Give Yourself a Break: Planning Rest Days on Your Thru-hike
My first thru-hike was a NOBO attempt of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016. I had planned for what I thought was everything—except for taking rest days. At the time, this seemed reasonable to me, but perhaps I was trying too hard to channel Muir and Thoreau and not cutting myself enough slack. The first time I took a zero day on the PCT? At Warner Springs, just after mile 100.
Over the course of the five days it took me to get there, my feet had developed into a constellation of blisters, each one uniquely painful. I actually passed through a town with a gear shop on day two, but it was closed for the day so instead of waiting like a sane person I kept walking. I finally broke down and had trail runners a half size up sent to Warner Springs, but they didn’t fit. Feeling stranded in the middle of what felt like nowhere, I did the most logical thing I could think of; I called my Mom, and I cried.
After that, I pulled myself together, and started strategizing. The closest place with a gear shop was Idyllwild, over an hour away. Fortunately, there was trail angel Ed in the parking lot looking for hikers to help, and he drove me to and from town where I found a new pair of shoes (a size eight, my feet had ballooned up two sizes). The next day I tenderly hiked off into the desert, hopeful that the miles would be easier from here on out.
You think I would have learned my lesson, but I didn’t take another zero until nearly 600 miles later, and then I took three of them. My feet were still blistering, caused by my stubborn desire to keep on walking despite the pain. Those three days were glorious, filled with a variety of cold drinks, ice cream, vegetables, and nothing resembling peanut butter or pop-tarts. Plus, my blisters finally healed.
At this point I should probably mention my husband, “Bear Sweatz.” He was partially responsible for our “no zero,” plan because when he hiked the AT in 2011 he didn’t take any. That worked for him then, but it didn’t work for us as a couple. After that, we were more open to taking a rest day when we needed them, and I could focus on the beauty of the trail instead of the throbbing in my feet. When we hiked the Appalachian Trail for this year, we resolved to take more rest days, and we did. They were wonderful. There is no one zero/nero strategy that works for anyone, but here are some things to consider on your hike.
What Type of Person Are You
You totally know yourself, right? No? You’re not alone. That may be one of the reasons you’re considering thru-hiking. Well fear not, one of the things you’ll hopefully come to realize on your hike is that you cannot compare yourself to other people. Just because “Oatmeal Packet” can hike 20 miles day after day without respite doesn’t mean that you’re any less of a hiker if that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time (and just because she can doesn’t mean that you should judge her either).
People are on the trail for different reasons, and prefer different strategies. What matters is how your body feels and how you want to spend your time. You will have to push yourself, but also be kind to yourself. You’re not going to complete your hike if you take an excessive amount of time off, but you may not finish it if you push yourself too hard before you know your limits. When we hiked the AT this year, before we even hit the trail we planned to take a zero a week into our hike. From there we let our mood, bodies, and weather help us decide.
Weather & Injury
On the AT, we took a nero in Hot Springs. The next day it was raining as headed to breakfast. The forecast predicted freezing rain and snow in the mountains all day. Neither of us wanted to walk around in that, and debated staying another day. At the diner we saw two trail friends who also had another thru-hike under their belt, and they asked us if we were going to stay in town. A little embarrassed I admitted that we were. I assumed they were going to hike out and “be tough”. I was dead wrong, they had already booked their rooms for another night. Been there, done that. There are so many days you cannot avoid the weather, when you can it’s nice to take advantage of that opportunity.
Similarly, with injury. Most days you’ll have to push through the regular aches and pains that occur on a thru-hike. If you’re in town, considering spending an extra day. As you go along, you’ll learn what is normal and what needs attention.
Certain towns are preferable for taking spending more time in. If you really want to kick back and relax, it’s a benefit to be in a town where everything is centrally located. You can rack up a couple miles walking around doing laundry and grocery shopping. Just like you should be prepared for the trail, be prepared for town. A little planning the night before as to where you want to stay can save you a lot of time once you’re in town.
Nero vs Zero
You don’t have to hike zero miles to take a rest day. Often times a nero (a “near zero,”) day may be all you need. Some of our best rest days were when we hiked a short day into town, resupplied and had lunch, then hiked a few short miles out of town to make camp and relax in the woods.
There are plenty of hostels, trail angels, cheap motels to share, and even free camping in hiker friendly towns that make it so you don’t have to spend a lot of money to rest-up. Bear Sweatz and I avoided most hostels along the AT, mostly because we found for a similar price as two bunks in a hostel we could get a private room in an inexpensive motel. Again, a bit of preparation can save you a lot of money. If you know which towns have more hiker services and are friendlier on your wallet, you can plan accordingly to make that money you saved to hike the trail stretch further.
To be successful in completing your thru-hike you need to: have realistic expectations, consider your budget so you don’t spend all your money before you reach your end goal, and allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need to finish your hike to allow for weather and much needed rest days.
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