Am I Prepared for Thru-Hike Number Two?
I have a very cute little countdown on my phone that reminds me every morning how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds are left until I depart on the Pacific Crest Trail. The permits have been successfully obtained and the reassurances to family members have been made that no, I will be just fine without a gun; no, I’m not “doing Wild (she didn’t do a thru-hike and goodness that is such an old reference at this point).” However, if I could visually represent how much I have left to do and how much it is weighing on me, it’d look something like a 250-liter pack with shoulder straps and a hip belt lined with thumbtacks.
Planning a second thru-hike is an entirely different animal. It is weird to actually know what I am getting into and to have a good grip on what sorts of gear and preparation I need for a couple thousand miles of backpacking, instead of just a vague idea gleaned from other people’s blog posts. It is weirder still to go through the motions of excitement and fear pre-hike knowing not exactly what circumstances will occur but exactly what sort of physical and mental trial I am in for out there.
So how does a previous thru-hiker prepare for a thru-hike?
If you search for answers to “how to train for a thru-hike,” you will ultimately come across two answers: people telling you to put on a very heavy pack and get walking on a treadmill with the steepest incline possible, and people telling you that there is no way to train for a thru-hike except to hike. First of all, goodness I wish hiking was as simple as walking straight up a smooth path like that inclined treadmill. Second of all, I’m willing to bet 85% of people who read that advice won’t follow it, because your local gym has enough human oddities and you likely prefer not to be Wednesday oddity #68 with your red face and overloaded backpack on a treadmill next to another person who appears, at first glance, to be far more in possession of their faculties than you.
You would not believe me if you’d watched me wheezing my asthmatic, still-recovering-from-an-injury way up Springer Mountain in 2017, but I promise you that the level of cardio capability necessary for a thru-hike is pretty minimal. My experience is entirely anecdotal, but my hiking ability is infinitely better when I am doing heavy weight-based workouts, and it ultimately make sense. What is backpacking if not thousands and thousands of lunges and squats with at least 30 pounds on your back? Weight lifting and compound movements can help improve those muscular imbalances and support structures, and prevent the aches and pains in knees, hips, and backs famous to thru-hikers and their subsequent relation overuse injuries. I am eating a lot of protein and not skimping on those IPAs, either, because a few extra pounds definitely aren’t going to hurt.
My pre-hike workout plan:
Monday: Day A/B Lifting (alternating)
Tuesday: 45 – 60 minutes cardio
Wednesday: Day A/B Lifting (alternating)
Thursday: 45 – 60 minutes cardio
Friday: Day A/B Lifting (alternating)
Sat/Sun: Any combination of hiking that I can muster between my available time and the weather, either a couple of miles with the dogs or a snowshoe adventure in the Whites. We’ve gone so far as to climb the highest peak in Costa Rica. Have you ever gone to a tropical paradise just to find the only place there that’s fucking freezing? Yeah, me either…
3 mins walking, 7 – 10 mins light jog on the treadmill, 3 mins walking
3 x 30 – 60s planks
3 x 15 – 20s side planks each side
3 x 15 – 20 banded glute bridges
Pigeon pose variationsKneeling hip flexor stretch
4 sets x 4 reps barbell squat
4 sets x 4 reps overhead press
3 sets x 10 -12 reps barbell rows
3 sets x 10 reps (each leg) weighted lunges
3 x 5 deadlift
4 x 4 bench press
3 x 10 – 12 lat pulldown
3 x 10 – 20 (each leg) step ups
I don’t have an exact science for adding weight to my lifts with this plan, as strength itself isn’t my goal. Typically, I can add five pounds to upper body lifts and ten pounds to lower body lifts after two workouts at the same weight. If I fail a set, I repeat the previously successful lower weight.
Disclaimer: This program is simply based on my own experience lifting and hiking over the past few years. I have no professional education and consulting a trainer or medical health professional is always recommended when beginning a new exercise program.
Gear and Resupply Preparation
I live in an adorable camper with a little kitchenette and a couch that the dogs have desecrated, and the entire floor is strewn full of gear. And so is the compartment under our bed, and the compartment under the dining benches, and most of the bunk room-turned-closet. My browser history is a disgusting hodgepodge of discount gear sites and gear reviews. I’ve googled “grams to ounces” so many times that it pops up the instant I type “g” into the search bar. I’ve made financial mistakes at REI garage sales and am the proud owner of far more tents than I have bodies to put in them. I know better than ever what I want from my gear and from my food while living on trail. I know that new preferences will appear, but I can buy my gear now not based on the recommendations of Reddit couch-hikers but from my own needs. In many ways, this is far more daunting than just buying off a list of “top three.” I will say this: clothing and food have been a big focus of my new purchases and planning for the PCT. Better, lighter clothing and more variety and fiber are my mantras for this venture northbound, and both gear and resupply deserve their own posts. I promise I will do them due justice before I leave.
