To mentally prepare for a thru-hike is no small feat. A thru hike is an end-to-end affair over a very (very, very, very) long distance, and it normally takes months to complete such a thing. In the United States there are three famous monsters, collectively known as the Triple Crown to the legends that have wandered the entirety of them all.
They are the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. And you have probably heard of them.
Hikers leave home for months at a time and traverse various different environmental regions through a range of different climatic conditions over various elevations, all the while carrying everything they need to eat and sleep.
Understandably, this is going to require some preparation, both physical and mental.
Yet, there is only so much mental preparation you can do, and it will only get you so far. The real stuff, the good stuff, the stuff you find out about yourself; you learn that on the thru hike.
Nonetheless it is important to give yourself every advantage possible in order to complete one of these gargantuan endeavors.
So, here I present to you 15 different tips, tricks and pieces of advice that will help you to prepare mentally for what is to come. It is probably useful to jot a few of these down and take them with you for reference on the trail. You know, for when the times get a little rough.
1. Have an emergency toy for when things get too hard
You know when there is a baby that will not stop crying until it gets that one single toy. The favorite toy. Well, that is you on that crazy-long trail. A baby. At some point, you are going to spit the dummy, plonk your bottom on the ground, and refuse to budge another inch. At this time, you need that one special toy that is going to make everything alright again.
Now it might not necessarily be a toy. The toy can be representative of anything. For some people, they are just going to need to sit down and dig for that emergency Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate. For others it might be an early day and a sip of that 21-year-old scotch, or you have saved two hours of battery to get your Elton John fix.
It doesn’t matter what it is. Have that emergency dummy ready for when it all just gets too hard.
2. Test your gear in the worst possible weather
The peace of mind knowing you have awesome gear to rely on is invaluable. If you have crappy gear, then ahem… tough luck.
Go walking in that atrocious weather. Pitch your tent in the back garden during that weekend-long drenching, and go sit in it for hours and hours at a time. Get used to that gentle dripping sound of raindrops on your plastic roof. Spend more time outside. The more time you are outside, the more you get used to being outside.
When you step foot on that trail for your first thru hike, you are going to be outside for 99.9% of the time for the next however-long.
3. Have awesome gear!
I thought I would hammer the final nail home here before we go any further. You do not want to be walking for five months with crappy boots from a department store. You do not want to sleep in a tent that leaks like a sieve.
You do not want to freeze in your $9 sleeping bag that you purchased for an absolute bargain online, written in a language that you do not understand – or even recognize – with a big -50°F sign on it. You don’t know what that says. It could say: Do not take this bag anywhere near temperatures of -50°F. OR: You will surely perish in this bag at -50°F.
If you do not have the dosh for some good gear, then wait a little longer, save a little a longer, and then when you can afford it, buy your key items bit by bit. The trail is not going to go anywhere, but your experience of it, and the way that you perceive it will change dramatically if you are prepared and have industry-leading equipment.
For me personally, this means I am looking for an MSR backpacking tent to go with my Sea to Summit sleeping mat and my Western Mountaineering sleeping bag. My gore-tex Mammut outer shell jacket keeps me warm, my Berghaus waterproof pants keeps the water out, while my luxurious Zamberlan boots can keep me on my feet all day.
Altogether it is thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff, but it is my stuff and it is good stuff and I could grab it all now, throw it in my Osprey pack and walk off into the wilderness and be quite capable of surviving.
You will build up a relationship with your gear. If you begin the trip as that part-time hiker who always shies away from engaging in hiking-gear-related conversations with like-minded people, do not be surprised if you end it as the person striking up those conversations.
“Ah, I see you went with the Marmot Tungsten two-man-er tent there. A solid choice. As you can see, I am a MSR Hubba Hubba kind of guy.” – you say with a wink.
Also read: 12 Best Ultralight Backpacking Packs
4. Go on a dummy hike
I use the word hike a bit carelessly here. I am not saying throw on your boots and wander along the local forest track, or out for the day in the hills near town. Get your behind into the backcountry, carry your own food and tent and try your best to replicate a week of a thru hike.
If, at the end of that week, you are kicking and screaming at the mere sight of a tree, then thru hiking is probably not for you. There, I just saved you a lot of time. You’re welcome.
5. Learn from someone else’s experience
Know someone that has done a thru hike? Good. Go ask them two of their horror stories (they are bound to have them, and you will acquire your own) about their thru hike, and then ask yourself if you still want to go. Do you? Good.
The internet is choc-full of thru hiking blogs where you can find out about everything that has ever gone wrong on a trail anywhere, ever. Skim through these. They are useful whinges. Make notes on little mistakes made. You may pick up some valuable little tips on things that you would never have thought about until you were out there and actually needed it!
6. Remember why you are doing this
Do you remember that one strange moment, when that idea popped into your head for the first time? The idea to drag your body thousands of miles, over many long months, over difficult terrain, in the most atrocious of conditions. Do you remember when you still thought that was a good idea? Excellent. You will need that memory.
