I remember how overwhelming my first hike felt. You’re worried about getting to a town with no resupply options, you’re worried you’ve planned each stretch out wrong, you’re worried about conditions on trail hundreds of miles and months away from your computer desk with your haphazard notes with town names circled and lines connecting to other circles – I know what it’s like. And if you’re anything like me: guides that go so in depth and cover a ton of topics kinda start getting a little fuzzy and you end up just looking at the nice pictures and fall into another daydreaming session. I’m only touching things I think are the most immediately helpful.
Should I Train?
I’m glad I asked. Yes you should. My first two hikes I did almost nothing to prepare physically for my hike and I did alright sans some injuries, but I was far from my prime. I trained for my hike last summer and kicked things off with a 30 mile day on my second day, with a record of 40 miles (both still monumentally hurt the first time, but you get my point!). It’s worth it. To put that into perspective it took me 4+ months to hike 1,000 miles in 2016. It took me half that time to do the same distance in 2018. It’s nice to feel fit and strong anyways, so why not?
How Should I Train?
I did a mix of things. Mostly I ran because it’s quick and accessible, and I got really good at it before leaving for my hike. I would go on long bicycle rides on my rare day off from work because I feel like it helps develop the ‘uphill muscles’ (I don’t know if it’s true, I just feel out which muscles get worked and compare them to my hiking muscles), I’d also cycle to work pretty frequently. Of course there’s no better replacement for training for a long hike than hiking, but I know that’s not practical all the time when you’re probably spending a lot of time at work to save up money for this endeavor.
I’ve come to love running the past couple years whether it be on a trail, concrete, or a treadmill. Since I feel it helps so much with long distance hiking I’ll do an article on it in the future, but for now we’ll just move on.
Should I Use Resupply Boxes/Bounce Boxes?
Depending on the trail you could get a way with very rarely using resupply boxes, which is monumentally awesome. If you’re doing something like the PCT or AT it really benefits you to avoid using them as much as possible.
Generally speaking I feel like resupply boxes a relic from earlier days of long distance hiking when it was a far smaller deal than it is today. Unless you have dietary restrictions or you’re doing a very remote trail, avoid using boxes as much as possible so you’re not bound to where your next box is being sent. Allow yourself flexibility, you’ll thank yourself later on.
I’m going to recommend services like Sonora Pass Resupply or Zero Day Resupply for the moments you do need to send a box. Either has a good selection of stuff I could almost never find in stores (instant refried beans are a staple of my hiking diet) and they do all the crummy work for you so you can focus on your hiking and not stuffing food into boxes.
What Do I Eat?
Food. You eat food.
The sky is the limit (you could make trail-spaghetti if you want!), it all depends on how much time you want to sit cooking at camp, how much money you want to spend on resupply, or how much food you want to carry. Don’t worry about it, whatever you do just make sure there’s variety. Mix things with your usual diet and try new stuff. Example: mashed potatoes with stuffing, tuna with mac and cheese (oh my god a tuna, mac and cheese, and boiled egg ‘casserole’ is like the best trail treat ever), etc. You’ll occasionally screw up and make some really disgusting dishes (I dunno why I thought rice with country gravy would be a good idea), but it’s part of the fun of figuring out new meals.
Oh Man Oh God Oh Fuck There’s Snow in the Mountains, What Do I Do?
Here’s a mental exercise I use whenever there’s something ahead of me that I’m unsure of, established from years of making horrifically bad mistakes.
Do I have experience with this kind of stuff/Do I know what I’m doing?
If Yes: Happily proceed.
If No: Either I don’t do it, I proceed with caution with a willingness to turn back, or I push on fully accepting that I could royally fuck up at some point.
Bonus round: If you know you’re about to take on a hike that will include going through snowy mountains, familiarize yourself with hiking through snowy mountains (you can stomp around and practice self arresting at your local ski resort – if you have one – for free; that’s the safest way of doing it anyways. I wouldn’t advise jumping straight over to your nearest mountain and going up it).
But I have an early start date! What now Mr. Know-It-All?
With the increased popularity of thru-hiking, permits are becoming difficult to secure in ‘optimal season’ for some trails and people are starting earlier than what’s considered usual. I understand this is a bit stressful, but you’ve probably got a lot of miles ahead of you before said mountains (a la 700 miles of desert on the PCT): just do what you can and plan as you go. If you have to stop and get off and go do something else while you wait for conditions to improve, so be it. I guarantee there’s cool places to check out while you wait, so take advantage of the moment and do something fun. Treat yoself. You’ll get updates on conditions as you get closer and can adjust accordingly. There’s unfortunately nothing you can do from home about this and oddly enough you’re at more of an advantage planning this out on trail.
What if I’m starting in snowy mountains?
