My tramily on the Colorado Trail. Photo by Kenzie S. aka “CP”
Thru-hiking is full of blissful moments and natural beauty. You’ll sit and reflect on postcard worthy vistas. You’ll experience seer-like clarity and feel a deep connection with mother nature. You’ll meet lifelong friends and build rock solid relationships.
But, unfortunately, thru-hiking is also suffering. It’s no secret that it is a grueling physical endeavor that takes its toll on your body and your mind. The trail will chew you up and spit you out in the mud. You’ll experience extreme highs, only to be balanced by extreme lows.
I polled my trail family and thru-hiking friends to come up with what we think are the 9 hardest things about thru-hiking, in an effort to prepare new hikers, and optimize their chance of success out there on the trail.
Intaking enough calories while you are hiking 15-30 miles a day with thousands of feet of elevation change is a full-time job. In fact, it’s practically impossible. Most thru-hikers end up in a calorie deficit after only a few hundred miles on trail. “Hiker Hunger” is a very real phenomenon, in which your stomach essentially becomes a black hole. You can eat and eat and eat without getting full, and still not see a single pound regained on your body.
An even more difficult task as a ravenous thru-hiker is having any semblance of a nutritious diet. Because of the massive amount of calories hikers burn every day, most turn to an indulgent junk food diet. Some don’t know how else to stockpile calories and others figure “who cares what I eat if I’m burning it all off every day?”
Well, calories are important for energy, but so is nutrition. If you can manage to get some whole foods and micro nutrients into your body, you’ll have: more energy, more clarity, less inflammation and risk of injury, and a higher chance of finishing your thru-hike.
Homemade healthy protein bars! Photo by Grace VanSurksum aka “Flan”
Here are some suggestions for adding a nutritious edge to the typical hiker diet:
- Stock up on “real” food while in town. Get some veggies for a salad or treat yourself to a home cooked meal or two. You’re going to want to go straight for the burger and fries, but maybe order a salad as well (don’t worry, you’ll have room).
- Focus on whole food snacks. Think food that looks like food. A pop tart is not a whole food. I’m talkin’ beef jerky, dried fruit, nuts, etc.
- Pack a greens powder. There are a bunch of companies out there like Athletic Greens and Amazing Grass that make drink powders that pack a healthy punch of nutrients. Most provide multiple servings of fruits and veggies in one scoop of powder. Think of this as nutritional insurance.
- Add vitamins and supplements to make up for deficiencies in your diet.
Splurge every now and then on one of the healthier backpacking meals, like the ones from Farm to Summit or Good-To-Go. They’re a great morale boost on a crummy day and your body will thank you.
When you’re spending every waking (and sleeping) moment outdoors, you’re bound to encounter inclement weather on a regular basis. Mother nature doesn’t care about your walk through the woods, and you need to be able to deal with whatever she throws at you. This could come in the form of thunderstorms, torrential downpours for days on end, harsh sun exposure, oppressive heat, and frigid cold. Don’t fight it – prepare for it.
Do some research so you know what kind of weather you’re getting yourself into and pack appropriately. It’s worth investing in decent rain gear, sun shirts, a sun umbrella, etc. There’s plenty of affordable options that won’t break the bank, and you’ll thank yourself.
Refining your backpacking kit is a fine art. Many hikers spend years customizing their kit to perfection. Here are a few tips to steer you in the right direction.
Relieve some of the physical and mental burden of a heavy pack by purchasing the lightest gear available within your budget. The best things to invest the most money in are your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, backpack, and shelter. Not only are they the heaviest items in your pack, but they also have the greatest impact on your hiking experience.
Next, invest in footwear and rain protection. I will always advocate for lighter gear if you can afford it. A lighter pack reduces the chance of injury, lets you lay down more miles and enjoy your hike significantly more. Every ounce that you shed from your back directly corresponds to a lighter burden on your mind.
Don’t Pack Your Fears
A common mistake for beginner backpackers is to pack their fears. What does that mean? It could mean that you’re afraid of being cold, so you pack way too many layers. Or it could mean that you are afraid of bears, so you pack an unnecessarily big and heavy rambo knife. Instead, do plenty of research on where you are going until you fully understand the environment and conditions so you can pack appropriately.
Brand Names Aren’t Important
No matter how much affiliate marketing you see on Instagram, stick to gear that you know and like. And once you’re out there, don’t let someone make you feel like your equipment is inferior because of the name printed on it. Instead, do lots of reading on personal experiences, and try out a lot of gear on your own. Your kit is a personal thing and only you know what works for you.
Resupplying can take some getting used to. There are a couple of different strategies for resupplying, but each one shares the challenge of figuring out exactly how much food to pack until your next resupply. Here’s a brief overview of each resupply strategy:
The Town Resupply
Probably the most common among thru-hikers is the town resupply. Just as it says, you just make your way into a town when your food bag is empty and refill your snack satchel at whatever food store is available in said town.
- Pros: plan as you go, no shipping costs
- Cons: limited choices, can be expensive
The Drop Box
This method of resupplying involves pre-packing all of your resupply boxes at home, and either shipping them to locations along the trail that will hold them for you, or having a friend or family member ship them to you as you go. This involves a ton of planning, but can provide some major benefits.
- Pros: eat exactly what you want, potential for saving money, don’t have to plan resupplies while hiking, eat healthier
- Cons: LOTS of planning, shipping costs, getting sick of what you sent yourself, ending up with too much food, ending up with too little food, risk of boxes getting lost
The last resupply method is simply a hybrid of the first two. Ship yourself the things that you know you’ll want, and rely on towns for the rest.
