How to Prepare for Your First Thru-Hike


, by Charlie Boscoe

The reward for a long day of hiking; Nicomen Lake (home to exceptional swimming spots and flat tent platforms), Manning Park, Canada. Photo: Boscoe Collection.

Hiking is a pretty straightforward endeavor - pull some shoes on, pick a route, and do what you've been doing since the age of one. As your hiking career progresses, you can go farther, longer, and more remote, and your skills in navigation, gear selection, pacing, and nutrition will all need to develop. Still, the challenge of hiking begins to dissipate once you have the basic ability to look after yourself in the wilderness for a day. That all changes when your goals shift from day hiking to trips where you'll stay out overnight and begin to contemplate your first thru-hike, where you'll complete an end-to-end, multi-day hike.

The shift from day trips to hikes that could be a weekend, a week, or a month-long is enormous and requires a vast amount of new knowledge and perfecting of your essential hiking skills. Suddenly, getting wet, hungry, or exhausted when hiking isn't just a pain—it could be potentially dangerous. Hiking suddenly takes on a new level of seriousness, but its rewards grow exponentially. Consider thru-hiking one of those "the more you put in, the more you get out" activities! Here are some tips to get you started.

Packing up camp during a multi-day journey through the Dolomites, Italy. Photo: Boscoe Collection.

Start Easy

The first step in preparing for a thru-hike is selecting the right trail. Consider factors such as distance, terrain, weather, and personal preferences. You might have your eye on the Pacific Crest or Appalachian trails, but starting with something more manageable, shorter, and less committing is the key to developing your thru-hiking skills. An easy success usually beats a glorious failure, so pick a route that doesn't require enormous complexity. You may have a trail in mind that you can do in two days, thereby only necessitating a single night of camping, or it follows a well-established path and, therefore, won't require too much navigation. The key is to avoid picking a long trip that requires complex navigation and is remote and, and, and... Add the challenges slowly and build up experience gradually. 

RELATED: The 7 Best Long-Distance Thru-Hikes in the USA

Get Fit

When thru-hiking goes to plan, it's pretty tiring - when it goes wrong, it can be exhausting! Being in the best possible physical shape gives you the most options when your plans go awry and will make your trip safer and more enjoyable. If you plan to camp at a specific spot, but the weather is deteriorating, having the fitness to push on to a more sheltered location is critical. If you do thru-hikes that take you to your physical limit, you're essentially "betting the farm" on everything going smoothly. Additional fitness allows you to plan more ambitiously and be more flexible once underway.

Nearly at the end of a long hiking day above Bellinzona, Switzerland. Photo: Boscoe Collection.

Go Light

Now, this is a delicate subject! There is definitely such a thing as too light, but going too heavy has ruined many a trip. We have an article all about saving weight when packing, but beyond just buying light gear, you also need to understand what items to take, and what to leave behind. 

RELATED: How To Pack Light for an Overnight Hike

Creating an ever-evolving gear list and making notes next to each item is highly recommended, and you'll be surprised how much detail you can get into! Every time you do an overnight hike, look back at your gear list and note down any learnings. Decide whether you could improve or replace each item or whether you need to take it at all. There's an element of judgment to this because some gear, such as first aid kits and bear sprays, are not needed most of the time but are essential when you do need them! You can still refine your emergency gear, though, and tweak it according to the conditions you will encounter on your trip. For example, some sort of lightweight shelter might be a useful emergency item on a day hike, but you'll be carrying a tent on a thru-hike, so you can leave the emergency shelter at home. Similarly, carrying a spare lightweight headlamp is generally worthwhile but might not be necessary in the height of summer when the nights are brief and you already have a headlamp and your phone light if it fails. Experiment, learn, and refine your gear list.

Sights like this (Ama Dablam, Nepal, at sunrise) make it all worthwhile. Photo: Boscoe Collection.

Slow it Down

One of the toughest challenges with a thru-hike is not being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what you're doing. If you set off on a hike that's hundreds, even thousands, of miles, it's easy to be crushed by the challenges ahead of you. Many people try to overcome that mental hurdle by working out the average miles they need to cover every day and then trying to hit it every day. In reality, your body won't be ready to do the average mileage for the first week or two (no matter how much training you've done), and you need to ease into the task of covering the miles. Going fast at the start of a thru-hike is probably the number one mistake people make because they exhaust themselves (making the mental challenge of picturing the coming months even harder) and pick up injuries. Start your trip by doing challenging but manageable daily mileages, and trust that you will hike yourself into shape. It's a bizarre thing, but the longer a trip goes, the easier the hiking becomes, and the faster the miles fall! Get started, trust the process, and allow your body to adapt.

RELATED: The 25 Best Long-Distance Hikes in the World

Plan Ahead

Unlike day hiking, where, to an extent, you can react to whatever comes around the next corner, thru-hiking requires a considerable amount of planning and forethought. There's a thru-hiking adage that "If you always think about water, you never need to think about water," which perfectly sums up the required mindset. Where is your next water refill? With that in mind, how much must you carry in your pack? What time do you need to leave camp to get ahead of the storm that's forecast? If the campsite you're aiming for turns out not to be suitable, where is the next one? 

Drying gear and restocking on water at this beautiful wilderness lake, Okanagan Valley, Canada. Photo: Boscoe Collection.

Much as it is nice, at times, to switch off and enjoy your surroundings, the reality of thru-hiking is that much of your time will be taken up with logistical planning and pondering the challenges ahead. That said, try to limit your thinking to challenges that you can currently deal with - don't start dwelling on what will happen a week in the future. Figure out where your next "reset" is, be it a food resupply or a night in a hotel your trail passes, and concentrate on getting there as efficiently as possible. 

MUST READ: Leave No Trace 101: The 7 Principles

As with so many things in life, thru-hiking can seem daunting, but two famous phrases are worth considering when preparing for and doing it. The first is the Lao Tzu quote that "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and the second is the military "6 P's" adage that "Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance"!

Finally here's a suggestion for a first three-day hike, nestled in the heart of the mighty Cascade Mountains: