Peg Leg’s Top Advice for Thru-Hikers After Trekking 5,500 Miles in 1 Year

Setting out onto a thru-hike is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Some people spend a decade or more of their lives planning for a hike along a national scenic trail. Even after reading all of the books and planning as much as possible, it’s still almost impossible to be entirely prepared.

The only way to truly prepare for a thru-hike is by actually getting out there and thru-hiking. Along your journey, you will learn everything that you need to know.

Last year I had the honor of completing the entire Eastern Continental Trail (ECT), which stretches 5,500+ miles from Newfoundland, Canada to Key West, Florida. It may not have been my first thru-hike, but it was the longest hike that I had ever embarked on.

My long journey reinforced some very valuable thru-hiking advice that I would like to share with you now.

My 6 Biggest Pieces of Advice After Hiking 5,500 Miles in 1 Year

1. Avoid Injury Early On

“Sometimes just as soon as you link up with someone new, it seems like you are being pulled apart for some reason. That is one of the sad but defining aspects of long-distance hiking.”

Whether you are walking 100 miles or 5,500 miles, injury is very common. However, there are many easy ways to reduce your risk of injury during a thru-hike, such as stretching and taking care to stay hydrated. When you first set out, it is important to remember to start slow, or at least at your own pace.

It’s easy to get caught up with other hikers and try to maintain their pace. But if you are walking faster or further than your body wants to go, then it is going to lead to problems.

When I set out to hike the PCT in 2022, I wound up doing a flip-flop hike. That means that I jumped around a bit on the trail, rather than starting at the northern or southern and walking straight through. When I was hiking in northern California, I was surrounded by seasoned hikers.

Most hikers had well over 1000 miles on their legs, while I was just starting out. I tried to keep up, but in doing so, I caused a pretty major injury to flare up. If I had just gone slower and listened to body, I might have been able to avoid injury all together.

When you try to push through injury in order to avoid time off of trail, you generally wind up having to take even more time off trail later on.

The day this photo was taken I was having some major shin pain. I remember being so worried about sticking with my tramily. But the most important thing is focusing on your health.

It can be very tempting along thru-hikes to keep up with other hikers. You meet some of the most amazing people backpacking. Sometimes just as soon as you link up with someone new, it seems like you are being pulled apart for some reason.

That is one of the sad but defining aspects of long-distance hiking. You never know how much time you will have to spend with new friends. So make the most of the time you have, but don’t force it. If you hike at a different pace than someone, then you most likely shouldn’t be hiking together long term.

And if you get injured early on, you won’t be able to make any new memories with the endless stream exciting new people you’d otherwise meet on trail. Listen to your body, start slow, and take time to rest and stretch.

2. Give Yourself as Much Time as Possible

Set aside as much time as possible for your thru-hike. Much like avoiding injury, this is another great strategy to avoid missing out on experiences.

Of course, time is a luxury. Some individuals may only get so much time away from work or other obligations. For international hikers, there may be limitations with your visa and how much time you are able to spend in a particular country.

But when possible, overestimate how much time the trail will take. I would much rather be able to hike slow and enjoy my time on trail than have to rush. Trust me — I speak from experience, having felt rushed many times during my various thru-hikes.

This was often true when I was on the Appalachian Trail in 2023, for instance. I had set aside plenty of time to hike, but I was racing against another clock. Winter was closing in on northern Canada, and by the time I got through the Whites in New Hampshire, I could no longer afford extra rest days if I wanted to beat the snow to the northern terminus.

Depending on where you are hiking and the time of year, you may be limited by weather windows and hunting seasons. There was more than one occasion up north when I wanted to take a day off. It would have been great to relax in town with other hikers, enjoy myself, and allow my body to rest. But because of my own timetable,  I couldn’t.

Never once did I regret taking a nero or a zero along trail. The only things I regretted were the times when I didn’t allot myself that day off.

Waking up early to watch the sunrise from a fire tower that I had slept in the night before. One of the best morning I had along the entire Appalachian trail.

You are going to meet some of exceptional humans along your thru-hike. When the opportunity arises to share an impromptu day off, go on a sidequest, or whatever it may be, take it! Those are the moments that you are going to remember forever. Give yourself the time to allow for such experiences if possible.

It’s too easy to focus all of your energy on hiking. Your day-to-day life becomes centered on getting from one point to the other. But it is important to remember to slow down now and then.

Go for a swim in the lake or pond that you stumbled upon. Take the offer from the trail angel to spend an extra day at their home. This leads into my next important note on thru-hiking.

Completing the biggest state, VA, in the middle of the night! My tramily and I took a side quest to grab dinner, but still hiked out through the night.

3. Go With the Flow

“Some people find peace in planning and feeling prepared. But on trail, you have to learn to roll with the punches.”

A lot of preparation goes into a thru-hike. There are countless hours of planning involved, especially depending on how long you planned for your trip. Depending on the trail that you are hiking it may be essential to plan in detail. Some trails require more logistics for safety and weather than others.

You may need to pack resupply boxes depending on the section of trail you are on, or your dietary and medical requirements. But I cannot stress enough that whenever it is possible, do not over plan your hike! On a trail like the AT, I would recommend simply planning from resupply to resupply.

Some people find peace in planning and feeling prepared. But on trail, you have to learn to roll with the punches. Planning to much of your daily and weekly schedule can make it hard to have impromptu experiences.

If I could only give one piece of advice for an entire thru-hike, it would be to embrace the phrase “go with the flow.” This should and will become your mantra — not just when it comes to planning and resupply strategy, but also when it comes to all incidents that happen along trail.

You will face gear failures and other unexpected obstacles. It is important to be prepared for those challenges, but also not to be afraid of them. They are an aspect of thru-hiking just like everything else.

When those moments arise, the only thing that you have control over is how they make you feel. It’s easy to get angry, stressed, or fearful when a crucial piece of your gear fails. The most important thing to remember, though, is that in time the situation will get sorted out.

On the AT in 2023, my shoes failed me when I was 40+ miles from being able to pick up a fresh pair. There were holes in the heels and a piece of plastic was cutting my feet with every step. But then I found a pair of shoes in a hiker box! They were two sizes too big, but I made the most of it for the remaining 44 or so miles.

Whatever situation you are in is going to work out. The outcome may not be exactly what you’d want, but that’s OK. Whether that means getting help from a gear shop owner, a ride to a random town from a trail angel, or being uncomfortable for a couple days before new gear arrives, it’s all part of the adventure.

There is a reason that everyone totes the manta “the trail provides,” and that’s because it does. The more flexible you become and the more you allow things to simply roll off you, the better.

Men’s hiking shoes that I found in a hiker box at Boots Off Hostel. My current shoes had such big holes in then that they had actually cut the heels of my feet.

4. Break the Hike Up in Your Mind

The idea of hiking 2,200 miles or more is truly too daunting of a task for many people. I’ve met countless people who told me there is no way that they could complete a thru-hike. But I think something that a lot of thru-hikers don’t mention is that while their ultimate goal may be to hike thousands of miles, that is not their daily goal.

I got through my 5,500 mile thru-hike by breaking the journey up into bite-size pieces in my mind. I wasn’t thinking about the big picture every day. Instead, I thought only about my hike from one resupply to the next. When I got to town, I packed out enough food to get to the next town. Then I did that again, and again, and again.

Depending on the trail that you are hiking, you could think about the trail one map section at a time, or one state at a time. That’s also something that I did while hiking across 16 states and 5 provinces along the Eastern Continental Trail. Identifying milestones along the way gave me shorter-term goals to look forward to as I inched my way up the trail.

Don’t get bogged down by the big picture. The idea of hiking 2,200 or 5,500 miles is incredibly daunting. But most experienced thru-hikers will tell you that they simply get up and hike every day. You can only take the trail one day at a time.

Hitching into a town off the Appalachian trail to get five guys.

5. Take Care of Your Body

A long-distance hike is going to challenge your mind and body in ways that you have never experienced. While it is important to do what you can to prevent physical injuries, that is not the only way to take care of yourself on trail.

Fueling your body is going to be one of the most important aspects of your hike. Sure, many people place an emphasis on getting nutrients in and eating healthy. But it’s equally important to get in as many calories as your body needs.

While I was hiking along the Florida Trail towards the end of my ECT hike, I lost my appetite entirely. That’s something that I had experienced multiple times on trail before. Sometimes your appetite will be off the charts and you can easily take in 3,000-5,000 calories in a day. Other times you might struggle to put down even 1000 calories. When you have an appetite and are surrounded by food options, take advantage!

An incredible salad that another hiker, Sugar, made for me at Neel Gap on the AT.

If you are struggling with your appetite and don’t know how to intake enough calories, then get creative! Food doesn’t have to be miserable.

After thousands of miles, I burnt out on eating bars, tuna, jerky, trail mix, and basically everything. The only thing I had an appetite for was town food. So I began packing out ingredients to make sandwiches on the trail or packing out those bagged salads and other “real” foods. Fueling your body is going to keep you hiking.

Packing out sandwich ingredients in the White Mountain

Another simple component of taking care of yourself is being sure you have the right gear, especially early on.

Shoes are the prime example of this. Many hikers start their thru-hikes wearing the wrong type of footwear or the wrong size. It’s incredibly common for your feet to swell a half size or more on a thru-hike.

You need to be sure to have the right footwear. But you also need to know to switch your footwear out periodically. On my first thru-hike, no one told me this! I wore my first pair of Topo Terraventures for almost 1200 miles, thinking I was pretty cool. But in reality my shoes were worn down and no longer providing the support that I needed.

That could cause a variety of injuries along a long hike. I’ve also met hikers who choose to lighten their load by going without an inflatable sleeping pad. Personally I need an inflatable pad or else I wind up with hip and knee injuries.

6. Stay Positive

“My secret weapon was that I found humor in the darkest, most miserable moments.”

On your thru-hike you will experience some of the highest highs and lowest lows of your life. If you have never backpacked before, then it is likely that you will be tested in ways that you could never have imagined. When preparing for a thru-hike, many people emphasize the importance of preparing physically.

But after hiking almost 10,000 miles along national scenic trails in the USA and Canada, I can say that thru-hiking is much more of a mental challenge than physical.

There will be days that you are unbelievably uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than you even thought was possible. You might be burning hot and low on water or walking through the freezing cold wind and rain while worrying about hypothermia.

When I was hiking up in Canada, I was dealing with a lot of injury, as well as some really tough weather conditions. Around that same time, I had my inflatable sleeping pad explode one night. For days I was sleeping on the cold, hard ground in October in northern Canada. However, I was fortunate enough to know from experience that things would get better.

When I was only 300 miles into the ECT, I wound up in the hospital. At the time I was so upset, but I had to listen to my body.

The only thing that you have control of while thru-hiking is how certain experiences make you feel.

My secret weapon while thru-hiking was that I found the humor in the darkest, most miserable moments. When the going got tough, it was sure to make me crack up laughing. What could be more hilarious than a half dozen horrible things all happening to you at the same time?

Its easy to get angry and negative. When you do that, it makes the situation so much worse. Because now not only is something bad happening, but you also feel badly about it.

Your mind is your most powerful tool, and you can use it to your advantage when the going gets tough. There are going to be bad days. It would be dishonest of me to tell you that your thru-hike will be all sunshine and rainbows. Much of the time it will be, but not always!

If you can find a way to take your bad days with grace and a smile, then you can stay on trail and see your journey through to the end. Try to remember what brought you out on the trail in the first place.

Featured image: Peg Leg photo; Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 15

  • Dee : Apr 3rd

    Pegleg
    I really enjoyed following you last year on the Trek while you completed your hike. You definitely inspired me, and I’ll be on the AT in Sept. 2024 for a LASH (long ass section hike). Lots of good advice in this post, as since my time is limited I think I would have pushed the miles, but you got me thinking about the importance of enjoying the journey along the way as well.

