I understand not many of us are able to take the time off to do a serious multi-week or multi-month thru hike. However, I would wager that a majority of you are enthralled by the idea! I also bet you have at least considered it at some point. There is definitely an allure to being out there and hiking day in and day out through some of the most beautiful landscapes this country has to offer. I can’t blame you at all if you feel the urge to thru hike. I felt the call of the challenge myself, and last year I gave in and Thru Hiked the Continental Divide Trail. When folks find out I’ve done a thru hike or am planning one, I get plenty of questions. So here in the post I’m going to answer several common thru hiking questions.
Note: This is totally meant to be a reference, please feel free to skip around to any specific topic you’re interested in. If you have more specific follow up questions please don’t hesitate to contact me, or leave a comment. Also, be sure to check back regularly as I plan to add more and more information to this resource.
1. Are you going alone?
I get this question quite often both in the present and the past tense. When I mention that I thru hiked the Continental Divide Trail, I get asked if I went alone? The answer is both yes and no. When I decided to hike this trail I made the decision by myself with no hiking partner in mind. However, by using the CDT 2017 facebook group as a resource, I made friends that I would eventually start the hike with. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition was also a great resource. They provided a shuttle service down to the Mexican border to one of the CDT’s southern terminuses. By booking this shuttle I by default was going to start the trail with other people. The day I started the trail there were 9 of us. From the first day on it was a little of both solo and group or partner hiking. For a lot of New Mexico I hiked with a small group of 3 or 4. For the South San Juan mountains of Colorado I hiked with one partner. From Salida, CO to Yellowstone, WY I hiked mostly alone. For the remainder of the hike I had a different hiking partner.
It’s important to point out that I knew none of these people before starting this hike. Equally important to mention is that some remain good friends to this day. I can almost guarantee you that if you start a hike alone, you will most likely not finish it alone. Even if you do, you’ll most likely have made some great friends along the way. Everyone hikes at a different pace, so most days I hike a lot of miles solo, but often camp with my hiking group if I have one.
As for my upcoming hikes, I again plan to go at it alone, at least to start. This is not a surprise, as I mentioned above, traditionally it is tough for a majority of people to take the time off for a long hike. But I will meet new friends and lots of awesome people along the way, who knows, I may even meet someone who I end up hiking a lot of miles with.
Another factor to consider is the trail you’re hiking. Trails like the Colorado Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and especially the shorter John Muir Trail are very popular. You’re sure to meet so many people along the way. If you’re a fairly social person, you’d have no problem making new friends and hiking partners on these trails
2. What gear do you bring?
If you ask 100 thru hikers this question, you’d get 100 different responses. This is totally normal, and whatsmore, the gear one hiker uses on one trail will most likely vary slightly to the next trail. I can even say the gear I start a trail with may not be the gear I finish the trail with. The time of year will also dictate the gear being carried. I could go on and on about gear and what factors dictate what should be carried. You have factors such as: terrain, season, comfort, length, your goals, and experience level. I believe that the gear in a thru hikers pack is constantly evolving and changing due to preferences. Gear technology continues to improve, items are getting lighter and more companies are offering options. This can make purchasing and building out your setup a bit daunting.
Carrying Your Fears:
Have you ever heard the saying, “You carry your fears with you”? This is essentially saying that if for instance you are worried about bears, then you probably will carry: bear bells, bear spray, and a bear canister. Your fear is bears, so in turn you carry things to limit the chance of an encounter, and to mitigate all risk possible. On the CDT in 2017 I was worried about being cold most of all. Thus I carried a zero degree rated quilt and lots of extra clothing layers. In the end I found I used most of that gear regularly enough, some layering options I did not end up using and eventually mailed back home. Why carry the extra weight of something you never use?
A specific item of gear I frequently get asked about is footwear. I’m a big proponent of trail running shoes. They may not be for everybody, but I think for most thru hikers they are the best option out there! They are lightweight, comfortable, breathable, have great traction, and I find, they don’t cause blisters. Now, do I wear the same pair of shoes for the entire hike? Well that depends on the length of trail and the terrain I am hiking. Some terrain will chew up footwear faster than others, for example crossing a lava field will chew up your outsole much faster than hiking on a soft forest floor. From my experience a pair of trail running shoes will last anywhere from 400-750 miles. Now on trails like the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, or Long Trail, one pair of shoes will do just fine. On the 3,000 mile CDT, I went through 4 pairs of shoes. If you’re lucky to have a “resupply buddy” who will send you out food and gear as you need it, then I recommend finding a pair of shoes that work for you, and buying several pairs ahead of time. When you’re on trail and noticing that a new pair of shoes will be needed soon, phone up your resupply buddy (whenever you find a bit of cell service), and have them ship it to the next town you’ll come to.
