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Thru Hiking in USA: Know the Challenges, Planning Process and Tips to Accomplish

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Holidays are closing in and everyone is already planning a trip away from home. Mountain hikers are already thrilled due to the winter arriving and perhaps even planning for an end-to-end backpacking trip, and what better than fleeing into the wilderness of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), or the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  Wondering how would thru-hiking be along these long-distance trails?

There is nothing impossible for those who seek adventure along America’s legendary trails. With each step, you would slowly, but surely reach your destination.

So, if you are looking for some adventure along the American trails, you are just at the right place. We'll discuss all the key topics related to thru-hiking that will give a fair idea of what it would be like. 

What is Thru-Hiking

Before even getting into the long-distance trails it’s good to know what’s thru-hiking. It’s basically an end-to-end backpacking journey along a long-distance trail which is usually the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

While the AT is more than a 2,100 miles trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, the pacific crest trail thru-hike, on the other hand, runs over 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada. The CDT is in fact, a newly found trail in America that extends over a distance of 3,100 miles down the rocky mountain peaks.

But, if you are hiking for the first time, these rough and isolated long trails are not for you. 

Pacific Crest Trail
Thru-hiking in PCT 

Thru-Hike Challenges 

If you have made up your mind for a thru-hike, then you should be mentally prepared for the challenges that will come along the 6-months excursion. There will be a lot of obstacles to get over and your patience would be tested many times in different situations. 

1. Mental Challenges

Thru-hiking needs you to be on your own and at ease. While the hikers at AT and PCT do mingle with other hikers on the way, thru-hikers are majorly solo hikers. This solitude is much needed to cover that long distance with focus and patience, however, you may eventually feel lonely with too much of solitude. After walking several miles you may feel disheartened and may even have a feeling to pull out. 

What can you do?

The days when you feel like giving in, understand that it’s pretty natural and an unavoidable fact. Also, remember that the day you feel like quitting, you must hold on hard because if you show the willpower to continue after this, you should not be too far from a success. 

Practice going on solo journeys in advance. This will help you to overcome the fear of being lonely and convert it into a happy and free journey instead. 

Make sure that instead of simply being on a day’s rest you get involved in carefree activities with the trailside communities making it a fun adventure. 

If there is something worth watching on the way, for instance, a famous national park, or an iconic mountain, take time to check these out. This habit will help you stay motivated through the journey as you feel a sense of achievement. 

2. Physical Challenges

Physical challenges are an inevitable part of a hiking trip and there’s no avoiding that. While the PCT runs over 2650 miles with a height of 500,000 feet, AT is not so far behind. Swellings, injuries, Lyme disease or height sickness are some of the physical challenges you will face during thru-hiking, therefore, it’s recommended to be prepared in advance to beat at least some of them.

What can you do?

It’s better to train yourself in advance and allow your feet and body to get used to the challenges. Going on several backpacking trips before the actual trip would be a better idea. Although it will still not be the same as the burden you would carry during the thru-hike you can strengthen your limbs by carrying similar weights on your drill hikes. 

Not to mention that you must have a proper first-aid kit in place and make sure what you carry. 

first aid kit
Stash your backpack with first aid kit

3. Financial Challenges

Although you won’t be spending on gas or lodging for a thru-hike, given that you will be out of the job for almost six months, it’s smarter to have a budget in place for the trip.

Your expenses on the trip will be majorly due to food and gear and so, the total can range from anywhere between $1 per mile to $8000 for the complete trip. So, make sure that you planned the budget for the trip well in advance. 

The Planning Process

A through hiking expedition is a major one given that you take the longest trail and therefore, it requires a proper planning in place. In fact, according to the experts, the planning time is more crucial than the hiking time. Therefore, experts suggest that the planning must be rather taken as a part of the adventure and should be done at least eight months in advance.

While you are planning in your way for the trip, you can also visit the websites for Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) or the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). 

- Itinerary

  1. Make a list of the activities and items involved.
  2. Research on the weather before you plan the trip.
  3. Make sure that you have all the necessary permits for the Canadian border, backcountry, campfire, trail and so on. Keep a check on the regulations as they tend to change frequently and apply for them well ahead of time. 
  4. Apart from the arrangements for trains, bus, or flights, get to know the options for commuting at the locality if you want to reach the exact place. 
  5. Plan your miles beforehand that you want to cover so that you can strategize the finishing time. 
  6. Plan your days precisely as there will be very few places where you can actually rest and re-arrange things. 
  7. Anticipate emergencies in advance, for instance, extreme climate conditions, sudden injuries, or closure of trails due to landslide can easily spoil your plan. So, do some research and find any alternative routes beforehand. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

- ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Food and Water 

Although talking about food may sound comforting, it is easily the most complex part of your trip that can pose some real challenges if not planned well. You must remember that you need to keep your weight in check while on thru-hiking, and so, you need to check on the calories you consume, the comfort and the flavour. While some prefer stocking up food for each section well in advance, others prefer buying the food stock at the resupply regions to satiate their cravings on the way. 

