Chapter 14: Make Your Long-Distance Hike More Fun By Hiking Light

Planning a thru-hike of many weeks or months on one of the major trails adds some extra challenges to ultralight hiking. Physical conditioning and resupplying are key ingredients to a successful lightweight hike.

Even before you start putting together your resupply packages, you need to start conditioning your body. If your feet and legs are in good shape, your chances of success are much higher. Remember that about 40% of thru hikers stop before they complete their planned trip, so do your best to eliminate the common causes for not staying on the trail. The best way to prepare for hiking is to hike. Seems simple, but while you’re busy with everyday life, carving out enough time to get in trail shape will be difficult.

You can do cardio and the stair master at a health club, but that’s not the total answer. You need to hike and hike a lot in the shoes you’ll be using for your long-distance hike. If you plan on hiking the full length of one of the major trails, remember you may need to break in two or three pairs of shoes. When moisture drips down into your shoes, it’s the same as if you forded a creek, so it’s good to get your feet in shape by hiking when they’re wet. Start your hike with socks that give you plenty of padding because your feet will tend to swell and even lengthen on long trips.

It’s bad planning to think you’ll get in shape as you start hiking. Since you won’t have a lot of recovery time as you begin your long-distance hike, you need to be in shape when you start. Hiking shorter mileage days at the beginning of your trip may be more reasonable, but it’s not the easy answer. Before you start your long hike, your training hikes can prepare you better if they have lots of ups and downs. Older hikers are in danger of having knee problems especially on steep descents.

Staying hydrated and well fed is probably more important than you think as you begin your hike. If you’re like most hikers, you’ll lose weight anyway, so eat well and drink well from the beginning. Drinking a lot will tend to keep joints lubricated and your muscles won’t be as sore. Start out with extra ibuprofen and hope you won’t have to use too much as the days progress.

If you’re planning this hike with a partner, remember that they might drop out while you want to continue. Make sure you take all the equipment you need and don’t rely on anyone else. Your pace may be faster or slower than a partner, so being independent will give you peace of mind if you’re behind or ahead on the trail.

Your training hikes are a good time to test all your equipment. Desert hiking at the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail will require different gear than the Sierras or Northern Cascades. Test everything that you’ll use. You may enjoy not using a tent in the desert. Know how much room a bear canister will take in your pack if you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Be comfortable with your rain gear on the Appalachian Trail. Sharpen your map using skills on the Continental Divide Trail since it’s not as well defined. If you use permethrin to keep insects off your clothes, remember to treat all the clothes you’ll have your support person send during the hike.

Have access to your money, and remember that nothing will cost less than you expect, but there will be lots to spend your money on, especially in trail towns. When you get to a town, you’ll probably want to treat yourself to restaurant meals, a warm bed, and other things that drain your budget. If you’re lucky, you’ll be enjoying the rhythm and feel of the trail, and want to get out of town as soon as possible. Most thru hikers carry a paid-up credit card or debit card, or both. Remember that paying your credit card is something your support person should be able to help with, so leave a few signed checks behind. Most hikers carry a phone card with plenty of minutes. And it’s always good to have some cash for times when a credit card won’t work.

You may wish to carry a camera or journal even though you don’t normally take them on shorter hikes. Both can be great for recording one of your life’s great adventures. One of the great preparation tools for your hike can be the journals of other hikers. You’ll get fired up for your hike and gain valuable insights at the same time.

Resupply points and how to use them will be one of the most important parts of your planning. This is a good place to learn from others. If you google the name of your trail, you’ll find a list of resupply points and the ins and outs of using each one. You may wish to skip some resupply stations that are too far off the trail. Some are post offices while others are post offices in stores or resorts. Others are resorts or businesses that have agreed to be resupply points. Post offices will be closed on weekends and holidays. Some small towns will have very few services. Always include your approximate date of arrival and a return address on the packages you send.

