Before you head out on your thru-hike, we want to share some detailed insights from hikers who’ve been there. Here are 13 thru-hiking tips for your next adventure. They include food, supply boxes, shoes, water, fire, first aid, and more.
13 Thru Hiking Tips
Thru-hiking isn’t the most well-known outdoor activity. It is one part endurance test, one part survivalist test, and all parts a test of willpower.
Though there is no official organization or competition involved, thru-hiking still draws thousands each year to test their mettle against the wild and their own limitations.
Thru-hiking is not for the faint of heart, and it helps to have a good plan and an idea of what you are getting yourself into ahead of time. In fact, of the thousands of participants in one of the few national scenic trails, less than 20% see their way to the finish.
In order to make sure that you see your way to the finish of one of these daunting trails, we have put together a list of 13 thru hiking tips for beginners to save time, money, and energy.
With the right preparation and knowledge, you should be properly equipped to hit the trail and see it through to the end.
Read more about hiking with kids
13 Thru Hiking Tips for Beginners
Success when thru-hiking a long-distance scenic trail begins well before you ever step foot on the trail. Keep in mind, no matter how well prepared you are, thru-hiking is a grueling expedition that will push you to the limits and test both your mind and body.
As such, if you have legitimate hopes of completing a long distance scenic trail, you will need to make sure that your body is up to the challenge.
This ultimately means that you should be in excellent physical condition before you ever embark on your journey.
That said, some types of fitness will serve you better than others. For instance, the most important type of fitness is cardio.
While there are likely to be more than a few instances where additional strength could provide a benefit, your best option is usually going around, not through.
In order to maintain the physical well-being necessary to complete a long distance scenic trail, you should work on your cardio and endurance training. In fact, even the suggested strength training should focus more on slightly weighted repetition of core, legs, and range of motion exercises.
While many of the most popular long-distance scenic trails will be fairly well worn by the time that you set foot on them, there are points that won’t provide such a clear path.
In this case, you will want to make sure that you have the tools necessary to navigate the surrounding area around the trail.
The most obvious solution for this is to carry a map and compass. The map itself should be topographical, providing plenty of grades of contour.
This means you might also need to either carry multiple maps or, more likely, pick up maps of smaller sections of the surrounding region along the way rather than carrying a single large map of the whole trail.
Beyond having the map, you also need to learn how to use a compass. Make sure that it’s properly calibrated and provides a variety of orienteering markings so that you can quickly and clearly collect your bearings if you ever find yourself off-course.
With these two tools, you should be able to pinpoint your position as you hike and find your way back if ever you stray.
While we would all like to believe that we are more than capable of handling anything and everything the trail might throw at us, the truth is that you cannot prepare for every possibility.
A single loose stone can send you and your gear tumbling down a slope, injured and unable to continue.
In this instance, it will be paramount that you find a way to contact the local authorities or receive assistance from someone who can help.
However, with weight limitations what they already are and an often strong desire to disconnect, many thru-hikers make it a point to exclude smartphones as part of their gear.
Even if you do choose not to bring a smartphone with you, you still need to make sure that you bring some signaling devices with you. In this case, you should bring both a visual and an auditory signal.
For a visual signal, anything with about an inch in diameter of the reflective surface will do, while an auditory signal can be satisfied with a good, old-fashioned whistle.
More reading: 12 Must-Have Survival Tools for Your Next Adventure
This consideration can be approached from two different angles, and both of them need to be a part of any effective thru-hiking trek.
- The first involves figuring out what foods you should carry with you (which is not as simple as it may seem).
- The second approach involves how you will acquire new food while on the trail since you cannot expect to carry months’ worth of food on your back.
In terms of what food you should carry on you, the answer is very little.
Food is by far one of the heavier items you could carry in your pack, and an actual meal would also occupy far too much space.
That said, having a necessary energy boost is important, and dried meats, fruits, and nuts are all suitable options.
You’ll need to think about what you will do when you are out of food, stop in town, rely on caches, or forage? The last is only a solution for desperate times while the second requires a social circle to assist.
However, you may not always have immediate access to a town to get more food. Ultimately, balancing all three will need to be part of your preparations before you ever start.
Read more: Guide to Thru Hiking Food: Meals, Snacks and Tips
5. Supply Boxes
This factor will depend more on your willingness to involve others as well as your personal goals.
