Unexpected: Ten Problems for Thru-Hikers

“I want to be a thru-hiker.”

It’s no secret that in the modern era, thru-hikers are romanticized.  The renegade actions that move us away from society are seen as poetic and courageous.  With only the best of the best moments being shown to the public via social media, yet none of the adversity or problems, aspiring hikers flock to trailheads in hopes to get in on the fun.  

Truth be told, for every glorious mountaintop you see on your newsfeed, there’s all too often a bad experience that accompanies it.  Many do not realize this until their first few days after beginning their hike. Hence why the Appalachian Trail boasts at best a 27% completion rate.  I’d like to clarify here that it is not that people are incapable of dealing with these challenges; it’s simply that no one thinks of them before the start of their hike.  The following are a combination of personal experiences as well as problems I’m sure to encounter while attempting to hike the AT, PCT, and CDT next year.

1. Nutrition

What we eat has the potential to make or break a lengthy hike.  All too often people approach the trail with the mind-set that they will eat as they normally did before beginning the hike.  This attitude couldn’t be further from reality. The average American walks two miles a day, whereas the average thru-hiker walks around 12-15 a day.  Your diet back home cannot support your life on the trail. For many, this results in a large physical transformation along their journey as they shed both fat and muscle along their hike.

Solution: Plan out daily caloric intake goals and make certain to strive for helathy foods once in a while.

2. Gear Failure

Imagine this: You are at Springer Mountain with all your brand spanking new gear that you have spent months obtaining.  You even went on a few hikes before beginning to try it all out! Newsflash, some of your gear will break along the hike.  I wish it were true that trekking poles could last a lifetime and that lightweight tents and tarps don’t rip, but the reality is most of us will need to replace something along the lines.

Solution: Have a contingency plan.  What happens if you snap a trekking pole?  If a shoe rips with 70 miles to the nearest outdoor retailer?  Learn how to repair what you can.

3. Loneliness

The idea of a trail family is endearing and appealing, but more often than not you are going to be alone when hiking.  Groups gather toward the end of the day and at breaks, but everyone has a different pace they hike at. This results in a majority of people either walking alone or splitting into subgroups.

Solution:  Learn the difference between loneliness and solitude.  Being by yourself can be a beneficial experience if used correctly.  It can even improve later interactions with others!

4. Comparison

On the flip side of loneliness, frequently comparing to others can be detrimental.  A majority of aspiring thru-hikers attempt their challenge solo. So why is it that we are constantly comparing ourselves to others around us?  Everyone has different goals that determine what their hike looks like.

Solution: Think about what you want to glean from this coming experience and who you are.  Are you hoping to be a mile crusher? To take it slow and meet friends? Sit down and write why it is you’re hiking. 

Real friends help each other filter water, no matter how odd it looks.

5. Disease

I’m no stranger to this fellow right here.  Varying from GI bugs to Lyme disease, our health can be impacted in a multitude of different ways.  Often, we don’t plan for this to happen. This can result in the separation of trail families, a grueling few days, or even the failure of a hike altogether alongside a multitude of other problems.

Solution: Not only should you have proper hygienic practices in the backcountry, but also know what to look out for depending on what area you’re heading through. 

6. Bugs

Swarms of mosquitoes will form a dark cloud around you.  Ticks will be so plentiful that you may as well be their mother the way you are feeding them.  Try hard as you might, you cannot outrun those pesky flies.

Solution: Cover up and treat those clothes with permethrin before beginning!

Snow in the Sierras. IN AUGUST?!

7. Snow

Ahh yes.  No one looks forward to dangerous slips, postholing, and losing the trail here and there.  If you’re starting a trail early or late this coming year, chances are you will encounter some of this stuff.  Especially with the PCT’s new permit system that doesn’t allow one to bypass the Sierra.

Solution:  Keep an eye on those snow reports and act accordingly.  Carry traction devices if necessary.

8. Timing

There are two levels to this one.  One is making the mistake of forgetting that the trail is entirely different depending on what season it is.  Two is understanding weather patterns and when it’s best to keep pushing or wait it out. Failure of both can result in some unfortunate circumstances and more often than not leave you soaked or cold for a day or two.

Solution:  Check the weather reports as often as posted, learn those century-old quips (i.e., “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”).  Don’t take unnecessary risks just to gain a few miles.

9. Recovery

This is a personal struggle of mine.  Whenever we have a big day where we crush miles, the body takes a beating.  Too often we hear of mile crushers who consistently grinded, day after day, and then suddenly hop off the trail.  This type of hiking is unsustainable for a majority of us.

Solution:  Recognize where certain parts of the trail will be more difficult than others.  Don’t push more than you’re used to, someone who averages ten miles a day should not suddenly jump to 50 unless they enjoy flirting with injury.  Recognize the importance of rest days after tiring efforts. Listen to your body.

10. Money

Everyone’s least favorite topic right here!  For many of us, a thru-hike is a financially draining experience.  Hikes can be made or broken by how much we spend on the trail, as well as how much effort we put into budgeting.  No one wants to leave the party just because they ran out of money.  Doing so also results in a multitude of problems off-trail as well.

Solution:  Construct and adhere to a budget.  The word budget does not have to mean “no fun.”  Just incorporate and allow yourself a realistic amount that you’re willing to spend.  Categorize this.

There you have it, folks!  Hopefully, this list inspires some to incorporate a wee bit more thought into their coming hike before hitting the trail.  As a side note, try to not get lost in the negativity of preparing for the worst problems, but rather in the excitement that awaits all of us on the trail!

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Comments 8

  • Shannon : Oct 19th

    Zach! This is a great piece! As a novice backpacker, I’m training for the PCT 2020. Your writing is awesome and I look forward to your next piece.

    • Zach Terpstra : Oct 19th

      Thanks, Shannon! Glad you found it interesting, and I look forward to seeing you on the trail.

  • Fredric Rice : Oct 19th

    Another thing that long distance / long duration hikers cope with is the difficulty to re-acquire their city lives after spending months walking the PCT. In novels where through hikers have talked about their adventure, toward there end — and on Social Media — there is often commentary about how returning to “civilization,” for lack of a better word, is difficult for many.

    When on the trail some times they fantasize about being back in their warm beds back in the city, complete with cars, cops, filth, noise, other humans… Then they wake up and carry on for another day, another week, another month.

    When finished and they resume their non-trail lives, getting back in to “normal” life is often difficult for many, and for some, it’s very difficult.

    • Zach Terpstra : Oct 19th

      Words couldn’t be truer Fredric! It’s always intriguing to me that so many people are yearning for what comes next in their lives, too busy to take time to appreciate what they have right now.

  • Bruce Watts : Oct 20th

    Nicely done

    • Zach Terpstra : Oct 20th

      Thanks you Bruce!

  • Roberta and David Sullivan : Oct 20th

    When I get ready to hike the Appalachian trail I will be taking along my pack mule number 7 because it’s going to be a 7 month treck


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