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Pre-Trip Planning

5 Mistakes That Can End Your Thru-Hike (and How to Avoid Them)

From training to planning, prep right to maximize your chances of going the distance.

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This is Ask a Thru-Hiker, where record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your questions about life on the trail. 

Dear Snorkel,

I leave for my thru-hike in a month. I’m excited—and anxiety-ridden. There’s so much to do before leaving for months away from home. What’s the best use of the time that I have left? Training? Dehydrating food?

(Not so) Ready to Go

Dear Ready,

The best way to spend the month before a thru-hike is to think about all the things that could take you off trail and figure out how you can prevent them from happening. For the hikers I know who have quit a thru-hike before (including myself), the most common causes are injury, deflated morale, running out of money, and an emergency back at home. The best use of your time is setting yourself up for success to prevent these issues from getting in your way. Spend the last month before your hike training and also having discussions with folks at home to help with emergencies and morale boosts.

According to some sources, 30% of AT hikers quit within the first week. So start with that first week: What can you do to keep it fun and relatively pain-free? I would argue the best way is by training your body and prepping it for what to expect on trail. 

Train, especially your feet. Physical fitness from training hikes helps prevent injury and morale loss from gear failures. On the AT, PCT, and CDT, I’ve seen folks quit over injuries like sprained ankles or painful blisters. Do yourself a favor and walk as much as you can—ideally with your loaded backpack on uneven ground in your hiking shoes.

If you’re working at a computer, consider using a standing desk. Ankle and foot muscles take longer to strengthen than leg muscles. The better your feet and ankles can accommodate weight for hours at a time, the less likely they will be to succumb to injury during the first weeks of your hike. 

That being said—don’t overdo it. Gradually ramp up mileage. Train slowly and go slower than your leg muscles think they can go. Your feet will thank you.

Read More: Should You Thru-Hike in 2021?

Use your thru-hiking gear. I’m a fan of what I call the mock overnighter: Take all your backpacking gear on a day hike, set up camp a few miles in, take a nap or cook up a meal, and then head back home. The process gets your muscle memory set for doing camp chore routines. Having your routine dialed in can make setting up camp in the cold or rain a much faster experience, which keeps your morale high.

On a weekend backpacking trip, if you don’t know how to set up your tent correctly, one wet night makes a funny story to tell friends. On a thru-hike, a wet night and poor sleep sets you up for a difficult day, and often, the effects just keep piling up. Enough bad days, and you might just find yourself packing it in.

 Test your gear in poor weather. If you have access to a yard or park, set up your tent in the rain and wind. Walk around the block in your rain gear in a storm. Snow in the forecast? Set up your tent and sleep in the backyard.Manufacturing less-than-ideal circumstances for yourself in low-stakes settings gets your mind ready for when those less-than-ideal circumstances happen in remote wilderness far from help.

Some folks say gear problems lead to quitting long trails, but I think loss of morale (or loss of money from replacing gear) is the real culprit.. The best thru-hiking gear is the gear that works so well, you can focus on the scenery and your health instead of the stuff you carry. The better you know your gear and its quirks, the less likely gear issues are to distract you as you’re hiking.

Acclimatize: If you have a few days to spare, I’d recommend hanging out in the climate of the trail you’ll be starting and spending as much time outdoors there as possible. You don’t necessarily need to train there. Organize gear on a porch or go for tourist walks around town as a goodbye trip with loved ones—either way, it gets your body accustomed to the altitude, temperature, and humidity of the area. More than one East Coaster has found their body poorly adapted to the dry air of the PCT or CDT’s southern terminus. It’s common for altitude sickness to humble those starting the Colorado Trail.

Resist the urge to look too far ahead: A thru-hike takes months, and a lot can happen in that time. Don’t stress yourself out trying to anticipate everything that could happen. I would recommend planning for just the first few weeks of trail. Let planning for other sections go to the backburner: Unless you have special dietary needs, skip dehydrating food or making up boxes. You can always do that planning and food gathering in a trail town on a rest day. By then, you’ll better know your daily mileage, food preferences, and gear needs.