This probably won’t be new information to you if you’ve been doing a good bit of research, but I hope that I can relay this information to you in a way that truly makes the ideas stick home. I’ve hiked about 14,000 miles now and seen first hand how important it is to not commit these mistakes. They’re such simple concepts but can make a world of difference to your hike.
Don’t fall for the survivorship bias. For every person that tells you how they didn’t train at all for their hike and just got in shape on the trail there’s 100 people who got injured or quit in the first 500 miles because they just could not handle the physical and mental stress of such an arduous event. Also note that most of the people who say they just got on trail and winged it are young and were already athletic. So take stock of yourself – are you young and athletic? If so, you can probably skip this article. Otherwise, read on!
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1. Overpacking: Every beginner hiker has been there: packing for every possible scenario. While it’s prudent to be prepared, carrying unnecessary items can be your undoing. Every extra ounce adds strain to your back, knees, and feet and create a much higher risk for injury. Instead of imagining worst-case scenarios, focus on the essentials and items you’ll use daily.
The simplest way to limit the overpacking issue is to not buy a big pack. For the Appalachian Trail your pack shouldn’t exceed 45L. For the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails your pack shouldn’t exceed 55L. Of course there are other factors such as height and weight. My friend Bear, who hiked the AT at 7’1″ and 280lbs actually needed his 75L pack in order to fit his gear and food. But in general these are the guy lines that most people should stick to. Not having room to cram all the junk in forces you to make decisions and then leave the non-essential behind.
And finally don’t stress too much on this point. If you’ve covered the other bases in this article like nutrition and fitness you’ll be okay with a slightly heavier pack starting off. When you get on trail you’ll inevitably shed items and get your pack weight dialed in. Everyone does it. I still changed gear and sent unnecessary items home on my calendar year triple crown. But still – do your best, and keep that pack small, that will save you a lot of pain in the beginning.
2. Not Testing Gear: Picture this: you’re miles into the wilderness, and your brand-new boots are giving you blisters, or that stove you thought was intuitive is more like a jigsaw puzzle. Testing gear in real-world conditions – not just in your living room – will help you identify what works and what doesn’t before it becomes a problem on the trail.
It’s easier to buy things then to do things. Again, everyone does it. Before I started my CYTC last year I had never used a quilt before. When mine arrived I thought “why did they send me these guy lines for a tent?” Then promptly threw the guy lines in a junk bag and set off on trail.
Well, my first night camped just before Springer Mountain it was a low of about 20 degrees. As I set up my tent and got on my sleeping pad I realized that I had no way of securing the sides of my quilt to my sleeping pad. This just never occurred to me that of course if you have a quilt then it’s not going to be a mummy bag that you can zip up around yourself! I managed to stay warm enough by tucking the quilt and putting on all my layers but this was such a simple mistake that could have been avoided by taking even one night out with my gear before I started the hike.
3. Poor Financial Planning: While investing in good gear might seem like the most significant expense, the financial implications of a thru-hike go beyond the initial costs. From unplanned gear replacements to spontaneous town stays for rest or resupply, expenses add up. A detailed budget that factors in contingencies is not just recommended; it’s essential.
This point goes along with the survivorship bias. When people ask how much a thru-hike costs people often chime in with “bro I did it for $800 a month” or “$1,000 is plenty!” I’m Asian and I have a masters degree in accounting. And after 6 thru hikes I’ll tell you this – 99% of the budget numbers people throw out at complete bullshit. If you’re not actually tracking your expenses then you are dramatically underestimating your total spend.
My experience is that the trail is always more expensive than I anticipate. The key is to control the big costs – hotels, restaurants, and resupplies. Make a budget for these three and stick to it. Take care of these and you won’t have to sweat all the small incidentals.
But I think a bare minimum budget for 2023 is $1,500/month. Inflation is real. It’s hard to get even a cheap motel for under $100 anymore on the PCT and CDT and hostels on the AT are charging $30-40/night. It was difficult to keep my resupplies under $100 last year, granted I eat more than the average hiker but still when each Snickers costs $2 the expenses really add up.
4. Inadequate Physical Preparation: If you’re young and an athlete you can ignore this section. Everyone else you need to train for your hike!!! Ignore the people who said they got on trail with no physical training and got in shape on trail. Terrible idea!
Adapting to life on trail can be challenging. There are a myriad of new stressors that are totally out of your control, like bad weather and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. We all have a threshold for discomfort, pain, and stress and if we exceed this threshold that’s when we quit. So do what you can to reduce the stressors that are under your control. The primary one is fitness.
Physical training fitness not only prepares your body, it also prepares you mentally for pain and discomfort. After all these miles I am finally at a place where I don’t mind the pain and burning in my legs of a uphill climb. I know I can do it, and I know that every climb eventually ends.
You probably won’t get to this level of physical and mental adaptation right off the bat but you can make good headway.