Another piece of gear I’d like to touch on is trekking poles. I use them and find them to be not only helpful for hiking purposes, but many other things as well. They are probably one of the best multi-use pieces of gear I carry. I use them as part of my shelter system as well. Basically instead of have a tent with tent poles I have a shelter that utilizes the trekking poles and a series of stake out points. This helps to save weight on your shelter system. They can also be used in a wilderness first aid scenario such as to make a splint (though be sure to pad them cause they’ll cause discomfort straight against an arm or leg).
As much as gear varies from thru hiker to thru hiker, the food they choose to bring and cook does as well. Some folks choose to cook multiple meals a day, some just one, and some none at all. There are a certain subset of thru hikers who do not carry stoves or pots, instead they choose to either cold soak their meals or just eat snack type food primarily. Cold soaking is basically adding water to noodles, rice, or anything that will rehydrate. So a sealable container, water, and spoon/fork are all that is needed. This is another way some hikers choose to save on weight.
For me, one hot meal a day is a huge moral booster. Dinner is the only meal I cook each day. My cook setup includes a small fuel can (Iso Butane), a lightweight burner from Snow Peak, and a 600ml lightweight pot. I also use a long handled spoon from Vargo. The long handle of the spoon is something I strongly recommend. They are perfect for eating out of those freeze dried backpacking meal bags. I also find that a spork or fork is not needed for the kind of food I cook on trail. The metal spoon is strong enough to cut softer things like summer sausage most of the time, and I use my little knife to cut other items like cheese. I’ve tried plastic spoons/sporks in the past, but after a bit of use I find they ‘dry out’ and become brittle, then break.
I could go on and on about gear choices, and feel free to ask more gear specific questions in the comments below, I’ll happily address them and give my personal experiences and opinions. Just remember, everyone will have different strategies and experiences with gear. What works best for me might be different than what works best for you.
3. How do you plan a Thru Hike?
There are quite a bit of factors that go into planning a thru hike. The better your planning is, the more smoothly and more enjoyable your hike will be. On the other hand, if you don’t plan everything to the tee, then you may enjoy some spontinatiy and feel less pressure to stick to your timeline. I fall somewhere between planning out every single detail and leaving some things to chance. For example I like to give myself a fairly flexible timeline, a few extra days to either explore a trail town more, or do some side hikes.
Timing is a major factor to consider. How much time do you have for your hike? What time of year is best to hike the particular trail? How many days will it take you? Researching the trail ahead of time is pretty important. Knowing such things as: how many miles the trail is, will there be snow, how many miles do I expect I can hike in a day, what towns are along the way, and do I plan to take days off. These are things you need to consider and map out (roughly) ahead of time.
Maps and Apps:
Maps and having a route planned is extremely important. I highly recommend you carry hard copy paper maps of your route, as well as a compass. Carrying maps and a compass isn’t going to be helpful to you if you don’t know how to use them. Know how to read a topo map, and how to shoot, follow, and transfer a compass bearing. These days smartphone apps can be super useful to plan and navigate on trail. I used a couple different apps to plan and find my route on the CDT in 2017. I’ve personally got nothing against them, just have a backup! Batteries fail, and electronics don’t do well if they happen to get water in them!
Resupplying your food and water is another important thing about planning a long hike. If I am hiking a 500 mile long trail and it will take me 4 weeks, I don’t not plan on carrying 4 weeks of food with me from the start. That would just be way to heavy, and would likely not fit in my pack! In then next FAQ below I talk address food and water resupply.
4. What about food and water?
No thru hike plan is complete without taking into account what you’ll do for food and water resupply. Since you will most likely be hiking all day long, and putting in big miles, you’ll need to make sure you replenish the calories you’ll burn. I’ve heard it said that on a thru hike you should be consuming roughly 5,000-6,000 calories a day. Town resupplying is a common and necessary part of a long hike. When planning your hike you should look at trail guides and other resources that show you resupply towns and options.
I always like to see how many miles lay between each town or resupply point. Knowing how many miles I’m likely to hike in a day, and how many miles before the next resupply point, I can calculate how many days It’ll likely take me. Then I know how many days of food to carry. I always carry a little bit extra just in case. Always good to be prepared for a less than optimal situation. For instance: say you develop bad blisters, shin splints, or sprain an ankle and it takes you half a day or an whole extra day longer to travel to the next resupply?
When you’re on trail you need to be constantly aware of your water situation. In an emergency situation you can survive several days without food, but not without water. This is where having a map, and reliable water reports is essential. Maps will display creeks, streams, and rivers. You can calculate the miles between sources and know about how much water you should carry. Some trail organizations also distribute an up to date water report, this can be extremely helpful in desert hiking situations. (Note: some water shown on maps may only be seasonal, and not always flowing)
Another great resource for getting water information is other hikers! Don’t be afraid to ask an oncoming hiker when they last passed water. Please help each other out! It is highly recommend that you drink a water bottles worth when refilling at a water source, then topping that bottle back off. It is often asked what I do about water filtration and purification. I currently use a Sawyer squeeze. I take this filter and thread it right onto my water bottle. Filling the water bottle up in a stream, screwing the filter right on, then drinking from it just like that is super easy, fast, and convenient.
