How to Best Support the Thru-Hiker in Your Life

Full disclosure, I am not a thru-hiker. Yet. I leave very soon for the AT. But I’ve been preparing for this hike for a long time and as I’m entering the final countdown, I’ve been noticing how others are (or aren’t) showing up for me. I can’t help but think about all the other long-distance backpackers undertaking their big hikes this year and wanted to talk a little about what they (and I) really need as we launch our journeys.

Talk About It!

In one of my earlier posts, I made a comparison between the way people talk to us about other major events in our lives (graduation, getting married, starting a new job, having a baby, etc) and the way they talk about our thru-hikes. Building upon this, I can’t imagine someone who is a valuable part of my life NOT asking me about these other major things when they happened. Yet, sometimes when talking to certain friends, they don’t ask about my upcoming thru-hike at all. I don’t expect every conversation to be centered on me and my hike, but this is a huge decision that affects all areas of my life (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) and it consumes a huge part of my mental energy every day (see this post for examples). But yet, a childhood friend with whom I may talk to only a couple times a year sent me a text a few weeks ago celebrating that it was one month until I was set to leave. I didn’t even realize the date was significant, but she did. Wow!

Our thru-hikes are indescribably important to us. I know it might not be as important to you, but if we are important to you, ASK us about it. Don’t question our decision, burden us with your doubts, or speak fears into existence. Tell us how happy you are for us, tell us how proud you are of our decision, and how confident you are in our abilities. Make sure we know that you know how significant this is to us and, even if you don’t understand it, you want to hear about it. Which actually leads to the next suggestion…

Learn About It!

I first dreamed about thru-hiking the AT by reading thru-hiking memoirs. I learned so much about trail culture, etiquette, and vocabulary from these books. From time to time, I’ll mention one of these books on my social media posts, in case others want to learn about the AT, too. Since I’ve announced my intention to hike the AT this year, I have been incredibly touched by the people in my life that have voluntarily read one (or more!) of these books to better acquaint themselves with what I’m about to do.

So even though you should ask your thru-hiker about what they’re doing, don’t expect them to bear the burden of being your only link to thru-hiking and the trail they’re undertaking. Read books, listen to podcasts, follow a thru-hiker’s blog (may I suggest this fantastic one?), go down the entertaining rabbit hole that is The Trek, and/or join Facebook groups/message boards and read what others have to say. The most basic level of support is to watch a damn movie like “A Walk In The Woods” or “Wild”. While those movies aren’t the most comprehensive sources, it’s literally the very least you could possibly do.

Prepare For It!

Thru-hiking is a solo sport, but just like a boxer needs a corner man (or woman… I haven’t watched a professional fight since Mike Tyson’s heyday but I’m assuming the sport has evolved), a thru-hiker needs a team of supporters who have their back emotionally, physically, and logistically. Now, certainly you don’t have to be all things to them at all times, but think about what you are able to provide.

Could you train with them? This could mean physically joining them to hike a local trail or work out at the gym. In my case, I have a few friends that don’t live near me, but they’re still my ‘walking buddies’. We will each go for a walk in our respective neighborhoods and chat on the phone while we do so. It really helps the monotony of yet another walk down the same streets pass quickly and, you guessed it, we sometimes talk about my upcoming hike including any worries I have. Double helpful!

Not everyone is up for a long walk or workout, but do you realize how many logistics are involved in planning a thru-hike? Helping with even one of these tasks can relieve your favorite hiker of a little bit of their mental burden. I read a post here on The Trek where a thru-hiker talked about how her mom made all the arrangements for her to fly into Atlanta and get shuttled up to Amicalola where she had reserved a room for her to stay in. The hiker was 100% capable of doing this herself, but having that help from her mom was one less thing she had to check off the ‘to do’ list before leaving. Help your hiker plan resupply or research must see things along the way. If you’re not sure what they need help with, ask!

If working out or plotting points on a map isn’t your cup of tea, could you volunteer to help with things at home while they’re away? Some hardcore thru-hikers literally sell their homes and store their belongings, but most of us are leaving people, pets, and belongings behind that need some attention. For example, I have a friend who is going to plant-sit for me while I’m gone. She has a green thumb and I know my plants will be in good hands and I won’t return to a death scene like it would be if I left my family in charge of them. Maybe your thru-hiker needs a place to stow their car and someone to start it once a month to maintain it. These small acts may not seem like much, but taking that worry off your thru-hiker’s mind is priceless!

