How To Support Your Thru-Hiker
Good news! Someone in your life is undertaking a thru-hike. This person will be planning and attempting an enormous trek through the mountains, the upshot of which is, they’ll be unavailable for about three to seven months. You may have mixed feelings about that. You want to support them, of course, but how?
Below are listed the broad categories into which a well-wisher might fall. Please explore the options, then proceed for further guidance.
The Support System
Some thru-hikers choose to experience the trail with the assistance of a road crew. This style of hiking is referred to as “supported” thru-hiking. Behind every supported/semi-supported hike is a non-hiker (or many) undertaking a parallel adventure. This role requires commitment day and night, rain and shine. Typically, Support Systems drive the length of the trail in a van or RV, carrying supplies and doing the dirty work. The Support System should be prepared to plan in tandem with their thru-hiker; the ideal candidate will know the hiker intimately (parent, child, spouse, best friend) and be both reliable and endlessly patient. 46 Days: Keeping Up With Jennifer Pharr Davis On The Appalachian Trail is an account of the support experience, written by a former AT speed record holder’s husband/Pit Crew Chief. Whether or not a record is being attempted, this book will give aspiring Support Systems a glimpse of what’s in store.
The Point Person
A stationary Support System, the Point Person must have a flexible schedule; they should be available (even at distance) whenever their thru-hiker needs them. Point People may be asked to assemble and mail resupply boxes, plan/execute town logistics (i.e. lodging, ideal resupply location), communicate with angels and shuttles, research and buy gear, and all this without hiker input. A Point Person should be extremely familiar with backpacking. The ideal candidate will have already thru-hiked the long trail in question.
For a less involved alternative, see below.
The Personal Angel
In long trail culture, Trail Angels are the good souls that bring food, offer lodging or rides, and generally assist thru-hikers without asking anything in return. Similarly, a Personal Angel endeavors to make their specific thru-hiker’s experience more pleasant. They may agree to mail pre-assembled resupply or gear boxes. They may join the hiker for a tough (or fun) section. They may even send unexpected care packages (such as pound cake — Thanks, Mrs. Groce!). Personal Angels are free agents, showing love when, where, and how they choose. They can maintain their day-to-day lives while still being positively involved in the hike.
The Home Viewer
For those interested in the undertaking but unable to commit time or resources, the Home Viewer is a minimally involved support position. Home Viewers can be friends, family, or unaffiliated allies. Some buy maps of the trail and mark their hiker’s progress with pins, others contribute with encouraging Facebook or blog comments. This support role is emotional rather than physical, although some Home Viewers turn into Personal Angels with time (long trails have magnetic powers). A good Home Viewer is non-judgemental, and does their best to understand the culture and practice of thru-hiking before making comments to peers or the actual hiker.
And, lastly (but not leastly),
Budget thru-hikes are possible, but (contrary to popular wisdom) mo’ money, mo’ likelihood of finishing the trail. Whether or not your thru-hiker has asked for donations, a financial gift will certainly be helpful and appreciated. Consider taking up a pool at work or sponsoring your hiker at, say, $5.00 a state. Other options include buying an item of gear (hiker’s choice), a meal, or a night in town.
Before declaring a position, find out your thru-hiker’s needs. Hopefully, it goes without saying that you cannot be a Support System for an unsupported hike, and you should not agree to be a Point Person if you only have time to be a Home Viewer.
Most importantly, make sure you take a supportive role voluntarily. Your thru-hiker has set a personal goal, and it is not your responsibility to help them achieve it. They will likely appreciate any assistance you can offer, but if you feel your personal life will be hijacked by their ambitious undertaking, draw a firm line.
If you do agree to play an active role in a thru-hike, abandoning your post because it becomes inconvenient is not only unfair, it’s potentially dangerous. As with any voluntary position, you’re making a commitment with the knowledge that there is no tangible benefit to you. Before offering your services, understand what you’re agreeing to, and know yourself. For example, if you struggle to meet deadlines and tend to procrastinate, maybe don’t agree to mail resupply boxes. Your thru-hiker can find an alternative, and you can still be helpful in a different way.
If you have any further questions about how to be part of your hiker’s story, please defer directly to them. Every attempt is different, and its needs unique.
One universal piece of advice — If you really want to be helpful, get out there yourself. Take an overnight camping or multi-day backpacking trip; that way, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s about to happen.
And, hey —
Thanks. Your hiker can’t do it without you.
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