Know you enemies

Another very important thing is to acknowledge the "darkness" you could end up facing. This doesn’t mean to be negative, but to be aware. Indeed, many people set out to complete their adventure, with all the best intentions and even preparation, and yet at some point they quit. So what are the hardest things of a thru-hike? And more importantly: what are the most common reasons for quitting a thru-hike?

1. Unrealistic expectations

Thru-hiking is hard and tough and demanding. And as much as an incredibly romantic adventure as it may sounds, it will put serious pressure on your nerves. It won’t be a movie, it won’t be a book, it won’t be an incredible photo. It will be sweat and dirt and struggle...but the reward is just going to be unbelievable!

2. Poor mental preparation

Strength is nothing without control: have you ever heard of this saying? Well, control is mind. Even the strongest body won’t help if your mind is not ready for this. Exhaustion, hunger, discomfort, bad weather conditions, hard sections and fear will challenge your mind more than anything you can think of, and even the most perfect preparation won’t take those moments away. To be trained not to give up and manage negative feeling is absolutely vital. There are many ways to do that: meditation, mindfulness and yoga are probably the most powerful ones and they can be with you at all times. However, if you look for advices, everyone will have that little suggestion that can initiate the spark!

3. Poor time/money management

Many people simply run out, either of time or money. Here planning is key more than ever. Also, it’s absolutely vital you allow yourself extra time and extra days in case something goes wrong. And while you are on the run, keep track of every single aspect of these two components of your thru-hike: it will help you to understand if everything is working out fine, or if you need to adjust something.

4. Injuries and sickness

This is a bit of a tricky one. If on one side a good preparation and the right thru-hiking gear can help you solve injuries and sickness, as well as good shape, excellent body care, including stretching, and good mastery of one’s own skills, on the other side if you get injured really bad or you get way too sick to keep going, then there’s nothing you can really do to prevent or avoid it. But don’t worry, the trail will be there waiting for you when you get better and you feel ready to try again!

Gear

Okay, we could all see this coming. The right gear for thru-hiking consists of two things: ultralight and ultrauseful items. Efficiency is the number one priority when it comes to gear. No room for any surplus that could slow or weight you down!

Of course your gear and your clothing will vary according to the thru-hike you intend to face, however there are some pieces of gear that really should not be missing from your checklist: a water filter, a bushcraft knife, shades, sunscreen, thermal clothes, a first aid kit and a head lamp.

And then of course an ultralight tent and an ultralight sleeping bag that has a good comfort zone below 32°F. Good thru-hiking shoes are absolutely key to your success: they have to be comfortable and suitable for all weather conditions. They will have to support your tired body for many months and they should never harm your feet with blisters and grazes. All clothes should dry fast and you should be prepared for all sorts of weather.

Last but not least: you backpack. You should be 100% sure of it and you must feel comfortable wearing it. The best thing is to try it our for several times during fairly long hikes before your big adventure, so you can be sure it’s the right one for you.

If it’s your first thru-hike, chances are you will leave lots of unnecessary gear behind after the first few weeks: so be ready to say goodbye to some of your stuff.

Make it a priority

Saving so much time and so much money to go on a thru-hike for several months is not easy. There’s always something you could spend your money on, there’s always something you should be doing instead of practicing, or during your hiking months exactly. You will meet many people that will make you doubt you choice, as well as many events that would require you to postpone your thru-hike in order to seize “that occasion”.

The only thing you can do to avoid procrastinating, both money-wise and time-wise, is to make your thru-hike it a priority. Nothing is more important than your thru-hike and nothing is worth your money more than that. Cut down on expenses and focus all your energies and choices on it. This will actually be the first part of your thru-hike and it’s a great way to train your motivation and your body, besides being a good test to see how ready you are.