Long-distance hiking is an incredibly rewarding experience, but it also requires a lot of preparation. This is especially the case if you’re going to be on the trail for months at a time (such as hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail).
We’ll start by looking at how long exactly long-distance is, and you’ll get a good idea of where to start planning your hike.
In this article we’ll cover the following:
- Places to start your research
- Some of the things you’ll need to plan for
- How to pack light, and what not to skimp on
- What physical training you’ll need
So, let’s get into it!
Long-Distance Hiking Basics
So, what even counts as a long-distance hike?
There’s no strict definition for a long-distance hike. Everyone has their own take on what constitutes a long-distance hike. My own personal definition is; covering over 100 miles and/or taking over a week.
This will vary a lot depending on how much experience you have in hiking, your age, and your fitness level.
This also includes “thru-hiking” — treks that are measured in months, rather than weeks. These include:
- The Pacific Crest Trail
- The Appalachian Trail
- The California Trail.
The average hiker takes six months to complete the Appalachian Trail.
What do you need for these marathon hikes? You need fitness, the right gear, the right plan, and above all, the right mindset.
How to Prepare for Long-Distance Hiking
Plan Your Trek Thoroughly
There’s a couple of old adages here — “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted”, and “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”.
This means knowing where you’re going, what the weather is likely to do, how you’re going to get food and other supplies, what happens if you get an injury, and even how you can stave off boredom.
Make sure you include “zero days” — days when you don’t hike at all and instead rest and recuperate — in your planning.
You should be adaptable and change your plans as you go through the training process because it can be very easy to overestimate your abilities.
Conduct Research of the Trail
If you’re hiking in the United States, the Forest Service National Trails System site is a fantastic resource.
This offers detailed information and planning advice for the best-known long-distance trails, as well as updates and alerts. There really isn’t a better place to start your trail research.
However, that isn’t necessarily where you want to finish your research.
Seek out hiking communities like r/hiking or r/ultralight on Reddit and see what other hikers have to say about their experiences hiking various trails, especially in different seasons.
Establish Your Itinerary
It might seem a bit unusual, but if you are going for a hike that takes a few weeks, you have to plan your itinerary much more tightly than if you were away for a few months.
That’s because you’ll need to be sure to hit those markers with less wiggle room!
With longer hikes, you may have to plan for supply drops. This is because many “trail towns” either have very few options to purchase necessary supplies, or are very expensive.
Start Training Well In Advance
When we say “advance”, I mean a lot in advance.
This will depend on your current level of fitness and your hiking experience, but you should be spending weeks or even months preparing physically, especially if you’re going for ultra-long thru-hikes.
Mind Over Matter
The phrase “mind over matter” refers to the power of the mind to overcome physical challenges or obstacles. When it comes to long-distance hiking, having a strong mental attitude and determination can be just as important as physical strength and endurance.
During a long-distance hike, your body will inevitably become tired, sore, and possibly even injured. Your mind may also start to feel fatigued and overwhelmed by the length and difficulty of the hike. However, if you are able to maintain a positive mindset and focus on your goal of completing the hike, you are more likely to succeed.
One way to achieve a strong mental attitude during a long-distance hike is to break the journey down into smaller, more manageable sections. Focusing on reaching the next milestone or checkpoint, rather than the entire distance, can help to prevent feelings of discouragement and exhaustion.
Visualization and positive self-talk can also be helpful tools for maintaining a strong mindset during a long distance hike. Imagining yourself crossing the finish line or repeating positive affirmations to yourself can provide motivation and encouragement.
Overall, a strong mental attitude and determination can help you push through the physical challenges of a long-distance hike and ultimately achieve your goal of completing the journey.
Tips for Long-Distance Hiking
There’s one thing everyone needs if they’re going on a very long hike — good footwear.
However, that doesn’t mean you necessarily need a pair of heavy walking boots.
If you’re traveling well-maintained tracks then you can opt for trail running shoes instead. They’re more comfortable, dry faster, and weigh less.
Invest in Good Hiking Equipment
Investing in good hiking equipment for long-distance hiking is essential for ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience.
Long-distance hiking can be physically demanding, and the right equipment can make all the difference in terms of comfort, safety, and overall success on the trail.
Whether it’s a sturdy pair of hiking boots, a high-quality backpack, or reliable navigation tools, investing in good equipment can help hikers to stay safe, avoid injury, and navigate the trail with confidence.
In this way, quality hiking equipment is an investment in both the present and future of your outdoor hiking pursuits, allowing you to enjoy the natural world to the fullest while also ensuring that you are prepared for any challenges that may arise along the way.
Pack, sleep system, shelter, survival gear — these things aren’t cheap.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
A personal locator beacon (PLB) is a small, handheld device that can be used in emergency situations to summon help. It works by transmitting a distress signal via satellite to a global network of search and rescue organizations, who can then use the signal to locate and assist the person in need.
For long-distance hikers, a PLB can be a useful tool for ensuring safety in remote or rugged terrain. If a hiker becomes lost, injured, or otherwise incapacitated, a PLB can be used to quickly alert search and rescue teams, who can then mount a response to locate and provide assistance.