There are desert sections in PCT and some location is AT also suffer from a deficiency of water, so, it is equally important to plan your water supply ahead of time. While you must carry enough water to save you from dying in such places, you must also check the quality of water in the areas where is enough supply. 

how to eat like a thru-hiker

- Your Gear

Through hiking is a completely different experience than the overnight hiking trips and so, make sure that you change the gears accordingly and let go of some luxuries.

Below is the thru hike gear list that is a must-have on long-distance trails. 

  • Added lightweight gear tends to lower the burden that you will be carrying over the humongous distance. 
  • Make sure that the gear is stronger than the usual so that it has the capacity to undertake the wear and tear over the thousands of miles. 
  • Carrying seasonal gears would be a smarter move that can be changed at the local resupply locations on the way. A warmer sleeping bag, microspikes, light clothing and gear, are some of such seasonal gears. 
  • Using the right footwear is extremely crucial as you have to cover thousands of miles and so, you won’t want to finish fast being uncomfortable. So, get those ultra-light shoes, or full leather boots as you feel comfortable, and keep multiple pairs. Pre-buying heavier boots can be a better idea and so, make sure that you use them all on the way. 
light backpack
Pack light 

Tips Before You Begin Your Thru-Hike 

While completing a thru-hike is definitely a rewarding experience and a satisfying accomplishment, it can be tough as hell too! You would for once, wish you were better dead! So, for all those thrilled thru-hikers we have a few tried and tested tips for that added motivation. 

1. Study Up - Do Your Research 

This is especially true for the first time thru-hikers as leaving unprepared can make it difficult to survive those long-distance trails. The thru hike backpacking trips be obviously different from the usual backpacking trips and so, the gears or the entire preparation would be different.

Get some physical training for thru hike on trailing skills, carry a few lighter gears out of the thru hike gear list, and spend some time before you hit the trail. 

Read Training for Backpacking: Fitness Regime for Hiking Enthusiasts

2. Check your feet the first hour on the first day

Chances are that you will get blisters in the first or two of the hiking. In that case, it would be a smarter decision to check your feet immediately instead of waiting to reach the camp. It may be too late by then and the blisters can worsen making it difficult to move further.

So, instead of avoiding the blisters and keep going, make sure that you check your feet as soon as there is discomfort. Prevent the formation of blisters right from the start by applying band-aids, tapes, or moleskin and ensure happy feet. 

blisters while hiking
Blisters while hiking

3. Slow down

It’s better to take it slow for the first seven days, as it really does not matter how much miles you cover in that period. The first week should be rather taken slowly to help your body get some rest and so that you can adjust being in the woods and even reflect.

Therefore, even if you have walked only 50 miles in the first week, it better starts with short thru hike days to make sure that you have ample energy to cover the entire trail. 

4. Plan for an early zero-day

Planning to take an off early in the excursion will give you a lot of relaxation. This is the time when you can restore, get some rest, double check your gear, make any major or minor changes, and even get in touch with your loved ones. You can hire a motel for a night and trust us you will thank yourself for this later.

This is because you can utilize this time not only to rejuvenate, but charge your phone, and even reassure your family that you are perfectly fine. You can also get some relief for your knees by using ice, clean the messed up gear along the muddy way, and simply relax. 

5. Discover your own routines

Now that your body is accustomed to the woods and the journey, you should know by now what works better for you. You must be able to identify when you need water that is, before or after you make your thru hike tents, how would you cook, what would be the right meals to consume, the time when you update your diary/journal, the time you would prefer your breaks, and so on.

Moreover, there would be a lot of hikers around with different thru-hiking gears, systems and routines. While you can watch what they are doing, you should eventually choose what suits you the best. 

hiking journal
Invest time in writing a journal (source)

6. Choose the right backpack

Having the best thru hike backpacks ensure that you are hauling less burden comparatively. A perfect one should make your 50 pound weight feel like 40 pound.

A not so good quality backpack, on the other hand, can make you feel the load of bricks. A full-size internal pack or an external one works best compared to anything smaller than that. 

7. Arrange Social Support

As we already know how lonely can be a thru-hiking journey and so, it’s better to avoid being homesick you can carry postcards or care packages from your loved ones. talk to your loved ones and tell them about your trekking experience and can even inform them the dates when they can post some food packages or notes to you.

However, make sure that you tell them what you need, or you may end up with food that’s not fit for a trail. 

8. Stretch Often - And Then Stretch More

Following a regular stretching routine can help you keep away from stress injuries. All you need is a few minutes when you can stretch your hamstrings, calves, or quads every day during the mornings, evenings and also while you are on a break. 

9. Keep A Flexible Schedule – Within Reason

Preparing a schedule is nice, but since we are human beings it’s perfectly alright to let go off schedules at times because strict schedules do not work while on thru-hiking. Allow yourself some space and be flexible. You should also avoid fixing a certain date for the trail meet-ups with the community since it’s almost impossible to gauge the dates in advance. 

Covering the entire trail may not be possible for all, as it entirely depends on one’s body reach and stamina. Just make sure that you try and visit the thru-hiking trails in small parts and you should be successful in the end.

So, get the best thru hike backpacks ready for that fascinating experience in the forest trails of the mighty AT and PCT. 

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