There are plenty of experienced thru-hikers who have completed a long-distance scenic trail multiple times and seek an additional challenge. One way of increasing the difficulty is by not using supply caches along their route.
That said, for a beginner, supply boxes can serve as an invaluable resource.
If you have the money, time, and social circle, this is by far one of the best options for first-time thru-hikers to help make their journey just a little bit easier, more stable, and potentially more successful.
The primary thing to consider when making supply boxes is that they should carry the items which you will need all the time but are too heavy to carry in large amounts by themselves.
This will generally include food and water more than anything else. That said, it is also a good idea to consider switching out hiking shoes, socks, and clothes at a certain leg of the journey, and supply boxes can make that much easier.
Much like the decision regarding food, water is another factor that can be approached in a multitude of ways, though this consideration is not one where you have nearly as much wiggle room. You can conceivably go days without eating, but the same span of time without water would kill you.
It does not help that water also happens to be one of the most heavy items that you will carry, so making sure you take the right amount will be important.
A good average number that many hikers swear by is about 2 liters per day, though you should constantly be on the lookout for more while you are hiking.
This brings us to the question about how to acquire more water while on the trail. While getting water in a town or having caches with water are always good ideas, the option of using found water can be a bigger factor than for food.
With a water filtering straw and a chemical purification method, you should not have issues with water on the trail.
My favorite purification method is a UV purifier. It is effective, purifies large quantities and it doesn’t leave chemical residue in the water. The one we’ve used most is the Steripen Ultra.
Here’s more about how to purify river water for drinking. And here’s how to make coffee while on the trail.
There is absolutely nothing as important to thru-hiking as your feet. Aside from the fact that they are literally how you will accomplish your goal in the first place, an injury to your feet is one of the quickest and surest ways to be unable to finish your chosen trail.
As such, it should be a no-brainer that taking care of your feet ranks as one of the most crucial steps for thru-hiking.
While the proper footwear is important, being aware of the different circumstances that can cause issues for your feet is arguably the most important factor when keeping them healthy.
Make sure that your feet are dry while walking the trail or you will put yourself at risk of developing blisters.
While you will need to keep your feet dry, it is also important that they are exposed to the air as well. Your footwear should provide as much breathability as possible, but it is also important to make sure that you air your feet out.
Aside from the fact that this will reduce blisters, it will also reduce the incidence of bacterial buildup.
Keep your feet healthy with this trail guide to hiking in wet conditions.
8. Backpack Clothing and Footwear
As important as the things that you put in your body are, the gear that you put on your body is just as important.
Since clothing is often a bit bulky and can weigh more than is worth carrying, it is important to make sure that your thru-hiking clothing provides everything you need and not a stitch more.
Because cotton holds moisture and takes forever to dry out, you’ll want to avoid cotton at all costs. A popular saying on the trail is “Cotton Kills”.
And while this isn’t completely literal, it will kill your comfort. And, wet clothes on a cold day could give you hypothermia. Just don’t wear cotton – especially cotton underwear or socks. There are better options.
That said, the most important clothing when thru-hiking is not what you wear on your back but what you wear on your feet.
This can be a bit counter-intuitive, but the footwear that you should use for thru-hiking is not at all the same kind of footwear that you should use for a trail, day, or even overnight hiking – though there may be some overlap.
Essentially, many types of shorter hiking excursions can work perfectly well while wearing hiking boots.
However, hiking boots are often a bit heavier than normal shoes–even if they are specially made to be lighter than boots in general. In this instance, you will want to invest in some high-quality hiking shoes.
With months of hiking ahead of you, it is important to consider all the time that you will be spending outdoors.
While it may be obvious to consider the time that you will spend alert and hiking, it may be less obvious to figure out what you intend to do once the sun goes down and you set up camp for the night.
As a test of physical and mental endurance, your odds of completing a thru-hike of a long distance scenic trail increase dramatically when you can keep your energy levels up.
This consideration includes both your physical energy levels as well as your mental or emotional energy levels – both of which will be heavily influenced by whether or not you get enough good sleep.
As such, it is vital that you make sure you have the gear necessary to allow your sleep to fully recharge you, mind and body. That said, bedrolls, sleeping bags, tents, and other gear for setting up camp are often both heavy and bulky.
This means you will need to carefully consider what you need to get a good night’s sleep and toss the rest.
