Thinking about doing a thru-hike? It’s a life-changing experience, but one that requires a lot of preparation and sacrifices. We have some tips for first-time thru-hikers that will get you started, but you still have a long way to go before you’re ready to hit the trail!
Completing a thru-hiking trail is a commitment of four-six months, at the very least. It requires extensive mental and physical preparation, as well as impeccable trail skills. But that feeling at the end of the trail makes all those sacrifices entirely worth it, and it’s unlike anything you’ve felt so far.
Read on to learn more about thru-hiking, the most popular trails in the US, and what’s necessary to make it to the end!
A thru-hike is a long-distance hike of 2,000+ miles that normally takes several months to complete. It is physically and mentally exhausting, but also just as rewarding. People who are serious about making it to the end of thru-hiking trails prepare for months, and sometimes years in advance.
Hiking for six months means you need to quit your job, say goodbye to your friends and family, and save up enough money to get you through the thru-hike. You need to have at least some experience with multi-day hikes, and your trail skills should be perfected. Setting up a tent, starting a fire, and navigating the trail are essential skills you should master before you even think about going on a thru-hike.
What exactly is the difference between thru-hiking and backpacking? Well, the average backpacker sets out on the trail for a weekend or a week tops. They don’t mind carrying a heavy backpack because they’re usually not walking too far, and they will sacrifice carrying comfort for the luxury of an outdoor chair or a camping toilet.
On the other hand, thru-hiking trails are usually over 2,000 miles, and it takes at least 3-4 months to complete them. You don’t have to quit your job to go on a backpacking trip, but you will most likely need to quit if you’re committing to a thru-hike. You need to say goodbye to your friends and family because you don’t know when you will have internet access or cell service again.
Backpacking is fun. Thru-hiking is mentally taxing, physically exhausting, and, if done right, life-changing.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a thru-hike that extends from Georgia to Maine, and it’s 2,190 miles long. It typically takes between five and seven months to complete the hike, and only one out of every four people manage to complete it. This is the most popular thru-hike in the States, and it sees thousands of hikers annually.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 2,650 miles long and it runs along the west coast, from the US border with Mexico to the US border with Canada. It takes four to six months to complete this thru-hike, and the trail is best known for the diverse terrain. Temperature can also vary wildly, so it’s recommended you somehow pack for all four seasons in one bag. It passes through deserts, Yosemite NP, and crosses the Sierra Nevadas.
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is the longest of them all at 3,028 miles. It runs from Chihuahua, Mexico to Alberta, Canada, traversing along the Rockies and passing through five US states. The highest point is Grays Peak in Colorado at an elevation of 14,278 ft, and the lowest point is near the beginning of the trail in New Mexico. It takes about five months to complete this thru-hike, which features all trail hazards known to man from avalanches to mountain lions.
Doing a thru-hike is an amazing experience that can profoundly change a person. You will see stunning new places, you will meet a lot of like-minded people, and you will be richer for a plethora of new experiences. On the other hand, you will be extremely bored at times, you will always be tired, and you’ll long for the comfort of your own bed.
Thru-hiking is an incredible experience, but it is definitely not for everyone. It can take a serious toll on mental health, and if you’re not mentally stable I would not recommend it. Can you handle being alone, wet, cold, scared, and hungry, all at the same time? And not for five minutes but for hours, if not days, on end.
You will rarely have cell service, so you can forget about being in touch with your loved ones constantly. You’ll have internet access when passing through towns on the trail, and that will be your only opportunity to catch up on current events.
Also, you will get fit. Your legs will be rock hard, and your endurance will surpass anything you expect.
There will be great days and there will be terrible days, and you must be prepared for them all. Spending the occasional night in a hotel or eating a nice meal at a restaurant can do wonders for your sanity, but it’s not good for the budget
The Appalachian Trail is the most popular thru-hike in the US. It’s the shortest of the triple crown hikes, and it can be done is as little as five months. The highest point of the trail is Clingmans Dome at 6,643 ft, which is nothing compared to the high point (14,278 ft) of the CDT. The terrain is easy for the most part, and trail hazards are not a common occurrence.
This is the easiest and safest thru-hike in the States, which is exactly why it is the most popular one. But is it the right trail for you? If not, don’t worry – there are loads of other long-distance hikes you can attempt that don’t require you to spend half of a year on the trail. But you need to look at all the different options and find something that looks perfect for you. Don’t commit to a hiking trail you don’t even like just because it’s popular in the community.
The right time to begin a thru-hike depends on the trail you chose, but spring is generally the best season to start. For the US thru-hikes (Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails), late April and early May are the best time to begin a northbound hike, if you’re looking to avoid winter conditions.
