Finding the balance between sight-seeing and making trail miles.

Managing the disparate needs on trail

All of life is about balance. Trail life is no different, even though the things we need to balance are different from our normal lives back home. One of the challenges of trail life is striking the right balance for yourself. Just as each hiker must hike their own hike, each hiker must also find the balance that works best for them. We are all different. I’m still finding my balance after almost a month on the CDT. And this balance is way different from what I found on the AT.


This is probably the biggest challenge for me: finding the balance between how much water I need and how much I can comfortably carry. The saying in thru-hiking is you hike and pack for your fears. Running out of water is one of my biggest fears. Always has been. When I’m hiking, I don’t like opening my last liter. That is my emergency liter and I start panicking if I have to get into it. Keep in mind that a liter of water of water weighs just over 2 lbs. That means I am always carrying an extra 2 lbs. 

One of the good water sources! These are few and far between. Usually, I’m getting water from cattle tanks. Some of them are really gross!

I have the capacity to carry up to 7 liters of water, between all of my bottles and my dirty water bag. I know there are some sections of the trail that I will want that much. Most of the time, I try to carry just 3-4 liters between fresh, clean water and my electrolytes bottle. If I am fairly certain of the quality and quantity of water ahead, I might carry less. But for 5-10 miles between water, I usually have about 3 liters. I know, it means I’m often slightly dehydrated.

I drink constantly in town and “camel up” when I do hit a good water source on trail. “Camel up” in hiker-speak means to drink as much as you can when you get to a water source and then carry out what you anticipate needing to the next potential source. I have found, I can only drink about 1/2 L of water at one go. So I end up carrying more. And of course, when I’m down to less than 1 1/2 L of water, I’m constantly thirsty, even if I was barely thirsty with 3 L in my pack. Go figure. 

I’m still trying to figure out the balance between carrying enough water or having too much. But I’m getting better. Most of the time, I reach the next water source with just over a liter left. Dry camping, however, is still a challenge. That’s when I don’t have a nearby water source at camp. If I expect to dry camp, I try to get to camp with at least 3 liters. That gives me enough for dinner and toiletry (I use a bidet and need a bit for brushing my teeth and washing up), but not much spare to start the next day. When I camp near water, I choose dinner based on the heaviest meal in my bear can. When I’m dry camping, I choose the one that needs the least water. Balance. 


Another balance I still haven’t mastered is food. I try to count out the number of snacks  and meals I need until the next resupply, but I’m still not eating enough. My last hike as similar. It took a while for me to be hungry enough to eat all that I was carrying. I don’t want to run out of food, but I feel like I have so much left when I get to town. An empty bear can is much lighter than a full one, but I haven’t reached the point where I get to town with an empty or nearly empty bear can. I’ll get there when I start eating more. 

When I eat a snack along the way, I put my trash in a zippered pocket. I’ve found that this practice serves two purposes. First, it keeps my trash contained until I get to camp and can load it into my trash bag. Second, it serves as a reminder about how much I’ve eaten (or not) during the day, so I can better gauge how often I need to eat along the way. I have to remind myself to eat during the day most of the time. Even though I pack 3 or 4 snacks in my hip pocket, plus meal bars for breakfast and lunch, I don’t usually eat everything. Hence, the extra food when I get to town. Still looking for that balance of carrying enough food, but not too much. 

Rides vs road walks

A long, hot, dirt road walk. I think the total dirt road walk for this one was over 30 miles.

The CDT has so.many.loooong road walks. Compared to the AT, with less than a mile of road at a time, this is getting old quickly. The only good part about road walks, whether dirt roads or paved, is that I can make good time. Few or no obstacles. Usually consistent surface. Firm footing. All this leads to 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 mph pace, which is really quick for me! When I was training for this hike, I took long walks on the local rail trails and focused on maintaining at least a 3 mph pace. I knew that if I trained my body to feel that faster pace, even without a pack, my pace would be quicker than the AT. On single track trail, I’m often a good 2 mph. That works for me. 

But those road walks. They are hot, dusty, and boring. I’m hiking my own hike, so if someone I have met offers me a ride for a few miles, I take it. For instance, last week I got my mail in town and talked to the postal worker for a few minutes. A few hours later, I was walking another long, dusty dirt road. (Dirt roads out here are common. My theory is that only roads with semi-truck traffic get paved outside of towns.) Anyway, that day, I was walking to camp 16 miles from town, all on dirt road. The mail lady came upon me in her UTV. She stopped and we talked some more for a few minutes. Then she offered me a ride to her driveway which was just a few miles short of my camp location.  I took it.

Then earlier this week, I was staying at a forest service campground. I noticed that a couple who I had met several times at other campgrounds was also staying there. They have a sweet camper and the woman is biking the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. (Her husband is crewing for her and day hiking while he waits for her to get to camp or their pick-up location.) That route crosses with the CDT often enough that we keep seeing each other. The hike from the campground into town was all on paved highway. Not fun or particularly safe since there isn’t any shoulder. Paved road walks hurt my feet after several hours. It would have been an very long day walking into town on this road. They offered me a ride into town! Of course, I took them up on it. 

Balance. I am not a purist on this trail with all of the road walking. For me, it helps save my feet and my sanity to skip at least part of the roads if I am offered a ride. I do want to hike as much as possible, because otherwise, can I really say I “hiked from Mexico to Canada?” So, I’m finding the balance between accepting rides from people I’ve met and walking as much as I can.

Type 2 fun vs health and safety

Thru-hiking is definitely type 2 fun. That is, it’s often grueling and unpleasant in the midst of the activity, but fun to reflect back on later. Like my infected blister was completely unfun when I was in pain and bored in a hotel room for 5 days. But now it is a trail story and I have become infamous on the trail for it. Seriously, other hikers already know about me and my blister when they first meet me. But that’s where the balance comes in.

Balancing the need to make miles vs taking time to enjoy the journey.

Since then, it’s been a bit frustrating finding the balance between covering the miles to stay on pace, and rebuilding my trail legs. That first week, I was covering 16+ miles each day fairly easily. Yes, it was flatter, but I was dealing with painful blisters. My original plan was to be making 20 miles a few days a week at this point in the hike. I’m still less than 17 miles most days. And that is frustrating to me.

There are parts of thru-hiking that can be dangerous. It can be tricky to find the balance between staying safe and healthy, and covering the miles in a timely manner. On the AT, it was climbing those cliffs like a free-soloer. With my blister, it was making the difficult decision to get off trail after less than a week so I could get medical attention and let it heal.

So far this hike, I’ve had to cross a raging river that had a strong current and came up to my hips for part of the crossing. I’ve also had to post-hole through deep snow down one steep slope and across another. Both of those snow packed sections were scary and I almost slipped down the slope on the traverse. Finding the balance in these situations meant looking for the safest way to approach and cross these obstacles. I have to find the balance to give myself grace on the days that are lower miles because of challenges like these and hiking more miles when the trail gives them.  

Balance at home is different from balance on the trail. But in both situations, we each need to find the balance that works for us. It probably looks different from other’s balance. And that’s okay.


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