Thru-hiking Basics + Advice
Working at Moosejaw, I meet a lot of cool, outdoorsy people. A few years ago, I was put in touch with a customer of ours named Wolverine who was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail that I had thru-hiked a few years prior. I helped him replace a few pieces of worn out gear and we've kept in touch ever since. Wolverine is an elite hiker with a Triple Crown to his name, 10k+ trail miles under his belt, and he was the first to thru-hike long Michigan trails such as the Great Lake To Lake Trail and the Iron Belle Trail. Basically, he's a living legend. I went on a hike with Wolverine to pick his brain about thru-hiking, so read on for some trail-tested advice.
What is Thru-hiking?
I can tell you it is NOT the ability to actually hike through things.
Planning, training, and more planning.
Thru-hiking is a general term for traversing a long-distance trail end-to-end in one trip. It can be any distance, really, but generally applies to hikes from about 200 miles to a couple thousand miles. When thru-hiking, you don't have all of the supplies required for your whole trip on you at one time; you resupply on the go. To achieve this kind of balance, you need a good deal of research, planning and, well, determination.
"The term 'thru-hiker' can be divisive. Hikers will argue for hours about what constitutes a true, thru-hike. I mostly use it to differentiate thru-hikers from 'section hikers' and 'day hikers'."
Triple Crown trails + 1
2,180 + 2,650 + 3,100 + 4,600 = lots of miles
If you're going to attempt the Triple Crown, it's not a bad idea to start with the AT.
There are a handful of National Scenic Trails in the United States, designated as such by Congress, and protected because of their stunning beauty. Three of these trails in particular (AT, PCT and CDT) are renowned as "The Triple Crown" of thru-hiking.
APPALACHIAN TRAIL (AT) - The AT is a 2,180 mile trail from Georgia to Maine through the Appalachian Mountains. It goes through way too many states to list. I'm no expert on geography, but I'd say it goes through at least 80 states (I'm no expert on estimating, either). It is by far the most popular of the Triple Crown trails, seeing thousands of thru-hiking attempts every year.
PACIFIC CREST TRAIL (PCT) - The PCT is a 2,650 mile trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through California, Oregon and Washington. It goes through the Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Cascade Mountains. The PCT is generally considered the second hardest of the Triple Crown. It doesn't have as many steep grades as the AT, but has long stretches between water and towns.
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL (CDT) - The CDT is a 3,100 mile trail from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. It follows the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains. It is the most difficult of the Triple Crown trails, as it is only about 70% complete, has intimidating terrain and long distances between water sources and resupplies.
NORTH COUNTRY TRAIL (NCT) - The NCT is the longest National Scenic Trail at 4,600 miles. It isn't as popular among thru-hikers as the Triple Crown trails due to its incredibly long distance, stretches of flat terrain, and the fact that it doesn't go border to border. However, it's a great trail and goes through my home state, Michigan.
"Standing at the northern terminus of the CDT at the border with Canada was a defining moment in my life. It was the fall of 2014 and I had just completed the Triple Crown. No better feeling in the world."
Be super nice to the people who (hopefully) will be sending you fresh supplies.
Plan accordingly to pick up supplies in towns near the trail.
Thru-hikes can take months to complete. When I thru-hiked the PCT in '09, it took me 5 months and 1 day. There is no way I could have carried all the food and gear at once. Luckily there are a few ways to go about planning your resupply to make sure you have only what you need when you need it.
POST OFFICE RESUPPLY - This is the cheapest method of resupply, it requires a lot of work and planning before your hike, but then it's the easiest resupply on the trail. The Triple Crown trails all pass by post offices every handful of days. Post offices will hold your packages for 15-30 days, so you'll need a buddy to send them as you hike. This allows you to pop in and out of towns without having to spend time shopping. Here's a breakdown of the benefits and drawbacks.
• Least expensive option, assuming you buy in bulk at cheap prices.
• Good option for dietary restrictions or specialty foods.
• No need to spend time shopping in towns.
• With pre-set boxes, it's easier for your resupply person to send additional gear or food.
• Tons of initial pre-hike planning.
• You have to plan around post office hours.
• If you get sick of your pre-ordered food, you're kinda stuck with it.
• You need a reliable resupply person to mail out your boxes.
• No fresh food.
IN-TOWN RESUPPLY - This is generally the most flexible resupply option. Most towns along the more established trails are ready to handle the dietary needs of thru-hikers. It allows you to shop for whatever your heart desires... which will usually be cake and ice cream. Hard cheeses, hard meats, fruits and veggies. However, from time to time you might come across a poorly stocked store where you have to piece together a resupply with whatever they have left on the shelf.
• Good variety of food.
• Fresh fruit, veggies, meats and cheeses.
• No extra food left at home.
• Supports the businesses that supply the hikers.
• Might not always find exactly what you need.
• Prices could be higher.
• Shopping can take a bit of time.
