Planning a Thru-Hike? Here Are Some Tips to Get You Ready – Physically & Mentally

Your equipment is purchased, your route is planned, your research is done, and your goals are in sight.  Now, how do you prepare your mind and body for that first step, first day, and first weeks out on the trial? 

If a thru-hike is in your future, I’m willing to bet you’ve heard of the “Triple Crown of Hiking” which refers to the big three:

Appalachian Trail – 2180 miles

Pacific Crest Trail – 2650 miles

Continental Divide Trail – 3100 miles

As illustrated in the sheer number of miles above, thru-hiking is not for the faint of heart. The last thing you want to do is hit the trail while physically or mentally unprepared.  The quality of your days during your adventure will improve significantly and your chances of success will increase if you prepare properly.  Training will also decrease the possibility of overuse injuries.

The trade-off for seeing and experiencing some of the most pristine, untouched, and spectacular scenery on the planet is the sore calves, aching quads, and days when you just want to quit and catch the next ride back home.  But fear not, if your will is strong, and you’ve properly prepared yourself, nothing is going to get in the way of the goal you have set. 

Mental Preparation

Mental preparation is just as important, and in some cases, more so than physical preparation.  Ask any person who successfully completed a thru-hike how many times they contemplated quitting and their answer may surprise you.  In the beginning it may have crossed their minds every day.  How can you avoid letting these thoughts consume your hike? 

  • Ask why. Before departing on your journey you should ask yourself some important questions.  The number one question being why.  What are your personal reasons for embarking on this journey?  These reasons should be at the front of your mind when you begin the hike and when times get tough.  You have a lot of time to think out there.    2000+ miles with yourself; reflection and attitude will play a large role.  
  • What will happen? Also ask yourself what you might possibly do if you leave the trail early and do not finish to the end.  Will you try again next year?  Will you find a new hobby altogether?  What happens when you succeed?  Could this be your newfound passion; can you afford to make it a continuous hobby?  Wrapping your head around this lifestyle that will consume months of your life will prepare you for what is to come.
  • Tell people. You’re excited about this massive endeavor you have decided on.  Tell your loved ones, friends, acquaintances, shout it from the rooftops.  It will cement your decision and the support you gain will be the words you remember on the trail when times get tough.  Even critics of your decision can be helpful.  Sometimes proving someone wrong is the best way to keep your drive alive.   
  • Thru-hiking classes. Your research may have uncovered workshops that are offered at certain times of the year for people interested in these types of hikes.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers classes taught by accredited instructors and cover a wide variety of subjects. 

Physical Preparation

The level of preparation needed to cover thousands of miles on the trail varies with each individual.  Your current fitness level and health play a vital part in how much preparation you need.  The early days of the hike itself will also significantly develop your fitness level.  The following are a few areas to focus on.

Aerobic Training

To build confidence and momentum for your hiking adventure, walk frequently and participate in other forms of aerobic fitness like cycling, running, swimming, and group fitness classes.  This will also help you build a solid aerobic base.

Resistance Training

Targeted strength training will help your body manage the physical stress on the trail.  Strength training like planks, squats, and lunges will help fortify your muscles.  Also, work your legs.  Any leg-based cardio will contribute to your preparation, although there is no substitute for long walks. 

Right Steps

Strange as it may sound, your way of walking could be wrong.  The tiniest defect in your stride on a steep terrain can build up into an incredibly painful problem.  When walking, make sure you touch the ground heel first, then roll onto your toe, which you use to spring into the next step.  This will help you reduce the risk of tendon pulls and shin splints. Walk with your head help up and keep your shoulders level.

Mix Up the Terrain

While training, try to mimic the conditions of the hiking terrain.  Training on flat, uniform surfaces is futile because the trail will not consist of a level track.  Bring your loaded pack with you for some training sessions.  You do not want the weight of your pack to shock you on day one of your journey.  Also, walk with the hiking boots and socks you plan to wear on your thru-hike.  Get used to them and break them in. 

The Day Has Come

The first few days will prove to be some of the most challenging times on your hike.  Do not be discouraged and tell yourself you’re a lousy, horrible thru-hiker and must quit immediately.  Give yourself a break.  When was the last time you began a 2100+ mile journey in which you were walking all day, every day?  There was no last time.  This is the beginning and your body must get used to this being your new normal for the next 4+ months.  Remind yourself that in a few weeks, your personal routine will be a life of living to hike and hiking to live. 

Set small goals for yourself.  Psych yourself up for that landmark you want to reach or that first day you will hike 15 miles.  Take the hike one day at a time.  Taking it little by little will surprise you at how quickly the time will start passing.  Before you know it you will be celebrating the 1000-mile mark, then 2000…

Enjoy it.  Do not get so wrapped up in the stressors that you forget to appreciate the reason you are out there in the first place.  Anyone attempting a thru-hike undoubtedly appreciates nature and what it has to offer.  Stop at the overlook and let your breath be taken away by the beautiful vastness of land and sky in front of you.  Revel in the peaceful, foggy mornings as you climb out of your tent and prepare for the day.  Listen to the frogs croaking in the distant pond as you drift off to a hard, well deserved sleep.  I promise you those are the moments on the trail that you will remember the most.      

List to your Body!  This is huge.  A mentally and emotionally drained soul cannot face each day with a smile and injuries can often occur when you’re overwhelmed.  You also cannot make it to the end if you push your limits on a hurting ankle or blistered, infected feet.  Know when to take a “zero day,” meaning get yourself to the next town and nurse your body back to health.  Only then will you be refreshed and ready to continue the journey. 

Maintaining a resilient attitude and open mind in handling challenges is critical beginning on day one of your hike.  Confronting mishaps, doubt, fear, and weariness with courage and toughness will be the difference between returning home with your dreams crushed and making it to Katahdin…or the Canadian border…or whatever your destination may be.  Happy trails!