While any thru-hike will involve an uncountable number of steps, the biggest step of them all is the proverbial first step – making the decision to go hike the trail yourself. After you’ve watched the videos and read the articles, the inspiration is at its highest, and you finally decide to hike a long distance trail, the second major step into the world of long distance hiking is preparing to walk – up to 25 miles every day for up to 6 months straight. What I found after hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail was that thru-hiking isn’t so much a physical feat – and while you certainly have to be in good shape to hike a long trail – the mental challenge of a long hike is worth just as much, if not more consideration than the physical aspect of a long distance hike. And then there’s the question: is it possible to only hike one long trail?
Now don’t get me wrong, getting in shape before a thru-hike can save you from injury and make your hike more comfortable, and getting your footwear dialed in can save you from misery. But that being said, the worry of training for walking 4-6 months can be overwhelming. There’s no reason to stress however: and it’s always best to start with some hiking around the local woods near home or even around the neighborhood. This will prepare not only your body, but more importantly your mind for the endeavor ahead. Another great thing to start doing is trail running. A few miles a day to even 10 a week with slow gains from there to get your muscles in tune. You do not need to be in shape to start hiking a long distance trail, but some pre-hike exercise never hurt anything. At least, that’s what I wished I had done.
Training for my 180-day trek from Mexico to Canada through all of California, Oregon and Washington began on the trail itself however – and I wasn’t alone in this shared endeavor. Looking back, if I had trained physically for my hike, I would have sky rocketed in front of some of the fellow hikers I shared this misery with and would not be able to still talk with them to this day about it – while the scenery of course held its own, the friendships formed on the trail were the most memorable experiences for me on the PCT. Somehow and whether you choose to train extensively prior to your hike or not at all, whether you choose to resupply with carefully planned mail drops or strap a pizza box to your pack on the way out of town instead, things seem to find a way of working themselves out on a thru-hike once you get yourself to the trailhead.
From blisters to aches and pains to ankles and knees, all thru-hikers are likely to experience some form of physical discomfort on their hike, but pushing through these setbacks is best accomplished by keeping your reasons for hiking the trail in the first place in the forefront of your mind. The most common reason I saw people drop off trail wasn’t injury, it was worry related to a job or the missing of a loved one at home. The hikers that finished the trail seemed to have an almost inner voice driving them to the border. Possessed with passion to reach that monument, not sacrificing anything, with perseverance to setup the tent yet again after a marathon day in the pouring rain, wind slapped desert, or mountain pass snow storm.
Reasons for starting a long trail vary as much as those for leaving one early. In my case, I began my hike to get away from a relationship. For others, thru-hiking served as an escape from job related responsibilities and struggles, financial burdens, or any of the number of things we face in everyday life that we can to some extent, escape on the trail. But I don’t think any of us hiking for these reasons could escape these thoughts completely. For many of us, every day we kept walking was like putting on the boxing gloves and meeting these emotions in the ring. There were of course good days and bad, but those that continued on and finished the trail were the ones that won the fight.
Even finishing the hike comes with its own set of problems however: post trail life. Many of us joked about having PTTD, or Post Traumatic Trail Disorder. When accomplishing a goal like a thru-hike and spending that many days in the grasps of nature, then returning to the life of old off the trail, post trail depression is a real struggle for many thru-hikers. When the only worries of the day on-trail were where to get water for the day or where to camp, when you return home to relationships, bills, a mortgage, or rent, it can at times seem that we end up right back where we started. Those that managed these emotions the best were the ones that kept hiking the following season or jumped to the other hemisphere chasing the forever changing trail season and kept escaping…or perhaps more accurately began to rewrite their narrative such that the line between on-trail and off-trail life began to blur.
Through thru-hiking I found joy in writing, have been blessed with countless photos and memories, and have been fortunate enough to share stories of the hike across many platforms. Lasting friendships were formed. Physically the hike helped me obtain a level of fitness that had previously been unobtainable. I witnessed beauty beyond my wildest dreams and fell deeply in love with nature. Things that, after the hike are all tough to come by. Every time I sit down to write about topics like this I’m reminded of what it’s like to be out there, and perhaps there’s only one solution to fill the void. One day it seems unavoidable that I’ll find myself at the terminus of another long trail, the fog will lift, and the blissful experience of putting one foot in front of the other for thousands of miles will start the cycle yet again.
For more on Sean’s thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, check out our two part series that starts here in Issue 40.