Physical and mental preparations that will boost your fortitude on trail
Note for 2022: While the specific experiences described come from the Appalacian Trail, we share it here because it is worth considering for long-distance tramping in New Zealand as well.
Roughly ten thousand people will start one of the three major long trails of North America each year with the goal of walking them end to end. These potential thru-hikers question everything from gear and cost to hygiene, fitness, and mental wellbeing.
After successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I came to realize a number of things that may help future thru-hikers better prepare themselves for the trails ahead. Although the trail is a massive physical challenge, if a hiker can make it through the first month, the majority of the physical challenge will have subsided. The mental challenges, on the other hand, only grow as your time on the trail increases. Both are addressed in this article, and at the end of this article, there is a bonus video reviewing the gear I used on the trail.
A common question posed by potential thru-hikes regards the importance of physical preparation. This question comes in two main forms: 1. does physical preparation matter once I hit the trail, and 2. how much backpacking experience should I have before attempting a thru-hike? The short answer is that yes, preparation matters, but people still sometimes manage to go from inexperienced couch potato to successful thru-hiker. Just don’t expect that approach to have a high probability of success.
Being physically fit prior to a major physical activity would be taken for granted in nearly every other domain: running, mountaineering, triathlons, you name it. However, there is more reason for training than a drive to beat the competition, being physically fit also reduces the chance of injury. It does so by increasing endurance, which helps prevent fatigue-based injuries, as well as making our movements more efficient and accurate. Anything which reduces strain while walking up mountains on a hot day is a good thing!
Many thru-hikers will confirm that the best training for long-distance hiking is, in fact, long-distance hiking. Sometimes this is said with an air of resignation and leads people to essentially fly by the seat of their pants on trail.
Instead, I would argue that you should do the next best thing: hike as much as you can, then supplement with gym training which targets the muscle groups most used while backpacking. The stair stepper was my gym-machine of choice, but I also focused on my core, knee-stabilizing muscles, ankle stabilizers, and the trapezius to give more padding where my pack would rest.
Finally, get out and practice. Test your gear, test your endurance, and test your mental fortitude. I’m not suggesting you should test yourself, then upon finding your limit, subsequently give up. Simply know where those limits exist, such as how far you can walk in a day or how little it takes to be comfortable in the woods. And please, know how to set up your tent before hitting the trail — or don’t, someone has to be the butt of the jokes each year!
The primary mental preparations you should make prior to the trail, other than gaining trail experience, are really just a matter of perspective. They generally fall into two categories: 1, setting expectations, and 2. how to keep going on the hard days. Let’s start with expectations, including debunking some misconceptions about the trail as well as goal setting and planning for your thru-hike.
Misconceptions. Setting expectations is difficult with a trail that is awash in romantic ideals, escapism, and people with a range of ability and fitness levels all sharing the trail. But what really caught me off guard was the abundance of misconceptions, or even misinformation, regarding specific sections of trail. These examples are from my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, but I’m sure you will find similarities with rumors from the other long trails.
Many claim that Virginia is flat and Pennsylvania is full of rocks. If you, like so many thru-hikers, reach Virginia expecting smooth sailing you will be sorely mistaken. Virginia is where I can remember the PUDs (pointless ups and downs) really setting in. That being said, the Virginia Triple Crown is far from pointless, it’s actually quite beautiful. The same can be said for the Grayson Highlands. But just wait until you get to the Virginia Roller Coaster, you will be cursing everyone who told you Virginia was flat!
As for the rocks, yes Pennsylvania has them aplenty; however, the rocks actually started back in Virginia. Then, once you are past Pennsylvania, you realize that it was all just a prelude to bigger and more difficult rocks that come with each additional northern state. Don’t get to the end of Pennsylvania and think your days of stubbed toes and rolled ankles are over.
By the time you reach the White Mountains, you will have heard countless times how expensive this section is and how you will only be able to stay in the huts if you do work-for-stay. While this is an option, it turns out that the Whites can be completed for little more than $25, as opposed to the $100/night the huts generally charge. There is some really interesting history here surrounding Earl Shaffer, the first thru-hiker, which I detail more in the book.
