Your narrator? It’s me(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre)—your gaseous friend “Fart Master” (real trail name), a proud dirtbag graduate of the Appalachian Trail, SoBo Class of ‘13.
Without further ado, here are the things you need to know about the things you don’t actually need to know when it comes to thru-hiking.
Taking Zero Days Is Glorious
When first starting out, the prospect of walking every… single… waking… day seems daunting to say the least. But in reality, zero days have a way of dragging on longer than some of the longest hiking days.
Think about it: thru-hikers are a special breed to begin with. ‘Unhinged’ by some people’s counts. ‘Screws loose’ by others. Practically all thru-hikers share the following trait, however—they’re restless. The only thing worse than staying still is staying that way for a full 24 hours (aka a Zero Day).
Once you’re acclimatized to thru-hiking life, the hiking part is just what you do. It’s your job, your purpose, your entire raison d'être. It’s a daily habit. And as caffeine lovers know: habits are hard to break.
Pro tip: A great way to navigate resupply entrances and exits without taking a Zero Day is with a “Short Day Sandwich.” Instead of taking a full Zero Day—which involves at least two nights in a hotel—you can basically reap the rewards of a Zero Day with 3-7 mile distances on either side of a night in town. You can bang out 3-7 miles before breakfast (a cake walk by the time you’ve donned your Trail Legs), arrive in town for lunch, spend an entire afternoon and even the next afternoon in town, before breezing through another 3-7 miles on the backside to get back on trail. This’ll help you budget both money and momentum better—and prevent any flare ups of Restless Leg Syndrome.
You Need to Bag 30 Miles a Day
On the flip side, does not taking zero days mean you need to put your Vibram-soled pedal to the metal and crush 30-mile days to finish the trail as fast as possible? Nope, sure doesn’t.
Stopping to smell the figurative (and literal) wildflowers is one of the great joys of thru-hiking. It may sound squishy, but it’s true. This adventure, for most people, is a once-in-a-lifetime excursion. Breathing it in is essential. Speed and efficiency certainly have their merits (you don’t want to be post-holing through feet-deep snow in Maine after all). But if you encounter a swimming hole along the way or feel like lounging in your hammock to finish a chapter of your book or really don’t want to push over that next summit before nightfall, there’s no shame in slowing down.
“Hike your own hike” is the famous mantra. Your interpretation of this mantra will be the biggest factor for how said hike goes.
Northbound Is the Only Way to Go
You know what the say: “The party goes north.” Across all the major north-south trails in the US, the vast majority of hikers (75-90%) travel northbound. And quite simply—especially on the Appalachian Trail where seasonality and higher elevations play less of a role—it doesn’t need to be this way.
The AT NoBo bubble, for instance, is no joke. Roughly 5,000 thru-hikers will embark on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail this year. More than three-quarters of these will start from Springer. This will inevitably mean less solitude, more crowded shelters, emptier Trail Magic caches, and yep—more likelihood of viral transmissions (like norovirus or even Covid). Of course, you can’t knock the camaraderie and community that accompany northbound thru-hiking. But to believe NoBo is the only way to go is, well, a no-no.
Southbound thru-hikers are treated to a balmy summer start vs a frigid winter start, fewer crowds (which means more shelter and less illness), and mostly mild temperatures throughout the trail, without having to worry about racing the clock to finish before a snowy northern winter. Plus—and most important of all—going southbound is basically just going downhill the whole way, right?
Hiking Boots Are A Necessity
Look at any before and after photo of a thru-hiker, and one thing you’re practically guaranteed to see—aside from mangey beards and gaunt cheekbones—is a change in footwear. Many thru-hikers will start the trail with heavy duty, over-the-ankle, Gore-Tex tanks on their feet. Many more will roll up to their respective terminuses in trail running shoes.
Why? A few reasons: For one, old-school hiking boots are primarily designed to keep your feet dry and your ankles stable. The universal (inconvenient) truth of thru-hiking, however, is that your feet are never actually truly dry. And arguably more important than stable ankles is skin on your toes. As in, over-the-ankle hiking boots are essentially blister ovens!
Again, this hot take on hiking boots largely depends on conditions. In snowy, more technical environments, like sections of the PCT and CDT, traditional hiking boots can make a world of difference. But in large sections of both (looking at you, Mojave Desert!) and along the entire AT, many thru-hikers will favor trail running shoes or below-the-ankle footwear because they’re easier to get on and off, better for blister reduction, lighter weight, less unwieldy, and generally more pleasant to cover long distances in.
Resupply Is A Logistics Nightmare
On the contrary, getting in and out of most trail towns is pretty easy. So easy, in fact, that most thru-hikers average about 4-5 days between resupply points. This is kind of the sweet spot between not carrying too much while ensuring you don’t lose momentum.
