The 3 Stages of Prepping for my Thru-Hike

My initial decision to thru-hike in 2021 was based on a gut reaction immediately followed by checking my bank account balance. There have been three discrete categories of preparation I’ve encountered over the past nine months: financial, physical, and mental.

Each of these categories is deeply personal, so what works for one person may not be the perfect fit for another. With that in mind, I’ve put together some thoughts on each category based on my experience: what I did, what I wish I’d done, and what I’m planning to do.

Part I: Financial

The most obvious first step to me was to start saving as much money as possible. I decided on a 2021 hike right at the beginning of the Covid lockdowns, in March 2020. I don’t think anyone anticipated the lockdowns lasting this long; it was my expectation that by summertime I would be back to my normal spending routine. This was not so.

Covid has had a major impact on my finances. Because I’m not commuting to work every day or otherwise going out, I’ve been able to put more money toward AT prep than I otherwise would have.

On-Trail Expenses

A trail budget was my first serious financial inquiry. I considered the average time it takes someone to finish a thru and how much people generally budget per month. I’m going with the standard rule of thumb, $1,000 per month, for six months. Saving $6,000 for on-trail expenses is my absolute bare minimum. Ideally, I’d like to have more of a cushion, but my account balance on April 5 will be what I have to live on, and I’ll make it work.

Gear Costs

Gear costs were the next thing I started to work through…and then I immediately stopped, because I realized that backpacking gear is expensive. I ultimately bought what I thought would work best for me, and while I definitely splurged on some items, I cut costs where I could. It probably would have been wise to set a firm budget, but I didn’t do that.

Prior to July 2020, I had never been backpacking before, so aside from athletic clothes, nothing I owned transitioned well into backpacking. I also bought all of my gear with a thru-hike in mind, so I opted for top-notch, (mostly) lightweight gear. All said, my gear has run me around $3,000.

Home Expenses

Naively, expenses at home were the last thing I considered. These expenses include my car, car insurance, health insurance, student loans, and my dog. I’ve been saving for this particular category with a long-term goal in mind: I’m budgeting for the six months I plan to be hiking, plus another six months once I return, since I don’t have a job lined up.

My first priority is my dog. My parents have graciously agreed to watch their grand-pup, but I want to make sure I leave them with money to feed and groom her, plus a little extra for incidentals and emergencies.

My car is leased, so I pay a monthly fee for that in addition to insurance.

My student loans were my biggest concern, because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to set a fixed payment for such a large chunk of time. Luckily, my loan provider made the process seamless and the rate I requested was approved.

Health insurance was next on my list. I’ll be 27 next month, so jumping onto my parents’ plan isn’t an option. I’ll be relying on coverage through United Healthcare and my car insurance’s emergency plan.

I haven’t set a firm goal for my home expense savings. Rather, I know I need to save at least $3,000 to be covered for the duration of my walk, and anything beyond that will be part of my cushion.

Part II: Physical

When I started planning in March, the physical challenge of thru-hiking was the least intimidating aspect of it for me. I’ve heard time and time again that the only way to “prepare” is to get out there and do it. This is not to say that I’m not humbled by the challenge that lay before me; all I’m saying is that I’m confident in my athletic abilities and I’m no stranger to a “No pain, no gain” mindset. In fact, “No rain, no pain, no Maine” fits into my repertoire nicely.

At the height of my physical prep, I was walking/jogging between five to eight miles per day. In addition to going backpacking a few times this summer, I took frequent day hikes ranging from one to 25 miles. I live in Michigan and winter is now upon us, though, so I don’t plan on spending a whole lot of time outside over the next five months.

Unfortunately, back in July, I got a little too excited during one of my workouts and ended up hurting my knee. Luckily it didn’t sideline me for the rest of the summer, but it’s still not quite right. I’m hoping my doctor and I can devise a plan to get me back to 100% before April.

Part III: Getting (and keeping) my head in the game

First things first: I am both incredibly introspective and introverted, so the thought of hiking by myself for hours at a time doesn’t bother me. The thought of being alone in the wilderness at night is a little spooky, but from my understanding, the AT can get pretty crowded, so I don’t anticipate being the sole occupant of a campsite often, if ever.

The AT community is simultaneously the biggest draw for me and the scariest. I’m a quiet person, so making friends can be intimidating. Overcoming my tendency to be more reserved will be one of my biggest challenges, but it’s one I’m fully prepared to embrace. The people make the experience, and there’s no way I’m missing out on that!

This is a good place to talk a little bit about what it means to me to be attempting a thru-hike as a woman. Personally, I have received nothing but positive feedback and encouragement from every single person I’ve told about my trip. While my loved ones were initially apprehensive of the idea, they also recognize that I’m smart and capable. My parents wish I was starting with someone, but I think that’s totally normal, regardless of gender.

