By Sunny Stroeer
Thru-hiking. There’s a bit of a magical ring to that word, isn’t there? If you are a thru-hiker, it probably makes you think of your trail name and those long weeks of hard but blissful days when all that mattered was what lay around the next turn of the trail. If you’re not (yet) a thru-hiker, you may wonder what it would take to join this somewhat illustrious, and grungy and smelly group of backpacking hardcorists.
So, what does it take to become a thru-hiker? Here’s my answer: not that much! Start with the desire to walk for weeks, find a way to take the corresponding amount of time off from work, then add the discipline to put in a little bit of planning and gear prep. Backpacking experience and cardio fitness are a bonus, but truth be told… if you are determined enough, you may just be able to make do without them.
Step 1: Pick a trail
Thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, everybody knows about the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, but there are a plethora of other options to get your thru-hike on. You don’t have to walk thousands of miles in order to be a bona fide thru-hiker; all it takes is hiking one trail end-to-end within a twelve month period. If the thought of taking 3-4 months to hike from Mexico to Canada seems crazy or daunting to you, choose a more digestible trail - like Vermont’s famous Long Trail, or the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
Step 2: Develop your itinerary
Once you’ve decided your trail destination, do a bit of online research. You should quickly find many sources that’ll advise you on which time of year is best for your chosen hike and which direction you should go in. The Arizona Trail, for example, is a classic spring / fall trail and can be hiked both in the southbound (SoBo) or NoBo direction.
Next, start thinking about how many miles a day you will be able to cover, and how many rest days (zeros) you may want to take. If you don’t have much experience with long endurance missions, set yourself up for success by targeting no more than 10 miles per day with at least one rest day per week in between. As you and your feet get used to the trail, you may find that you can pick up the pace without compromising your enjoyment levels - many experienced thru-hikers are capable of averaging 20+ miles for the entire duration of their trail.
Step 3: Prep your gear
This is where prior backpacking experience comes in handy, because it’ll give you a head start on your kit and gear preferences. For a comprehensive introduction to thru-hiking gear, take a look at Andrew Skurka’s “The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide”. If you are looking for an ultra-light version, bookmark this gem over at Hyperlite Mountain Gear.
With a bit of planning - and maybe investment in an ultralight pack, sleeping bag and/or shelter - you should be able to keep your base weight (i.e., your pack weight excluding food & water) around 10lbs - which is important because you’ll have to add water and 2 lbs+ of food per day on top of your base.
Step 4: Plan your food
Caloric needs on a thru-hike are vastly different from what they are in most of our day-to-day lives. Depending on the difficulty of the terrain, your mileage and your pack weight, you’ll easily need 3000-4000 calories per day to not develop a caloric deficit. This is my general approach to backpacking food:
Breakfast - triple serving of instant oatmeal fortified with powdered milk and/or brown sugar, black coffee (~400 calories); for strenuous days, or if I feel like I’ve been running a deficit: two-serving Backpacker’s Pantry granola (~1200 calories)
Hiking food - 5-7 units of energy bars & gels throughout the day, supplemented by homemade trail mix, nut butters and beef jerky (~ 1200 calories)
Dinner - two-serving Backpacker’s Pantry entree (700-1200 calories) with nut butters, a Snickers bar or more trail mix for dessert
If you do a quick calorie tally on the list above, you can see that it’s not that easy to meet your daily calorie needs while thru-hiking. Here are a few tricks that can help keep you going over long periods of time:
Fortify everything. Carry stashes of powdered milk, brown sugar and olive oil, and add them to every possible meal.
Take advantage of resupplies to buy extra treats - whatever sounds good in the moment.
When you have town days, treat yourself to double meals.
Since food is heavy, you’ll want to carry no more than 7-10 days of food at any given point. That means you need to carefully plan your resupplies, either by mailing boxes ahead or (on remote trails that don’t pass near any post offices) by putting in food caches.
Step 5: Get moving
Once you’ve got a solid handle on your intended itinerary, your gear and your food, there’s only one thing left to do - get out, and have fun.
Do remember that cell phone coverage is non-existent on many trails, and that any big hike is an exercise in self-sufficiency. Most importantly, don’t rush your first couple of days on the trail; set attainable mileage goals, be prepared to feel sore and hungry and tired, and give yourself a break if everything feels hard at first. It’ll get easier over time, and in exchange for overcoming a bit of physical (and maybe psychological) difficulty, you’ll get to make memories to last for a lifetime!
A group of Hayduke thru hikers enjoying a rest at 11,000ft
About the author
Sunny Stroeer is long-distance endurance athlete and ambassador for Backpacker’s Pantry. She has been leading backpacking trips since her college days, and thru-hiked (most of) Utah’s 812-mile Hayduke Trail over the course of 32 days in the spring of 2018. She also holds speed records on Colorado’s Pfiffner Traverse, the 220km Annapurna Circuit, and on 22,838ft Aconcagua. When she’s not out on the trails, Sunny manages Aurora Women’s Expeditions and enjoys #vanlife with her husband Paul.