Becoming a Thru Hiker
Making the Decision
I suppose it’s different for everyone. For me, I remember feeling pretty down my first few days of hiking, with my trekking poles breaking, rolling my ankle, and feeling pretty lonely on the trail. It wasn’t until I got to Neels Gap at mile 30, and I saw that boot-covered tree that it hit me: “I’m not one of those pairs of boots, I’m a thru hiker.” And since then, every day I wake up to single digit temperatures, pack up a soaking wet tent, or put on frozen shoes in the morning, I make the same decision: “I’m a thru hiker. I might be crazy, but I’m a thru hiker.” It’s a decision I make each and every day.
Everyone says to start slow, hiking about 8 miles a day. My problem with that was that I’d hike 8 miles by 1pm at the latest and then have nothing to do the rest of the day. Keeping in mind, this was back when I wasn’t seeing many other hikers. So I broke the 8 mile rule, and hiked 10-12 miles a day my first week. By the second week, I was hiking 12-15 miles a day, not thinking much of it since plenty of other hikers were leaving me in the dust.
By the time I hiked just over 100 miles into Franklin, NC, my feet were in bad shape. They were covered in blisters and my toe box was so tight, my toes would fall asleep while I was hiking. I wasn’t having any problems with my muscles, it was just my feet holding me back.
Franklin, NC has a unique store called Outdoor 76, it’s a cool little outfitter/microbrewery. After spending close to an hour with one of the outfitter guys, I ended up switching shoes (which I’ve yet to have any blisters from), and he talked me into changing my hiking method. Essentially, he said my feet would be my downfall if I didn’t slow down, not because I couldn’t handle the miles, but because I wasn’t giving my feet time to adjust. My feet are used to carrying a certain amount of weight, and suddenly I’ve added 38 lbs to that weight. On top of that, before I started my thru hike, I was working a 9-5 day job where I was sitting all the time. Now I’m on my feet 10+ hours a day. All that weight was coming down on my feet. It wasn’t my thighs or calves that needed to adjust, it was the tendons and ligaments in my feet. I say this because I wish someone had told me this before I hike 110 miles.
Being a thru hiker isn’t about hiking 20 miles a day. The miles come with time. I didn’t start hiking 20s until after a month of being on the trail. Plenty of people started well before that, plenty of people start well after. There’s no set-in-stone timeline anyone has to follow. That’s the beauty of HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike). Take as many ZEROs as you need and hike at whatever pace you need. I’m comfortable hiking 20 miles now, but there are still days I hike as little as 8. Thru hiking isn’t a race, not for me anyway; it’s an experience I want to actually enjoy. So I’m okay taking a long lunch or taking a blue blaze to a water fall or staying up late (late as in past 7pm) sitting around a campfire. Those are the things I’ll remember about the trail. The people I met, the conversations, the goofy mistakes, the awkward privies, etc. I’ve opted to slow down, not just for my feet, but so at the end of my hike, I’ll have something to remember, something to take away.
Giving Up Expectations
Every day can be the best day if you lay down your expectations. I learned this the hard way. I innately try to plan everything out, and the backcountry doesn’t ever seem to follow suit. I started out planning my mileage each day, trying to predict the weather, coordinate my next mail drop, etc. Nothing, and I mean nothing, ever went according to plan. I’d either get caught in bad weather, trek through really technical terrain, lose or break gear, not get a package in time, you name it! I wasted my first few weeks of hiking being so frustrated that I could never adhere to my plan. One day, it just hit me: “Why does this plan even exist? I’m out here to escape the world of plans!”
I’ve had to train myself to stop trying to stick to a regimented schedule and instead just do what I can do: I hike. And I appreciate everyday for what it is, instead of what I hoped it would be. Even the days I’m scooting down 6-in of ice or drudging through 6-in of gooey mud (which was pretty much all of Roan Mountain, TN), I appreciate. One thing I tell myself at least 100 times a day is “Nothing goes up forever, nothing goes down forever, nothing is rocky forever, nothing is muddy forever, nothing is sunny forever, etc.” This goes on for quite some time because I have a lot of time to talk to myself these days. But I say it when I’m dripping sweat hiking uphill, when I’m praying every step I take down some wildly dangerous boulders, and when I’m struggling to take any steps at all when the wind is blowing so hard I’m basically just turning in circles. It’s so hard to let go, but it’s changed my life. There is incredible freedom in not knowing what’s going to happen today and being okay with that.
It’s pretty amazing how fast my expectations dropped when I started thru hiking. There was one night it felt like I was in a hurricane because the rain and wind was so bad. I was in town during the worst of it doing laundry at the laundromat. I was sitting watching the rain pour sideways and 2-in of rain flood down the roads when the power went out, with my clothes still in the washer. I ended up getting stranded at the laundromat while I waited for the power to come back on to finish doing laundry. By the time my clothes dried, it was 7pm, well past my usual bedtime. I was exhausted, and I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night. I stopped in the visitor bathroom to get out of the rain while I figured out what to do. I was too tired to hike another mile to the shelter. My tent was still soaked inside and out from the torrential rain the night before. But when I walked in the bathroom, I felt like I was walking into the Hilton. There was a flushing toilet, running water, soap, and a heater! I hung up my tent on one of the stalls to dry in front of the heater and, I was so tired, I fell asleep sitting on the floor with my head on my knees, waiting for it to dry. Then I laid out my shoes to dry and fell asleep again. Then the rest of my half-dried clothes. And by the time I’d dried out all my gear, it was 9:30pm, which is the equivalent of 3am in hiker time. It was the off-season and I doubted anyone would be coming to check the bathroom in this hurricane weather, so I rolled out my sleeping pad and slept on a warm, dry bathroom floor; and it was glorious. I still think that was the best place I slept for free.
