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5 Ways To Prepare For A Thru-Hike

So you’ve got a thru-hike planned for this summer and you’re deep into planning. In the cold dark months of winter, hikers dream of alpine lakes and sunshine, but combing through the million pieces of information to get in place before you start your trip can feel daunting. Where do you even start to plan your adventure? Katie Gerber shares five steps to prepping for and completing a thru-hike. She’s backpacked over 5,000 miles, so she knows a thing or two about making a thru-hike successful.

  1. Master Mindset
    • Commit in your heart that you intend to hike the whole trail because thru-hikes don’t just happen accidentally. The mindset of “well, I’ll give it a shot and see what happens” rarely works. I know because that was my mindset when a friend asked me join him on his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail years ago. I figured I’d join him, and who knows, maybe I’d thru-hike. Of course, I didn’t. Compare that with my Pacific Crest Trail hike, where I went in with the mindset of “I will do everything in my power to thru-hike this trail”. And I did. Because I’d been mentally preparing for months. 
    • Know your WHY. To stay motivated over the long haul, you have to have a clear sense of why you’re out there. If you know your why, when the going gets tough (and it will), you’ll find reserves of energy and perseverance you didn’t even know you had.
    • Anticipate challenges and how you will work through them. Know that you’ll miss your loved ones, you’ll be physically & emotionally uncomfortable (frequently), things won’t work out as you planned, and you may be alone more than you’re used to. Be mentally prepared for all of this. But also know that your time spent on your adventure will likely be deeply transformative and nourishing to your soul, so prepare for that too 🙂
    • Focus on the important stuff. Many hikers spend far too much time obsessing over gear, food, weather and other minutiae, and while those things have their importance, it’s physical preparation and mindset that will result in a successful journey.
  1. Complete All the Planning
    • Dial in your budget. Running out of money is one of the top reasons hikers quit long trails. Which is unfortunate because it’s totally preventable. Know your budget. Start saving months in advance.
    • Get the maps you need and know how to navigate. If you’re hiking one of the triple crown trails, the ATC, PCTA, and CDTC are good places to start.
    • Know the skills you’ll need for your chosen adventure and prepare accordingly with classes, practice, and proper gear. Will there be snow travel? Desert travel? Off trail navigation?
    • Learn Leave No Trace ethics and practice them on trail.
    • Make an itinerary and share it with loved ones. You’ll almost certainly stray from it, but it’s good to have a general outline of where you’ll be and when.
    • Talk with someone who has done what you’re planning to do. This can help you spot holes in your preparations and relieve a lot of anxiety. The American Long Distance Hiking Association-West Rucks are a fantastic opportunity for this. You can also read blogs and visit forums, but because here. This can be a total time suck and, remember, everyone will have an opinion, but that doesn’t mean their advice is right for you.
    • Plan, but don’t overplan. Realize that life on trail is no different than life at home and that things happen which you can’t predict. Stay fluid and flexible. One of the greatest gifts of the trail is the self-confidence gained from being adaptable and realizing you can handle whatever comes your way, and that in most cases, it’s not that big of a deal. 
  1. Dial In Your Gear
    • Proper gear is worth the investment. You don’t need the most expensive items available, but you do need to find gear that is durable, functionable, and fits your body. This particularly applies to shoes and your big three (tent, sleeping bag, backpack). Don’t skimp here. You’re walking 10+ hours per day. On my Oregon Desert Trail hike last fall, I wore a pair of TR1 Mesh and a pair of TR1 Junctions. Both were comfortable and durable across a variety of surfaces.
    • Once you’ve got your gear, field test it. Know how to use it. Go on a shakedown hike. You may find there’s something you need that you don’t have. Or, more likely, things you have which you don’t need. Be selective. This will all be carried on your back for mile upon mile, and a heavier pack means more wear and tear on your body.
    • Get a pack shakedown. Find a seasoned hiker to look over your gear. They may see something you don’t, and having an outside opinion can help you evaluate your choices.
    • Choose what’s best for you. Not what works for your hiking buddy or for the guy in the forum. After all, you’ll be the one using it for months.
  1. Plan Your Food and Resupply
    • Food is a highly discussed topic amongst hikers, and rightfully so, as you could be burning 4000+ calories daily. There’s so much information available on choosing and planning food for a thru-hike and ultimately, it’s a highly individual choice.
    • That said, here are a few considerations: Decide whether you want to send resupply boxes or buy along the way or a combination of both. Plan ahead so you know where you can buy in town and where you’ll need to send a box. Focus on eating as clean as you can. You’re putting your body under tremendous strain, so give it the best fuel possible. You’ll be able to hike farther with less illness, injury, and inflammation.
    • Here are a few resources to get you started: How to Eat Healthy on a Thru-hikeFueling a Healthy Adventure on a Budget, and my Resupply Template for the Oregon Desert Trail.
  1. Optimize Your Health Before You Hit the Trail
    • Physical preparation is essential to a smooth transition to full time exercise. You’ll be hiking for 8-12 hours per day. The body is incredibly adaptable, but to avoid injuries, it’s wise to prepare the body for this endeavor.
    • Get as healthy as you can before your hike to build resiliency and to get the most out of your experience. Backpacking can put a tremendous strain on the body and a long hike is incredibly depleting. Illness and injury take hikers off the trail every season. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by getting your health dialed in for a successful adventure.
    • I teach all of this in my 6 week online course Adventure Ready. It’s the ultimate roadmap to optimizing your energy and endurance so you can take on your adventure with confidence and stay healthy to the finish line. We cover mastering your mindset, eating for endless energy, optimizing gut health, preparing yourself physically, hacking sleep to perform better at everything, and managing stress so it doesn’t undermine all your other efforts.

I hope this gave you some ideas and helped fill in gaps in your planning process. Get inspired, get outside, and have a safe and healthy adventure!

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