5. What about wildlife?
This may be one of the most popular questions I get asked. Mainly, most folks want to know about bears. I find people are super fascinated with bears more than any other wildlife. In that regard bears are like the sharks of the woods. So how do you plan for wildlife encounters? What do you do when you have one? Well that really varies and depends on the animal. I will start with bears since that is the most common concern I hear about.
My bear encounter experience is pretty limited. I have run into just 3 bears in the wild, all black bears. All my encounters have been awesome. The bears I’ve run into just don’t seem to care about me at all. Now, I haven’t run into a mother bear and her cubs, that is something you want to be careful about. But mostly in Black bear country there isn’t much to worry about. To help protect your fellow hikers and the bears themselves you should hang your food each night. This lessens the chance a bear will wander into your camp and learn the bad habit that hikers equal food. If possible make a little ‘human noise’ as you walk through the woods, we want to make sure we don’t come upon and surprise a bear. I’d recommend carrying bear spray and having it readily available when in Grizzly country.
Another animal people are facsinated about, and I’m one of them, is the mountain lion. I have never seen one in the wild. They are stealthy animals that, for the most part, want nothing to do with you. I have seen tracks and sign of mountain lions, so they are out there, but an encounter with one is very rare.
Two things really hamper my comfort in the woods: being soaked and wet all day, and mosquitos! Mosquitos can be so bad and hard to deal with depending on the season and where you are hiking. I for one am not a big fan of bug spray. So I choose to deal with the bugs by wearing full length pants and shirts, even if the temperatures make it really hot to do so. A head net can also be a light weight option to keep them out of your ears, nose, and mouth (yes I’ve swallowed several). Chances are if you’re on a thru hike, in a day or two you’ll have hiked out of the area in which mosquitos are really bad.
Another animal to be watchful for? Other humans. Most likely you’re going to run into other friendly outdoor loving people, but in some remote towns along some of the long trails there will be people who don’t understand what you’re doing. Be kind and curious, but always cautious.
6. How many miles do you hike in a day?
Everyone hikes at different pace and has different hiking goals. For me, it all depends. While on the CDT I was always concerned with mileage (for two main reasons). The first was that it was my first real long distance hike and I felt I needed to prove myself. I was one of the few who was attempting the arguablly harder CDT as my first trail, and most of my fellow hikers had way more thru hiking experience. It really was silly, but at the time I needed to prove to them and myself that I belonged in that community. The second reason was due to the specific trail and timing. This trail is the longest of the triple crown, the highest in altitude, and arguably the snowiest. The season to thru hike the CDT can be relatively short. I was determined to make it to Canada before the Fall snows hit Montana.
So with that said, all in all I averaged over the course of the CDT, a little over 22 miles per day. This includes ‘Nero’ days, which are shorter days in and out of town. Towards the end I was hiking closer to an average of 30 miles a day in order to make the northern terminus by my self dictated finish date.
I am planning on hiking shorter days in this upcoming 2018 hike season. I would like to enjoy more side trips, and not feel the rush and pressure of having to finish by a certain date. That said I’m expecting I’ll hike between 20 and 25 miles on an average full day on trail. For me personally this will be quite easy to do. I say this because I usually put in a very full day, waking up at 5:30, and hiking more or less till 7:00pm.
7. What about the weather?
If you’re going to be out on a long hike for multiple days, weeks, or months you are likely to run into some less ideal weather from time to time. The odds are you’ll see rain, sun, wind, and maybe even some snow. This is totally fine if you are prepare yourself for it. I’m not going to say you’ll be 100% comfortable the entire time, rain or shine, that is most certainly not the case. If you’re considering a thru hike then you must expect to endure some discomfort. When it comes to this I strongly believe it’s all about attitude. This is what I always tell myself when soaking wet and cold, “this too shall pass”. Basically I know it won’t last forever and the sun will warm me up eventually. I also feel you should embrace the different kind of beauty the landscape provides in less than ideal weather.
To prepare for rain, wind, and snow make sure you have a pack cover or liner. I line the inside of my pack with a durable trash compactor bag. This ensures that my ‘oh so important quilt’, clothing, and food stay dry! I also carry a light weight rain jacket and pant, these will actually help you stay warm as well. Take advantage of the sun! When the sun does shine again make sure you stop and ‘yard sale’ your gear out to dry. The sooner this is done the better, one reason being is: dryer gear is lighter gear, no sense in hiking with all that heavy water soaked stuff on your back.
So there you have it, 7 questions I am commonly asked about thru hiking and my best possible answers to them. I am sure this list will grow and I’m totally excited about that. One of my goals is to make thru hiking less of a mystery. If you have other questions that you think should be included in this list please email me or leave the question in the comments below, I’ll answer you right away, and may even add it to the above list.
I hope you’ll all understand that these questions could be answered multiple different ways and that these answers come from my own experience and preferences. I could not possibly answer each question with all the possible answers there are out there. If you do something different I’d love to hear that as well. One of the best parts about the hiking community is that we continue to learn from each other!
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