Thru Hiking: How To Plan For A Thru Hike
So you want to do a thruhike, eh? Have you been bringing thruhiking up for years, telling anyone who will listen that someday you want to do a thruhike? Or have you been hiding the desire deep down in the folds of your soul, barely letting yourself believe that you want to thruhike? Either way let’s stop saying you WANT to thruhike and start saying you’re GOING to thruhike. You’re GOING to do a thruhike! Wow, congratulations, that’s awesome!
You might have your eyes set on the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian trail, or perhaps something a little shorter like the Colorado Trail or the Florida Trail. No matter which thruhike you’re planning on doing it is a huge undertaking and there are a couple of major questions that people usually ask: How do I prepare for a thuhike and how do I afford a thruhike? Does this sound like you? Well, today I am here to share my knowledge with you and hopefully you will walk away (and maybe right onto a trail) with some simple steps that can get you started.
Let’s kick this off with how one prepares for a thruhike, shall we?
So step one: research.
There is so much information out there about all of the major thruhikes. There are books written on each trail, blogs that chronicle the day to day, talks happening at a local gear shop near you, and thousands of thruhikers who have gone where you are planning to go - ready and willing to share their experiences. My favorite place to start is always with a published book (or three) but don’t stop there! Dive in and just let all the information about your trail of choice wash over you. Don’t stress out about what you’re going to do yet. Instead just soak in what other people have done. Embody a sponge and just sop it all up.
Step two: plan.
By now you have let the communal thruhiker knowledge sink into your bones. You could recite the most popular backpacks on trail and the most famous trail towns. You know five different techniques for dealing with blisters. You know what permits you need and how to pick a start date. Stoke is very high. It is time to start planning. Ah, planning, one of my favorite words in the english language but I tend to be in the minority. Odds are planning stresses you out. I understand and I am here to help you through that stress. Remember, you have been researching and absorbing trail information for weeks, maybe months. You are ready for this! It is okay to create a plan using whatever method works best for you. Maybe your style of planning involves scribbling notes on scraps of paper and letting them float around you car. More power to you. Maybe it looks like obsessively organized and color coded spreadsheets (where my google doc addicts at?!). That’s also great! It doesn’t matter how your brain organizes best - it only matters that you begin to gather your knowledge into a format that will help you be successful on trail.
The following is the bare minimum you probably need to think about before embarking: your gear list, a basic outline of your hike with important dates highlighted, and a simple budget. If you like planning feel free to add in creating a blog, compiling food drops ahead of time, making dehydrated meals and familiarizing yourself with hiking apps and maps you will use on trail! At either end of the spectrum the most important thing to remember is your plan will definitely change. So stay flexible and keep an open mind. One of the beautiful things about thruhiking is that it is an adventure and inherently unpredictable. Since everyone will need to at least start with a very simple plan let’s touch on the components of the bare minimum.
-The gear list. You are about to embark on a journey where you own very few material items. Every single one of those items will have a purpose and many of them will keep you alive. You do not need the newest technology or the lightest gear to successfully thruhike but you do need to think carefully about what you put in your backpack. So make a gear list, including what you already have and what you still need.
-The outline. One of the top reasons people don’t finish their thruhikes is timing. Many people don’t think big picture about their hiking speed and their goals and they don’t realize they are off schedule until it is too late. The saying, “Last one to *insert end of trail here* wins” isn’t always true. Sometimes being the last one means you don’t finish. And that’s okay! If it is more important to you to be a wanderlusting tumbleweed - just following your bliss on trail - that is awesome. But if you want to be a thruhiker and finish an entire long trail in one calendar year you are going to have to think about timing. So make a basic outline. When you do need to apply for permits? When do you need to start? When should you be hitting certain landmarks? When would you like to finish? Crunch a couple numbers, figure out some average miles, and consider if this will work for you. And then hold onto it loosely because, like I said above, it is possible everything will change when you get out onto trail. Regardless, starting with some basic goals in mind and understanding your general timeframe will set you up for success.
The budget. In the second half of this article I am going to talk soley about how to afford a thruhike so I will save most of my budget talk, but just a quick note on it. You do not have to have a ton of money in order to thruhike, in fact you can do it on a shoestring budget. But if you don’t understand how to use that shoestring budget you will find yourself on trail with zero dollars in your bank account. Come up with a simple budget! How many months do you plan to be on trail (be generous now)? How much money do you have? How many dollars do you have to spend each month? During your research you will have come across all sorts of ways to calculate how expensive your thruhike will be. Reach deep into your brain and find that information again. Use it.
Step three: practice.
You have done the research, you have made something resembling a plan, now practice! So many people skip this step but it is perhaps the most valuable part of the process. You have been listening to a million different people give you advice and it is finally time to reclaim autonomy over your thought process and decide what YOU think. Gather all your gear and all your knowledge and go for a shakedown overnight hike. Actually set your new tent up for the first time, walk twelve miles in trail runners, discover that you do not, infact, like the backpack your neighbor was going to let you borrow, and taste freeze dried food for the first time. When you return home it will be with your own, well-formed opinions. When you get back to the trailhead after your successful shakedown hike give yourself a pat on the back - thruhiking is just a compilation of overnights, like the one you just did.
