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Every afternoon near the start of my first thru-hike, I knew just where I’d find the hiker named Poncho—and that he’d greet me with advice that would help me finish the Appalachian Trail.
A few years earlier, Poncho, a fifty-something auto mechanic from Boston, had found his real home (and that nickname) on the Appalachian Trail. He had fallen in love with the path’s subtle majesty and social fabric. Early each spring, he’d return to Georgia to start his annual pilgrimage up through the other side of his home state, Massachusetts, en route to the trail’s northern endpoint. Poncho had become something of an idiosyncratic guru in the process, an intriguing hiker who would slip out of shelters long before dawn and stop in the midafternoon 20 miles up trail to build a fire and rest for the following day’s long walk.
A compact and wiry man with an exquisite salt-and-pepper beard, Poncho seemed to glow when he talked about the Appalachian Trail, proselytizing on its virtues like he’d unlocked the meaning of life. Whenever I lumbered into camp, hours after his arrival, he’d be warming his toes and drying his reptilian five-toed shoes by the fire. He always offered friendly words of welcome: “Hey kid, you got what it takes,” he once yelled, his Boston accent scuffed by a longtime love of Black & Mild cigars—the first thing he’d seek out in every trail town. “Now you just gotta learn to tolerate it!”
But Poncho had more than motivational mantras. He would tell my fledging trail family of thru-hikers about learning to carry only enough water to make it to the next stop, or figuring out how much food to tote to avoid the dreaded “hanger.” He taught us about good hostels and great restaurants, difficult sections and daily routines. What’s more, his lessons tacitly acknowledged that long-distance hiking was an endless educational process, so it was OK if we rookies didn’t have all the answers—we had plenty of time and miles to discover them.
Poncho eventually sped ahead, churning out 30-mile days while we were still inching toward 25. But I would occasionally spot a five-toed footprint in the mud, certain it was his. (He’s still the only hiker I’ve ever met who swore by the things.) I continued following Poncho’s toes north, trusting that I was indeed learning to tolerate it.
I’m still no expert in thru-hiking, and I’m not sure such a thing exists. Nevertheless, I’ve combined a bit of Poncho’s wisdom, a bit of my own, and much I’ve acquired from other trekkers into ten pointers that, if you’re new to thru-hiking this year, may help you along your way. You got what it takes, kid.
Tips for Beginner Thru-Hikers to Nail Your First Trail
1. Buy a Buff. Get creative with how you use it.
Since the benchmark for backpacking gear holds that every item you carry should have at least two uses, the humble Buff—that is, the ubiquitous brand of the common neck gaiter—is worth its weight in gold. Cold? Put it over your face, and let your nose and mouth warm you. Hot? Wrap it around your neck to shield sun and wick sweat. If you’re willing to get creative, it can function as underwear, a bra, a pillowcase, a camp towel, a rag, a mask, a wound wrap, and a dozen other things.
2. Always swim. You’ll never regret it.
During any long hike, as in life, you will make endless choices, and each decision will bend your metaphorical and literal paths in unquantifiable ways. So don’t let regret become part of your thru-hiking. Perhaps the only moments I regret from every thru-hike are the instances when I decided not to swim. From the glacial lakes of the High Sierra to the natural springs of sunny Florida, swimming during long hikes is a chance to pause and enjoy being present in nature without the weight of walking. I think about my dips in Virginia creeks or raging California rivers often. But I also remember times when I decided against it, for fear of not making milage goals, or being wet and chafed, or encountering snakes swimming in my vicinity. I would take them all back if I could. If you are thru-hiking, you are grinding, and you also stink; take this moment for yourself, and get in the water already.
3. Listen to audiobooks. Physical books are heavy.
The paperback edition of the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic life chronicle, My Struggle, weighs 14 ounces. Like an absolute idiot, I carried that tome during my first thru-hike, finished it, and had a family member dispatch the fourth volume (which weighs even more) to a trailside post office. Then a fellow hiker told me about Libby, an app I could link to with my library card for free audiobooks. Sans paper book, my pack weighed nearly a pound less. I realize the notion of walking silently through woods by day and curling up fireside with a book by night is romantic; I also know that, given the exhaustion of thru-hiking, it’s nearly impossible to do. You will spend plenty of time with your own thoughts on trail as is, so give yourself a mental break from yourself by spending some time listening to a great writer’s thoughts instead. Whatever you hear will make your banter with fellow hikers better too.