I recognize that I’m going to get bored of listening to myself think eventually, and I’ll no doubt experience homesickness. I have also accounted for the fact that some days are going to absolutely suck. I’m going to be cranky, sore, tired, whatever.

In those moments, remembering that I’m out there specifically to experience these challenges is going to be crucial for me.

 

Photo by Paul Lehmann

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Comments 12

  • Avatar
    pearwood : Dec 8th

    I’m 70, so while I do not have a big income, at least it’s steady. I’m doing what I can to keep expenses to a minimum. Thankfully, I already had some of the necessary gear, but I’ve still spent a fair amount over the past three years gathering. With the assorted delays, I’ve been able to spread it out a bit.

    Barring injuries, I know I can handle the physical challenges. I don’t plan on setting any speed records, especially at the beginning. It won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I can at least look back and know I have met other challenges in my life.

    The mental game is the hard part, especially, methinks, for us introspective types. Getting through the self-doubt is the biggest part of even getting started. I’m sure I will be writing more about that as June 1 approaches.

    Hang in there, Sam.

    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply
  • Avatar
    David Jones : Dec 8th

    Go for it. At 86 my fondest memories are hiking in the Uintah Mts of Utah and fly fishing on a variety of streams. Not many memories are work related.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Drew : Dec 8th

      Love to hear this!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    JR GEE : Dec 9th

    ME AND MY 13 YEAR OLD CHILD ARE REALLY THINKING ABOUT DOING THE PCT WITH OUR DOG NEVER DONE IT BEFORE BUT ARE GOING TO TRY IT IM STILL DOING MY RESEARCH ON WHEN TO START AND WERE THE STOPS ARE GOING TO BE I AM STILL GETTING IN SHAPE IM LIKE AT THE BEGINNING IM OVER WEIGHT AND BONES HURT CAUSE IM HEAVY I WILL HOPEFULLY BE READY BY MARCH 2021 SEE YOU GUY’S ON THE TRAIL THANK YOU BY ANY ADVICE DO I NEED PERMITS OR ANYTHING EVERYTHING I SHOULD KNOW WILL BE GREATLY APPRECIATED

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Joey Driver : Dec 9th

    I wonder if I can pull all my gear on a wagon my back hurts just thinking about carrying everything on an AT thru hike. How much does your pack of gear weigh?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jerky : Dec 10th

    You might want to reconsider the plan not to do much physical activity outside this Winter. I’d consider snowshoeing or hiking with a pack at least once a week, if you have snow, or simply wearing your pack on local “hikes” where you live. Even if you live in a city. Spending at least 3-4 hours a week (think minimum of an hour a day 2 or 3 days a week, and one longer day of 2-3+ hours) walking/hiking with your loaded pack will help your first few weeks on the trail be a lot more comfortable and reduce your risk of injury. It takes time for your tendons and joints (knees, feet, hips, etc) to get used to both the mileage and weight. Running is great aerobic exercise, even on a treadmill indoors, but it is not a substitute for carrying the weight of a pack – even an ultra-light pack. Also figuring out how to be comfortable outside in the cold is good preparation for Spring in the Smokies.

    As a section hiker I’ve found putting the mileage on with a loaded pack on a regular basis, even if it’s in my neighborhood, was much better preparation for time on the trail than running/jogging, just because it kept my body used to handling the weight on my back. Good luck.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris Armstrong : Dec 10th

    Great article.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sam Cermak : Dec 10th

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind words and constructive feedback!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    JustBob : Dec 10th

    All sound suggestions you make. I do all of the above as well when planning a long thru hike. The one additional item I add to this planning list is the emotional aspect of the trip.
    I find leaving my normal life for months at a time and loved ones can be initially difficult and “adjusting” to living out of a back pack and in a tent can be a real adjustment.
    Just my added 2 cents to the topic …

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sam Cermak : Dec 11th

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been communicating a lot with my loved ones about how we can support each other (both before/after my hike but also during).

      I welcome any suggestions on navigating this stuff!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Darlene M : Dec 11th

    Hi Sam! Thank you so much for your thoughts on prepping for your thru-hike. I am starting in March and have had similar concerns. However, the window of opportunity is glaring and if I don’t do it in March, I’m not sure I’ll be able to ever. I wish you all the best. I’ll see you out on the trail!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sam Cermak : Dec 11th

    Hey Darlene, thanks for checking out my post! Good for you for making it happen in March and seizing that window of opportunity. I look forward to meeting you next year!

    Reply

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