21 Tips For the First-Time Thru-Hiker

Dave on Half Dome Summit - Yosemite NP


21 Tips For the First-Time Thru-Hiker

Completing a thru-hike will be one of the most profoundly rewarding achievements of your life. It’s a completely transformative experience. You’ll spend months communing with nature, build jaw-dropping endurance, and develop lasting friendships along the way. Mustering up the courage to set out on your first thru-hike just might be the best decisions you ever make.

Oh yeah, it’ll also be tough as hell and you’ll wish you were dead. Okay, maybe I’m being slightly melodramatic, but thru-hiking is no walk in the park (Pun intended. I just couldn’t resist. I blame my father). Here are a few trail-tested tips to get you started on what will surely be one of the toughest and most enriching adventures of your life. 

Meet The Big Three US Thru-Hikes:

Appalachian Trail (AT) – 2,180 Miles from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Mountain range – The granddaddy of all thru-hikes. The AT passes through 14 states and is the most popular US thru-hiking trail.

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – 2,650 Miles from Mexico to Canada – Rides the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges a few hundred miles east of the Pacific Coast. The PCT passes through California, Oregon, and Washington.

Continental Divide Trail (CDT) – 3,100 Miles from Mexico to Canada – Rides the Rocky Mountain range along the continental divide of the US. Passes through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

Tip 1) Study Up - Do Your Research

You’re reading this post, so you’re off to a great start! Gold star. It’s not time for a Snickers celebration just yet, but you’ll get there soon enough.

You might be surprised by how unprepared some first-time thru-hikers are when they first get to the trail. Your first thru-hike won’t be like any other backpacking trip you’ve ever taken, so don’t expect to prepare the same way or bring the same gear.

You’ll need much lighter equipment, you’ll need to learn new trail skills, and you’ll face a variety of logistical challenges along the way. So spend a good amount of time getting ready before you step on the trail. I've included a bunch of helpful resources throughout this article to get you started. You won’t truly figure it all out until you actually get out there to see what works best for you. Just don’t be that guy expecting to wing it. It usually doesn’t end well for that guy.

PCT - Yosemite

2) Know The Pitfalls – Then Avoid Them

The tough truth is that most people setting out to complete a thru-hike don’t make it the entire way. If you want to be part of the minority that do, it’s good to know where others have fallen short. Knowing these common pitfalls will help you to avoid an early exit.

Common Reasons for Quitting

  • Unrealistic expectations
    • It’s easy to romanticize the idea of thru-hiking from the comfort of your couch, but it doesn’t always feel that way on the trail. Your hike will take many months of very hard work. It won’t always be exciting and the terrain won’t always be picturesque. It will be intensely rewarding, just don’t expect an easy stroll.
  • Mental fatigue
    • Thru-hiking is tough on your body, and even tougher on your brain. There will be times where you’re exhausted, sore, hungry, cold, filthy, and wet. There will also be times where you’re homesick, lonely, and bored out of your mind. It takes mental fortitude not to give up in those moments. Just remember, it will get better and there’s only one way to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.
  • Running out of time/ money 
    • This is an area where planning is key. Falling too far behind schedule and spending over your budget are two ways to quickly diminish your chances of making it through to the end. Put together a loose plan, track your progress, and pay close attention to your finances. 
  • Physical injury/ sickness
    • Thru-hiking puts an incredible amount of stress on your muscles, bones, and joints. It’s critical that you take excellent care of your body while you hike. With the right training, preparation, and daily stretching you’ll keep your body running strong. Injuries and illnesses that take weeks to heal will likely end your trip early.
  • Family/ life events
    • Sometimes life gets in the way of a thru-hike and there’s nothing you can do about it. The trail will be there waiting for you when you’re ready to get back on it.  

3) Define Success – Then Go Get It

Get specific about what you want to achieve. That will keep you focused on important milestones and make future decisions easier. For example, is your goal to walk every step of the trail, even if that means trudging through snow-covered sections or enduring long road-walking detours? Maybe your journey is more about personal exploration and less about rigid measurement. Whatever your aim is, be honest with yourself and get specific about what success looks like for you.