4. Hide some cash from yourself.
Sure, it’s totally possible to budget a thru-hike in advance and stick to your financial script. But it’s much more common to overshoot your budget. Thru-hikes are thrilling in part because they are continual highlight reels of the unexpected, but that can mean unexpected expenses, from broken hiking poles to a desperate hotel stop in awful weather. I’ve seen several fellow hikers’ trips end when their money ran out on the trail. Set your budget, then add another 20 percent. Give that surplus to a trusted friend or family member, and ask them to send it only if you really need it. Best-case scenario? You reach your terminus and come home to a financial cushion.
5. Don’t judge other thru-hikers by first impressions.
Maybe you think, as I first did, that thru-hiking involves a quiet communion with nature, void of the masses. Ha! If you start a popular trail at a busy time, the vibe will be more spring break than social fast, and you’ll meet dozens of new people every day. Don’t trust every first impression you get—I initially scoffed at fellow travelers who soon became (and remain) some of my very best friends, a process that’s taught me to be more open off-trail, too. And remember: you’re all walking along the same squiggly line for months, so the person you alienate today might be the person from whom you need help tomorrow. Don’t be an ass, even though the trail will inevitably make you cranky.
6. Think about your water consumption, a lot.
You’ll hear this axiom a thousand times on trail—one liter of water weighs two pounds, so carry it judiciously. But a liter of water actually weighs about 2.2 pounds (or four more ounces, the weight of two full-size candy bars), meaning it’s critical to be wise about the water you haul. The more you minimize the water you carry, the more you minimize the strain on your body, making it that much easier to walk across a country. Your goal should be to arrive at the next water source with a swallow left—no more, no less. The prospect of dehydration is real, but water reports or interactive digital maps like FarOut will show you refill opportunities ahead. Learn to ride that line, and your days will only get better. (Also, filtering water is a pain in the ass, but so is giardia.)
7. Make your own trail mix.
Since you’re not going on a day hike where store-bought trail mix is readily available, and because you’re essentially behaving like a professional athlete by working out all day, make your own. Buy an enormous, durable freezer bag and refill it with the salty things you love at each resupply, changing the blend as you go. My recent trail-mix formula included salt-and-vinegar pistachios, Corn Nuts, chickpea puffs, and that almighty thru-hiking staple with a love song all to its own: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Stuff a smaller bag full of sweets into your hipbelt pocket for bursts of sugary energy as you walk. You’ll save money and perhaps enjoy eating it more.
8. Try new foods, even if no one else will.
Some hikers thrive on eating the same tried-and-true foods every day without fail. They know how much tuna, ramen, and tortillas cost and weigh and how each food tastes and feels in the belly, and these hikers don’t want to risk the consequences of failed experiments. With all due deference, that’s nonsense. There’s going to be enough monotony in your life, whether it’s the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail or the sage bushes of the desert. Pick up one or two new things at every resupply, even if it’s just a different dehydrated food packet, and you’ll have a little diversion waiting for you at every meal. Skip the Dollar General, too, and go to whatever mom-and-pop shop you can find. Try regional candies and chips—Tennessee wins with the former, Pennsylvania the latter. Try different brands’ takes on the same item. And if the food is awful, ketchup fixes everything. (Never leave town without condiment packets, the culinary Band-Aids of distance hiking.)
9. Get curious about where you are.
I suppose it is possible to walk from Georgia to Maine or from Mexico to Canada and think only about the placement of your feet and nothing else. But that seems like a pretty boring way to exist, especially when you’re exploring new territory that can teach you so much. Google the national forest where you’re living for the next few nights or the tiny town that has a great hostel. Learn in real time. Harpers Ferry isn’t just where you get your picture taken at the “emotional midway point” of the Appalachian Trail—it’s one of the most crucial crucibles of American history (and not only because of John Brown’s raid), so read the National Park System signs. The Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina isn’t just a place to get a burger and shower before climbing into the Smokies—it was a tragic hub of the Trail of Tears, another national sin with which we’ve barely reckoned. A thru-hike is a rare chance to walk through history, so take the time to immerse yourself in it.
10. You can do this. It’s fine if you decide you don’t want to do this, too.
There will be days when you want to quit, when you are certain you are wasting six months of your life on a selfish, stupid, stinking journey that is only making you miserable. There will be days when you ache, and you are certain that hiking could break your body. I have been there, and I will return soon enough. I know it can suck, but keep going. Thru-hiking requires few special skills or spectacular athletic abilities, but it requires surfeits of toughness, gumption, and grit. If you don’t have them now, you will by the time you reach your finish.
Also, don’t forget thru-hiking is your choice. If it’s only making you miserable, stop. That’s OK too. I firmly believe that trekking for extended periods of time is a way to change your mind, life, and body, mostly for the better. But there are other ways to get similar results, so it’s fine if thru-hiking isn’t your route to enlightenment, or whatever. Just walk long enough to know that you’re done, and try, as best as you can, never to look back with regret.