With the growing popularity of the tales of people’s drawn-out thru-hiking adventures in popular media, such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an increasing number of Americans are setting aside their lives and careers to take to the trail. Although the radical act of leaving behind the world of lattes, Instagram, and hot showers for the world of DEET, iodine tablets, and blisters appeals to many – and is life changing, for some – there are many physical, financial, and emotional risks associated with such an incredible endeavor. With that, here are five things to consider before going for your “Triple Crown” out on the trail –
1.) Which trail am I going to take?
While the length and natural beauty of each of the three most well-known thru-hikes in the United States – the Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”), Appalachian Trail (“AT”), and Continental Divide Trails (“CDT”) – are fairly comparable, the details of your respective experiences on taking them will not be. The gear you carry will be different. The potential challenges you experience will be different. The local flora and fauna you encounter will be different. The very people that you meet out there will – you guessed it – be different.
Do your research! It is likely you will be spending up to half of a year on that long stretch of land. The territory comes with its own unique sets of challenges and advantages. Can’t tolerate bugs? The arid, (mostly) mosquito-free climate of the PCT might cater to your tastes better than the muggy, humid AT. The fear of large predators ruining your hike got you down? While the PCT boasts grizzlies, black bears, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and seldom packs of wolves, you’re more likely to walk into a patch of poison ivy than bump into a black bear in Great Appalachia. Though you should always take into account standard bear safety, regardless of the trail you take.
2.) How long should my thru-hike take?
This largely depends on you – your physical preparedness, how well acclimated you are to the trail of your choice, and, to some degree, the quality of your supplies. Some might clip along at 2-3 miles per day, while others can take on 13-20. Altogether, your time spent out there will likely fall in the range of 3-6 months (depending on the person), so plan accordingly. Many avid thru-hikers will quit or go on an extended sabbatical to accommodate for this length of time. Many relationships will fall apart before or over the duration of the trip due to the distance and inability of either party to communicate (albeit, a problem easily solved by taking your significant other with you!). At the end of the day, it’s best to have a plan on how you’re going to put your life together once you’re ready to re-enter society. So make sure you have a job lined up, and that someone’s around to feed your goldfish and water your plants while you’re hanging around the great outdoors.
3.) What will my budget look like?
The truth is, your budgeting ability can absolutely make or break your journey. While the expenses associated with backpacking through the most sparsely populated parts of the United States is hardly comparable to those associated with taking an extended vacation overseas, taking months off with no income is simple task – even if you’re not paying rent while you do it!
Surprisingly, your most important – and often largest – expense will be the supplies you carry with you on your hike. The most frugal thru-hikers can average out to mere cents on the dollar (per mile) on food and other consumables – items you will likely mail to yourself along the way to reduce the weight of your pack. Altogether, many hikers report their total start-to-completion expenses to be around two-to-three grand… excluding gear, of course.
4.) What gear should I buy?
There’s the rub! Those precious items that keep you from the ground (boots, sleepwear), protect you from the elements, and evenly distribute the weight on your back can all influence the quality of your trip. Do not skimp on higher quality gear – remember that you will be living with what you have for a very long time. As they say, there’s no such thing as “bad weather” – only inappropriate clothing. While some luxury creature comforts like portable stoves, dry bags, and even condiments are negotiable, it is necessary to have the basics that will last and function. If you set out with cheaper gear that wears out quickly, you will likely have to replace or repair it during your hike; the cost of these replacements can be more expensive than buying equipment that is more durable in the first place!
Furthermore, remember that the weight of what you bring with you adds up. There’s an appropriate hiking proverb for this: “Ounces to pounds!” If you’re having trouble with weighing-in your pack, you’ll find that higher-end supplies are designed to weigh significantly less than their off-brand counterparts – this rule extends to even the smallest pieces of gear, such as toiletries, maps, and compasses – even spoons!
At the end of the day, wandering out to where the Wi-Fi is weak could be the most incredible, fulfilling experience of your life – or the most uncomfortable. Hiking is a bit like life, and one must plan accordingly for both. This aspect of thru-hiking does not take away from its sheer beauty and exceptionality as a life experience. After all, some hikers find that the hardest part of their adventure is the act of planning it out!