It may seem very difficult to hitchhike into some towns, but asking for rides at the trail heads or campgrounds might be easier than you think. People like to hear about the adventures of long-distance hikers, especially other hikers. At times like this, it’s good to clean up as much as possible and have a bit of deodorant in your pack. Asking for a ride while you’re still near the trail gives female hikers a chance to be more selective in choosing rides

Many long-distance hikers don’t like to send all their food to resupply stations. You may like the taste of something at the beginning of your hike and grow tired of it. Freeze dried food is expensive. Learning good alternatives could pay for much of your adventure. It’s very expensive to mail heavy packages to each resupply point. With the amount you pay for priority mail, you could buy much of your food. That’s another reason to experiment a lot with food before your hike. Become an expert of what you can buy even in small and medium-size grocery stores. Read more on what other hikers have done. You may carry a little more weight, but you can leave each resupply point with exactly what you have chosen at the time, and not be locked into what you planned months ago. You need to be realistic. You may be in that group that doesn’t hike the full length of the trail. Your mind may be strong, but your knees may be weak. If you’re carrying a credit or debit card, you’re sure of being able to buy food. If you mail a number of resupply packages, some may not be waiting for you, even if you or your support person does a perfect job of mailing them.

You can choose to eat the things that are heaviest and most perishable first after you resupply to balance your diet and keep your pack light. Some hikers like to have cereal and powdered milk for breakfast so they can get hiking quickly in the morning. You may choose to have zip lock bags as one of the items mailed ahead in your “bounce ahead” box. That way, you can measure your individual meals. Some hikers don’t like to stop for lunch, so they have snacks or energy bars. Some people use energy bars for other meals to save cooking time although these meals aren’t as nutritious and balanced as you might think.

Try to have a well-rounded diet when you’re thru-hiking. Your body will not be as strong if you’re not getting a complete diet. If your endurance is low, your positive outlook can be affected. You may feel like ice cream when you reach a trail town, but if you’ve been missing your vegetables, it may be time for a salad or veggie platter. On weekend hikes it’s not as important to have a balanced diet. You can adjust when you get home. It may be good to make your weekend hike a bit of a diet and consume less calories than you burn. But on a long-distance hike, you need to adjust and consume plenty of good, natural foods that are dense in nutritious calories. Of course, you’ll burn far more calories than normal. As always, you’ll want to drink lots of water, and remember to drink before you’re thirsty.

Plan to send the personal items you need that might not be on your regular backpacking gear list. For instance, you’ll want a pair of nail clippers so your socks don’t get worn out. In this box that always gets sent ahead to your next resupply station, you’ll want to include tape, a felt pen, and postage for all the times you need to forward the bounce ahead box. If you mail a package using priority mail and don’t open it, you can forward it for free. If you need to open a package or your “bounce” package, it’s fairly inexpensive to mail it forward since you will always mailing it within the same zone.

Here are some specific pieces of gear that may change as you hike, or need to be resupplied. You may need to change sleeping bags if you’re hiking north or getting into the fall season. A sleeping bag liner may give enough extra warmth, and you could just send it to one of your first cooler-weather stops. Some people change stoves as they get into colder weather. It’s always easier to find denatured alcohol than it is to find butane/propane cartridges. The cartridges can’t be mailed. You may use different water purification methods as your hike progresses. You may start with a water filter on the southern end of the Pacific Crest Trail and use iodine tablets or nothing at all as you get farther north.

You’ll want to treat yourself to new socks at intervals along the trail. You may start out with a pair of water repellent shoes on the Appalachian Trail and switch to breathable shoes as the days get warmer. You’ll want to add more cold-weather clothing if you’re hiking north. Your rain gear needs may diminish in mid-summer and then return in fall. You may want to send an umbrella ahead or send it home. There may be parts of the trail that require a mosquito head net.

For your first aid kit, you may find that only band aids and moleskin need to be sent to resupply points. Insect repellent, soap, and sunscreen can be sent in small containers. Small amounts of tooth powder and deodorant can be included.

Flashlight batteries and bulbs can be bounced ahead. Don’t forget camera film and batteries. If you forward the various sections of the guidebook that describes your trail, you never have to carry more than a few ounces for a very complete map.

Careful planning can keep your pack light for your entire trip. Plan ahead. Have more fun every day of your hike by hiking light.