Whether you tend to push yourself well after the sun sets or not, making sure that you have adequate light at all times is not simply a luxury, it is a necessity.
Over the course of months of hiking, there will come a time that you need light – even if it is only to guide your way at night when needing to relieve yourself.
One of the more popular pieces of gear for thru-hikers that provide light is the headlamp. This is more or less a flashlight that you wear on your head.
Not only do they manufacture headlamps that are extremely bright and conserve energy, they also have the added bonus of illuminating wherever you happen to look.
When getting a headlamp, make sure it does not add too much additional weight.
On top of that, led lights are better than most others because they are fairly durable, have a long lifespan, and are able to generate incredibly bright lights with very little power. You will also want a headlamp that is at least IP67 waterproof and provides solid battery life.
This could potentially be considered as part of the previous tip, but make no mistake: you will need fire for far more purposes than simply providing light.
On top of that, fire is not an especially effective light source when carried nor will the wide variety of circumstances you encounter on the trail be conducive to starting one. Make sure you have multiple means of starting a fire with accelerated tinder being a must-have.
Still, the most obvious reason for a fire is arguably not the most important one.
When we think of using fire in the wild, we likely imagine using it for cooking purposes. While it will be used for this purpose, it is easily more important for boiling water. However, both of those uses pale in comparison to its primary purpose: protection.
Even if you choose a long-distance scenic trail that is not known for predators, and hike during the warmer months, the temperatures will significantly fluctuate from day to night.
On top of keeping you warm – so you do not have to waste calories shivering to generate body heat – fire will keep all sorts of animals away, not just predators.
How are your fire making skills? Here’s the Ultimate Guide to Starting a Campfire (6 Ways)
And here’s how to start a fire without matches.
The climate will be one of your worst enemies. Sure, when the sky is clear with a slight breeze and warm sun, you may bask in the enjoyment of atmospheric ambiance.
However, once those clouds darken or the temperature drops or the wind whips past your face, you may be whistling a different tune.
In this regard, the trail you chose to thru-hike will weigh heavily, but you should still prepare for a few climate situations. Easily the most important two are rain and cold.
To protect from these, you’ll want to wear multiple layers of synthetic fabrics that insulate and wick away moisture.
When planning for rain, the single best piece of gear you can carry is the humble tarp.
Aside from the fact that a tarp is an exceedingly versatile piece of gear that can be used for everything from shelter to water collection to a hammock, it is also a great piece of gear to make into a poncho. This will cover your rain protection needs whether hiking or camping.
13. First Aid
This is another consideration that is absolutely necessary but must also be balanced against the realities of long-distance scenic trails.
Essentially, something will go wrong, and you need to have the appropriate supplies and equipment to deal with it. On the other hand, first aid gear is often heavy and bulky – at least a full kit is.
You can get by with a much smaller kit, and in fact, there are numerous tin kits that you can either purchase or make on your own which will provide the basis for most of your general first aid needs.
Remember, you are not planning for a major injury. If that occurs, your trip is over anyway. I recommend a kit like this, that can be stocked with more bandages (for blisters and small cuts).
It’s best to make sure you can handle the minor issues that will crop up and prevent them from becoming major issues. Pain relievers like anti-inflammatory are necessary, as are antibiotic cream and band-aids to properly dress small wounds.
Sunscreen should also be part of this as well as bug repellent – depending on the trail. Here’s our Guide to Essential Oil Bug Repellent.
Thru-Hiking Planning and Tips
Thru-hiking requires significant planning. Because you are out in the wilds for months at a time – even if you do periodically pop into civilization – you need to plan for your hike to function more along a survivalist approach.
This means that you need to do as much preparation as possible before you ever step foot on a trail. This includes making sure you are physically fit for the hike, but it also means that you are mentally prepared with the knowledge required to succeed.
While this list is far from exhaustive, these 13 thru hiking tips will help beginners to save time, money, and energy.
What are your tips for an upcoming thru hike? What question do you have? Join me in the comments!
- About the Author
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Bryan Haines is a co-founder and blogger on GudGear – and is working to make it the best resource for outdoor gear and guides.
He loves the outdoors and has hiked the Andes, kayaked the Galapagos, and biked and camped around Nova Scotia, Canada.
He is a travel blogger at Storyteller Travel and blogs about photography at Storyteller Tech. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.