A black cat lays on its back atop a pile of mail

My cat, Sweetie, offers to stay on top of the mail for me while I’m gone. Literally.

Stick with It!

Revisiting my earlier analogy about other major life events, imagine a scenario where you asked someone to be your maid of honor and they happily accepted. You both embrace, excited about the events and happenings you will navigate together in the days ahead. Imagine that the two of you eagerly go dress shopping together and have a blast. And then it’s your bridal shower and they show up late and seem uninterested. They then claim they don’t have time to plan your bachelorette party, but you see them posting on social media about how they just binged watched four straight seasons of some reality show. By the time your wedding day arrives, they are nowhere to be found. Pretty hurtful, right?

If you agree to provide any support for your thru-hiker, understand that, in many cases, this is a months-long commitment. Be clear with your hiker (and yourself) about expectations and don’t agree to provide support if you’re at all hesitant about the obligation. Because while fading out on your hiker may not impact your life very much, it can leave your hiker, who is far away and with limited resources, in the lurch and heartbroken.

Some ways to stick with your thru-hiker include following them and tracking their progress. Apps like FarOut offer a social feature which allows you to see where your hiker made check-ins and they can even leave a little note about said check-in (in my case, perhaps I’ll document all the places I fall along the trail!) and devices such as GPS trackers or even phones can offer similar ‘find me’ type features. Stay in regular contact with your hiker (to their comfort level) and keep a list of things that have happened in your life so when you do get to talk to them you won’t forget what you wanted to say. Listen to their stories and if the divide between your life and their life becomes too vast, make plans to listen to the same audiobook or podcast so that the next time you talk, you’ll have common ground to discuss. And, most importantly, hold the space for them. You will know from your ‘Learn About It’ work suggested above to expect emotional lability from your hiker. One day they may be at the height of achievement, summiting a well known mountain and having the time of their lives with their tramily, but it might only take one trail runner shoe being sucked off in a morass of mud from the previous day’s rain to make all those good feelings come crashing down. They need a safe space to vent and they need someone to remind them of how strong they are and why they wanted to do this and, most importantly, that they CAN do this!

Smash it!

Your hiker is well on their trail and you’ve done your part, learning about what they’re doing and making a genuine commitment to help support them. Now is your time to shine! Maybe you’ve offered to be their resupply point person. In addition to sending them what they request and shipping it where it is needed (also in a timely manner…don’t just let the box sit in your car for a week before you mail it!), include a handwritten note of encouragement in each box, maybe even surprising them with whom it’s from. You could also add some homemade goodies or special treats, but keep in mind that whatever you send your hiker they will either have to eat it, carry it, or give it away (in which case you’re blessing more than just your hiker with said treats!) so don’t make it too much!

Follow your hiker on social media if they have it and are actively posting. Yes, they’ll be happy to tell you the story of the time they came across that trail magic six-pack of beer, cooling down perfectly in a mountain stream, but what if you don’t talk to them for another week or two, will they even remember to mention the story by that point? Also, you can ‘virtually’ get to know the people they have met and even make connections that will help you care for your hiker further down the trail. I’ve read more than one story of a hiker’s support from home colluding with their trail buddies to make sure their beloved hiker had a special treat on their birthday or extra supplies when they were laid up sick in a hotel room.

Speaking of hotel rooms, did you know that one of the top reasons (at least according to The Trek’s amazing yearly surveys) people quit the trail is related to finances? Thru-hiking is expensive, even though it seems like it’d be cheap since you’re sleeping in the woods much of the time. Costs, like the elevated price of resupply items bought at isolated gas stations, shuttles to and from town, and replacing broken gear, can add up quickly. While you’re probably not in the position to finance an entire hike (and hey… if you are, call me. I’m not too proud), maybe you can allay at least some of their financial worries. It can be a simple as shooting them a quick $25 on Venmo and telling them to splurge on a town meal or as grand as paying in full for a private room at a B&B with a whirlpool tub and full breakfast.

Don’t Miss It!

Thru-hiking a long trail is often a once in a lifetime experience, but so can be the opportunity to closely support a person in your life you care about doing such an epic accomplishment. Don’t miss out on your chance to forever strengthen the bond with your favorite hiker!

Purple Lotus is a NOBO hiker in the AT class of 2024. Read her first post, an introduction of herself, here.

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Comments 2

  • Chris : Mar 21st

    “may I suggest this fantastic one?” yeah, I fell for that clickbait 🙂

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Mar 21st


      Hey, if you don’t ask, the answer’s always no!


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