Amazing Places

Here's What It Takes to Hike a Long Trail

For even the experienced weekend backpacker, long thru-hikes like the Appalachian Trail (AT), Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) can seem like a whole new league. Two nights in the woods becomes five months, leaving work early on Friday turns into quitting your job, boots will collect thousands more miles, and every extra pound becomes that much more crucial. But at the same time, trails like these are showing up on more and more people's life-lists. That's for good reason: They're spectacular! But how do you go about preparing to hike for months at a time?

Related Video: Hiker Learns Ukelele While Walking the Pacific Crest Trail

How Much Time Do I Need to Take Off of Work?

Trails like the AT, CDT, and PCT can take hikers anywhere from five to seven months to hike end to end in one go. That's a lot of walking! In any case, your exact timing depends on your personal fitness and experience, the weight of your pack, and generally how fast you want to go. While some hikers go ultralight and fast (the AT has been hiked in under 46 days), a better experience might be taking the trail at a more leisurely pace to enjoy the scenery and new locations.

That being said, section hiking these trails is just as legitimate a way to complete the route. Do it piecemeal, one smaller section at a time, as it's convenient. Some hikers spend their entire lives slowly chipping away at the entire route.

How Much Does It Cost to Hike a Long Trail?

Part of the experience of hiking a long trail is checking out the towns along the way, eating good food, and occasionally getting off the ground to freshen up in a hotel room. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the average hiker on that trail will spend approximately $1,000 per month of hiking on food, lodging, permits, etc., though that's probably still far cheaper than your everyday life! Keep in mind, however, that the startup costs associated with getting the right gear can be a lot.

How Do You Carry Months' of Food with You?

If a good baseline for backpacking is to carry 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of food per day, for a six-month hike, you would start out with more than 360 pounds (163 kilograms) of food in your pack — you won't get very far like that. Instead, where the trail passes through or nearby towns, most hikers will resupply and carry only as much as they need to get to the next resupply (this might involve hitchhiking to the town grocery store and back to the trailhead). Another common practice is to plan ahead and mail food to the post office in towns where it might be in short supply, so you can pick it up when you come through.

Is It Safe to Hitchhike?

Trail towns are trail towns for a reason. At the height of thru-hiking season, spots along any of these routes fill with hikers looking for a place to take their boots off, grab a shower, eat some food, and pack up to head back out. Most people in the area are willing to lend a hand to thru-hikers, including by giving them a lift into town. In any case, follow some best practices and safety precautions to keep the locals' impression of hikers on the up and up.

How Much Will My Backpack Weigh?

When Joe McConaughy broke the Appalachian Trail speed record in 2017, he did it completely unsupported with a 25-pound (11-kilogram) backpack. Most thru-hikers packs will weight slightly more than that, but for thousand-plus mile hikes, every ounce is scrutinized a lot more than it would be for a shorter backpacking trip. Lightweight gear is something hikers can spend months agonizing over. That being said, a good baseline is that your backpack should come in at somewhere around 10 percent of your body weight.

Do You Plan Every Campsite Beforehand?

With a trip this long, it's best to avoid a really detailed itinerary — it's sure to get messed up quickly and often. The unexpected is constantly happening on the trail, so it's best to remain flexible. Most hikers will carry enough guidebooks and maps to be able to pick their campsites and make plans a few days ahead of time.

What Are "Trail Angels"?

Trail angels are volunteer locals who enjoy helping out thru-hikers at certain sections, providing food, lodging, beta, hot showers and more. You're likely to run into a charitable local along your hike willing to help you out.

Will I Finish It?

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only one out of every four thru-hikers that starts the journey completes it — typically due to injury (overuse injuries are common among hikers who start too hard too fast), running out of money, or needing to head home for family emergencies. Hiking these trails is hard and demanding, requiring a lot of physical and mental stamina and determination. But they are also some of the most rewarding experiences for an adventurer to experience and you're almost guaranteed to come out of your hike with a different view on life and some of the best stories you'll ever have.

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If the Appalachian Trail is on your bucket list, you should definitely check out "How to Hike the Appalachian Trail: A Comprehensive Guide to Plan and Prepare for a Successful Thru-Hike" by Chris Cage. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ryan Wichelns October 26, 2018

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