The other conceptual concern worth addressing is about the Appalachian Trail more broadly. Because the AT follows low-elevation mountains, the oldest range on the planet, it stays mostly below the tree line. The result is what thru-hikers refer to as ‘the green tunnel’, which you may be walking in for days before coming out of it for a view.
Don’t get me wrong, the AT has stunning vistas and a wonderful array of both flora and fauna; but, somewhere around the thousand-mile mark you are probably going to get a bit tired of the green tunnel.
Not to worry, you will have realized by this time one of the AT’s greatest strengths — the community. Given that it is the oldest long-distance trail in the US, trail communities and trail angels are abundant, and the ‘bubble’ of thru-hikers that start in the south between March and April leads to one of the richest social experiences the outdoors can offer.
Planning and conceptualizing. Thru-hiking takes a long time, but there is a much better way to think of the trail than all at once. Every long trail is broken up into wilderness sections and resupply locations, anything from a trail town or city down to a backwoods convenience store. When you only need to plan out the next few days, the equivalent of a long weekend trip, the challenge seems much smaller.
This is a common approach to handling large goals — break it up into smaller, more manageable pieces. In this way, a trail like the AT can be thought of as a series of town hopping hikes. Don’t worry, Katahdin/Springer will come before you know it — no reason to concern yourself with such a monumental task every day.
Likewise, planning too far ahead is probably detrimental most of the time. Many people like to post food boxes ahead to themselves because they expect it will make things easier. What actually ends up happening is that they either 1. send too much, or a bunch of food they liked pre-trail before their tastes change or, 2. they post it somewhere that holds hours non-conducive to thru-hiking’s variable schedule.
Sure, you can make this work; in fact, while I never sent myself food, I did get gear replacements by mail from time to time. However, the few times I did, it was almost always a hassle and I was happy to not need to do it more. If you do want to ship anything ahead, it’s probably best to send it to a hostel where you will be staying rather than a post office or other business that holds standard hours.
I would also caution against doing too much planning in any sense, odd as that sounds. The most freeing aspect of thru-hiking, in my opinion, is being completely on your own schedule and free to change plans at a moment’s notice.
I almost never planned further ahead than one, maybe two, resupply locations at most. Don’t waste time pre-trail deciding when you will be where, that will very likely fall apart immediately when the reality of trail life sets in. I’m not saying don’t prepare. I’m saying that you should let yourself let go — enjoy the freedom. For the other long trails, I would suggest doing this to the extent it’s possible.
Are you willing to tolerate the hardships of long-distance hiking? Even though thru-hiking America’s long trails is technically a walk in the park, it isn’t a cakewalk. The first month or so will probably be one of the most easy-going, exciting, and carefree times of your life. After the trail loses its novelty, often referred to as the Virginia blues because it happens around there for northbounders on the AT, you should be prepared to deal with at least three more months of relatively monotonous walking and increasingly difficult trail conditions.
I don’t want to give the impression here that the trail is boring or lacks beauty, but if you’re planning on constant vistas and skipping through fields of flowers, you might want to walk a different trail. Mentally preparing for this situation will give you a higher chance of completing your thru-hike successfully.
Ask yourself, what will you do when the shit inevitably hits the fan? The challenges of the early states primarily include overuse injuries as your body learns what you plan to put it through. Strained joints, pulled muscles, blisters, and painful chafing in your sensitive areas are common features of the first month. These can all be prevented or avoided with appropriate restraint on daily distances and quickly addressing any issues that arise. The vast majority of my zero-days (completing no trail miles) were taken in the first quarter of the trail, mostly due to rampant norovirus outbreaks the likes of which happened almost every year. You should probably plan to get that too, and know how to handle it and avoid spreading it to others.
