I’ve Decided I Want to Thru-Hike. Where Do I Begin?

You’ve done the research, you’ve weighed the pros and cons, you’ve talked with friends/family, and finally you’ve made the decision. You’re going to do a thru-hike. Now what? With infinite blogs, gear reviews, Facebook groups, books, and overall opinions, where do you begin to plan your epic journey? The first step is to take a deep breath and realize that all of your planning does not have to be completed in one day.

The prep work for a thru-hike at times can feel more challenging than the actual hike itself. Getting organized can help make the process easier. The more time you have to prep the better, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to complete your hike if let’s say you only have two months to get everything ready before setting foot on trail. It will just take some flexibility, but that is what thru-hiking is all about. Being able to adjust accordingly when things don’t go as planned. So if you, like so many others, are feeling overwhelmed with information overload here is a way to break down the planning process to help you have a successful hike:

Familiarize Yourself with the Trail

Start by getting to know the trail you will be hiking, and consider buying a guidebook such as Yogi’s books for the PCT and CDT. The AT Guide and The Thru-Hiker’s Companion are both recommended guidebooks for the AT. These books discuss everything from whether or not to filter your water to where to find your next shower in town. You can also start by visiting the official website associated with the trail you choose. Find the PCTA here, the CDTC here, and the ATC here


You’ve heard of the big three: your tent, sleeping bag, and pack. These will most likely be your most expensive purchases and will take the most consideration. A good place to start will be to check out the gear lists for the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Much of the gear that works on the PCT should work on the CDT, as the two trails both start in the desert for NOBOs, and involve multiple sections at high altitude where snow/ice can be expected. Check out YouTube for gear lists, reviews, and more

Keep in mind that the lighter your gear the easier your hike will be. This has led many thru-hikers to go toward ultralight, meaning their total base weight is around ten pounds or less, and opting for somewhere in the middle is a good place to start. Base weight is the sum of all gear minus food, water, toiletries, or clothing. If you’re looking to go ultralight, a lot of the best gear comes from cottage industry brands such as Zpacks, ULA Equipment, or Gossamer Gear. Larger companies also make great lightweight gear; smaller companies specialize in ultralight, and know what hikers want and need. It is important to recognize when purchasing from a smaller company that a lot of items are made to order and can take weeks (or months) to ship, so plan accordingly. A good way to keep track of your gear and its weight is by using LighterPack. This website allows you to categorize your gear, list weight, price, and select whether an item should be included in your base weight or not. If you are having trouble cutting down the weight of your gear check out this article. 

Remember to test your gear long before starting your thru-hike. Going on shorter backpacking trips or even wearing your shoes around town can help you get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. You don’t want to get stuck on trail with shoes that are too small, or a tent you don’t know how to set up. YouTube again can be a great resource in demonstrating how to use your gear.

Resupply Planning

Once you have a good headway on gear, you’ll want to start thinking about your resupply strategy. Figuring out when and where to resupply can be challenging, especially if you are unsure of exactly what kind of mileage you will be doing once you’re on trail. There are many articles out there on resupply strategy. For the PCT, start here. For the AT, start here. CDT resupply info can be found here. Trail-specific guide books will also provide information on resupplying.

After getting an idea of where and when you want to resupply the next step would be to decide whether you want to ship all of your boxes ahead of time, resupply completely in trail towns, or a combination of both. Spend some time researching the various trail towns to get an idea of whether you want to send a box ahead of time. Guthook is an additional resource for resupplies, with updated, crowdsourced information on what to expect from each town. The app is also an on-trail asset, as it acts as an offline GPS with information on camping, water, and trail conditions.

Most hikers do a combination of resupplying on trail and sending boxes. Those with dietary restrictions will have the biggest challenges resupplying on trail, so may require more boxes than normal. Whatever method you choose for resupplying, remember it is hard to predict what you will want to eat months from now, and oftentimes hikers ditch their preshipped food to resupply in town because they are sick of the things they have been sending. So it is a good idea to err on the side of less is more when planning your resupply.

Health Insurance and Storage Logistics

Most people who decide to thru-hike are making a major life change. Often this includes leaving behind a job, significant other, or kids while they trek across the the country for five to six months. Giving yourself time to tie up loose ends at home will help you relax on trail. If you must quit your job, make sure you have time to put in your notice, as many people find that their jobs will have a spot waiting for them when they return.

One of the first things to consider when leaving a job is health insurance. For those lucky ones under 26, most likely you will remain on your parents’ health insurance. For everyone else, options are out there. Travel insurance can be a great way to go if you do not live in one of the states you will be hiking through. Even if you do, you will just have to accept you won’t be covered in your home state. A lot of hikers opt for World Nomads insurance. It isn’t too expensive, and will cover you for any emergencies while hiking. In addition, if you choose to buy a GPS tracker to use while hiking these often come with optional additional coverage for rescues. Although these options will cover you to an extent, they do not meet the minimum requirements under the Affordable Care Act for health insurance and therefore you may still be subject to a fine if you do not maintain other coverage.

Another thing to keep in mind is what to do with all of your stuff. Some people choose to sell everything, others leave items in storage, and some just leave them the way they are. There is no right answer and this will come down to personal preference and what you foresee for your life after the trail. I found that determining the value of my items and whether they would be worth the price to store and keep them helped me make my decision. If you do decide to keep your things research various storage units and start comparing prices. If you have a car, make sure you have a place to store it and consider having a friend/family member start your car at least once a month to ensure the battery remains in good health.

Overall, let the planning aspect of your thru-hike be part of your entire experience rather than just the prequel. Accept that your journey starts now and that every moment from here on out is an opportunity to grow and learn about yourself. So accept the process and know that each day you’re one step closer to your goal.

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