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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it. Normally, you’d need to be an Outside+ member to read it, but we’re sharing this column with everyone to give you a taste of what you’re missing. Get Liz’s advice, plus all of Backpacker’s members-only skills coverage, in-depth stories from the trail, destination reports with interactive maps, full-length gear reviews, and more by becoming an Outside+ member today.
I leave for my thru-hike soon, and I’ll be gone for several months. Besides gear and training, it feels like there’s so much to do. What conversations should I expect to have with family, friends, and my work colleagues before I set off?
(Not So) Ready to Go
Tying up loose ends during the last weeks before a thru-hike can be hectic. The bright side: Once you’re on trail, your life will get a lot simpler.
In a previous article, I discussed how the best way to prep for long hikes is to anticipate what can take you off trail. For many folks, it’s injury or gear failures. But running out of cash and emergencies at home rank high on that list, too. That’s why I think the best way to prep your friends, colleagues, and loved ones for your thru-hike is to set expectations with them.
For family and loved ones, it’s important you’re all on the same page about how often should they should expect to hear from you and how to know approximately where you are. Give them a copy of your itinerary, which should include when you’ll be in towns that will have cell reception. Discuss how long they should wait to hear from you, and what emergency steps they should make if they don’t.
You’ll also want to consider how to handle day-to-day and month-to-month responsibilities you won’t be able to manage while hiking. If someone is watching your pets, plants, or house while you are out hiking, set aside money from your hiking fund for emergencies and designate a point person to deal with them. Wherever possible, automate your non-hiking life to function without help. Cancel subscriptions and utility bills like internet you won’t need while you’re gone. Set up auto-pay on recurring bills that can’t be paused. Remember to budget for monthly charges that you can’t get out of, like loan payments, credit card and cell phone bills, and (if you can’t sublet) rent, mortgage, or a storage unit.
Decide what kind of situations will require you to get off trail and which emergencies your support system at home can deal with themselves. If a pet gets sick, home repair issue comes up, or a distant relative passes, will you leave the trail? Decide this before you leave. The best way to empower others to handle your usual tasks is to leave them contact info for trusted plumbers, veterinarians, or neighbors and friends who can help.
If you’ve managed to take a hike without quitting your job, you’ll want to make sure your colleagues, who have probably never thru-hiked, understand your situation. I’ve found it’s better for all parties when you operate under the assumption you will be impossible to contact, even if that isn’t exactly the case. It’s no fun dealing with client phone calls from ridgetops during a thru-hike, and it’s difficult to be a reliable team player when the wind is howling in the background and cell service drops.
On a deeper level, it’s not exactly reasonable to expect hikers to make office issues a priority when what’s really on their mind is more immediate problems like that storm on the horizon or how to get to the next water source before running dry. Let your work contacts know you will be out for several months and send an introductory email to let them know who they should contact while you are hiking.
Mitigating problems at home is important, but it’s also imperative to let folks at home know how they can help you succeed. Everyone has bad days on trail, and you may reach a point where you’ll need extra encouragement. By making them aware that at some point you may need a morale boost, it lets them know that their reaction shouldn’t be to encourage you to quit. Instead, their texts, cards, and care packages can help get you over the slump, just like cheering on runners at a marathon.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that while you’re hiking, the folks at home will want and miss your attention, too. You may be out on the adventure of your life, but it’s important to listen to their news, even if the story of someone’s birthday party seems a world away from the epic adventure you’re living.
Consider creating a plan with loved ones to have them visit you on trail. You will miss each other, but that doesn’t mean you have to quit hiking to see each other for the entirety of your hike. If it’s possible, budget for them to visit you or propose a place and time for them to visit on their own dime.(Just make them promise not to take you back home afterward.)
The most awkward discussion you should have with your friends and family is what happens if you run out of money. Many hikers, especially younger hikers, find a thru-hike more expensive than anticipated. Are you willing to take on credit card debt? Is there a loved one willing to give you a loan? How low can the bank account go before you let others know? Hopefully, this will not be an issue on your hike, but like all pre-thru-hike discussions, it’s better to talk about the problem ahead of time than waiting until a moment of desperation.
Your solutions will be unique to you and your lifestyle at home, but what’s important is that you have these conversations together. You and your family and friends will feel better about the process you set up to deal with problems that could happen while you’re on trail. After all, thru-hiking may not be a team sport, but that doesn’t mean you need to go it alone.