HYBRID - The best bet is to do a mixture of the two resupply options, mail a good deal of food and supplement it with groceries. That way you're sure to have enough nutrition to get you through, but can still get some fresh foods and the ability to get the specific treats that you crave.
BOUNCE BOX - A bounce box is another way to bring your situational gear along with you, without having to carry it when you don't need it. Fill your bounce box with gear that you'll need at some point in the future, then mail it to an upcoming post office. When you get to that post office, grab the supplies you need (like maps, seam sealer, ice axe, down jacket, etc) and repackage the box and mail it out again. I have an awesome resupply guy (hi Geoff!) so I haven't used a bounce box, but it is an option to keep in mind for some of your on-again-off-again gear.
HIKER BOX - Oh boy oh boy, I love hiker boxes. Think of a hiker box as a Leave A Penny Take A Penny tray, but for food and gear. These will be set up somewhere in most trail towns, either at a trail angel, hotel, hardware store, grocery store or the post office. They are a great place to ditch that food you're sick of and pick up something that looks good. You can also find useful gear like Molefoam, Ziploc bags, or even books. My love of Kurt Vonnegut began after grabbing Cat's Cradle from a hiker box.
"I hike on a shoestring budget so I count on re-supply boxes sent from friends and family to the post office. I supplement that with whatever I can dig out of hiker boxes along the way!"
You'll lose some weight on the trail, but your gear and pack won't.
Only carry the gear you will need for specific sections of the trail.
I'm not going to give you a set number that you need to hit, but just keep in mind that you should go as light as possible without jeopardizing your safety. The lighter your pack, the less strain on your body and less energy your body requires to take each step. This will directly translate to greater miles . I'm not trying to say that getting miles is the most important part of a hike, but the less you have to worry about them, the more relaxed you can be throughout. A lighter pack also correlates to less risk of injury, as you'll have better balance which is critical for tough, rocky terrain and river crossings, not to mention reduced overall wear and tear on your joints.
Most hikers cede a bit of their overall pack weight to a luxury item. You have to stay sane out there, so a touch of comfort can go a long way. It could be a book, second sleeping pad, pillow, music player, or your pet rock. Your overall enjoyment is the key. If your night light is the only thing keeping your base pack weight over 10 pounds, so be it. If you want it that badly, bring it along. But keep in mind, tons of gear is mailed home at the first post offices along many of the major thru-hikes.
"Having the ability to send gear back and forth from home will help lighten your load. Try to carry just the gear you need for that section of trail. You may only need an ice axe for certain portions of a hike; no sense in carrying it the whole way if up don’t have to."
Don't text and hike though.
You'll need to pack a portable power source, or charge your phone in towns along the way.
Your cell phone can be a very important piece of equipment on thru-hikes. Here's a quick list of some of some of its uses:
• Music player
• Uh, making phone calls
• Expensive skipping stone
Cell phone coverage will vary depending on what trail you're hiking and your service provider, so don't count on your cell phone as your only source of navigation. On the Triple Crown trails, you should be able to find a signal at least every few days. The AT has solid coverage throughout, same with the PCT. The CDT is much spottier. Battery life could be an issue as you won't have an electrical outlet to plug it into every night, so as soon as you get into a town, head to the nearest diner and order some juice for your phone. That was a little joke where I compared charging your phone to ordering some juice. You can also bring along portable power to increase your usage time on the trail, which will allow you to utilize your phone for its other functions, like snapping quick photos, kicking out some jams, or calling your mom to let her know you love her and that you need more Swiss Cake Rolls.
"There are apps available now that will show you where you are and where the trail is even when your phone is in 'airplane mode'. Take advantage of modern technology for added safety and enjoyment."
You don't want those paws barking too much out on the trail.
Keep feet as clean and dry as possible, and treat blisters to avoid infection.
Footcare is a complicated issue that I could talk about for days, but here are a few of the basic things you should keep in mind. The first two are things to take into account when planning your hike, the second two are for hiking your plan.
LOW PACK WEIGHT - Step. Step. Step. Step. Etc. That's what you'll be doing. Tons of steps. This is big reason why pack weight is so important. Your feet are going to be tested each and every day. Do your feet a favor and minimize the amount of abuse they take by lightening your load.
BREATHABLE FOOTWEAR - Picking the correct footwear is very important. You'll want something that is lightweight, flexible and breathable. Meshy trail runners will ensure good airflow around your foot, limiting moisture build-up. They'll also allow your feet/socks to dry out quickly after they do get wet (via rain or river crossings). Dry feet are happy feet.
TREAT BLISTERS - Blisters are pretty much unavoidable, unless your feet are 100% callous or if you're a robot or something. If your feet are 100% callous, you can skip this section. If you're a robot, 010011001011. The only time you should lance a blister is if it's going to pop while you're hiking, because you don't want a ruptured blister rubbing against your gross socks and shoes. If it's reached that point, you want to take care of it as sterile-y as possible with a needle and some clean bandages of some sort (duct tape and some gauze). A little Epsom salt in town can go a long way to healing blisters.
