How to Thru-Hike: The 5 Planning Categories

Jeff Garmire

How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

Thru-hikes vary widely in terrain, distance, and access. Each hike is different, and each hiker is unique, but some factors in the planning process remain the same. Correctly planning a thru-hike can be simplified down to a few simple categories. 

Depending on the hike, some of the categories may require only a few minutes of planning. On other hikes, however, the entire endeavor may depend entirely on one category. No matter the project, here is a simple way to define the preparation process before hitting the trail on a thru-hike.



How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

The most trail and terrain-dependent category is gear. This past weekend I went out with a friend and we hiked through 40 miles of snow-covered ridgetops. The last time we had hiked together was in the desert of Arizona. Despite the similar distance, our two hikes required drastically different gear. Not only was the weather different at altitude, but the terrain was as well. 

On the ridge, we followed a route, not necessarily a defined trail. Maintaining battery on our phones to follow pre-mapped water locations and the GPS track was important. We also needed multiple layers to soften the pounding wind. 

To plan my gear, I considered the two extremes of the route—sunny ridgelines with high levels of direct sunlight, and then very exposed wind and snow. On this trail I carried more to be comfortable within the wide gap between the two extremes. 

The one caveat in packing gear for an entire trail is resupplying. Within a resupply strategy comes the opportunity to change gear throughout a hike to adjust to the conditions, terrain, and seasons. 


How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

A specific part of each hike is deciding how it will be done. I recently completed the Colorado Trail in an unsupported fashion. For 485 miles I carried all the food I would need along the way. This is the most drastic example of trying to carry things from one end of a trail to another. 

The most manageable way to hike more than a few days is to plan resupply locations. At these defined spots there will be a town—or a road into a town. 

Beyond knowing where a resupply should take place, deciding how to resupply is the next important decision. Either by mail or at the grocery store, the goal is simple—replenish the food. For locations where the offerings are meager, I often mail a package, but for all others I let my appetite guide me when buying food for the next section. 

You’ll probably never want to carry more than 5-6 days of food at a time for each section, so mapping and planning your food resupply is critical. 


How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

Planning the monetary side of a thru-hike is specific to each individual. On my first hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011, I was hypersensitive about each expenditure. Now I plan to be frugal and cut out most things like hotel rooms, but there is a little more leeway to enjoy the occasional beer. 

The best way to estimate finances is find a trip report or blog of a previous hiker and either reach out to them directly, or see if they post about their budget. This will serve as a guideline when forecasting how much the hike will cost. 

A safe bet is to have about $1.50 per mile in the bank account to help pay for town amenities and resupply. This doesn’t factor in bills you might still be paying from the home front. 

Permits and Restrictions

How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

Permits and restrictions are another factor that may involve nothing more than a simple Google search. There have been no permits required on about half of my 15 thru-hikes. But on trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, the permit will dictate the start date, plan, schedule, and the feasibility of the entire hike. 

Beyond permits, consider the restrictions and advice surrounding different places. In Colorado there was a fire ban when I hiked the Colorado Trail. I didn’t plan to have a fire, but if I had wanted to, it would have been illegal. Another factor in restrictions in preparing for bears, mice, and wildlife. 

Bear cans are required in much of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and bear hangs are required in Glacier National Park. Along with these concrete restrictions, come the added weight of things like bear spray. 


How to Plan for a Thru-Hike Lightweight Long Distance Backpacking

The schedule of a thru-hike depends largely on the four other factors listed above. The seasonality of the hike is dependent on gear, finances, permits, and the resupply potential along the way. 

Schedules can include things like pushing back a thru-hike a few days to avoid a winter storm, or adjusting your route around wildfires. The schedule is a personal creation specific to each hike. 

I start with a spreadsheet, then input every possible resupply location and corresponding mileage. From there I can test different start date possibilities, calculate an estimated end date, and be prepared to start my thru-hike!

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