In 2005 I found myself lacing my boots, shouldering my pack, and heading out to Smoky Mountain National Park to hike a sixty-mile segment of the famous Appalachian Trail. Nestled in the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Smokies provide a very scenic, but very small segment of this otherwise massive trail. Stretching about 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is one of the longest hikes in the world.
While I only got sixty miles in, one person in my hiking group was one of the exclusive few who have managed to hike the trail in its entirety. These people are known as thru hikers, and this article is about what you need if you’re thinking of setting out on a trip of a lifetime.
Thru-hiking is not just limited to those who hike Appalachian Trail, it can also refer to hiking the full Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Both trails are longer than the Appalachian Trail and the three together constitute a group called the Triple Crown. Some dedicated hikers hike all three in their lifetime, but many choose to stick to one.
Thru Hiking is Not Easy
Hiking one of these long-distance trails is not an easy feat, and can take up to seven months to complete. That’s why you can’t simply bring everything you need on your back. Most thru hikers choose to have food and supplies mailed to them at various locations every five to seven days as they hike. That way they only have to carry one week’s worth of provisions at any given time. The other method is to carry money and restock whenever they pass a town that lies close to the trail. Either way, planning your trip several months in advance is absolutely necessary if you want to succeed.
One reason why many hikers drop out early on is because their packs are weighed down with unnecessary things. Successful thru hikers usually try to maintain a 20-25-pound pack at all times. Having a 65-pound burden is not a problem for hikes lasting a few days, but over time it may be the reason you don’t complete the hike. Limiting your clothes, using light cooking and camping gear, and utilizing your environment for everything else can help you reduce your pack weight.
The most important thing to consider is this: long-distance hiking is as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Having the expectation that your hike will be easy or consistently scenic will be a detriment to your experience. As you plan, know that this is not going to be easy. You’ll be tired, sore, hungry, sweating, freezing, and sometimes drenched to the bone, but that may not stand up to the mental problems of being bored, lonely, or homesick. Determination is key when those things come creeping up on you.
Plan far ahead in advance, make sure that you’re in peak physical condition, have enough money and time to complete your hike, and temper your expectations, and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime. Other than that, the only thing left to do is to take that first step onto the trail.