In many cases, a PLB can mean the difference between life and death in emergency situations. With its ability to transmit a distress signal from almost anywhere on the planet, a PLB can provide peace of mind for hikers, knowing that they have a reliable means of summoning help in case of an emergency.
It’s important to note that while a PLB can be an invaluable tool for hikers, it should not be relied upon as a substitute for proper planning, preparation, and risk management. Hikers should always take appropriate precautions to minimize the risk of an emergency situation occurring in the first place, such as carrying sufficient supplies and equipment, staying aware of weather and trail conditions, and notifying others of their itinerary and expected return time.
Pack as Light as Possible
This is about the most important factor in long-distance hiking — the pounds you might be able to manage to carry over a couple of days is going to feel way heavier after a week… or three!
The r/ultralight community has a crowdsourced database of gear weights, along with a database of gear lists that members have taken on hikes. These will give you a great look at what others manage with (and without).
Prioritize what matters to you in terms of clothes and toiletries. However, remember that a couple of luxuries will go a long way to boosting your morale when your feet hurt, your companions are annoying, and you’re sick of eating cabin bread.
A 4lbs tent might sound appealing, for a weekend trip. But add that weight to a long-distance hike over weeks and months and you’ll feel the strain. Consider a 1.5lbs tarp tent for any long-distance adventure, and your back will thank you for it.
Camping with a tarp has its ups and downs, but there are many situations where a tarp tent is the better choice.
If you’re stuck on how to build your tarp tent, we’ve outlined the top 10 tarp shelter configurations to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Get Plenty of Food and Sleep
These two things cannot be overstated — especially the food.
If you’re walking all day for weeks, you’ll be burning a lot of calories, and you need to replenish those.
Have emergency supplies in case you can’t buy anything, and plan your meals in advance to maximize calories-per-ounce.
Sleep is also critical because tired hikers make mistakes. They push on through weather when they shouldn’t, they’re more likely to trip and fall, and they get lost.
If you’re too tired to continue, listen to your body and sleep as much as possible during your rest periods.
Be Prepared to Call it Quits
You’ve done the planning, bought the gear, and made it through the first week… then on day 10 you turn your ankle, and the pain is getting worse with every step.
This certainly isn’t the only situation where you’ll have to pull out of your planned hike. There are a whole load of reasons why you might not finish.
Be prepared for that — both in terms of logistics, and how you’re going to feel.
Why You Might Fail a Long-Distance Hike
Long-distance hike success rates are not precise, so knowing the exact number is tough. But there are some general estimations for the more popular trails.
- Appalachian Trail – 25% success rate. About 750 of 3000 actually finish the hike
- Pacific Crest Trail – 60% success rate. About 180 of 300 actually finish the hike
- Continental Divide Trail – 50% success rate. About 15 of 30 actually finish the hike
Long-distance hiking is no mean feat. Many don’t fully understand what they’re getting themselves into. Dropping out within a week is common.
Here are some common causes that may lead to long-distance hiking failure:
- Unrealistic Expectations – Completing a long-distance hike is a sought-after achievement. So much so that people often undertake these challenges under-prepared. They’re hard, grueling, and not for the faint-hearted
- Injury – Injury is very common on such long-distance adventures. One misplaced foot and you’ll be out of action for weeks. Injury mitigation is key to boosting the odds of your completing the hike. Wearing the right gear and being physically fit enough is essential for a successful thru-hike.
- Weather – While we all try to plan around the weather, the weather does not plan around us. Storms can come and go in an instant and we may find ourselves in a precarious situation. Be ready to forfeit the hike should the weather require you to. It’s unwise to continue on in dangerous conditions.
- Lack of Funds – Hiking these trails is long and arduous. Money for food and gear repairs will add up significantly over the course of your hike. Failure to properly budget will lead you way off your goal with no food left to fuel your body.
Getting in Shape for Long-Distance Hiking
Obviously, being fit for hiking is quite different to being fit for tennis — remember that you’re looking at a very long period of sustained effort.
Build a Good Cardio Foundation
Having said that, if you’re in shape for group fitness classes or tennis, you’re going to have an excellent base to start from.
Building your cardio foundation doesn’t have to be that strenuous, however. Even just incorporating fast daily walks into your routine will help.
Incorporate Weight Training
No matter how light you pack, you’re going to be carrying some weight.
Adding regular weight training prepares you for this. It also strengthens muscles, ligaments and bones — which will help reduce injuries on the trail.
Plus, when you’re doing cardio all the time it can get pretty repetitive, and it’s nice to mix up your workouts.
Improve Your Endurance Abilities
Fundamentally, the best way to get fit for hiking is by going hiking.
Day trips, overnight hikes, and treks where you spend a couple of nights on the trail should all be part of your training.
Make sure you incorporate the kind of terrain you’ll be walking up on your long-distance hike. Reasonably flat ground is a lot less taxing than going up and down mountains.
Get a feel for slogging uphill, and for managing your descent when you have the added weight of a pack.
Long-distance hiking is incredibly rewarding for those who want to experience wild places, as well as spend a long time appreciating parts of the landscape that most people never see.
If you prepare well, have the right gear, and get yourself physically fit enough, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to spend weeks or months out there on the trail.
Have fun and stay safe!