Top 5 Training Hike Takeaways
I am thru-hiking the Long Trail this summer. It will mark my longest time on trail in both mileage and days. In preparing for this hike, I read about many folks who just hit the trail on their departure date without much physical or mental prep. They figure things out as they go and their bodies adjust along the way. My life circumstances are such that my time frame for this hike is limited. In order to thru-hike this trail, I’ll need to average 25+ miles a day from the start, which for me, means training and planning in advance.
COVID-19 Considerations (Safety First, Kids!)
I’ve also had to research and plan for the COVID-19 measures that I’ll need to abide by up to and during my thru-hike. The state of Vermont has several mandates on how out-of-state visitors may enter the state. These mandates vary based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the state from you which are traveling, your means of transportation (personal vehicle versus public transportation), and options for the length and location of mandatory quarantine coupled with a negative COVID-19 test result. I will complete a seven-day quarantine followed by a negative test in my home state and will travel via my personal vehicle. I will then complete the Certificate of Compliance as required by the state of Vermont. COVID-19 safety measures are frequently updated, so I’ll be checking the Green Mountain Club and Vermont official state websites regularly.
In addition to pre-hike planning for COVID-19 compliance measures, I will also be wearing and carrying masks while on trail, sleeping in my own tent, and observing social distancing at all times. I only plan to stop in two towns along the way to pick up my own mailed resupply boxes. This means I will be carrying more weight in food, but it will allow me to reduce contact and exposure to others. While shelters and privies are currently closed on the Long Trail and the AT in Vermont, the Long Trail passes through private, state, and federal lands, which all have their own camping mandates that need to be observed. The Green Mountain Club’s guide books (The Long Trail Guide and the End-to-Ender’s Guide) have been a valuable resource in that regard.
The Actual Training
This brings me to the physical aspect of preparing for my hike. To ready my body, I’ve taken several overnight backpacking trips and many long hikes over the past few weeks, aiming to get myself somewhat broken in for the terrain I’ll face in July. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d learn from each of these training hikes, ranging from the importance of nutrition on trail to what it means to Hike Your Own Hike. Here are the top 5 takeaways from my Long Trail training hikes.
1: What Gear I Actually Need and Want
I am fortunate to have a thru-hiking mentor*, a former AT thru-hiker with several other long hikes under his belt. He’s shared many of his resources with me, including his gear and kit spreadsheets. I referenced these and packed for my first overnight, feeling great!
What I learned: As extensive as these spreadsheets were, I still needed to tailor them for myself. I needed to think about packing things like bras and tampons (sorry boys), and knee and ankle braces. After spending the weekend on trail, I learned about my own gear preferences. Water bottles don’t work for me; I need a water bladder with a straw or else I won’t drink enough. Gaiters are a necessity for me because I get an ungodly amount of rubbish in my socks (how does that even happen?) that in turn gets into my blisters. I learned that I prefer camp shoes to camp sandals, a tent to a bivy, and an inflatable sleeping pad to an accordion sleeping mat. I also learned about some of the gear I didn’t know how to use, which brings me to lesson number 2.
*I highly recommend talking to a thru-hiker in prep for your own thru-hike. This has been the most invaluable resource.
2: How to Use My Tech Gear
Most hiking gear is pretty straightforward; your pack, water filtering system, stove, etc. When it came to the technological gear, I am grateful that I realized I didn’t know how to use it before I hit the Long Trail.
What I Learned: I needed to sit down and learn how to use Guthook, and I needed to make my Guthook routes in advance. Guthook is an amazing app but it was more involved than I could process on the go. I learned that even though I activated my SPOT device and got a service subscription, it still needed to be connected to a computer and updated before it would actually work. Having the device set on tracking mode didn’t work the way I had hoped. It’s best for me to manually send check-ins rather than banking on each 10 minute satellite ping actually making it through.
3: What I Eat and Drink on Trail
When packing my food that first time, I packed too much of what I thought I’d like and not enough of what I’d actually want to eat. I also saw how supplements work for me.
What I learned: Don’t underestimate the power of hydration coupled with electrolyte and caffeine supplements. Because I had my water bladder and straw, I sipped electrolyte/caffeine-fortified water throughout the day and felt a constant stream of energy. This was in stark contrast to my first trip where I found it annoying to stop and maneuver my pack for water. My mouth wanted salty food so all the sugary GUs and bars I packed were unappetizing. Since salty foods tend to be bulkier, I changed my choice of fanny pack. Greenbelly bars are awesome and something I didn’t think I’d like. Nutrition and hydration can have a huge impact on a hike. I am glad I learned what worked before being on the Long Trail stuck with what I thought I’d like.
3: Blisters, Pack Weight, and Calluses… Oh My!
As part of my training, I trail run or hike about 30 miles during the workweek before heading out for long hikes on the weekends. I figured my feet would get used to my sneakers and a good amount of mileage, and I’d be golden.
What I learned: Running and hiking without a pack is a different beast for my feet than with a pack. Hiking with 24 pounds strapped to my back for the first time meant my feet were in for a rude awakening. I had blisters eight miles into my 26-mile day, and then got to walk 26 miles back to my car on those blisters the next day. Since then, I’ve tailored my weekday trail time to be that of the packed-hike variety rather than trail runs, and that switch has made the biggest difference. My legs are stronger from carrying that weight and my feet have blistered and callused enough times now that on my recent 32-mile day on the AT, my feet were in pretty good shape.
4: Listen to Your Body
A big focus of my training has been on distance since I’ll need to hit that 25+ mile average mark from day one.
What I learned: Listening to my body when it’s telling me to stop, is important. When shooting for a 30-mile day, I was having difficulty getting one foot in front of the other toward the end. I felt my reflexes going; tripping, stumbling, and rolling my ankles with every other step. As someone with sensitive knees and a recently healed sprained ankle, I need to pay careful attention to foot placement. I stopped at mile 26; it felt irresponsible to push my body further when it was clearly telling me it needed rest. There was no reason to risk ending my Long Trail thru-hike before it began with an easily avoidable injury. We are much more prone to injury when we’re pushing through exhaustion. If your body is saying stop, listen to it.
5: Hike Your Own Hike
This is a common phrase on trail and it really ties everything I’ve learned together.
What I learned: I needed to see firsthand what worked for me and my body. My mentor is a treasure chest of knowledge and know-how, but what worked for him isn’t necessarily going to be exactly what works for me. No matter how experienced your mentor or whose book you’re reading, what you need and want, and how you’re going to hike, will be individual to you. Having those resources has been invaluable. Applying them on trail and seeing how I needed to tailor my gear, food, and mileage to fit my needs has been paramount.
My training hikes have made me strong, callused (literally), and knowledgeable; and have helped me mentally and physically prepare for the Long Trail. I chose to train because of the time constraints I’ll face on trail; but Hiking Your Own Hike also means training, or not training, the way that you see fit (COVID-19 compliance measures, aside). I can imagine that learning about what works and doesn’t while actually on a thru-hike is a meaningful experience of its own. Whichever path you choose, I hope these training hike takeaways are helpful on your journey. Happy trails.
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