PCT - Southern CA

4) Get Your Gear Weight Down – Way Down

Your first thru-hike won’t be like any other backpacking trip you’ve ever taken, so don’t pack like it. Trekking long miles isn’t about brute strength, it’s about efficiency. The less your pack weighs, the more efficiently you’ll be able to cover miles and the less stress you’ll put on your body.

Most beginners ditch several pounds of unnecessary gear within the first week of their trek. Many also wish they had a invested in lighter equipment. So, get serious about bringing your gear weight down well before you get on the trail.

Helpful Links – Ultralight Gear Recommendations - Lightweight Backpacking Foundations Video Series.

5) Prioritize Your Thru-Hike

It’s a guarantee that life will try to get in the way of your thru-hike. If you want to reach your goal, you’ll need to make your thru-hike the number one focus, both on and off the trail. This is key while your prepare and while you’re on the trail. Fully commit to your hike, make the necessary sacrifices, and you’ll be far more likely to succeed.

6) Improve Through Practice

The best way to get into great hiking shape is to hike. The best way to learn about new hiking gear is to use it in the field. The best way to experience what a thru-hike feels like is to go on more backpacking trips. The more training you do before your thru-hike, the better mentally and physically prepared you'll be to succeed. Even short overnight trips will boost your fitness, help you cut your pack weight, and increase your confidence. The best way to get better at something is to spend more time doing it.

PCT - Crater Lake

7) Get The Money Right

Running out of cash is a surefire way to end your trek early. Plan ahead and track your budget along the way. Hotel stays, restaurant bills, and rest days in town will eat into your budget, but they’re also huge for your sanity. You’ll also need cash for resupply food, gear repair/ replacement, postage, and laundry. The average hiker probably spends about $1,000 per month on the trail, but that really depends on your hiking style. Some do it for far less and some ball out.

8) Arrange Social Support

You’ll make new friends on the trail, but it’s also common to feel lonely and homesick. Simple comforts like postcards and care packages from loved ones can make a world of difference. Tell your family and friends about your trek and let them know some dates and locations that they can send notes/ small food packages. Just make sure to be very specific about what you’re looking for. Nobody wants to lug around a 10-pound summer sausage that Aunt Gina sent.

9) Go Easy On Resupply – Save Time & Money

Obsessing too much about resupply packages can be a big waste of time and money. Don’t get me wrong, resupply strategy is a critical part of any thru-hike and a very personal choice, just be careful not to overdo it.

Most of the trail towns along the AT and PCT see hundreds of thru-hikers every year. They know what hikers need and their businesses stock up for hiking season. It usually costs much more to ship a bunch of food packages than it would to buy the same exact food at a small store along the way. Also, your food preferences will change over time and you’ll find that you’re tired of eating the meals you thought you’d want months ago.

The main disadvantage to trail-town resupply is that you won’t have the same variety. Make up for that by sending yourself a few smaller packages at tougher resupply points along the trail.

Helpful Link - Lightweight Trail Food Video

PCT - Oregon Sunset

10) Hike Your Own Hike

This is a popular saying in the hiking community that you’ll likely hear a lot. All it really means is that you should focus on what’s best for you during your hike. Don’t feel pressure to conform to anyone else’s hiking style or standards. There are a million ways to have a great hike, so stay true to what’s right for you.  

11) Go Solo or Partner - Just Keep Autonomy

Hiking with a long-time friend or loved one can be a great way to tackle a thru-hike, but you do have to be careful. Traveling for 5-6 months with anybody is hard, and when you throw in the daily stresses of trail life, relationships can easily falter. Give your hiking partner plenty of space and bring separate gear. If you support and respect each other, your connection will become stronger than ever. 

You can also set out on your own and make friends along the way. The thru-hiking community is friendly and you'll meet lots of people traveling on the same schedule. The AT and PCT have strong social scenes. The CDT isn't nearly as developed.  

12) Stretch Often - And Then Stretch More

Stress injuries are common among long-distance hikers and the best way to avoid them is through regular stretching. Take a few minutes to stretch your calves, quads, and hamstrings every morning, evening, and during rest breaks. It’s easy to neglect stretching, especially when you’re tired – which will pretty much be all the time – but keeping up with a stretching regimen is crucial to your success.

