Thru Hiking 101
A thru-hike refers to a long-distance journey on a hiking trail that spans the entire length of a trail from one end to the other, typically covering hundreds or even thousands of miles in a single continuous trek.
Thousands of people embark on a thru hike every season, but typically less than half will complete their goal - but why?
It’s easy to plan the mileage on your thru hike when you’re sitting in your air conditioned house, well fed and well slept with the stoke level high! Fast forward to being on trail craving town food and not sleeping well for three nights while hiking in pouring rain for the last 5 hours and the stoke level is muuuuch lower than before.
I know this because I’ve been there!
The very first day of my very first thru hike went a little like this...
I woke up super early, got dehydrated, ran from an evening thunderstorm, overextended myself by hiking 21 miles with 8.5 days of food + a bear can on my back, got altitude sick and couldn’t eat dinner to replace all the calories I burned during the day.
I remember laying in my tent wondering how the heck I was suppose to do 13 more days in this condition!
13 days later I crossed the finish of a Northbound John Muir Trail thru hike in Yosemite. Since that day I’ve went on to complete the Colorado, Uinta Highline, Timberline and Loowit Trails.
In 2024 I plan to tackle the 273 - mile Long Trail. The Long Trail travels the full length of Vermont and is actually the oldest thru hike in the United States!
I don’t want this to happen to you, so I compiled a list of things that will certainly propel you to the end of your first thru hike!
Why are you going on this journey?
What happens if you don’t complete this?
What happens if you do complete it?
- Chad Lubinski -
Start with Why
This is one of the most critical tips people often miss.
Consider answering these 3 questions weeks before hitting the trail. I like to put them in bullet point format on the Notes app of my phone; they’ve helped me through some extremely tough situations and I was extremely grateful to have them easily accessible.
2.Train for It
A common adage among thru hikers is that “The trail will get you into shape.” While this may be true if you're doing the Pacific Crest Trail where you're going to be hiking for five to six months, for smaller thru hikes this is bad advice.
Take the John Muir Trail for example: you're going from couch to a moon landscape at 11,000ft after buying a plane ticket - you can only imagine what that will do to your body! A lot of people think that injuries occur on trail because of blind misfortune - they got unlucky, they twisted an ankle, they busted a knee. I’m here to tell you we need to take responsibility for preventing injuries like this from happening by training beforehand!
My favorite exercises before a thru hike are a mix of Controlled Articular Rotations for my joints, strength training twice a week and trail running.
A note on trail running: this is one of my favorite forms of exercise for a thru hike because of how much less time it takes to complete than hiking the same trail. I can run 15 miles on a trail several hours faster than hiking it, allowing me to do other things with my day instead of spending it all on training.
3. Consider Trail runners
The trail running shoes vs boots debate will likely never end, but just remember this: every pound on your foot equals 5 pounds on your back!
Once I switched from boots to trail runners I never looked back. They dry faster, lighter, reduce blisters and are just way more comfortable to wear for long periods of time in my opinion.
4. Reduce Your Baseweight
There’s a ton of resources online that can help you pick the correct gear to lighten your pack. As a general rule of thumb, your “Big 3” (tent, sleeping bag, backpack) should be less than 3 pounds each (sub 2 pounds even better!).
You don’t have to go full bore ultralight, but lightening your overall pack weight by even 2 pounds will make a noticeable difference to you and your joints! This can be done with small swaps like using TANRI’s small refillable sunscreen spray bottle instead of the full size, reducing the amount of clothing you bring, and even considering wearing trail runners instead of heavy hiking boots.
5. Download Far Out Guides
This is a critical app that almost every thru hiker uses when they start their hike. Not only will it help you navigate on trail, but it also contains important waypoints such as water sources and tent sites. In addition, it contains other users' comments about these waypoints so you’ll know ahead of time if a certain water source is still running or how good a specific camping site is! Highly, highly recommend.
6. Complete a Shakedown Hike
A shakedown hike involves simulating your future thru-hike conditions, helping you identify what works and what doesn't. These hikes can be as short as an overnighter or up to a few days in length. Shakedown hikes help you fine-tune your gear and gain confidence what you’re choosing to bring on your big thru hike. By experimenting with your gear during these hikes, you can eliminate redundancies and reduce your baseweight.
Moreover, shakedown hikes enable you to perfect your food system, ensuring you're consuming the right amount of calories for your exertion level and getting rid of food you don’t agree with.
7. Start with 100 Miles
Before dipping your toes into a giant thru hike, consider hiking 100 miles first. Not only will this act as a shakedown hike on steroids, but it will also show you if you actually like thru hiking or if you just like the idea of it. Think of it way to bridge the gap between the romantic idea of thru hiking and the practical realities of life on the trail.
8. Pick a Trail that Inpires You
When planning your first thru hike, it’s imperative that you like the environment you’re going to be in for weeks on end. For example, if you love the wide open vistas of the High Desert, hiking the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail might get tiring very quickly for you, ultimately sending you home early. Conversely, anticipating the next gorgeous view on a trail you like can keep your head in the game for a long time!
9. Consider Going Solo
Ok, hear me out - most of the popular through hikes in the US will have copious amounts of people on them. Technically you’d be hiking it by yourself, but since there’s so many people around you, it would be hard to call it a true solo hike.
People on thru hikes commonly form “tramalies” or trail families. HIking a trail solo allows you to be unencumbered to meet other people on trail and get to know them, rather than only hiking with your partner. These connections can boost morale, provide valuable insights, and create lasting friendships. Remember to take pictures of everyone too!
I also enjoy this style because I don’t feel “married” to anyone on trail. In other words, I don’t feel the need to get off trail because someone I met on there had to for whatever reason, or slow down/speed up for them when we’re hiking together.
10. Embrace the Mental Challenge
Thru-hiking is not just a physical challenge; it's a mental one as well. Be prepared for moments of doubt, homesickness, and fatigue. Know in the back of your mind that these feelings will pass and that there’s always more good days than bad days on trail. Review your list of “Why’s” you wrote in tip #1 and also know that one of the reasons you probably wanted to thru hike in the first place was to escape the mundane existence of daily life!
Tip: Approach your thru hike mileage in chunks; never look at it in it’s entirety because it will become too overwhelming. Instead, viewing a 500 mile thru hike as a series of 20 mile chunks can help you mentally tackle the distance. This approach triggers small hits of dopamine with each milestone, keeping you motivated to push forward.
Extra Tip: I’ve found that the trail has a serendipitous nature to it. Whenever something isn’t going right for me, the trail usually provides a pick me up not long after…just keep going!
Okay one more tip: Beware of town stops! One of the most common places I see thru hikers quit is when they get comfortable again after a resupply in town. I never hang in town for too long because I can feel that comfort creeping in!
11. Throw Plans Out the Window
If it’s a short enough thru hike, I like to create a rough itinerary of where I want to be each night. As you may have guessed though, things can go awry when your shoes actually hit the trail. Maybe you’re experiencing a nagging injury, a bridge is out, or you want to spend an extra night in town with the people you met - embrace this as part of the journey and don’t get too caught up in your plans.
Completing your first thru hike will give you a feeling like no other. It will create a launch pad for bigger adventures, more confidence in yourself, and intense gratitude for “real life” comforts when you return home! I hope this list helps you as you tackle hiking for days on end.
So….what thru hike are you planning to do?