    Reply
  • None Given : Apr 3rd

    Peg Leg, I was thinking of you this morning! I was making hiking plans and thought of emailing you (later) to see if you wanted to join me for a day hike.
    I completely agree with everything you wrote! The correct shoes would have saved me a lot of pain, and I’d probably be out there still if I had the right shoes to start with. The feet control so much of the body, keep them happy, and they will take you anywhere. (LOL, Forrest).
    Dori: just keep going, just keep going.
    I could have sworn I just passed that tree! Am I walking in circles?
    The freedom that your mind has when you are out there walking is so relaxing. Trying to explain that feeling and the release of the other pressures of life is almost impossible to explain to a non-hiker.
    Peg Leg, I was excited to see your post! I hope everything is going great for you! You are an amazing young lady and an inspiration to many! Thank you!

    Reply
  • Mom : Apr 3rd

    You are truly an inspiration Peg Leg !!! I remember when you pitched your tent and slept in the backyard in prep for your first thru hike on the PCT. Way back then you surely would have benefited from a post like this, the truths from someone who knows, who’s hiked the hike. You are an extraordinary young woman and I’m honored to be your mom 🥰 Keep shining brightly and doing what you love ❤️ I love you dearly ❤️ mom ❤️

    Reply
    • Lish : Apr 5th

      Your kid has left a mark on my heart that I greatly appreciate. Well done mom for raising such a kind badass.

      Reply
  • Grannyhiker : Apr 3rd

    I enjoyed following your epic 2023 hike. Are you still planning the CDT for 2024?

    Reply
  • Carole Hall : Apr 3rd

    Peg Leg! It’s really nice to hear from you. I’ve missed your posts. Hope you’re well and thinking about your next adventure.

    Reply
  • Jeff Greene : Apr 3rd

    I’m 55 and never done anything as epic as your hike, but I’ve always lived by the motto, “the worse things are now, the better the stories will be later,” and I appear to have successfully passed that on to my own kids, so I appreciated your #6 the most!

    Reply
  • Richard Warner : Apr 4th

    Good to hear about you again was interesting flowing you last year

    Reply
  • Frank Hawkeye Shirley : Apr 4th

    You writing is so clear and honest with great experienced advice. I have thought about thru hiking for years but have not had the time to try because of family life and family issues and life threating illnesses. But want to thank you for allowing me to experience your hiking the ECT. I followed all your ECT blog post.

    Thanks Francoise don’t call me Shirley

    Reply
  • Frank Hawkeye Shirley : Apr 4th

    Your writing is so clear and honest with great experienced advice. I have thought about thru hiking for years but have not had the time to try because of family life and family issues and life threating illnesses. But want to thank you for allowing me to experience your hiking the ECT. I followed all your ECT blog post.

    Thanks Francoise don’t call me Shirley

    Reply
  • Old Man Paul : Apr 4th

    I miss your posts.
    You’re a tough woman.
    I look at some rookies posts…and laugh.
    If they only knew what awaits….
    It’s been a rough winter.
    Dog died. Best friend died from pneumonia.
    Now, Hobo Shoestring is missing.
    I was wondering how you were doing.
    God Bless you real good.
    Maintain vertical.

    Reply
    • Lish : Apr 5th

      So sorry for your losses and hope your missing returns. I too miss her posts. Hope your year becomes less rough.

      Reply
  • Jim : Apr 5th

    I too loved following your ECT journey and found myself looking forward to your posts . Fortunately, your hike was very long, so there were lots of posts! I remember you writing almost every post about stretching and you seemed to be pretty religious about it. You briefly mentioned stretching in this post, but I wondered how important you think it was for you. I know that if I ever do a thru hike, that I’ll be stretching every day because that’s what Peg Leg did!

    Reply
  • Lish : Apr 5th

    It was so amazing to see your post. I seriously went through detox missing your chronicling. Your writing really touches so many due to the authenticity and caliber. I’ve been trying the new kids’ blogs but can’t find anyone that has your panache. Apparently because there can be only one Peg Leg. So hope mundane life is still being magical for you! Thank again for showing me a piece of the world I needed to explore from my living room.I hosted Bounce and Segway for a night in 2012 so I truly have had the best the AT offers vicariously. May your year be filled with magical adventures!

    Reply
  • Rushmore : Apr 5th

    Great post, Peg Leg!!

    Reply

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