Similar answer. If you’re starting your adventure in the mountains and there’s lingering snow/you’re starting early and you’re unsure about your ability to do it: accept the possibility that you may just have to change your plans. A comment you may receive sometimes is “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be doing it”, which isn’t exactly uncalled for.
Naturally there’s a difference between apprehension and inexperienced apprehension. I’m not saying “if you’re nervous stay the hell away” more than I’m saying to recognize and address the root of your concerns.
“Hi guys I was wondering if I need an ice axe and microspikes this year[…]”
Always assume you’ll need snow gear at some point if your trail passes through high mountain ranges. That doesn’t mean you need to burst through your front door and drive like a maniac to your nearest gear store and buy 10 ice axes and strap them all to your pack making it look like some kind of outdoorsy version of Hellraiser. You can hold off and make the decision to buy them (either in a store or online) on trail as you go depending on what conditions are shaping up to be in the mountains. Just be prepared for the possibility and make sure you know how to use said gear.
There’s no prouder moment for the new long distance hiker than having your gear settled and having a fully stocked backpack in the corner of your room to obsess over. Well, aside from making actual trail milestones anyways. I’m not going to touch on the subject of ultralight vs. ultraheavy (you do you, fam) more than I’m just going to say this:
You do not have to have the perfect setup when you start. It’s okay if you make mistakes initially, there’s really no avoiding it anyways. You can easily adjust your setup on trail via the wonderful Postal Service; I very frequently adjust my setup on trail. You don’t need to stress nearly as much as I see people stress over this. There’s going to be something about your setup that you don’t like, that’s just the way it be. Throwing money at it won’t solve anything either, which we’ll touch in the next section.
How Much Will This Cost?
If you stay on trail most of the time and make consistent miles, not much. If you want to spend extra time in towns, eat many wonderful restaurant foods, and take it slow on trail: that of course will make things more expensive. It could be anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000. It’s up to you and your spending habits. Set a budget and live by it. If you’re super anxious about it you can make mock resupplies by going to the store and jotting notes on how much certain things you might eat on trail cost and multiply that by the amount of towns you think you’ll stop at, then include costs of potential hotel stays and restaurant visits. This is how I’ve always done it, I don’t really like using the ‘dollar per mile’ system. So:
- 1 resupply box usually = $30-$40 (for me personally given my pace and how I usually go for cheap stuff)
- ~25 town stops
- 2 restaurant visits per-town stop = ~$50 (cut that price in half or more by buying discounted foods at the grocery store to gorge on).
- ~8 zero days (hotel visits) = $1,200 (better to overestimate than underestimate)
- Four new pairs of shoes = ~$120 per pair
This amounts to a rough cost of $3,930. This is – again – very much based on how I hike now (It’s even on the high end cause I don’t really eat at restaurants anymore). I average 30 mile days, limit my zeroes, and don’t get very fancy with my resupply anymore. These are however very core expenses of trail life and you should always budget for surprise expenses which will probably happen, an extra $1,000 or more for that alone is probably wise. This is a major change from how much this cost me when I first started. I probably spent over $8,000 in 2016, and I didn’t even hike the whole trail! Can we all take a moment to say a collective “Yikes”?
Hiking on credit
I just learned last year that a lot of people end up hiking on credit eventually; personally I don’t like the idea of that. Sure, a little debt for the time your life may sound excusable but it hurts your ability to get out and do another hike the following year (which you will obsessively think about once you’re off trail; leave yourself in a position with options). I start with a budget and if it runs out I call an end to the season. It sucks, but it’s a valuable lesson in financial responsibility on trail (I know I know, I need to chill out on the ‘sexy’ topics here). Running out of money on trail ends a lot of people’s hikes.
Bonus round on Gear
Save your money for the trail. Think about this if you’re looking at needlessly buying/upgrading your gear pre-hike (a la you just bought a tent but that $800 tent is starting to look mighty fine). Remember: you’re not doing this to have a sick setup, you’re doing it to hike. Your stuff gets filthy, stinky, and worn down by the end of the season regardless of how much money you spend. This is another topic for another article. In short I’m going to caution you against becoming entranced by high priced items thinking they do things dramatically differently than reasonably priced stuff. For example a $200 hiking shirt does not perform exceptionally different from a $20 shirt (or a $5 shirt if you’re thrifty). At the end of the day a shirt is a shirt. The outdoor industry is at times littered with predatory pricing, try to avoid falling for it when you can so you can save your money for the trail. I’m not saying to go in the opposite end of the spectrum and buy the cheapest gear on the market destined to break on trail, just be sensible.
Is This Safe?
A common attitude is that some trails are so popular you can rely on other people to help you. Are they wrong? No, not entirely. Is that a good mindset to have in the wilderness? No, not really. You should never put yourself in a position to have to sit around and wait for someone to come by and help you – ever ever ever – as long as you can avoid it. It’s a good backup and peace of mind to know that someone could be there for you, but you are responsible for your own well being. Of course fellow hikers are enthusiastically helpful, but they’re not out there to keep an eye on you either.