In terms of the trails themselves, AT thru-hikers rarely go 50 miles without a resupply option. PCT thru-hikers have over 100 resupply points along the trail. Even CDT thru-hikers travel a manageable average of 123 miles between resupplies.
Caveat: Some folks prefer to send supplies in advance to various postal offices along the trail. Definitely do this if you have certain dietary needs or if you’re like a kid on Christmas morning who simply’ lives for ripping open cardboard boxes. But remember: even on the CDT, it’s possible to fuel your entire journey without mail.
You Need a Knife
In 1874, an eccentric member of the upper crust named Samuel W. Francis had an epiphany: the fork and the spoon, he determined, need not be separate; for together, they can achieve great things. And thus—the spork was born!
Little did Samuel Francis know, the spork would go on to become the greatest invention and ally for thru-hikers everywhere—surpassing by a Shenandoah mile the usefulness of a knife.
In all seriousness, the number of times you actually need a knife on trail is limited to say the least. Of course, this is just one thru-hiker’s opinion. Diehard knife lovers will disagree—and more power to them if they do (“hike your own hike” remember?)
But if you’re on the fence about bringing a knife, know this: more often than not, it’ll end up clanging around unused in the brain of your pack, while ye olde trusty spork sees all of the epicurean action.
You Can Train for a Thru-Hike
A thru-hike doesn’t care if you’re a marathoner. Equally, it doesn’t care if you’re a couch potato. In this way, a long-distance trail is like a great equalizer. Everyone who starts out will start on a level playing field. (Proverbially speaking of course—there are very few sprawling fields in the wilderness, and practically none of them are level.)
Some folks will attempt to simulate a thru-hiking experience beforehand by loading up their packs and hitting the trail for a few training hikes in the weeks or months leading up to a thru-hike. I myself packed a couple of 30 lb dumbbells into my Atmos 50(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) back in the day and pounded the dirt on local trails around Chattanooga, TN in an effort to gain my “trail legs.”
But here’s the thing: there’s only one way to truly earn your “trail legs.” Squats and lunges won’t do it. Trail running won’t do it. Not even hiking with dumbbells will do it. The only way to get those magical, mystical “trail legs” is by hitting the actual trail. Even then, it’ll take some time. Most hikers don’t fully hit their stride until about 3-4 weeks in. (Sidebar: it’s critical during these first 3-4 weeks to pay attention to your body, to ease into the hike, and to avoid overdoing it even if you’re feeling strong. Achilles tendonitis is always just a mile or two extra away if you’re not careful.)
The upside of not being able to truly prepare for a thru-hike is that, well… you can just begin. Like painters with a blank canvas or writers with an empty page, the only way to ever create something is to start. You’ll learn (and strengthen your legs) as you go.
Ramen Is the Only Backpacking Food
Oh, you poor malnourished, deprived, hungry soul. Come hither, gather ‘round the warmth of this metaphorical fire, and hear pray tell of the epicurean delights that await with backcountry cooking.
True, optimizing for lightweight foods is key during a thru-hike. And ramen is not only the Official Food of College Dormitories™ but also a hallmark staple for backpackers everywhere. But backpacking meals have come a long way in recent years.
From dehydrated meals(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) to lightweight staples(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), the sheer diversity of options is staggering. Granola and oatmeal dusted in vanilla protein powder (with water) for breakfast. Tortillas bursting at the seams with chunky peanut butter, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and dark chocolate. Pasta Sides, Rice Sides, couscous, Thanksgiving stuffing! Snickers bars, beef jerky, canned tuna, blocks of cheese, the list goes on. You’re only limited by your imagination… okay, and probably a 25lb food bag.
Thru-Hiking Is Always Amazing
Okay, true—probably very few people will actually think this. But it bears stating for the eternal optimists in the back row: THRU-HIKING IS NOT A WALK IN THE PARK.
For every swirling sunset, there’s a swarm of black flies. For every sprawling vista, a grueling climb. For every decadent Trail Town burger, a thigh-burning squat over hard-as-rock frozen ground while frigid winds whip up beneath your exposed private parts.
The challenges of thru-hiking are what make the journey unforgettable—of course. But to downplay these challenges is to flirt with failure. There’s a reason, after all, 4 out of 5 thru-hikers don’t make it. Embrace the hardships, but never pretend they don’t exist.
Thru-Hiking Is an Incessant Slog
On the contrary, thru-hiking truly is one of the most life-affirming endeavors a person can embark upon. Even huddled in a shelter during a lightning storm or spooning with a dirty stranger for warmth or bleeding through both pairs of socks—even through all this, the broader joys, the grander grandeur of a thru-hike, ensures your time will never be just a 4-6 month slog.
It will be the trip of a lifetime.