5. Injuries and Foot Care
Thru-hiking a long trail is a massive physical undertaking. The wear and tear on your body is probably unlike anything it’s currently used to. Injuries are common even among hikers in peak physical shape. Injuries on trail can include:
- Overuse injuries (chronic inflammation)
- Sprains and fractures
- Insect and waterborne illnesses (lyme, malaria, giardia)
- Heat exhaustion
While accidents do happen, all of these injuries are mostly preventable. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. Start slow — you don’t have to crank out 20 mile days from the get go. And don’t forget to stretch!
Foot care deserves its own category apart from injuries because it’s so important. Your feet are taking the brunt of the beating every single day, so be nice to them. Massage them when you get to camp. Clip your toenails. Take off your shoes to let your feet dry out and breathe, so you don’t end up with trench foot. And finally, have a solid blister care regimen in place.
6. Being Dirty
Most people adapt surprisingly well to being absolutely filthy on trail, but it’s worth mentioning. You will develop a stench the likes of which you’ve never experienced on this earth. You will sweat more than you thought was humanly possible. It still baffles me to this day how a human can create such a pungent odor. I would like to say there are things you can do to mitigate the smell, but there’s honestly just no fighting it. Take a dip in a lake if you want, but your pack will retain its acrid aura.
One real concern about sweating and being dirty is the risk of chafing. Chafing is essentially tiny lacerations created when salt crystals or particles of dirt and sand continuously rub between two surfaces of skin. If you’re a chafer, do yourself a favor and bring along some anti-chafing cream to rub on the area of concern BEFORE chafing starts.
7. Keeping a Positive Attitude
Thru-hiking is suffering. The physical struggles are tough, but you can ultimately overcome them as long as you remain in good spirits. The going really starts to get tough when multiple sources of adversity weigh on you mentally. You’ll wonder “Why am I even here?” You’ll start to feel the pull of all the comforts waiting for you at home. Having a few strategies for keeping a positive attitude and sense of perseverance are crucial for a successful thru-hike.
Remember: You Chose This
It’s important to remember that your suffering on the trail is elective suffering. Voluntarily subjecting yourself to a gauntlet of adversities and trials is a beautiful thing. When you’re in a low moment, remember why you chose to be here, and that you are going to come out of it a much stronger and more resilient human being.
It Always Gets Better
No matter how tough things get, they always get better. The rain will stop. The sun will come out. And you will be warm again. There’s always another town up ahead to find refuge and recharge.
Don’t Quit on a Bad Day
A common thru-hiker rule to live by is to never quit on a bad day. Whenever you feel at the end of your rope, give it at least 2 more days and see if you feel better. You might be surprised.
8. Hiking Your Own Hike
Ahh, my favorite hiking adage. What does it mean to hike your own hike? Or more importantly, what does it mean to you? Temptations will arise to alter your hike for another person, but chances are you’ve taken on this colossal feat for a personal goal, and if something or someone is getting in the way of that goal, well…hike your own hike.
One of the most joyful aspects of thru-hiking is the community of unlikely souls you will meet and grow fond of. You might even fall in love. Everyone out there on the trail immediately has an extremely unique thing in common with each other, and thus the connections are deep. You’ll look out for and care for each other as you endure shared struggles day after day.
However, because of these deep connections, people often become attached to their new found trail family (tramily). It’s easy to get lost in this attachment and forget about taking care of yourself and chasing your own goals.
If their pace isn’t right for you, or they’re partying too much for your liking, or you’re not getting the solitude you need…hike your own hike.
Thruhiking is simple and difficult, humbling and empowering, bliss and suffering, lonely and deeply communal. Photo by Brett Kretzer aka “Grandpa”
9. Post Trail Depression
This one is a doozy. Perhaps the hardest part of hiking a long trail is coming off the trail. There’s a thing that happens after you spend months on end in the beauty of nature, living simply, bonding with like-minded individuals, and having your brain constantly flooded with endorphins. It’s difficult to explain, but whatever it is can make the shift back to “real life” overwhelming.
All of the sudden you have to deal with bills, jobs, and the constant buzz of civilization. In my experience … you have to find a way to keep the momentum of your thru-hike going into “real life”. Keep exercising, and use that ambition to do something fulfilling. And remember, there’s always the next trail.
Photo by Grace VanSurksum aka “Flan”
I truly hope you’ve enjoyed this article and that it has inspired you to get out and enjoy the beauty of our planet. Writing it has brought me back to the best times of my life as I sort through the memories and photos of my thru-hikes.
Thru-hiking is a difficult and worthy quest, and if you choose to answer the call, you’ll look back on the experience fondly for the rest of your life.
I read “Appalachian Trials” last year and I highly recommend it. The difference between the person who completes a thru hike and the one who doesn’t often comes down to mental preparation more than physical preparation. You can’t ever know exactly what challenges you face. The best way to prepare yourself for any epic undertaking is to know why you’re doing it, and to have a plan for how you’ll cope when difficulties arise.
It’s good advice for life.
I’ve never thru-hiked a true long trail but I’ve done many sections of the AT and the JMT.
What I’ve found is that if you ALREADY have a lot of week-long backpacking experience you will already know 1.) what gear to take and what Not to take 2.) how to pace you days 3.) how to deal with bad weather 4.) WHEN to take a break (“zero” day) 5.) how to plan for re-supply
So get out and do WEEK-LONG backpacks and learn for yourself. There is no substitute.
Well said. Thank you. I’m just an old guy who’s been backpacking for 50 yrs & goes out for 4-6 days at a time & still found much that applies.
David L Leichter
Wonderful article. Inspiring!
Good stuff, Grandpa! I just came off trail from my first long section hike on the AT and found a lot of wisdom in this!