I try very hard to avoid fear mongering or misrepresent things, but the importance of this is tantamount. Make sure you have means of navigation, don’t skimp on essential gear to save weight, and don’t discount things like Personal Locator Beacons (Garmin InReach, Spot, etc) as uncool or unnecessary. They’re not infallible, but they’re a good to have on hand. A common word of advice is “Don’t pack your fears”, which is something I personally agree with to a degree, but I also always have stuff like an emergency blanket and a blood clotting bandage as well. Guess what? My favorite setup is 10lbs. So… like… pow. You can be prepared and ultralight.
People who tell you not to take your safety seriously are giving bogus advice. They have zero accountability over what they’re saying and you’re the one who pays the price if you take it to heart. The world of outdoors-ing is – at times – rife with boundary pushing, but even the ones who push the boundaries far beyond your average person’s comfort zone advocate for responsible outdoors-ing and they don’t push the boundary on safety nearly as much as it appears they are.
So: Is this safe? It’s about as safe as driving on the freeway. Things can sometimes go wrong and it’s out of your control (drunk drivers), or things can sometimes go wrong and it’s within your control (texting while driving). Getting in the habit of identifying risks is about as simple as simple as knowing what risks are present; for example knowing about stuff like cornices and tree wells helps you avoid falling through one/getting buried in one. Read some books/articles/stuff and practice watching out for them on your hikes. So within the freeway analogy again: you lower a considerable amount of risk by knowing how to drive in the first place.
Isn’t it scary?
Maybe at first. When I started solo backpacking I would often stay up all night listening to sticks break outside of my tent, feeling my heart trying to beat itself right out of my chest like that scene in Alien. It’s something you learn to get over. There were times on my first PCT hike I would look out into the endless abyss of forest and shudder in discomfort, and suddenly this last year I took the plunge off trail to walk through that endless abyss with very nominal levels of nervousness about it. In the early days I would rather die than leave my tent in the middle of the night for any reason, and this year I’d leave my tent pretty often to stargaze. They key rule I went by in 2016 when I was far more nervous on trail is that I wouldn’t camp anywhere that gave me the creeps. I would either backtrack somewhere that felt more comfortable or I would push on. It helped me get over the fear quite a bit.
You kinda just have to take it day-by-day. Try to rationalize your fears the best you can. Animal attacks (especially fatal) from the animals like Black Bears and Mountain Lions aren’t at all common, and as far as I’ve seen so far there aren’t any spooky forest demons that run around turning hikers into backcountry art installations in the middle of the night. You have to realize that there’s so many hikers out on these trails every year and a lot of them rarely even see these animals much less have scary encounters with them. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen (I’ve had my own); it’s the small risk you take doing this and if it wasn’t so worth it people wouldn’t be out doing this. Just make sure you know how to respond to encounters if it happens, and pretty much things will turn out alright. The animals don’t really want much to do with people. Your food on the other hand… different story. God damn mice eating my resupply *grumble grumble grumble* chewing through my pack *grumble grumble grumble*.
The fact of the matter is there’s just not really that much out in the wilderness to be immediately afraid of to the extent that you’re awake all night listening to every little thing bumping around you. I know me saying this doesn’t bring immediate relief to the idea, but I also know how it can sometimes be a relief just knowing you’re not the only one getting all spooked out on trail.
No one’s answering my questions clearly!
There are a lot of things about long distance hiking that don’t come with simple answers, and a lot of them may be things you just don’t want to hear. This kind of stuff comes with a learning curve and requires you to push yourself out of some comfort zones at times. It’s okay to be nervous before you leave, but I think you’ll find a lot of your concerns weren’t quite worth the time you put into them. To be honest: This stuff sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is. Hiking thousands of miles seems like such a grand endeavor, but a lot of the time I don’t feel like it’s much different from getting up and checking the mailbox in the morning. It just happens to last much longer, has better views, and is generally much more fun.
I Think That’s It
Trail life can sometimes be a struggle, and it can be wonderful. A lot of the things that plague you aren’t always things you can anticipate or plan for and you just have to learn to be flexible and adapt to them as you go. At the end of all of this I know a lot of you are probably still feeling like you just got a bunch of empty/useless advice because I often felt that way after reading guides like this, but the fact of the matter is there’s not really any answers out there that will help this all suddenly make sense to you. That’s probably one reason why long distance hiking is relatively niche: not everyone feels comfortable taking the plunge. But just take comfort in the fact that thousands of people do jump into it, they end up having a wonderful time, and they come home and write guides like this for other hikers every year. Take a deep breath and get it over with already.