Some hardcore thru-hikers even hike through the winters, but it’s not recommended if you’ve never done a long-distance hike before. The trails are much more rugged in the winter and spending nights outdoors when it’s sub-zero is neither fun nor easy.
Reading this post to the end is a great way to begin, but don’t think that it’s entirely enough. Preparing for a thru-hike is not only about reading but also about doing. Start hiking more today, try out the gear you want to bring in the field, and practice your trail skills. It’s also important to know the trail inside and out and have at least a general idea of the challenges you might face.
This includes everything from having to use an alternate route to encountering a bear on the trail. You need to read up on the trail conditions, see what people who’ve hiked it in the past few months are saying, and be aware of all hazards you might face along the way.
If you’re planning on doing one of the three big US thru-hikes, read what people who’ve completed them are saying. Quite a few of them have turned their awesome hiking experience into a best-selling novel or a lucrative blog, and they’re sharing all the tips they have with people like you, who are preparing to set out on their first thru-hike.
There’s no such thing as a packing list for a thru-hike. The right items to bring depend on the trail and conditions you’re facing, as well as your personal preferences. Nonetheless, we’ll list some time items that most thru-hikers agree are essential on long-distance trails. Additionally, it’s recommended that all thru-hikers get a guidebook on the specific trail they doing, as it provides them with all the information necessary to prepare for the hike.
The general consensus is that a good backpack is the most important thing to buy. It should fit you perfectly, and it needs to be comfortable enough that you don’t feel any pain when you’ve packed it. Prioritize the back panel, hip belt, and harness over extra pockets and internal space.
You will need some sort of shelter, whether it’s a hammock or a tent. Thru-hiking trails include backcountry shelters every 20-30 miles, but it’s not smart to rely on those entirely. Next, you will also need a good sleeping bag and a sleeping pad – they should be warm, compressible, and water-resistant at the very least.
Then you need to think about clothing and footwear – most hikers opt for trail running shoes because they are more comfortable than bulky hiking boots. Merino wool is the preferred material for clothes, and synthetics are a close second. Just try to avoid cotton, and you will be fine.
Another essential is a hydration bladder or a good water bottle. You should also pick up a water filter (something like the LifeStraw) because you won’t always have access to water that’s safe for drinking without any additional treatment.
Waterproof sacks or packing cubes are also a must. Your camp clothes and sleeping bag need to stay dry no matter what, otherwise you won’t be in a good place. First aid kits and hygiene essentials should also be prioritized.
Those are the essentials – everything else is a luxury, and you should bring it only if you can carry the extra weight. Most people will also bring hiking poles, a good headlamp, a versatile multi-tool, a power bank, and even a camping stove.
If you ask a thru-hiker, they will tell you that the only way to prepare physically is to thru-hike. And while that might be true, it doesn’t mean you can only prepare for a 2,000-mile trail by completing a different 2,000-mile trail.
The amount of preparation you need depends on your previous experience. If you’ve never done a trail longer than a dozen miles before, you should start with some weekend hikes that include a night in the tent, and then graduate to backpacking trips of several weeks and months. Don’t begin a six-month trail if you’ve never slept in a tent before or washed your clothes in the river – you’re not ready yet and you still have some preparing to do.
You wouldn’t be the first or the last person to quit a thru-hike before they’ve entirely completed it. A lot of things can happen, and there is absolutely no shame in not making it to the end. Completing just 25% of the Pacific Crest Trail is a major accomplishment that you should be proud of, and it will certainly make you richer for an entirely new experience.
Things can happen that are entirely out of your control, and it’s important to know if the time to quit comes. If you run out of money or break a limb, it’s definitely time to call it quits. It’s also perfectly okay to give up because of mental fatigue – thru-hikes are supposed to be good for your mental health. If they’re doing the opposite for you, just quit while you’re ahead.
Also, it’s a good idea to just define what the goal is for you immediately. Be realistic about it, don’t lie to yourself, and you will be ecstatic if you reach your goal. Say it’s just the first 1000 miles of the PCT – that’s a massive accomplishment, and if you manage to make it to 1010, you’re already exceeding your expectations!
Running out of money puts an end to thru-hiking immediately, and you need to stick to your budget if you want to make it to the end. An average hiker will spend around $1000 per month on the trail, but that’s just a rough estimate.
You should consider what you will be spending the money on, and try to figure out how much you will need. Staying at hotels and eating in restaurants along the way is great for your mental health, but unless you’re flush with cash, it’s not something you’ll be able to do too often. You will mostly spend money on food, gear replacements and repairs, and postage. Check which national parks the trail passes through, and then see what the entrance fees are.
It’s also good to keep track of your finances while you’re on the trail. If you make it to the halfway mark, but you’ve spent way more than half of your budget, you won’t be able to make it to the end. It’s best to calculate how much you can afford to spend per day, and then do your best not to exceed the number.
Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to set up an emergency fund. Unforeseen things happen and having a safety net you can rely on will give you some peace of mind.
You need to find the absolutely perfect backpack and hiking shoes for you. Those two items are the most important of all the gear because they are the ones that dictate how comfortable you are, and how fast you can go.
Don’t begin a thru-hike with brand new gear you’ve never used before. Sure, it’s great to have newish gear that you know will last you at least the first few months, but unbroken shoes are a recipe for disaster. You must break in the pair of shoes you plan to hike in for the next few months, and you should get a backpack that you know you will be comfortable with.
When it comes to backpacks, it’s important to test them out in the field before starting a thru-hike. You should know exactly how comfortable a bag is, and you won’t know that unless you’ve hiked with it. The bag your best friend swears by might be just the worst fit for you, so make sure you’ve tried and tested every piece of gear you plan to bring on your hike.
Thru-hiking is not like any other backpacking trip you’ve already taken. It will take several months to complete, and you really need to think long and hard about what things you will actually need. A lot of times you’ll pass through populated areas where you can run to the store and get whatever you might be missing, and more often than not you will be mailing yourself supplies and food.
That’s why it’s important to make your backpack as lightweight as possible – 25 to 30lbs is what most thru-hikers go with. That’s not a lot of gear, but it’s a bearable weight that doesn’t put too much stress on your torso. And you’ll see – all those people that you encounter on the trail with huge 50lbs+ backpacks on day one will have dropped half their gear by day seven.
You need to make it months with the bag on your back, so it needs to be perfectly proportionate with your body weight. You should be able to carry it without getting tired or feeling pain – if you’re sore from the backpack after two days, imagine what it will feel like after two months. And if you want to set yourself up for success from the start, just get rid of the unnecessary items before you even leave the house.
Think twice about every single item you put in that bag. Are you confident you need the propane stove? If not, it’s an entire pound you can shred. Also, I would highly recommend you bring a LifeStraw – having it on you means you have access to clean drinking water everywhere. Some people might say that the water along your trail is safe to drink without any treating – it’s not. Pack a filter if you want to stick to your schedule and not lose days, or even weeks, because of illness.
Doing a thru-hike with a friend or a partner is a double-edged sword. In the best-case scenario, the bond between you will become stronger and your relationship will flourish. Worst case scenario, you will fight constantly, get sick of one another, and you’ll never see each other again. Traveling with someone for six months is not easy, so don’t invite anyone if you’re not certain your relationship can survive it.
Having that emotional support is great, and it’s even better that you can split costs and experience everything together. But keep in mind that you will also meet a lot of people along the way – if you’re a lone wolf, the friends you make along the way will be more than enough.
It’s great to have a partner on a long-distance hike, but it’s not great to rely on them too much. You need to have your own gear and supplies, and you both need to have enough space for yourselves. Sometimes you’ll want to take different routes, you won’t agree on everything, and your partner may quit sooner than you.
It’s great to have a schedule when doing long-distance hikes because it lets you know what to expect and helps you prepare. But it’s important to give yourself flexibility, and sometimes that means deviating from the schedule. So what if you’re a day or two behind? It’s not a big deal at all, and if it matters that much, you can certainly make up for it along the way.
Allow yourself to be late or early, and take as many detours as you want. Nobody is forcing you to complete the thru-hike – it’s something you want to do, and you should be able to do everything you want while you are hiking.
One thing I would recommend is to not make plans to meet up with people on the trail. At least not weeks or months ahead, since you can’t be certain where exactly you will be in a month or two. It’s fine to call people if you’re in the area or make plans to meet up in a couple of days when you’re certain you’ll be able to make it in time.
Your feet are doing all the work, and you must treat them right. Buy them great, lightweight, comfortable shoes, wear comfy socks, and avoid anything that might cause you blisters.
Don’t get me wrong – walking 20 miles every day will cause blisters, but with the right footwear, you can minimize them. Thru-hikers usually opt for trail running shoes instead of bulky hiking boots, moisture-wicking synthetic socks, and running gaiters. The combination of these three items minimizes blisters but maximizes comfort and endurance.
Additionally, get yourself shoes that are at least half a size bigger than you normally wear. Your feet will swell over time, and your usual size will not be comfortable after the first few days. If your shoes are too tight, your toenails will bump against the toe box constantly, and that kind of friction will make them fall off. So, if you like having toenails, get shoes that are half or a full size larger than what you wear now.
Last but not least, don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Go on a detour just to see some spectacular views, go for a swim in the lake if it’s okay, and treat yourself to a meal in that nice restaurant! You’ve embarked upon this adventure because you wanted to experience something new, not because you wanted to torture yourself. If you’re not enjoying yourself most of the time, you’re doing something wrong!
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.