And that reason too. The reason why you are out there at that very moment, wondering why on Earth you are out there. Constantly remind yourself. Make it your purpose. If you are thru hiking to prove to yourself that you can do anything, then you da man! You go girl! You can do anything, so keep on going.
If you are doing it to raise money for a cause, then you need little reminder. If you are doing it to lose that belly and change your life for good, then keep on putting one foot in front of the other, because you are literally doing that with every step. And that leads me to my next point, which will go a long way to you reaching the finishing line.
7. Positive mental attitude
It is much easier said than done and it does come a lot easier to certain people. The kind of people that are awake six hours before the sun is up, who have had breakfast, been for an 800-mile jog and saved the world from pollution before you have even plopped out of bed. Onto the floor.
There really is at least two ways of considering anything, and if you cannot learn to view the world around you in a more positive way, then you will struggle to complete a thru hike. In fact, it will be a struggle anyway.
Without being positive, it will be a completely negative experience, and you are likely to spend the rest of your life trying to talk other people out of undertaking their own awesome life-changing experience. Now, you do not want to be that wet blanket, do you?
You are going to walk through a lot of rain. You are going to be drenched from head to toe. You are going to realize pretty quickly that nothing is waterproof forever. You may even curse the rain. But I implore you to remember: You, as a person, are made up of roughly 60% water. You need to drink it to survive.
Also read: How Much Water Should I Carry Backpacking?
You need it to brush your teeth and to bathe in. You swim in it and cook with it and you are lucky and blessed enough to live on a planet where that stuff just falls from the sky. Tell me I’m dreaming!
Is it another arduous day on the trail, or is it another blessed day in nature?
As negativity creeps in, squash that fly (except for the midge fly, the only pollinator of the cacao plant, and therefore ultimately responsible for all chocolate on Earth – you alright!) immediately.
Smack it with a great big dose of positive. If you find your subconscious mind begin to wander toward the abyss, with thoughts like: I am so bored of this. If I see another tree I am going to scream! Then you need to give your brain a quick dose of positive reality.
Think about the millions of people trapped in their cars, in traffic jams on their way to jobs that they hate.
Think of the cyclists commuting to work with no air conditioning to filter that horrible smog that is being kicked up all around them. Think of the bins everywhere and the litter in the streets, the smell that emanates intermittently from the sewers. Think of that traffic light that has just gone red for the fourth time, and you are still the wrong side of it.
Think of the noise of sirens as you try to sleep at night, or the incessant honking of horns.
Think of the people struggling to pay rent and bills on time, stuck in a rat race with no prospects of escape. And then stop walking, look around you. Breathe in that fresh, fresh air. Look at that unspoiled view of the valley, as the sunlight streams through those beautiful trees.
And ask yourself: Where would you really rather be? If your answer is: stuck in traffic, then I am afraid you are a lost cause!
8. Healthy mind, healthy body
If completing a thru hike sounds tough, then I’m afraid you have no idea. It is way harder than that. Mentally and physically. Being in the best shape possible can give you an incredible mental boost, which in turn can increase your chances of completing the hike, especially in the first couple of weeks, which will be the hardest physically on those in poor condition.
There is nothing that can prepare the body for hiking like hiking. You just need to spend the time in that pack, get used to the weight of it on your shoulders for long periods of time. You will get used to it.
I do a lot of long-distance cycling in preparation for my long-distance hikes. It is an incredible way to strengthen the muscles you will use for climbing – and in similar fashion – except that you will be taking the majority of the strain off your joints (and most importantly your knees!).
If you are not in great shape – and this is very important!! – do not stress about it. You are going on a thru hike, and you are going to be super human by the end of it, that I can assure you. You are going to have fitness for days, months and years. Never again will you be able to sit still, or even want to drive the car down to the supermarket to buy the groceries.
You will be a lean, mean, walking machine. Well, hopefully not mean.
So, do not stress. And allow yourself a couple of weeks to ease into it. There is no point trying to gain your fitness on the first week of the hike, putting in consecutive 15-mile days, only to burnout without having completed 1% of the trail. It happens. Ease into it. You have the time. Or else you wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
When you are fit and roaring, then you can put the pedal to the metal if you need to.
9. Give someone the lofty title of Trail Manager
Okay, so I am a walking contradiction. I have gone so far out of my way to avoid any form of a conventional job as I do not like being told what to do, but now that I live that fantastic freelancing freedom, I still feel like I need a boss to give me a kick up the bottom every now and again.
Enter my beautiful girlfriend Izabela (bonus points for the beautiful, gonna get my butt kicked for mentioning her in this (very good) article – and not the motivating kind that I was looking for).
I am sure you can think of someone immediately who is good at organizing stuff and would absolutely love to be given the job (even if they pretend like they don’t want it, you can tell that on the inside they are positively glowing).
