How Often Should You Take a Zero Day On a Thru-Hike?
Thru-hiking can be physically and mentally demanding, and it’s important to practice proper self-care along the way. Allowing yourself time to rest by taking a zero day (or two) during your thru-hike is an excellent way to do just that.
But how often should you take a zero day on a thru-hike? Some hikers can go months without taking a day off, while others stop every few days. Anecdotally, most thru-hikers take a zero every 7 to 10 days.
It’s not important to plan every zero day you’ll take on your thru-hike ahead of time, but you should have a solid understanding of how rest days can impact your hike in both positive and negative ways.
What Is a Zero Day?
Before we jump in, let’s define a few key terms first. For more definitions of hiker trash-specific terminology, be sure to consult the Appalachian Trail Glossary.
Zero: A day off during a thru-hike on which zero miles are walked.
Example: I’ve been feeling exhausted lately; I think I’m going to take a zero in the next town.
Double zero: Two full days off during a thru-hike.
Example: Trail Days will be the perfect opportunity to take a double zero.
Nero: short for nearly zero; a partial day off.
Example: We camped a couple miles out and neroed into town for a pancake breakfast.
Why Should You Zero?
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking more zero days can actually increase your overall hiking pace: adequate rest helps keep you fresh, injury-free, and excited about trail.
The following are some reasons you might consider taking a zero day during your thru-hike.
According to our 2022 AT Thru-Hiker Survey, injury was cited as the most common reason participants weren’t able to complete their thru-hike. Accidents aside, don’t let this be you! Listen to your body, and don’t ignore that nagging feeling that something is wrong—you don’t want to aggravate the problem.
Avoid Mental Fatigue
Working yourself to the point of exhaustion can lead to a few problems. The worst of them all, though? Burnout. If you have any inkling that you might be headed down that road, take a zero ASAP. If things are already that bad, and you’re contemplating quitting—take a double zero. Remember: never quit on a bad day.
Recover From Illness
Don’t try to hike through illness. For one, it’ll likely make things worse. Two, you don’t want to spread what you have to other hikers.
If you experience fever, nausea, or a seriously upset stomach during your hike, get off trail and see a doctor in town ASAP. If you have flu-like symptoms, self-isolate and take an over-the-counter COVID test. Go ahead and take a zero, if not more—sure, it may not be the most exciting day off, but it is what it is.
Wait Out Bad Weather
Sadly, not every day on trail will be a bright, sunshiny day. When you spend every day outside for weeks on end, you will inevitably have to endure some nasty weather at some point. A little rain is one thing, but if a particularly bad storm is forecast, it’s probably best to wait it out on a zero if you can.
Hiking is supposed to be fun—even if it does occasionally verge on the Type II or Type III variety. If you find that you’re no longer having a good time, it’s probably time for a zero.
Spending time in town can be a lot of fun. Getting to stuff your belly full of non-trail food, socializing with friends, clean clothes, clean self—the list of town goodness is long.
Even if you’re on a tight schedule, you can still enjoy yourself from time to time with a bit of strategic planning. Having fun is a great way to avoid burnout.
READ NEXT –
How Many Zero Days Should You Take?
It’s up to you to decide how many zero days you take over the course of your thru-hike. Some hikers take a zero in every town, and some take very few zeroes. Others choose not to take any at all. Everyone has their own individual needs, so keep in mind that what works best will likely differ from person to person.
Anecdotally, most thru-hikers seem to take a zero every 7 to 10 days on average. Years ago, a WhiteBlaze user did a detailed analysis of 240 AT journals on TrailJournals.com and found that AT thru-hikers in his study completed the trail in an average of 24 weeks and took an average of 20 zeros during that time.
While it’s more trial-and-error than anything, there are a few things you can do before your hike that will help you estimate the number of zero days you can reasonably take.
Create a Schedule
Most hikers have a certain amount of time in which they have to complete a thru-hike, whether they’re constrained by the length of the hiking season, their budget, time off from work, etc. Before you ever set foot on trail, take a good look at the amount of time you’ve allotted for your trip.
