While packing for my recent hike on the Appalachian Trail, I started thinking about things I wish I knew before getting into long-distance hiking. I had a lot of experienced friends who helped me early on, but I also learned a lot of lessons from my own trial and error.
Here are five pieces of advice I would offer an aspiring long-distance hiker:
Take Rest Days
While regular aerobic exercise will help your body prepare for a long-distance hike, it is very difficult to adequately train in advance. Instead, you will get into shape as you hike. Unfortunately, this comes with some early pain and soreness. I consistently find that I am sore on days 2 and 3 and begin to feel better on day 4 of the hike (some people call this process “getting your hiking legs”). If possible, take a “Zero Day” (non-hiking rest day) on day 3 or 4 and let your body rest and revitalize. The training effect is accelerated with a day off after the first 2 or 3 days of hiking, which is why I recommend another day off on day 7 or 8 for the same reason. Your body will respond to both the stress you put on it and the rest and relaxation you nurture it with.
If you are hiking a really long trail such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, you will need to create a hike plan detailing where you plan to sleep (whether camping or in town), what days will be Zero days, how many miles you will hike per day, etc.
Planning for a hike also includes packing food accordingly. I’d like to preface – what I eat on the trail is not my healthiest eating! When hiking, you burn a lot of calories, so I pack higher-calorie foods compared to what I normally eat. I typically pack lots of fresh produce (apples, avocados, bananas), granola bars (Pro Bars), oats, hummus, and no-oil Plant Strong granola. I always make sure to prioritize eating my fresh produce first to avoid it going bad. I also love making my own trail mix! To make it, I start with one of Whole Foods’ packaged trail mixes called “Strider’s Trail Mix,” which has a variety of nuts and dried fruit in it. I use this as a base and add whatever additional ingredients strike my fancy. Typically, this means more raisins, vegan chocolate chips, dried banana chips, baked crackers, dried mango, and peanuts.
On a long-distance hike, the quality of food is very different from my typical diet. But everything tastes absolutely delicious because you’re burning so many calories and are so hungry.
Make a Gear List
I find it really helpful to make a gear list before I go on any long-distance hike to make sure I have the necessities and don’t forget things. I typically make my gear list in Excel and sort the items based on their purpose. I’m into ultra-light hiking, so this list is also important to track the weight of each item to help ensure your pack is as light as possible. For example, shelter, clothing, sleep, etc. I then include the weight of each item and add up the total weight in each category. This exercise is really helpful in terms of finding areas of your packing that you can try to make lighter.
Check mine out for my most recent hike on the Appalachian Trail here!
Use Phone Apps to Stay Organized and Discover New Trails
The apps that are available on your phone are incredible when it comes to staying on track and discovering new trails you may not have known about. I recommend downloading the FarOut app if you are hiking a long trail. This app is fantastic and will help you make sure you’re staying on the trail. It also lets you know where shelters, camping spots, water, and pretty much anything else you might need to know are located as you are hiking. For shorter hikes, I recommend downloading the AllTrails app. I’ve found fantastic trails everywhere I travel with this app and it has allowed me to explore some very beautiful and exciting places!
Let Yourself Be Present
My favorite part about long-distance hiking is that it gives me an opportunity to separate myself from the stresses of everyday life. Although it can sometimes be hard to do, my biggest piece of advice is to allow yourself to be present and take in the beauty of nature while hiking. We all live busy lives, and it’s sometimes difficult to focus on our physical and mental well-being and truly take in what’s around us. Hiking is my favorite way to let myself be present with myself, my thoughts, and the world. I hope it can function as a calming, reflective activity for you too!
If you find that you enjoy long-distance hiking and want to dive deeper, consider becoming an ultralight hiker. People take up ultralight hiking because a lower base weight allows you to cover longer distances and significantly reduce the stress backpacking has on your body. This is especially helpful for thru-hiking (hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end), which is what I often do. Traditional hikers carry around 30 pounds, whereas most successful ultralight long-distance hikers are able to get their base weights (not including food, water, and fuel) under 10 pounds. That may not sound like a lot, but every ounce makes a difference when you’re logging 10 hours of hiking. It’s taken me years to perfect, but my base weight for a long-distance hike is just under 7 pounds.
To become an ultralight long-distance hiker, the key is to pack with a more minimalistic approach, meaning that each and every item you pack needs to have a strategic purpose. For example, opting for clothes made of a lighter material or clothing items that have a dual purpose such as pants that can zip away to shorts. There are a lot of great videos on YouTube and lots of excellent websites and books for hikers who want to learn how to cut their base weights. Taking the time to research and find practices that work best for you will be super helpful.
It also can be worthwhile to invest in ultralight gear. It’s not necessarily cheap, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a good investment if you want to hike long distances. Some of my favorite ultralight gear companies include Gossamer Gear, Z-Packs, Enlightened Equipment, Six Moon Design, Montbell, Mountain Laurel Designs, TarpTent, and Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Long-distance backpacking is incredibly pleasurable if you are able to minimize the weight that you carry, so I would recommend investing time and money to be as light as possible.