A couple of final pieces of advice... Many people want to know what kind of shape you need to be in to start a thruhike. My answer always is: don’t sweat it. I mean, if you’re not in great shape you will definitely be “sweating it” but that’s okay. Obviously training for a thruhike is a solid idea, it will make your life easier at the beginning of the hike. But it isn’t necessary. The bottom line is you’re out there to walk at your pace. Your pace will change over time as you get fitter. So don’t let fears about your fitness levels stop you from thruhiking - get out there and start putting one foot in front of the other. The rest will fall into place. Second piece of advice - respect the organizations and volunteers who put in hours upon hours of hard work to protect these trails and respect the land you’re walking on. Use good “Leave No Trace” principles, get a permit and start on your start date if one is required, educate yourself on the rules and regulations that protect these lands and make it possible for us to access them. Also, educate yourself on the history of the land you are walking on - public land did not just appear out of thin air. Many of the lands we now have access to are ancestral lands for Native Americans. Knowing this history can give you a much deeper understanding of the struggle and truth behind our public lands and teach you how to honor them. It is not our right to thruhike, it is our privilege. Building off the theme of thruhiking being a privilege let’s talk about money. Being able to quit your job (or take a leave of absence), save enough money and leave society behind is also privilege. It is important to remember that not everyone has the opportunity or the resources to make it happen. However, if you think you might be able to swing a thruhike but are feeling nervous about the monetary aspect of it I am here with some key things to consider and a process to help you determine if a thruhike is realistic for you or not.
Again the first step is to do your research. How can you decide if a thruhike is feasible if you do not know what it will cost? There are tons of people out there with different calculations on how much a thruhike will cost but the general consensus is, at the bare minimum, around $2 a mile or around $1,200 a month. Read, listen and absorb as much as you can to learn how people stretch their money, what people spend money on and the variety of experiences out there. Once you have done your research you can start the second step which is the same as above: plan. Actually creating a spreadsheet for your budget is a good idea (even if you don’t like them). First, you need to project how much money you will need for your thruhike. Take everything you have learned and personalize it. What special circumstances do you have? Do you have student loans or car payments or house payment? Do you need to pay for health insurance? Will travel to the trail be extra expensive for you because you live far away? What kind of emergency funds do you want to have available on trail? How many pairs of shoes do you think you will go through? Once you have an idea of what the trail will cost you (and make sure you overestimate the cost to give yourself wiggle room) then you can begin to think about the second step: how to save for a thruhike.
Saving for a thruhike can take a couple months or it can take years depending on the plan that you come up with and the resources available to you. The simplest equation: How much money do you make a month - how much money do you spend a month = how much money you can set aside for the trail. When you have determined that monthly amount you can divide the total amount needed by how much you can save monthly and that should tell you how many months ahead of your thruhike you will need to start saving.
Then the saving process begins. It is completely up to you how dedicated you are about saving money for a thruhike. Maybe your thruhike is still a couple years out so you are only putting a couple bucks a month into savings - figuring you will do the heavy lifting closer to the actual hike. Or maybe you have decided you want to hike next year and you are cutting out all extraneous spending and focusing completely on your thruhike. This is your choice. The thruhike isn’t going anywhere but when you do choose to commit, commit. For both of our thruhikes we saved all the money we needed in the six months leading up to the hike. That involved some very serious self control. We took advantage of our family’s kindness, found free (if often inconvenient) living situations and cut out everything that wasn’t thruhike related from our lives (no new clothes, no nights out, no winter activities, no trips). We also both worked two jobs. That’s how we save for a thruhike but that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. With some good, long term planning, your thruhike could have a much milder effect on your day-to-day life.
Once you have saved the money your goal is to stick your original budget! It is a good idea to make sure you save more money than you will need for the trail, giving yourself something to work with when you get back home. Do NOT go into credit card debt to stay on trail. When you finish the trail life is going to be hard enough, you will be dealing with serious culture shock and probably job searching. Going into debt on trail will make your life that much more challenging. Get off trail before you are flat broke and come back to finish it another year.
The trail is not an elitist activity. For everything on trail that is expensive there is a cheaper alternative. Can’t afford to stay at hotels? Check out a hostel instead! Or do your laundry and grocery shopping in town and then hitch back to the trail and sleep in your tent just like every other night. Can’t afford expensive gear? Buy used gear, ask for gear for your birthday, and don’t worry about needing the newest, lightest option. In the end, if you don’t have the money to thruhike the way you want to then push your hike back another year and save more. The trail isn’t going anywhere. Making sure you’re ready to start will set you up for success.
In the end the set of steps that work for me, whether I’m budgeting, planning my gear or organizing my food drops is to research first, plan second and put into practice third. If you are staring into the abyss of thruhiking and have no idea where to start hopefully this process will giving you a beginning. Remember, the first steps of your thruhike aren’t on Springer Mountain or on the border of Mexico. You take those first steps months or years ahead of time when you first conceive of the idea, first commit to the trek. So don’t be nervous for your first moments on trail, by the time you get there you will be ready for it.