Thru-hiking is a term used by hikers to refer to traversing a long-distance trail, end-to-end, in a single trip. The long-distance trail can be any distance, really, but the term generally applies to hikes featuring a distance of about 200 miles to thousands of miles.
While thru-hiking can be tough, it can also be one of the best experiences. You will spend months communing with nature, develop lasting friendships on the way, and even build jaw-dropping endurance. In this article, we will help you understand what it takes to be a thru-hiker. We will also show you different tips that can help make your thru-hike more enjoyable.
Focus on Improving Your Physical Fitness Before Getting on the Trail
Success when thru-hiking a long-distance hiking trail usually begins well before you even set your foot on the trail. The activity tends to be a grueling expedition that will end up pushing you to the limits and testing both your body and mind. As such, if you would like to complete your thru-hike, you need to ensure that your body is up for the challenge.
This means that you need to be in an ideal physical condition before embarking on the journey. When training for hiking, you need to keep in mind that some types of fitness will feature more benefits than others. For instance, the most vital fitness types for a thru-hike are endurance training and cardio. The ideal strength training should focus on slightly weighted repetition of legs, core, and motion range exercises.
Invest in Navigation Equipment
While most of the popular thru-hiking trails will be well worn by the time you set your feet on them, some points won’t feature clear paths. If you find yourself in areas that do not feature clear paths, you will have to turn to your navigation gear.
When packing your backpack, do not forget your map and a hiking compass. The ideal map should be topographical, offering plenty of contour grades. If carrying a huge map for the whole trail does not sound like a good idea, you can always consider picking up maps of smaller sections of the trail along the way.
Beyond the maps, ensure you know how to use a compass that is perfectly calibrated and features a variety of orienteering markings. The compass should help you clearly and quickly collect your bearings if you happen to find yourself off-course.
Carry Signaling Devices
While any thru-hiker would like to think that he or she can handle everything that the trail may throw at him/her, the reality is that it is impossible to prepare for every possibility. A loose stone could easily send you and your hiking gear tumbling down the slope, injured and not having the ability to continue with your hike.
While having a first aid kit can help you with dressing the wounds/injuries, you may still need assistance from someone else. Having a smartphone can help you. However, if the desire to disconnect while on the thru-hike forces you to leave the smartphone behind, be sure to carry both an auditory and visual signal. For visual, anything featuring an inch in diameter of the reflective surface should do. An auditory signal can be easily satisfied using a whistle.
Avoiding Hunger and Dehydration
The first thing you will need to do is figure out the kinds of food you need to carry. Once you have this figured out, you will need to determine how you will acquire new food once you get on the trail – obviously, it is impossible to carry months’ worth of food in your hiking backpack.
You shouldn’t focus on carrying too much backpacking food. Food is one of the heavier items and an actual meal could easily occupy too much space. That said, having an ideal way to boost your energy is extremely important – hiking snacks, fruits, nuts, and dried meats should give you the necessary energy boost.
If your thru-hike will take months to complete, you will probably run out of food at some point. When this happens, you will need to have an ideal plan for what to. Options could include – stopping in the nearest town, relying on caches, or eating forage. The last option should only be used in desperate times while the second will require assistance from your social circle. Before you start your hike, balancing all the 3 options should be part of your preparations.
Much like the food decision, you can approach water in a variety of ways. However, the water consideration features much less wiggle room than food. While you can go for days without food, lacking water for days could have a significant effect on your health and in extreme cases, it could kill you.
It does not help that water is one of the heaviest items you may need to carry, so ensuring that you have just the right amount is extremely crucial. A good average that many thru-hikers will swear by is 2 liters/day. However, you should be constantly looking to refill your hydration pack while hiking.
While using water caches or refilling whenever you are in a town is always a good idea, you should consider using backpacking water filters. Armed with the right water filter or chemical purification method, you should be able to avoid issues with water on the hiking trail.
Consider Taking Advantage of Supply Boxes
This will be largely dependent on how willing you are to involve others in your thru-hike as well as the goals you have for the hike. If you are an experienced thru-hiker and you have already completed several thru-hikes, you may want to make your hike more challenging by not using supply boxes. If, however, you are a beginner, supply boxes could be an invaluable resource.
If you have the time, money, and a social circle that is willing to help, supply boxes placed at strategic points on your thru-hike could help make the entire hike more stable, easier, and potentially even more successful.
When making supply boxes, the primary thing you will need to consider is that the boxes should carry the gear you will need at all times but is too bulky (heavy) to carry in large amounts in your backpacking backpack. This will largely include water and food.
Most hikers do prefer to change their hiking shoes, clothes, and hiking socks after a certain number of miles. Supply boxes can make this extremely easy for you.