Our captain on this ship of crazies, Zach Davis, said it best in his pivotal book, Appalachian Trials: a thru-hike is overwhelmingly a mental challenge, far more than it is a physical one.
The Appalachian Trail was over 2,000 miles of mysticism to me before I set foot on it in 2017. I had no idea what that winding, rocky trail had in store for me, or for anybody who traversed it and the many states along its route. I didn’t set out on Springer Mountain in a completely alien environment — I had backpacked more than your average wanna-be-thru-hiker — but no amount of internet scouring and blog reading could’ve actually taught me what a thru-hike was. I didn’t know that on Springer Mountain, but I was bombarded by that truth hundreds of times between Georgia and Maine. So what do I do now? How am I supposed to feel now that I am setting out on a second thru-hike? I learned enough out there the last time to know that I cannot really expect anything, that this hike will absolutely be its own adventure as every step out on trail is. I guess even in that way, though, I know what to expect.
There was a moment, at Cow Camp Gap Shelter in Virginia, when I truly grappled with wanting to quit, to pack up my shit and hike to the nearest road and get the quickest possible form of transport back to a home where things were predictable and I was always a roughly comfortable temperature. Let me reiterate that: there were hundreds of times before where I had thought about quitting, but I had never wanted to quit before, with 110% of my soul. And I cried and I wondered if this was something I actually wanted to do. I was stuck in a weird gap in the hiker bubble; I had seen no other people for three days, and my trail family had gotten well ahead of me. And my anxious, lonely mind constantly chastised me because they were probably hiking in this rain, putting more miles between us, more miles between myself and the small sense of safety and community that I had out there. I was hunkered down in my tent and I stayed there, opting not to hike in a cold deluge from dark gray clouds because I knew if I did it’d be that final, heavy straw that broke this very tired camel’s back.
Spoiler alert: I made it to Maine, eventually. The trail always provides, and eventually it did for me, too. My trail family got rip-roaring drunk and subsequently hungover at a brewery just off trail, and I caught up to them in a few days. That first moment of truly wanting to quit, from the deep, dark depths of my soul (and my aching, bruised soles) was a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. That day spent in my tent under the relentless roaring of icy rain was, for lack of a better descriptor, a spiritual experience. That day, I chose not to quit. Many people decide to honor those voices demanding they quit; it’s part of why the completion rate for a thru-hike is under 25%. I fought with myself many more times, but I never wanted to get off that godforsaken, muddy, rocky path through the woods quite like that ever again, despite horrible heat and rain and a broken foot and having absolutely no energy when I tried to carry less food to lighten my load a bit (I never said I was a brilliant one).
For almost the entire Appalachian Trail, my biggest fear was not bears, or snakes, or sleeping alone in the forest, or hitchhiking, or even the risk of injury. It was a fear of wanting to quit. I was terrified I would hit a breaking point, and there was a voice in my head that insisted that if I did hit that point, all of those steps and miles that I had put in would be for naught. Would it be in the Smokies, with the first true winter backpacking I’d ever encounter? Would it be in the hot, cornfield-filled Pennsylvania, when I’d walked so many miles and was still so far from the end? Would it be in the White Mountains, so close to the end but with so many massive, slippery, cold stones between me and that finish line? Despite all of the fear-mongering I did for myself, I never hit that breaking point. I never even got close to it, and I certainly never got within visual distance again after that moment at Cow Camp Gap.
I am no longer afraid of wanting to quit, because I know I will have two choices: to get over it, or to get off trail, and spending those miles worried about that choice seems pointless now. I know, though, that I can complete a thru-hike now, even when my mind and body are thoroughly fed up. I know that walking 2,000-some miles through heat and cold and rain and sun is a feat that I am absolutely capable of. I know, too, how to confront my mental demons when they raise their ugly heads with voices full to the brim with uncertainty and fear. So what should I be afraid of? What am I afraid of?
