Ask a Thru-Hiker: What Can I Do in January to Prep for a Long Hike?

The trails are still covered in snow, but it’s not too late to start getting ready for your first thru-hike.
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Snowy Appalachian Trail

Snow on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Dear Snorkel,

I know thru-hiking season is months away, but I’m already dreaming of hitting the trail. What can I do now to prepare for a thru-hike in April?

—Chomping at the Bit

Dear Chomping,

It seems ages away from thru-hiking season, but with New Year’s resolutions fresh in our minds and the cold weather keeping us from distractions, January is a great time to start prepping for your spring departure. Start knocking off these tasks now for an easier hike later.

Train your body and mind.

Experts think it takes about 5 weeks to form a habit, so doing something—anything—to make moving part of your daily routine will get you on track for your thru-hike. While hiking itself is the best training for a thru-hike, depending on where you live, it’s often not possible this time of year. As an alternative, go on a walk for 20 minutes or longer. If there are stairwells nearby that you can incorporate into your routine, use them to get your body ready for elevation gain. If you’re busy, divide your activity into chunks: Go for a walk during your lunch break, or after work as you catch up with friends on the phone. After a few weeks, add a daypack with 10 pounds of weight to up the difficulty.

These little bits of exercise will strengthen your feet and ankles—important, since these tiny, unsexy muscles take more strain on a thru-hike than almost any other part of your body. And if you wear some of your hiking clothes and shoes, you’ll get an idea of what feels comfortable or works for your needs, especially in cold weather.

Practice setting up your gear.

The more familiar you are with your gear, the easier it is to get camp set up when you’re cold or hungry after a day of hiking. I find that many first-time thru-hikers get stressed and eventually quit the trail early because they’re having a miserable experience struggling with their equipment in the rain and dark.

If you don’t feel like venturing out to your backyard or a park to set up your tent, you can do it inside your home. Buy some sandbags or large bags of bulk beans or white rice, or find some large rocks to stake out your tent’s guylines. (Alternatively, you can tie them around heavy chair or table legs.) Practice breaking down your tent quickly, as well; With enough practice, the process should take 5-10 minutes.

Master packing and unpacking.

Camp chores can be exhausting after a day of thru-hiking, so it pays to have your brain automate the process as much as possible. It’s a lot easier to take your time figuring out where each gear item goes in your pack when you’re making that decision in your warm home instead of a cold backcountry campsite. Once you’ve settled on a way of loading your gear, unpack it and repack it each night. Soon enough, the process will become routine.

Happy hiking,

Snorkel