The other reason to train beforehand is injury prevention. The most common injuries that make people leave the trail are structural injuries. Bones and connective tissues. Adaptations in these take a long time to build, and damage to your bones and connective tissues take many months to heal. So that’s why you need to train beforehand – make those adaptations over a long period, so that you don’t overload your bones and connective tissues when you do get on trail.
5. Ignoring Mental Preparation: Ultimately everything comes down to the mind. You see phrases like this on every hiking blog. “It’s all mental.” “It’s all in your head.” Well yes, okay, but what do you actually need to do to prepare mentally? That was my big frustration when I was researching for my first thru-hike. Okay yes I get it, it’s 99% mental or whatever… but HOW do I actually prepare my mind for the ardors of a thru-hike?
In my opinion physical and mental training go hand in glove. You need the physical training to push you to the edges of your comfort zone to then put into practice the mental disciplines that will help you make peace with pain and discomfort. Do this day after day and very quickly you will change your relationship to pain. That feeling of burning in your legs and lungs doesn’t have to a signal that you need to stop immediately. Instead you can turn them into a signal that says “I am climbing, and my legs are fatigued. And that is all this means. I am still okay. My body is still okay. Feeling these sensations means I’m making progress toward my goals.”
The key is to stop the mental habit patterns that turns the sensations of pain and discomfort into mental agony and suffering. It’s not pain that will cause you to quit. It’s the mental suffering that you add to the pain that will cause you to quit. That’s the unbearable part.
I ran a 106 mile race in 2021. By mile 85 fluid started to fill my lungs and breathing became difficult. My legs burned and my feet throbbed like they’d been pounded by sledgehammers. But even through all this I was able to continue. Because I’d had years to practice my mental fortitude by combining meditation and extreme physical activity. To the point that I am mostly free from suffering even in the midst of extreme pain.
If you can get to this point then it truly unlocks a whole new level to life. This mastery over the mental side of fitness is what’s allowed me to hike the Calendar Year Triple Crown and it’s what allowed me to keep pushing through in that 106 mile race and win it.
6. Underestimating Hydration and Nutrition Needs: I’ve noticed that many people tend to drop out of thru-hikes around the halfway point. I can think of a dozen conversations I’ve had with hikers around this point that said they’re just tired all the time, and not motivated, and have no desire to keep hiking.
My question is always: how much are you eating, and how much weight have you lost?
Here’s some symptoms of starvation according to the NIH:
- feeling tired all the time
- feeling weaker
- getting ill often and taking a long time to recover
- wounds taking a long time to heal
- poor concentration
- feeling cold most of the time
- low mood, sadness and depression
Sounds really familiar in the context of thru-hikers!! You need to understand how to properly fuel your body. How to get enough protein and calories while keeping a light pack.
For me the single biggest advantage I had coming into thru-hiking was my bodybuilding background. It taught me how to eat for nutrition and how to eat for calories. Because I had this knowledge I was able to always keep myself fueled and thus succeed on my hikes.
Adequate nutrition is also another important piece of injury prevention. It’s very simple – if your body doesn’t have the nutrients and calories that it needs to heal then it won’t heal. I saw this in wildland firefighting with a buddy who ate vegetarian in the off-season. He kept complaining about injuries. Turns out he just wasn’t getting nearly enough calories or protein to match his training activity level.
Knowing how to eat properly can absolutely be the difference between having a fun successful and smooth hike vs a miserable death march.
7. Rushing the Start: I’m guilty of this sin, like most others in this list. On the CYTC last year I came out the gate with a 35 mile day even though my plan was to do 20s until my body acclimatized. But that speaks to the power of fitness and prior preparation. I was fit enough and experienced enough that this 35 mile day didn’t injure me.
So, how fast you start off will depend on your level of fitness and prior hiking experience. But everyone, even someone who has hiked thousands of miles should start slow. What “slow” means will be up to the individual. I’m at a level of fitness and experience now that 20 miles a day is slow and easy for my body. A beginner I would say 10-15 miles a day is a much more reasonable definition for “slow.” For a FKT world record holder 30 miles a day could be slow.
Just take it easy. You’ll know when your body has adapted. For me the first two weeks are the most difficult. I’ll often get cramping at night in this period, joints will hurt, and be stiff and in pain in the mornings. After about two weeks these symptoms mostly go away and that’s when I can ramp up the mileage. This will vary person to person and depends a lot on how much prep you did before the trail and how good your nutrition is. It’s all connected.
Awareness. Preparation. Planning. Discipline. These are what will make you successful. Good-luck out there and happy trails! Check out my thru-hiking training program where I cover every aspect of thru-hike prep from workouts to mental training, nutrition, gear advice, planning, and more!
Latest posts by Jack Jones (see all)
- Mastering the Mind: Combining Mental Toughness Techniques with Thru-Hikes - September 10, 2023
- 7 Mistakes That Could Ruin Your Thru-Hike! - August 30, 2023
- Calendar Year Triple Crown Gear List and Review(And How the Gear Changed along the AT, PCT, and CDT) - May 12, 2023