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.
I’m starting my first thru-hike in 5 months. There’s a lot of planning and training to do, but since it’s winter right now, I’m finding myself less motivated to hike at the moment. What’s the best use of my time and resources?
All Revved Up
It’s never too early to start getting ready for a thru-hike. From researching gear to gathering maps and training, there’s many different ways to prepare. The good news: At 5 months out, you’ve still got time to get your body ready, gear system dialed in, and skills up to snuff.
Before you start anything, make sure that you have the necessary permits to hike your dream trail. The permit reservation process in some instances starts 6 months out, so get those squared away before you read on.
If you’re hiking in a country other than where you are a resident, you may need to secure visas. Many long trails take months to hike, which means a typical tourist visa often won’t cut it. You may need to renew passports, visit consulates, or physically mail your passport to a processing office to obtain your visa. Some countries may require vaccines, including the Covid vaccine, to enter. Bureaucracy will often be the slowest part of your trail prep and one that is easy to forget. Get visas as soon as you can.
Train your mind: This is a perfect time of year to take indoor classes on outdoor skills. I recommend thru-hikers take a wilderness first aid class before starting their journey; unlike a more comprehensive wilderness first responder class, you can knock out this two-day course in a weekend. With any luck, you won’t need to use the skills you learn, but the class will give you confidence in worst-case scenarios and will teach you the steps to protect yourself and others.
If your local gear store offers courses on map and compass navigation, winter navigation, or even ice axe skills, sign up for them. Learning with others and the help of an instructor will keep you accountable and is one of the best uses of your time to prepare for a long hike. These courses are designed to efficiently train you in skills you need.
Winter is also an ideal time to get motivated by watching documentaries and reading books and blogs about your upcoming thru-hike. If you have the chance to watch a trail movie with loved ones, that will also mentally prepare them for what you will be doing. Trail documentaries or videos are also good conversation starters for talking about tough topics with loved ones, such as whether you will leave the trail for family emergencies. It’s almost as important to mentally prepare your family for your hike as it is to mentally prepare yourself: They can be your support system or an obstacle to achieving your dreams–and much of how they react will be based on your open conversations to assuage their concerns.
Five months out is also a good time to start thinking about gear. Talk with past hikers–especially if they are similar in age, fitness, and experience level as you–to get an idea of what you should bring, or read a gear list on a site like Backpacker. Many hikers start with one tent or backpack only to discover several weeks into a thru-hike that it doesn’t suit them. By learning from other hikers what does and doesn’t work, you (hopefully) can avoid those expensive mistakes. Try to rent or borrow (or at least see in person) the products that you are thinking about purchasing. This will give you a better idea of sizing, a chance to see whether it is comfortable or warm enough, or an opportunity to practice setting up shelters and loading backpacks.
Lastly but most importantly, start your physical training now. While fit young often can roll up to the trail without training, this gets harder and harder with age.
Your main goal with physical training isn’t necessarily speed. Instead, your goal is to avoid the type of injuries that will take you off trail for good. In my experience, foot and ankle muscles take longer to build up than leg muscles. Many thru-hikers push their mileage too hard in the beginning, relying on the strength of their legs, and suffer injuries in their lower extremities that press pause on their hike.
Carrying a backpack for eight or more hours per day can also be a challenge for back, shoulder, and core muscles. Climbing stairs–especially with a weighted backpack–is excellent prep for long mountain climbs. Long walks, increasing the amount of time you spend standing, wearing a weighted pack, and strength training are all good ways you can prepare your feet, even when weather makes hiking outdoors less pleasant.
Hiking is an endurance sport, so you’ll have to dedicate time to your prep. Practice with low-impact long-duration activities. After all, a thru-hike is primarily walking all day. Catch up with friends by going for a long walk together (or call an old friend for a long chat on the phone as you walk). Listen to an audiobook or podcast while on a walk. Modern life and cities aren’t designed for all-day movement, so the more movement you can put into your life, the better you will be prepared for what you’ll encounter day-to-day on your thru-hike.