How to Optimize Your Research for a Thru-Hike
When I decided I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2018, I threw myself headfirst into researching every facet. I wanted to know everything I could to give myself the best possible chance of success, and vowed that if I needed to get off trail for some reason, it wouldn’t be because of a lack of preparation.
When I finished the trail after 98 days and later began reflecting on my experience, I thought about all the work I put in before departing for Springer Mountain and wondered whether it was all worth it. In many ways, I believe it was—but having the benefit of hindsight (and a good amount of time since I finished), I can now clearly see that I could have achieved similar results with a lot less front-end effort. That’s not to say the time was wasted, because I certainly enjoyed geeking out over gear choices and mail drops, but I’m sure I could have reduced some of my anxiety and likely some costs had I focused on the areas that have the greatest impact.
We are now in the throes of “thru-hiker prep season,” wherein most prospective sojourners are embarking on pre-hike inquisitions of their own and so I’d like to provide a few examples of how you can expedite your research and cut out the noise with a few decision points.
1. Try to Estimate Your Pace
Will this be a leisurely and social jaunt where you take each day as it comes? Or do you have a hard finish date, restricted timeline, or want to push yourself and need to focus on bigger miles? The more restraints you have on your journey, the more focused and thorough your research will need to be.
During my initial planning, I didn’t give any thought to my pace. I knew people usually hiked the AT in four to six months and that I could probably do it in that timeframe as well. Once I took a closer look at my schedule and did some thinking about how challenging I wanted this endeavor to be, I decided on a timeframe of 100 days. Once that was settled, the real planning could begin.
2. Don’t Avoid Research
For every “How to Prepare for Your Thru-Hike” blog post, there’s an equal amount of clamor to not plan at all and just wing it. My opinion is that anyone who recommends this is either lazy or misinformed. While the sheer breadth of conflicting and contradictory information available can make you want to pull your hair out or throw your hands up in despair, there is legitimately solid advice on the internet that can have a monumental impact on your hike.
As the old saying goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Don’t avoid doing any research at all just because it feels overwhelming at first. This is doubly true if you have time constraints.
3. Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Blogs and Forums
One of the first and natural things people do when starting to research for a thru-hike is to open Google and search for a question. Undoubtedly, you’ll be presented with dozens of pages of forum comments from sites like WhiteBlaze.net, blog posts from The Trek, and individual musings on personal blogs. Most of the time you can click on a couple links and have your answer lickety-split. It becomes a problem, however, when you start doing deep dives into the material makeup, philosophical practicality, ethical responsibility, and weight down to the closest gram of every conceivable item of gear that can suck up a considerable amount of time.
Forums and the comment section of blogs are a double-edged sword. They can be a place for useful, practical, and up-to-date advice as well as lively, constructive discussions, and they can also be a huge timesuck where you can spend endless amounts of time getting lost in useless anecdotes that don’t apply to your situation.
To cut out wasted time, limit your use of blogs and forums research on specific queries, such as “the best frameless packs for the Appalachian Trail” in order to limit the scope of information.
4. Find Mentors
When I first decided I wanted to thru-hike the AT in 100 days, I searched YouTube for fast thru-hikes and came across Follow Bigfoot‘s channel. He had just completed a 100-day thru-hike the prior year and documented not only each day on trail, but also commented on his gear, the terrain, and the best places to stay along the trail. I learned a TON from watching his videos which saved me hours of researching on my own while also scratching the itch of seeing some real trail footage before I set out myself.
Watching these videos can give you a good idea of the equipment, strategies, and fitness level you’ll need depending on your goals of the hike. For example, if you can’t decide what kind of tent or quilt to get, there are likely gear reviews from folks who used that piece on their thru-hike. That’s not to say you should simply copy the gear lists of other hikers, but it’s a great place to save time by getting common questions answered and obtaining real gear information.
Here are some YouTube channels I referenced for my 2018 hike and continue to check from time to time. They all have great information and are a good place to start your research.