ELEVATE FEET AT NIGHT - Your feet will swell during the day due to the constant pounding of thousands and thousands of steps. If you set up your tent at a slight incline, you can position your feet in a raised position which will allow the blood to recede.
"Give some love to your feet every chance you get. Wipe them off with a wet wipe. Look for trouble spots and treat them. An infected blister will take you off the trail and possibly end your hike."
Sound legit. For a thru-hiker anyway.
Thru-hikers have their own set of jargon for a lot of trail stuff. Here are a few that you might hear.
HIKER TRASH - thru-hikers.
TRAIL NAME - Most hikers take on trail names during longer thru-hikes. In fact, people will throw names at you left and right, so be wary. If you trip over a log in front of a group, you might get the name Logtrip. Spill a dehydrated meal, you're now Sir Spills-a-lot. Trail names are often embraced as the sign of a new identity, escaping day-to-day city life.
ZERO - A zero refers to a day with zero trail miles. These days are normally spent in a town, hanging out in a hotel room, at a Trail Angel, or eating ice cream outside a grocery store all day. This is time to heal your body and mind. Let those blisters clear up a little, get some laundry done, and just relax for a change.
NEAR-O - A near-o is a bit like a zero, but with a few trail miles. These usually take place around a town. Hike into a town in the morning, pick up your resupply, stop at the library to send a few emails, then hike out of town at night to avoid spending money on a hotel.
10x10 - Doing a 10x10 means that you put in 10 miles by 10am. In hotter areas, it's a great way to cover a lot of ground before the day really starts to heat up.
TRAIL ANGELS - I can't say enough good things about Trail Angels. A Trail Angel is loosely defined as anybody who helps a hiker. Whether it's offering a free place to spend the night or leaving a cooler of cold drinks along the trail, Trail Angels are refreshing bright spots in any hike.
TRAIL MAGIC - Trail Angels create Trail Magic. It's the term that refers to the great things that Trail Angels do. A hitch into town is Trail Magic. A candy bar from a day hiker is Trail Magic. Pulling a coin from behind somebody's ear is just normal magic, even if it's on the trail.
"Long distance hiking, like any subculture, has its own vernacular. We say things like, 'After I trash-Yogi'd those locals, I was gonna yellow-blaze into town but those Angels let me camp in their yard so I near-o'd there and did my hiker chores.'"
Living like a vagabond ain't cheap.
At the risk of sounding like your mom, stick to a budget.
Cost is a big variable which depends mainly on how many trail towns and hotels are on your itinerary. But just to give you a general idea, the Triple Crown trails will cost you an average of $1-$2 per mile, not counting your initial gear costs. I'll just do a little math for you here, at $1.50 per mile, the AT would cost you $3,270. You can keep that cost down by camping just outside of trail towns instead of staying in hotels, or if you do stay in a hotel, split it with a couple other smelly hikers. If you pre-order a bunch of food at bulk prices and are able to stick to just eating those foods as much as possible, you'll save a bunch of money.
Upon arriving in a trail town, it's tempting to rush right to the nearest restaurant and consume $40 worth of burgers, steaks, salads, beers and desserts, but these costs will add up fast. That's fine if you build those costs into your budget, but should be avoided if funds are tight. So when making your initial budget, be sure to build in a reasonable allowance for food and hotels, because it'll be very hard to completely skimp on these luxuries.
"To save money, stay out of the towns. I love them, too, but they can be hiker-magnets that will distract you from the task at hand: hiking the trail."
Hike Your Own Hike
Hey hands off, that's my hike.
Make sure you're looking out for #1 (that's you, you're #1)
You'll hear this phrase a lot, and it's great advice. Hike your own hike; don't change your hiking habits and goals to match other hikers. Although it can be beneficial to hike with a group or a partner, you should be ready to split off if need be. Mental and physical constraints make every hiker unique. People hike at different paces, have different ideas of how long breaks should last and how many hours to put in each day. So if you're starting the trail with a buddy, it's best to each have your own complete set of gear. Sharing a tent, although good for saving weight, usually isn't good in the long run as it ties you to another hiker. Same goes for sharing resupply boxes.
"I'm surprised by the number of hikers I've met that aren't comfortable navigating, hiking or camping alone. But, if they prefer to hike in a group, fine with me. Hike your own hike!"
Get it in Gear and Get Out There
Now that you have taken steps to prepare mentally, you'll need to physically prepare. The trail can train you, but you gotta give it something to work with. Get out and hike as much as possible before your thru-hike. Fill a pack with increasing amounts of gear and start hiking further and further distances. If you focus mainly on cardio and aerobic workouts, you'll give your body a solid foundation towards building a successful thru-hike.
Learn more about Wolverine or just say hi by visiting HillierHikes.com, or find him in the Michigan Hiking & Backpacking group on Facebook.