Listen to Your Body
This is been my hardest feat yet. I’m pretty stubborn and try to push myself to get where I want to go instead of where my body can actually take me. One of Sir-Packs-a-Lot’s rules is “You can’t stubborn your way to Maine.” Well, I definitely tried. I’d run out of snacks in my hip pockets and start to feel myself slow down, so I knew I needed to eat again, but I didn’t want to stop for lunch until I got to the next shelter. Instead of stopping to eat where I was, I’d slow down to a snail’s pace, trying to push on to the shelter to eat. For anyone that knows me, I get horribly hangry. So what would happen is I’d tell myself the shelter was just around the corner, and when it wasn’t I’d start throwing a temper tantrum, like a toddler. Wish I was kidding about that. My point is I needed to learn not to demand my body perform at some superhuman capacity and stop when I needed to stop.
When I sprained my ankle about 150 miles ago, I thought taking a day off would be enough to hike on. Yeah, it wasn’t. It was still really swollen and bruised, but the pain wasn’t as bad so I thought I was fine to keep hiking. It’s been a week and a half, and it’s not better. In fact, other parts of my ankle have now started hurting too. The terrain the past few days has been really brutal, and that’s when the pain kicked in. It got so bad I couldn’t sleep without propping up my foot, and I’d be in tears if I tripped on a branch or tree root and knocked my foot the wrong way. I pushed myself that far before it was enough to get me to take a ZERO. And now I’m taking another 3 ZEROs, much to my dismay. If I’d listened to my body earlier, I’m sure I wouldn’t be in this situation, but hey, that’s what I get for being delusional about my body’s needs. I didn’t want to take more than one day off the trail, and now I’m having to take 4 days off. It’s hard to go from hiking 20 miles a day to sitting on my butt all day. Harder than taking a break to let my body catch up before I go and get myself hurt, that’s for sure.
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Sorry to hear about your foot/shoe issues. As for the other things, as my wife an I told each other as we were raising our kids when we were confronted with their life changes, “This too shall pass.”
As you can guess I’m a bit older than you. I plan on thru hiking the trail next year after I turn 65. It’s just something I’ve wanted to do.
Anyway, I am curious about your shoe issues. What size shoe did you start with and what size did the Outdoor 76 guy recommend? Were they low, medium or high ankle and were they waterproof? What type of socks are you wearing and did you use sock liners?
Sorry for all the questions and if you don’t have time to answer, no problem.
Safe trip and I wish you well. Being retired (+30 years, Federal biologist) I have a leg up on you with regard to daily planning – I do what I want to do, when I want to do it and if I don’t want to do it, there’s a nap for that!
Keep being stubborn, listen to your body and enjoy the hike and ignore the miles.
Hi Stan! I’ve got plenty of time to answer question now that I’m taking a few days off! I started out with Salomon XA Pros and they were waterproof. They’re trail runners so they were low ankle. I normally run at size 9, but I got size 10s for some extra toe room, but the shape of the shoe just didn’t match my foot. I switched to Brooks Cascadias and they’re a size 9. They’re also a trail runner with a low ankle, but these ones aren’t waterproof, which I actually like better. My feet were getting soaked in the waterproof shoes from sweating all day, and because they’re waterproof, they’d never dry out on the inside. My shoes now will get wet from rain and snow and whatnot, but they’ll dry out overnight and my feet aren’t hot while I’m hiking any more. I know a few other hikers who do have waterproof shoes, and they really like them so it’s all a matter of preference. I’m using Darn Tough socks and I was using Injinji toe sock liners as well when I had the Salomons because the liners are supposed to help with blisters between my toes, which I had plenty of. But since I haven’t had blisters since I switched to the Brooks, I haven’t needed to use the sock liners anymore and sent them home.
I went to REI and basically just asked what kind of shoe I’d need for a thru hike and they asked what shoe size I was and gave me a pair. The guy at Outdoor 76 spent a hour with me, measuring my feet, taking a history of feet-related injuries, watching me walk, and picking out half a dozen shoes to try on based on the shape of my foot. All of them felt a million times better than what I was wearing before that. I know some running store are more thorough like that with customers so I’d highly recommend finding a show store like that to get shoes from.
I know finding the perfect shoe is a terrible process of trial and error, but there’s lots of people around who know all about feet! Any local outfitter in or by the mountains are usually pretty good, if you have any around you.
I wish you the best of luck on your thru hike next year! It’s funny, I’ve met plenty of people in their mid-60s who fly past me. I can’t keep up with people three times my age! So don’t let age make you feel disadvantaged! If it’s what you want to do, you’ll do it. You got it!
Thanks for the shoe info. I guess my greatest fear of the trail is blisters and foot problems. I have a local REI that I’ll hit up for most of my equipment and shoes but I’ll keep an open mind on the trail if things are going south and stop at outfitters along the trail to sort things out.
Good luck on the trail and hope the weather will calm down and give you guys a break. Keep on blogging an enjoy the hike.
Excellent writing, loved it.
Great post. Good luck for the rest of your hike. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77
Good luck! When you make it to NY the trail runs right above my village(Greenwood Lake). Hit me up at [email protected] I’ll buy you a drink and some chips and salsa for making it this far.
Hi Sara! Glad to see you’re still hiking. I’m hoping to be back on trail soon. What area are you at now? I may have to do a flip flop when I get back on. Are you planning on attending trail days? Good Luck!