Yosemite Valley - Just off the official PCT

13) Listen To Your Body – It’s Smart

Pace yourself in the beginning and build up daily mileage as your legs get stronger. Sometimes your body will tell you that you need to rest or go slower. When that happens, listen to it. Slowing down and taking rest days can help you avoid injuries and mental fatigue. Pushing through pain will inevitably be part of your hike, but if you push too hard, you won’t be around long enough to see the finish line.

14) Love Your Feet – They Have A Tough Job

Taking excellent care of your feet is crucial for completing any thru-hike. Your feet are your vehicle. They carry you and everything keeping you alive. If your feet hurt, every step will hurt - and you’re going to take around 25 million steps. So treat your feet like the champions they are.

The majority of thru-hikers wear a combination of lightweight running shoes, synthetic socks, and running gaiters. That combination will let your feet breathe, keep weight down, and minimizes blistering.

Helpful Links - 5 Reasons to Ditch Your Hiking BootsLightweight Footwear & Trekking Poles Video.

15) It’s Not A Race – Last Place Wins

Thru-hiking is not a race. Unless you’re trying to set a speed record or something. Then it’s a race. Quite literally.

For the vast majority of thru-hikers, the trip not a race, so don’t treat it like one. It’s easy to get swept up in competitive thinking while you’re hiking for months on end. How many miles are you averaging per day? Who’s “ahead” of you? Who’s “behind” you? None of that crap really matters and that type of thinking can actually do more harm than good. Focus on a pace that’s best for your body, stick with hikers that have a similar style, and take time to enjoy the trip. Anybody that makes it through to the end is a winner.

PCT - Sierras

16) Keep A Flexible Schedule – Within Reason

Sticking to an exact schedule won’t work, so don’t put your body and mind through the stress. Have a general timeline and track your pace as you go. Just don’t live and die by your schedule, because it will rarely be spot on. Giving yourself room for flexibility is key. Also, be cautious about scheduling trail meet-ups or events on specific dates. It’s nearly impossible to know where you’ll be on the trail months in advance.

17) Learn To Love Hiking – Even The Uphill Part

There will be no shortage of tough climbs on your thru-hike, so there’s no point worrying about them. After all, nature is rarely flat. But there can still be a lot of joy in hiking, even on the tough stretches. Learning to smile throughout the ups and downs of the trail will keep you sane and boost your morale. After a few weeks your legs will work like machines, so don’t sweat it. If you’re always dreading the next big climb, it’ll be a very long walk.

18) Prepare For Mental Fatigue

Completing a thru-hike is primarily a mental battle. Your legs will get rock-hard and you endurance will skyrocket. But 5-6 months is a long time for your mind to wander in the woods. Keeping a level head while your tired, wet, cold, sore, bored, and hungry is really the name of the game.

There are lots of ways take mental breaks along the way that will keep you composed. Brief stints of reading, writing, photography, videography, music, and podcasts are common ways that thru-hikers take the edge off. Everyone deals with mental challenges differently, so make sure to find a system that will work for you.

Mt. Rainier from the PCT

19) Positive Mental Attitude - The Key To Success

Having a positive mental attitude is probably the most important trait for completing a thru-hike. Knowing how to smile when the chips are down is an essential trail skill. Unwavering commitment, mental toughness, and downright stubbornness don’t hurt either. And it’s always important to remember, you could be sitting in a cubicle pounding on a keyboard instead.

20) You Can Do It – Even When You Think You Can’t

At the end of the day, thru-hiking is just a lot of walking. With enough time, perpetration, and dedication you can do it. You don’t have to be a world-class athlete or a zen master to be successful. I know it sounds tough - and it will be - but if you fully prepare and commit, you can do it. Humans can accomplish truly amazing things when they focus and work hard. You are no different.

21) Get Out There – There’s No Time Like Now

So, what are you waiting for? At the end of the day, there’s only so much preparation you can really do. Eventually you just have to get out there and hike. You’ll make some blunders in the beginning, your body will be sore as hell, and it will be really difficult. But you’ll quickly learn, your body will adapt, and you’ll gain confidence with every step. 

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Additional Thru-Hiking Resources:

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