These initial challenges eliminate the majority of thru-hiker hopefuls who leave the trail due to illness or injury. However, I believe the challenges which increase through the summer are more difficult. These include a worsening in the mosquito population, the Virginia Blues, and difficult trail conditions including miles of rocks or mud, or both.
Another factor that you may not see coming is a lack of good food options. Lightweight trail food generally fits into a few specific categories, none of which are nutritionally well-balanced. This led us to crave fresh fruit and prepared foods when we got to town. Costs like these add up, and lead many to spend more money than they had planned.
I once heard a story about a thru-hiker who carried a five-gallon bucket in which he would keep excess food, and from which he would bathe and wash his clothes. He was avoiding towns as much as possible, and claimed to have completed the entire Appalachian Trail for less than $1,500. Others take a very different approach, staying at hostels and hotels every few days, and eating as much restaurant food as they can during their frequent trips to town. These hikers might spend upwards of $10,000 to complete the trail. Most people will find themselves somewhere in between. The average is about $1000 per month.
Regardless of your approach, your expenses will increase proportionally to your time spent in town. Keep this in mind, and realize another major expense will be gear replacements or upgrades as you’re exposed to the multitude of options from other thru-hikers. I would recommend having at least 50% more cash than you expect to use before seriously planning a thru-hike. Without that, you risk becoming one of the 75% who attempt the trail but don’t finish.
Just imagine how rough it can get out there when you are sore, tired, hungry, bored, and to top it all off — completely out of money to keep going. I expect many people to justify leaving with the words, “It’s not worth it”.
How to prepare for tough days. Now that I have discussed setting up accurate expectations for the trail, how should a thru-hiker prepare to keep moving after the challenge sets in? This is what sends most people packing.
A common suggestion among thru-hikers is to “embrace the suck”; or, in other words, be tolerant of the inevitable suffering. There will be many hardships one must face in this endeavor, but I think we can do better than simply surviving them — we should thrive in spite of, or even because of, the hardships. The goal should be to enjoy, rather than endure. I believe this is best achieved by 1. having a plan in place to prevent the nearly inevitable boredom, 2. understanding the importance behind ‘hiking your own hike’ and, 3. resisting the urge to fight both yourself and the trail.
First, boredom will impact almost everyone at some point. One can only smell the roses, or walk the green tunnel, for so many consecutive days before you start thinking about other things. Either way you cut it, the novelty of hiking long distances every day loses some of its initial luster after some amount of time; on average, this happens sometime around Virginia, or one-quarter of the trail.
I believe the best antidote is to have secondary objectives to complete in your spare time. This may very well be the most creative time in your life, be prepared to express yourself in some way. I was a writer before I was a hiker, so I knew I would want to take a lot of notes. For this reason, I took a voice recorder as one of my luxury items and used it frequently. Other ideas might include: working on a business idea, taking time for daily meditation, using podcasts to learn something new, or learning a language.
Second, the phrase ‘hike your own hike’ gets thrown around a lot, but it does have some wisdom to impart to the struggling thru-hiker. Everyone is seeking something different, hiking with different gear, walking at different paces, and so on; you must be comfortable doing your own thing at all times, even if it means sacrificing socialization with particular hikers.
There will always be someone out there who is more similar to you than the person who is simply a bad match for your style.
Feel free to go your own pace, or take that extra zero if it will keep you on the trail. This also ties into the third point which is stated quite well in this quote by Warren Doyle, Founder of ALDHA (Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association):
“Don’t fight the Trail. You have to flow with it, be cooperative with the Trail, neither competitive nor combative.”
This means you should do what you need to do at all times. If you are having a really rough time on trail, there is almost always something you can do to fix it. Don’t give up, put in the time and effort to figure it out, get through it, and then enjoy your success in overcoming the near failure.
Lastly, don’t fight the urge to take zero days as a means of working out any issues or ailments, or do it just because you feel like it. This is one thing I should have done better on my own thru-hike. I had very few days of actually doing nothing on these “days off” and would always find some way to do something active. When you need a zero, take a real zero — it will make the days that follow all the more productive.
And always remember, never quit on a bad day.