Can a Short Thru-Hike Really Prepare You For a Long One?
In 2021, I thru-hiked the Long Trail (LT), intending to decide whether I would want to hike a longer trail like the AT someday. Like many people tackling comparatively short trails, I considered the idea of taking a few weeks off from work and hiking 272 miles to be much more palatable than uprooting my life to hike thousands with no prior thru-hiking experience.
The Long Trail was amazing, but as I reached the northern terminus after 18 days, I decided a long thru-hike wasn’t for me. Seven months later, after a change of heart, I arrived at Amicalola Falls to begin my 2022 NOBO thru-hike of the AT.
So, did my initial, short thru-hike of the Long Trail prepare me for the much longer AT? Here’s what happened.
Short Hike: Expectations vs. Reality
One of the most common pieces of advice that prospective AT, PCT, or CDT thru-hikers hear is to try a shorter trail first. This serves the dual purpose of developing hard skills like setting up a tent, using a stove, and pooping in the woods, as well as preparing yourself mentally to spend an extended period of time in the wilderness.
I hoped the LT would give me the skills I would need for a longer hike, but my 18-day odyssey changed my approach to the AT in ways I didn’t anticipate as well.
I have no doubt that a short thru-hike or a section hike will help just about anyone learn the ins and outs of backpacking, just as I had hoped. On my Long Trail thru-hike, I noticed a significant improvement in the time it took to set up and take down camp, learned techniques to make walking easier, and developed a swift method of organizing my gear.
Learning my hiking style prepared me to make decisions about what gear I should buy in the future. For example, I lost my pocketknife and discovered I was fine without one, so I left that out of my AT gear list. I learned that one change of clothes is plenty—anything beyond that will become dirty as soon as I put it on. I developed strategies for hitchhiking and resupplying.
Confidence… and More Questions
With the development of skills comes the development of confidence. Thru-hiking is repetitive, so over the course of a few weeks, you’ll do just about everything that you’ll do over a six-month hike. When I began the AT at Springer, I felt unstoppable. I knew how to set up camp, how to resupply, how to hike a long trail. I had done it all before, now I just have to do it for longer.
While this experience made me more confident in my skills as a backpacker, it also opened up a new world of mental challenges that I was completely unaware of. This journey was supposed to answer the question, “do I want to hike the AT someday?” but rather than delivering a clear answer, it gave me even more questions.
“Will I have the mental prowess to fight through bad days?”
I coped with rough days on the Long Trail by thinking, “only two more weeks of this,” or “just one more week and I can finally see my friends again.” When I felt the urge to quit, I told myself that all I had to do was suffer through this for a little longer.
On a trail that is 272 miles long, the finish line is figuratively in sight from the moment you begin. Although I didn’t know exactly when I would finish as I began the Long Trail, I knew I had a grad party in three weeks, a doctor’s appointment in four, and I’d move into college in five.
This mindset doesn’t translate well to a trail that is over two thousand miles long. There is no light at the end of the tunnel on the Appalachian Trail until the journey nears its end. As I made the pilgrimage to Amicalola Falls, I didn’t know what month I’d finish or what kind of life I’d return to. “Just keep suffering through this and it will be over soon” isn’t a working strategy when hiking is your entire life and not a vacation. Would I be able to complete a thru-hike without that coping mechanism? Would I fail in the absence of that safety net, or would I thrive under pressure and force myself to enjoy the experience?
They say that thru-hiking delivers the highest of highs and lowest of lows. I definitely experienced that on the LT, and while the highs were amazing, the lows could be crushing. When I finally reached the northern terminus, the lows had thoroughly exhausted me more than the highs had rejuvenated me.
If I were to attempt a longer thru-hike, I knew I would need to do something differently.
“What can I change on the AT that will allow me to have a better experience?”
As weeks and months passed after my experience on the Long Trail, I began to miss the joys of trail life. At the same time, I realized I had the opportunity to attempt a longer thru-hike the following spring. This question of how to improve my experience came to the front of my mind as I made my decision.
The most obvious answer to me was to slow down. I told myself that I’d start the LT by hiking 25-30 miles per day (which I laugh about now), and while that didn’t even come close to happening (I hiked 18 miles my first day and just about passed out from exhaustion), I still hiked each day until I couldn’t hike anymore. I knew that wouldn’t be physically or mentally sustainable for a trek like the AT, but I didn’t know if slowing down alone would make the difference between enjoying my hike and being miserable.
Updating My Gear List for the Appalachian Trail
One cold December day, my spirits were low, and I decided that I’d had enough of my boring life and that I should take the opportunity to hike the AT. On February 25, I set off from Amicalola Falls State Park on the journey of a lifetime.
In the two months between my decision to hike the AT and beginning my thru-hike, I dialed down my gear.
I decided that while I loved my Osprey Atmos AG 65, it was heavy and far bigger and more feature-rich than I needed, so I saw a need to downsize. I chose the Osprey Exos 48, which allowed me to shave about two pounds off my base weight while keeping an airy suspension system that the Atmos made me love.
My off-brand summer sleeping bag worked fine on the LT, but I got cold on chilly nights and it certainly wouldn’t suffice for a February start of the AT. In contrast, I loved my Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 and didn’t even consider a new tent.
Less significant gear was modified, too: I discovered that my Walmart headlamp doesn’t effectively illuminate a rocky trail and that I didn’t actually need a pocketknife. The Long Trail was an excellent way for me to learn what gear I’d want to live in for half a year, what I needed to replace, and what I could simply get rid of.
READ NEXT – Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Gear List
As I began, I was extremely cautious not to rush the way I had on the Long Trail. I took it slow, hiked with others, and, most importantly, made sure that I didn’t fully exhaust all my energy by the end of each day. It was so much better. I assumed the highs and lows would be higher and lower on the AT, but many of the lowest lows in my thru-hiking career were on the LT because I was overexerting myself.
Not only did slowing down work effectively, but I also found that I was more confident and capable than before. I felt at home in the Georgia woods. I knew what I was doing: the basics like filtering water and using a stove, and more complex things like how much food I needed and where to charge my phone—all skills I’d honed on the LT.
Should you hike a short trail first?
I’ve made it clear that my experience on the Long Trail significantly prepared me for the AT by developing hard skills, confidence, and gear choices. For that reason, I wholeheartedly recommend that prospective thru-hikers start with a shorter trail.
If you’re not sure if you want to hike a trail like the AT, PCT, or CDT, then a short thru-hike is a great way to test the waters to see if that’s something you’re interested in. You may or may not find the answer you’re looking for, but you’ll figure out which questions you need to ask yourself to find that answer.
That being said, the benefits that I reaped from my first journey can be gotten from even shorter trails and section hikes too. If you’ve decided that a long thru-hike is something you want to do for certain, then a shorter thru is certainly a great option, but you could likely get most of the same benefits from a series of small sections and weekend trips.
As I stood on top of Katahdin with the whole world beneath me, the northern terminus of the Long Trail crossed my mind. Neither experience resolved the questions I thought they’d answer for me, but they both opened my mind to questions I didn’t know I had. If you are a prospective thru-hiker, no matter the length, I ask you: why not?
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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