How Much Should You Really Plan Your Thru-Hike?
Are you about to start a thru-hike? Terrified that you’re underprepared? Worried that you don’t know every single town stop, or where you’re camping every night for the first month? Let’s talk about just how much you should really plan out your hike.
First, we’ll chat about what absolutely needs to be planned, no matter what trail you’re hiking. Then, we’ll touch on trail-specific planning. Finally, we’ll discuss what should never be planned on a thru-hike.
Before we get started: one word of warning. Planning can be deeply personal. If you get joy out of having spreadsheets of campsites and researching exactly what dinners you’re going to buy in each town, go nuts (as long as you’re not so attached to your plan you can’t change it). If you’re a seat of the pants, book a plane ticket and just go kind of person, that’s great too. Just make sure you plan the important things.
Don’t Start Hiking Without Planning These 4 Things
These items are non-negotiable, no matter what trail you’re hitting.
Which Trail and When to Start
Pretty obvious, but you can’t hike without picking a trail. The trail you choose will also determine the best time of year for hiking. If you can only hike during June and July, you’ll want to plan a trail that’s suitable for that time of year. For example, don’t attempt the Arizona Trail, which would be dangerously hot. You can check out the perfect times of year to start many of the most popular long trails here.
Permits can be one of the most confusing and stressful aspects of planning your hike. If you’re hiking a popular trail that requires a difficult-to-get permit, such as the Pacific Crest Trail or the John Muir Trail, you’ll need to have your finger on the reserve button the second permit applications open. Other trails, like the Appalachian Trail, allow you to apply for permits in the Smokies and Baxter State Park from along the trail with zero chance that your permit will be denied. Some trails, like Vermont’s Long Trail, don’t require a single permit, which makes them perfect for people who really dislike planning.
To figure out what permits you need, search for your trail’s association. Every association will list all of the information you need on their website. Permit opening dates normally fall into two categories: one opening date for all permits, or permits released on a rolling basis a certain amount of time before (such as 90 days before your specific start date). You can obtain other permits at trailheads, or by calling park offices while you’re on the trail. Some trails have one permit for the entire trail. Others require you to book individual permits, sometimes even for each specific campsite.
How to Get There
Once you’ve picked your trail and booked your permits, you need to plan how to get to your trail. That can be as simple as booking a plane ticket or asking a friend for a ride. If you need to book a shuttle, it’s worth doing this well in advance, as popular dates on popular trails can fill up quickly. Trail angels can sometimes help hikers get to trail termini too, but since they are volunteers, they will have limited time and space, and you may have to work around their schedule.
If you’re unsure how to get to the start of your trail, trail associations normally have shuttle and public transport information listed on their websites.
Safety and Skills
This article is mostly about logistics planning for a thru-hike, but it would be remiss not to mention safety and skills. Please make sure you have adequate skills for your chosen trail (including navigation, first aid, river crossings, and snow travel where relevant), and consider taking a class if you are worried about your skill level. Shakedown hikes can be a great way to assess your abilities and ensure all of your gear is functioning properly.
Trail Specific Planning
Some trails require more planning than others. Mailing boxes or gear to yourself along the trail can add days’ worth of planning to your pre-hike prep. Some trails, like the Great Divide Trail, require almost as much work to plan as they do to hike. Others, like the AT, you can pretty much just book a plane ticket and start walking.
If you’d like an exhaustive list of trail-specific prep, check out this AT Checklist or this PCT one.
Sometimes there just isn’t anywhere to buy groceries in town, but there’s plenty of places willing to hold a box for you (Pie Town, NM on the Continental Divide Trail, I’m looking at you). A quick search on a trail association website (or reading through a guidebook or the town notes on the FarOut App) should highlight towns where resupply is challenging. Make sure you either plan to mail a box, or carry extra food and skip that resupply spot, so you’re not stuck in town with nowhere to buy food.
If you have specific dietary needs, mailing boxes is absolutely crucial. Many trail towns have limited food options, and you will struggle to find appropriate food in tiny grocery or convenience stores. If this applies to you, you may need to do a lot more prep than other hikers.
Some trails traverse entire ecosystems, and as such, hikers have to swap out gear. Thru-hikers on the PCT and CDT will have to mail snow gear to Kennedy Meadows and Chama, respectively, where the trail changes from desert to snowy mountains. PCT hikers will also need to pick up a bear canister for the Sierra Nevada. It’s a good idea to plan gear drops before you leave home. However, if you’re an international hiker or weren’t able to plan ahead, it is possible to get stores to mail the gear you need to these locations. Gear rentals may also be available from local gear stores. It is possible to make these plans while on trail, but you might find it easier to figure it out beforehand.
