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I watch documentaries and read books about thru-hiking that show hikers at beautiful vista points, waist-deep fords, and encountering bears. But surely it can’t all be like that. What does a real thru-hiker’s day-to-day schedule look like?
Dear Cinema Critic,
Documentaries can be a great way to learn about the highs and lows of a thru-hike. But you’re right. Much of thru-hiking (like real life) can feel routine after doing it day-after-day.
While the first time setting up a tent may be memorable, like most things, it starts to feel normal or even like a chore after you’ve done it for 100 nights in a row. The initial blast of skills and different ways of living a hiker learns at the beginning is why most thru-hikers report they remember the first few weeks of their thru-hike a lot more than the middle or the end. Some people get bored after they’ve learned and normalized the day-to-day of hiker life, which is one reason why so many quit mid-trail.
I believe that drawing out your ideal day-to-day schedule, even if no day actually ends up looking exactly like it, allows you to set expectations for how you’d like to conduct your hike.
First, regardless of your hiking style, thru-hikers spend less time in camp than most backpackers. Especially on Western trails where temperature differences between night and day can be significant, thru-hikers often rise at dawn (or before) to have as many daylight hours to hike as possible. Most skip elaborate backcountry meals like pancakes on a skillet (cookware beyond a simple pot is often too heavy for most thru-hikers—plus, there’s no time for clean up). Instead, many thru-hikers eat food bars or PopTarts as they walk or down a quick meal like instant oatmeal before starting the day.
Most of a thru-hiker’s day is spent walking, not camping or hanging out by lakes. If a thru-hiker walks 8 hours per day at 2 miles per hour, they’ll have covered 16 miles by the end of the day. While that may not sound like a lot, it’s doing it day after day that makes thru-hikers extraordinary.
Even that may not be enough: at that 16-mile-per-day pace, it’ll take a hiker 136 days to finish the Appalachian Trail—4.5 months. With just one day off per week, it would take that same hiker more than 5 months to finish the AT. On thru-hikes that take 5 months or more, a hiker likely will start and/or end their trip in the snow. That’s why most thru-hikers end up walking far more than 8 hours a day—sometimes as many as 14 hours per day during the middle of the summer.
Here’s what a day on trail looks like for me and many other thru-hikers. While this schedule changes depending on the time of year and my latitude (which impacts time of first and last light), this should give you an idea of a mid-August day in Colorado.
5:45 AM Wake up at first light. Start packing up and breaking down camp.
6:00 AM Stuff breakfast bars in my pocket for an on-the-go meal and start walking.
8:00 AM Take a break to shed layers and put on sunscreen. Grab more food to eat while walking.
10:00 AM More snacks. Fill up water bottles. Keep walking.
12:00 PM Take a lunch break away from the trail (preferably outside of viewing distance from other hikers to be Leave No Trace). Dry out tent and gear like sleeping bags and rain jackets. Take off shoes and socks to let them dry out. Dry out feet and do some footcare. Reapply sunscreen. Review maps and guidebooks. Check for upcoming water and campsites ahead.
12:30 or 1:00 PM Pack up and get back on the trail feeling rested.
3:00 PM Snack break. Fill up water bottles. (Don’t forget to hydrate and take electrolytes during the afternoon.) When hiking through the hot desert, some hikers may take a siesta in the shade during this time.
5:00 PM Still walking. Grab a last snack to eat on the way. If I’m feeling tired, I might sit down for a break.
7:00 PM Start thinking about collecting water for use for the night (if dry camping). Keep an eye on the terrain for upcoming campsites.
7:30 PM Choose a campsite. Put on extra layers. Set up tent. Cook and eat dinner. Care for feet. Sponge bathe far from water. Review maps for tomorrow.
8:30 PM Sleep.
Keep in mind that this schedule is just an example. It doesn’t reflect the truly exciting parts of trail life: seeing a bear or other wildlife, adjusting the schedule based on an upcoming storm, or changing pace to hike with someone you’ve met and befriended on the trail.
Much like in real life, our daily schedule on the trail is just a backdrop for the truly wondrous parts. But having an “everyday chores” schedule sets us up for a successful thru-hike. Once we know what it is we “have” to do to hike a long trail, it frees us to embrace the spontaneity of life on a long-distance path. The less mental energy we spend deciding how to get our camp chores done, the more we can spend on safely navigating that river ford or appreciating the mountain vista.