It may be your mother, girlfriend or sister – you may see a pattern emerging (women are better organized and are better at organizing things: FACT) – but you need someone that can send you food packages to pick up, full of those lovely little things that get you through the day.
Have someone to book you into a hotel for when the trail just gets a bit too much, and you need to just lay in a bed for a night or two (this is not cheating).
10. Gain a following
You may be surprised just how many people will be completely envious of what you are setting out to do. There is something so very instinctual about mankind’s need to get among nature, and your colleagues that remain locked up behind their desks will not only wish they were doing it as well, but they will follow your journey by whatever means necessary, and in this day and age that is through social media.
Post updates with a little photo every time you come into service. Post an interesting story that happened through the week. You will be surprised by how many people care. When you receive a message of support from someone that you barely know, who has taken time from their busy life to give you some encouragement, well, my friends, that is worth more than anything.
To know that so many people are thinking about you can get you through some lonely times.
And perhaps those times, too, where boredom inevitably creeps in. It gives your brain something to focus on. That next post when you come into range. Which one of the million-and-two awesome photos that you took should you choose to wow people with this week?
Should I tell them about the guy doing the trail with just one leg – damn that put things into perspective – or when we had to trudge through knee-deep snow for 2 days to take that high pass?
Eventually you will take these things in your stride, which will make you stand out even more from your peers back home, as you casually relay stories of crocodile wrestling and bear-bashing.
11. Decide to go solo or with a buddy
It can be a long time to go without your soul mate, so if you are likely to bail from the trail for your lover’s arms, then maybe they should just go along with you. Those with long time partners, well, it could be a great escape and a fantastic time to freshen up mentally.
Some people go with their best friends. Some people come back from the trail without a best friend. Or a new best friend. Either way, sort this out first. A lot of the time you will be forced to tackle the hike solo, simply because you cannot find a single person willing to go with you. Do not be disheartened.
There is great courage and strength involved in setting yourself free, and in undertaking something so time-consuming and challenging. Good for you. Remember that positive mental attitude. You will come out of this stronger. You are going to meet so many new and interesting people on such a long journey.
You are going to spend time walking with the friends you make. Some of them will be doing section hikes and you will leave them, along with their contact details, to carry on your epic journey, until you meet the next soul that you connect with enough to warrant walking with for a day, or a week, or who knows… maybe more?
12. Become a Yoga Master
I used to think that yoga was glorified stretching… oh no wait. It is glorified stretching. I used to think that yoga was hippy nonsense, yes that’s it… hippy nonsense. But the older I have become, the more I have fallen under its spell, and now I can hardly imagine my life without it.
If you are not ready for yoga, then you better be ready for religious stretching, because your body is going to be put through the mill over the next few months.
And a quick personal anecdote, if I may (as if you’re going to stop me!). I recently cycled a very long distance, and then threw my back out running around in a park. My back muscles were already tight from the ride, and I have not been doing anything in the way of stretching or yoga recently. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
You will have such accumulative problems on the trail. Stretch and take care of your body, because ultimately that is all you have to rely upon out there.
13. Be flexible and realistic
Okay, first the realistic part. You have read every single blog post written on thru hiking since 1842, and you think it will take you five months. Allow six. Give yourself set goals, but do not be too stringent with them. Do not keep yourself constantly behind and keeping up.
If, after a week, you realize the initial itinerary was a sham, just scrap the thing and rework it until you are comfortable and happy again. You are out here to get away from stress. Do not put it on yourself. If you cannot average the miles you allocated yourself, set a reasonable target.
I can guarantee you one thing though: if you adjust your mindset, refuse to be beaten and keep on going, then you will soon be walking at your daily goal, and who knows – you may even better it, bringing yourself right back on track to your original schedule. What an incentive!
14. Write it down
Any writer would kill to be as ballsy as you, heading into the wilderness for months at a time. How positively romantic a notion. But it isn’t easy, nowadays to lug a laptop into the jungle. I know, any excuse will do.
But you, you crazy so and so. You are going to have a story to tell. Write it down. You are going to have more time on your hands than you ever knew possible. And one day, when you are old and grey, you will have that written record of that time when you stepped out on a mad mission and prevailed.
If nothing else, the writing could help to keep you sane. And you will need all the help you can get.
It is a horrible thing and I do not agree with it, but necessary nonetheless, and so very important to your peace of mind on the trail. In between your battles with bears and broken bones you will have enough to worry about, so make sure you have enough of the stuff to see you to the end. Many a hiker has had to bail on their lifelong goals because they ran out of digits, even when they were puffing along the path perfectly fine.
Nowadays the world is so much easier. Even for myself there is no excuse, even if I were broke. I could write my articles in my tent in the evening, post them to my respective editors when I make the next town and pick up signal, and then pick up my projects for the next however long I will be in the wilderness for before hitting the next town.
I, and many other people of varying online-dominant professions, could quite easily work and thru hike at the same time, and this could provide people like us with some of the distractions required to take our minds off the rigors of thru-hiking life.
As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.