5. Limit Your Gear Info, Then Buy Once, Cry Once
As with most other aspects of a thru-hike, gear is one area that can absorb your life. At some point, you just need to commit to your kit and forget the rest. There will always be gear improvements and new items that seem like they can make or break your experience. Your gear list will never be perfect, but rather than dwell on it (which entails more time spent researching the best price, more money spent, etc.), lean into the “imperfection” of your kit and remember how Grandma Gatewood thru-hiked with a sack on her shoulder and canvas sneakers.
Gear also tends to be the most expensive aspect of a thru-hike, and the costs can quickly get out of hand if you aren’t careful. That doesn’t mean you should outfit yourself in the cheapest items available, however. Instead of opting for a $100 tent that will likely fail during your hike, focus on obtaining time-tested, quality items recommended by your mentors and then look for the best possible price on these products via sales or the secondhand market. By doing this, I was able to whittle my costs down significantly, although it took a lot of time and effort. Looking back, I now know that you could get 80% of the results for 20% of the effort. Here are some real, actionable tips on how to limit the life-suck that is gear research:
- Once you figure out your timeline, think about your realistic budget and what you’re comfortable spending on gear. If you don’t have a set budget (I didn’t), focus on optimizing the Big Three items (pack, sleep system, and shelter) so that they fit with the conditions you will face and are the lightest options you can afford.
- Watch YouTube videos and read gear reviews from your curated list of mentors—people who recently hiked the trail in a fashion you’d like to replicate—considering the items they used and if/how they could work for you. Many of these content creators also go through “budget” versions of expensive gear to give you other ideas in case something is out of your price range.
- Search lwhiker.com to see if any of this gear is being sold secondhand by other hikers so you can both reduce your cost and environmental impact. Set up alerts to get notified if anyone posts the item(s) you’re looking for. Be sure to start this process several months in advance of your start date to be able to take advantage of off-season deals.
- If your desired items do not become available second-hand, consider purchasing them from a retailer such as REI that has a good return policy should anything go wrong.
- Test your kit to the best of your ability before you depart for your hike with overnight trips.
6. Don’t Obsess Over Mail Drops*
This is dependent on a few factors, such as the availability of towns and which trail you’re doing, but at least for the Appalachian Trail there are very few points where it makes sense to send a mail drop. I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth here, though, as I used mail drops almost exclusively during my thru-hike. While it worked out well for me for a variety of reasons (which I explain in great length in that post), it took A LOT of time and effort to put those boxes together. I would say I spent at least 80 hours sourcing, cooking, packing, and labeling my 15 boxes in addition to planning out my entire schedule to know where to send them.
The takeaway here is that unless you have an extremely restrictive diet, timeline, or otherwise cannot afford to spend much time in town (and also have a lot of time to kill beforehand), then resupply boxes usually aren’t worth the effort. If you are looking for an easy way to shed a lot of hand-wringing and labor, then skip them completely. I promise you will be alright.
*If it makes you feel less stressed read this article, which outlines five towns on the AT that have crappy resupply options and send yourself a box there.
7. Focus on Your Fitness
Instead of spending countless hours in front of a computer screen trying to perfect your LighterPack, you will be far better served by taking some time out of your day to prepare yourself mentally and physically for what’s ahead. You likely won’t be able to match a thru-hiker’s schedule of all-day exercise in your daily life, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything at all. While the trail will get you into shape eventually, you’ll make the transition much easier on yourself if you lay the groundwork ahead of time.
Unless you have no timeline whatsoever for your hike, I would not recommend leaving your fitness “to the trail,” as some hikers do. If completing a fast thru-hike (100 days or less), you should be able to walk at least 13 miles per day with your kit at the start in my opinion. This can be accomplished via a combination of running, weightlifting, and hiking in the preceding months.
All of this advice comes with the generic Hike Your Own Hike disclaimer. As you know by now, there is no right or wrong way to plan your thru-hike—if there was then there wouldn’t be entire websites and companies dedicated informing you about the subject.
Any thru-hike preparation you do will be an exploratory adventure in and of itself, and will likely be an iterative process. The gear you buy a year out will feel bulky and outdated by the time you’re two months away from your start date or you may find out that a certain pack or shirt doesn’t fit right and you’ll replace it. Everyone goes through this process, but by following the steps above you can significantly cut down your preparation time and focus your efforts on getting outside.
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