Maybe I still am afraid of wanting to quit, sort of. While I am no longer afraid of having to make the decision to quit or not to quit, but I am afraid of waking up after a week of bad days and realizing I’ve decided on a loud and resounding defeat. I am afraid of what comes after that. I am a thru-hiker, I am not a wannabe hoping to have that title to my name someday. What sort of thru-hiker will I be if I cannot find the mental or physical fortitude to do it twice? It would be silly, too, to pretend I don’t have dreams of completing the Triple Crown when I’m a few rum drinks into a lazy Saturday night. Perhaps I’ll end up having my heart and soul tied so deeply into Appalachia that those remote and wild western peaks won’t be able to sweep my heart far enough away to balance out the blisters and chafing and knee pain. How positively devastating it would be to wake up somewhere in California and realize that those Triple Crown dreams have gotten up and hiked away of their own accord.
It is entirely possible, too, that an even more valid reason than “this shit is hard” will sneak up on me (or barge very angrily through the door), and I won’t know how to deal with it. Maybe I just won’t hike fast enough. I got that happy, exciting acceptance letter in my inbox, reminding me that I get to sell my soul to graduate school for five to seven years and add “Dr.” to my name afterward, but I now have a date by which I have to be regularly showering and living somewhere other than a tent. I also have short legs that top out at 3.5 mph if I’m really, really encouraging them to move.
The biggest, angry, looming demon is an injury. I was worried about injuries on the AT, but I wasn’t really worried. I had nearly unlimited time to finish my hike, and even with most of the trail done I was wildly naive to just how difficult it was and how much damage it did to my body. It took slipping and falling, twisting arms and legs and ankles, and hyperextending my knee a couple dozen times while taking steps that should’ve been simple and easy before I realized just how quickly I could be another search and rescue story. Truthfully, it took a stress fracture of my foot in Maine that threatened to derail my hike less than 150 miles from the end, 150 miles that I hobbled through. Had it been 1,500 miles, I might not have found the wherewithal to keep grinding on that angry foot. It has begun to seem insurmountable easy to shear the tendons in my knee or to land just right and hear my ankle crunch. I will not have the time to take two weeks off for minor overuse injuries and still be able to finish the trail, and I certainly don’t have the time to take off for a fracture or more severe injury. An injury not only seems so much more possible and more impossible to predict, but it also will now mean the end of my thru-hike attempt this year because of the deadline I have.
Once again, my experience thru-hiking reminds me of a truth I learned in those green tunnels: you absolutely should plan for the bad days and the shitty things on trail, but you must also be flexible. You should consider as many contingencies as you can, and be amenable when things happen all out of order and reality refuses to fit any of the contingency plans you’ve designed. I will either get out there and choose to quit, or choose to walk to Canada. I will either walk fast enough to get to Canada on time, or I won’t. I will have to live with these realities as they happen, and the best preparation I can give myself is knowing that I will deal with wanting to quit. I will deal with having to make decisions based around timing and my deadline; maybe I will have to flip past the Sierra to avoid a snow-based pinch on my daily mileage or push myself through some crazy days in known “easy” sections to reclaim some miles. I will face my own set of challenges on this hike, and I will face them with a rational mind fueled by enough snacks to remain rational, pump up playlists and podcasts for the crappier miles, and all the wisdom those previous miles gave me.
There were many things I missed while hiking the Appalachian Trail, and there are many more things I miss about the trail now that I am living life as a productive member of society. In the time that I have left, it is very important to me that I embrace those things I will be doing without for a while: my dogs, easy nights treating stress with Netflix or video game marathons, soft cotton T-shirts, the smell of the horse barn, and the feeling of riding a floaty, motivated trot, driving, the little state park down the road from my parents’ house and the lovely back roads that guide you there. I’ve been taking the dogs to that park as often as I can, I’ve been taking Sunday drives with my morning coffee (the only day I let myself put cream and sugar in it), I’ve been riding my old horse bareback through the snowdrifts that have gathered in our arena.
It is even more important to me to stockpile reminders of the best parts of living on a trail, constantly moving somewhere new. The world is a smoother, happier place at two to three miles per hour. There are no constant dings from my phone reminding me that I owe someone something, a response or a confirmation of a meeting or an attached PDF. I have never experienced a better morning than waking up by sunrise light filtering through my cozy tent, rolling over to make my hearty, chocolate-y breakfast shake and reading a few more pages before breaking camp down and moving out to a new landscape, new tent site, new day (whether it is a good one or a horrible one). And there is simply nothing like a vista after an arduous climb that turned your ankle a dozen times and made you question your own sanity for enjoying this hiking — except, of course, that final marker that says “congratulations, you’ve made it to the end.”
Am I ready to get on that plane to San Diego? I have five pairs of Brooks Cascadia 12s in my closet, so you tell me. You can follow me over on Instagram (@tasiadrew) for some smaller updates, my little hikes before I leave, and for regular posts of me crying from a trailside somewhere in California when my hike starts in less than three weeks.
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