Have an idea of what you want your daily mileage to look like and how many zeroes you can afford at that pace. Every zero day you take will eat into your average pace: if you hike 20 miles per day but take a zero every tenth day, your average daily mileage will drop down to 18. Taking time off helps to ensure that your body can keep up with those big miles in the long term, but it’s still important to be judicious with your rest days if you’re on a timetable.
If you’re especially tight on time, realize that you’ll need to either consider taking fewer zeroes or hiking higher mileage days to make up for that time.
READ NEXT – What Is a Good Hiking Pace?
Stick to Your Budget
- Stay at hostels/hiker-friendly accommodations whenever possible.
- If you stay at a motel, share your room (and the cost) with other hikers. Familiarize yourself with policies re: the maximum number of occupants so an angry employee doesn’t come knocking.
- If your room or hotel/hostel has a kitchenette or shared kitchen, consider staying in for a meal or two and preparing healthy (and cheaper) food with your trail family.
- Reach out to members of the trail community for alternative lodging options. If a trail angel takes you under their wing, the very least you can do is say thank you.
- Stay at a campground with facilities/amenities, such as a KOA.
- Take more neroes! A partial day off is better than having no day off and cuts down on lodging costs.
- Eliminate the necessity of having to get a room for two nights by choosing a campsite close to the trailhead either before or after town day.
READ NEXT – An Incomplete List of Appalachian Trail Hostels: 2022 Edition
Remember That Unplanned Zeroes Are a Thing
Injuries, storms, and family emergencies put thru-hikers on the bench all the time. Stretching your finances and timetable to the limit with loads of elective zeroes is risky—too many thru-hikers don’t make it because they run out of time or money to finish the hike. Don’t be one of them. Be sure to leave some wiggle room in your schedule and budget for unplanned town time.
Realize that on a thru-hike, a good portion of your zero day will likely be spent doing chores. Things like resupplying, visiting the post office, doing laundry, bathing, and catching up with people at home are all good and necessary zero day activities. They also take time and energy. If you can, try to plan your town day in a way that’ll allow you to have some downtime.
If your chore list occasionally ends up being extra lengthy—say, you have to mail ahead resupply boxes or something—consider taking a zero + nero or a double zero. That way, you’ll actually have time to enjoy yourself.
Before you leave town with your fresh resupply, note what day you expect to arrive in the next town. Keep in mind that Tuesday-Thursday are the best days to stay in town. Room rates and availability, restaurant and store hours are all things to keep in mind.
Businesses, especially in small or rural towns, can be closed on Mondays or at other seemingly random times. If you know you have to make it somewhere by a certain time—like the P.O. before it closes on a Saturday—make sure to give yourself enough time.
Self care is group care. If your friends are ready to head back to trail, but you aren’t, ask if they’d be willing to be flexible with their plans. If your schedules end up not aligning, realize that you’ll likely meet other hikers who have a hiking style and schedule that is more similar to yours.
Basically, look out for yourself—don’t not take rest days for fear of losing or not keeping up with your pals.
These can be so much fun! Spend a nero or a zero hiking to a super cool mountain or alpine lake. If the trail takes you through or near a place you’ve always wanted to visit, make it happen—you won’t regret it.
Consider taking an on-trail rest day. Aside from saving money, it can also be super relaxing and scenic if you plan it right. If your sidequest takes you to a stunning alpine lake, you might as well spend the night there before heading back to trail.
Consider attending Trail Days for whichever trail you’re hiking, whether it’s the AT, PCT, or CDT. That sort of occasion could be enough to justify taking a double zero.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
Unless you’re trying to set an FKT or you have a super short hiking window, there’s no reason to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion. Besides, even those attempting to complete a thru-hike in a short time should be well-versed in the ways of self care and injury prevention techniques.
Thru-hiker and Trek blogger Melissa “Caps” Riordan shared the following advice: “Listen to your body and rest when it is telling you to rest. It can be hard when you’re trying to make miles, but not every day needs to be about pushing big miles. Take a minute to slow down and take in the incredible landscape around you.”
Take the time to properly rest up on a zero day from time to time so you can stay happy and fit on your thru-hike. Practicing good self care can go a long way toward helping you reach the finish line, especially at times when it looks particularly far away.
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Featured image: Photo by Kris Mast via Snap.
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