If you’re spending months on trail, you may also have to swap out cold-weather gear for summer items, and vice versa. It’s best to plan this while on trail: weather varies greatly from year to year. A support person at home can mail you a summer sleeping bag or warmer puffy with just a little notice.
Some trails have specific information that you absolutely have to find out before you start hiking. The main example of this is water in the desert. If you’re hiking a trail with limited water sources, you absolutely should find, download and print a water report.
You may have other information that is specific to your situation: this isn’t an exhaustive list. If you’re hiking the AT with a dog, for example, you should make sure you know where your pet is allowed, and where they will have to leave the trail.
It’s common to want to plan every second of your hike, especially if you get nervous as your start date approaches. Here’s a few things that I never plan in advance.
Campsites/ Miles per Day
Unless you’re on a hike like the Great Divide Trail where you have to book individual campsites, try not to plan exactly where you’re sleeping each night, or how far you’re hiking each day too far in advance. You should have a rough idea of how long it will take you to get to town (so you can carry the correct amount of food), and what your options are for campsites. However, I often don’t choose where I’m sleeping at night until I wake up the morning before.
There are a lot of variables on a thru-hike. You might be more tired than you expect. You might get injured or sick. The weather might be bad. The trail might be easier than you thought, or you might get your trail legs quickly. You might decide you hate dry camping and you’ll only camp at water sources. Staying flexible with where you camp and how many miles you do removes a lot of stress. It’s a lot easier to listen to your body if you don’t have to do a certain number of miles.
I know several people who started their first thru-hike with detailed plans of where they’d camp each night. Everyone had dropped their plans by the first town stop and their fancy spreadsheets of campsites were no longer accurate. Save yourself the work: pick where you’re camping on the fly.
Town Stops (Without Boxes)
Unless you’re mailing boxes, there’s really no need to plan which towns you’re stopping at more than one town in advance. I normally pick my next town stop before I go resupply shopping in my current town. This means I can buy the correct amount of food, but I’m not stuck with a rigid plan too far in advance.
There’s one main reason to plan your town stops like this. You’re going to meet some of the most amazing people in the world. Once you find your trail family, you will want to make sure your town stops line up with them. Taking a zero is infinitely more fun with friends, so don’t get stuck in a rigid schedule that means you can’t hang out.
On my PCT thru-hike, I planned to go all the way to Warner Springs at mile 109 without resupplying. However, my brand new trail family decided to stop in Julian first at mile 77. I quickly realized that my plan was dumb and went to town with them. Was it the right choice? Well, six years later, I’m married to one of my trail family, and still incredibly close with everyone else. Sometimes it pays to plan less and go with the flow.
We already touched on this, but it’s worth saying again: mailing boxes or gear to yourself along the trail can add days’ worth of planning to your pre-hike prep. I absolutely recommend not mailing food boxes to yourself unless you have no other choice, especially if this is your first thru-hike. It can add a logistical nightmare if you get off schedule, or if the post office is closed when you roll into town. You can get sick of the food you’ve sent yourself and have to dump half your resupply in a hiker box because you can’t even look at it anymore. Boxes are a lot of work, and once you add in postage, they’re unlikely to even save you any money.
It’s also pretty easy to start mailing boxes from the trail if you change your mind. This is a fantastic option for international hikers or anyone who does not have a support person at home. Simply stop in a larger town along the way (such as Ashland and Cascade Locks on the PCT), assemble boxes for the next section, and mail them ahead. It’s much easier to be flexible with timings, and you’re less likely to be sick of what you’ve mailed yourself.
How to Get Home
It’s a good idea to have a general plan of how to get home. For example, knowing if someone is picking you up or where the closest airport is to the terminus can remove a lot of stress at the end of your hike. However, unless you need a return ticket for visa reasons, try not to book a bus or plane ticket before you start your hike.
Having a firm finish date can cause a lot of stress about being behind schedule. Some hikers have to skip ahead or are unable to finish because they’ve already booked a ticket home. This is especially true for one of the longer trails like the AT, PCT, or CDT. Some people can take six months or more to finish these trails, while others complete them in less than four months. It’s hard to know how long a trail will take you before you start hiking.
Obviously, everyone’s life circumstances are different. You might have to be home on a certain day for work or family commitments. But, if you can, try to avoid setting a firm end date.
If logistics are stressing you out right now, take a deep breath and think about how much fun you’re about to have on your hike. Remember, plan the basics, but avoid overplanning as much as you can.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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