Take Care of Your Feet
In any thru-hike, your feet will be the most important asset – they are how you will accomplish your goal of finishing the entire trail. An injury to the feet is one of the surest and quickest ways of cutting the thru-hike short.
While investing in the right footwear is extremely important, you should be aware of the circumstances that could cause foot issues. Some of the things you will need to do to keep your feet healthy include:
Keep the Feet Dry
If your feet are not dry, you will be increasing your chances of developing blisters. If you happen to wash your feet, be sure to use a towel to dry them completely before putting your shoes back on.
Your Feet Should Be Exposed to Air
In addition to donning footwear featuring enough breathability, be sure to air out your feet. Aside from reducing the chances of having blisters, this will reduce bacteria buildup.
Clothing and Footwear
Clothing can be bulky and, in most instances, it can weigh more than what is worth carrying. For this reason, you must ensure the thru-hiking clothes you carry or wear offers just what you need and not even a stitch more. Below, we have some tips to help you choose your clothing and footwear:
Since cotton takes forever to dry out and often holds moisture, try to avoid it at all costs. If you have been exploring the outdoors for a while now, you may be familiar with the cotton kills myth. While cotton may not kill you, it will end up killing your comfort. Cotton tends to be wet in most instances – if you are wearing wet clothes on a cold day, you may end up dealing with hypothermia.
Wear Your Clothes in Layers
Wearing your clothes in layers will offer you flexibility. If it is too hot, you can just get rid of some of the layers. If it is too cold, you will just need to add some layers.
Consider Avoiding Boots
Hiking boots are generally heavier than the average hiking shoes. This makes them more ideal for short hiking excursions and less ideal for thru-hikes. Investing in high-quality hiking shoes should help keep the weight on your feet at the bare minimum and still offer enough comfort.
Do Not Forget to Make Sleeping Plans
While it could be obvious to consider the time that you will spend alert on your feet, it may be less obvious to make plans for when the sun goes down. Your odds of completing the thru-hike will increase dramatically if you keep your energy levels as high as possible. Getting enough sleep is one of the most ideal ways of keeping your energy levels high.
When setting out, ensure that you have all the necessary gear to ensure that sleep recharges you fully, body, and mind. Since things like sleeping bags, bedrolls, camping tents, and other gear for setting up a camp can get quite bulky, it is essential that you consider carrying only what you need for a good night’s sleep and then leave the rest behind.
Carry Your Firestarter
The most obvious reasons why you may need to start a fire may not be the most important ones. While you can use the fire for boiling water and cooking, its most important function will be protection.
When thru-hiking, you may have to camp in areas featuring predators. Also, if you decide to join other thru-hikers in the cold months, temperatures at night could get low. In addition to keeping predators and all sorts of animals away, starting a fire will keep you warm.
Q: What is Thru-Hiking?
Simply defined, thru-hiking refers to trekking a long-distance trail, end to end, within 1 season. If you are in the United States, some of the well-known thru-hikes include:
- The Appalachian Trail – Commonly referred to as the AT by most thru-hikers, this trail is approximately 2,200 miles long, stretching from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin.
- The Pacific Crest Trail – Commonly known as the PCT, this hiking trail is 2,659 miles long. Starting at the USA/Mexico border in California’s Campo, the trail goes all the way to British Columbia’s Manning Park on the Canadian/USA border.
- The Continental Divide Trail – Covering more than 3,100 miles, the CDT, runs between Mexico and Canada. The trail takes thru-hikers through New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana.
The above 3 long-haul hiking trails form what is now referred to as the Triple Crown of thru-hiking.
Q: What Do You Need for A Thru-Hike?
What you need for a thru-hike will be largely dependent on the trail itself, the anticipated weather conditions, and the season. For colder climates, you may want to carry thin, buildable clothing layers – thick materials could produce excess sweating, which can make you cold or even lead to hypothermia.
Universal packing requirements will include a backpack, sleeping pad, and a sleeping bag, regardless of whether your goal is to hike in a desert, rainforest, or alpine area. You should have a small first aid kit that includes safety pins, antiseptic ointment, hand sanitizer, bandages, nail scissors, and ibuprofen/acetaminophen. To have a better idea of what you need for your thru-hike, consider checking out our thru-hike gear list for the Appalachian Trail.
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If you have been thinking of involving yourself in a thru-hike, this article should help you with the preparation. In addition to having all the necessary thru-hiking gear, you should spend some time preparing yourself physically.
To avoid carrying too much gear for thousands of miles, consider taking advantage of supply boxes. With supply boxes, you should be able to have all the important gear throughout the hiking trail.
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- Thru-Hiking – Hillwalktours.com