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The Lure of a Long Trail: Planning a Thru-Hike (Part 1 of 4)

October 25, 2009

View of Washington’s Mount Rainier from the PCT, Snowgrass Flat, Goat Rocks Wilderness. (Photo by Kristen Isakson, courtesy of PCTA)

Are you considering or planning a thru-hike for next year (or even just for “some day”)? Sorting through a deluge of advice and wondering which to pay attention to? Successful backpackers can tell you what really matters.

Thousands of people set out every spring to hike one of America’s long trails, such as the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they anticipate spending the next five or six months traipsing through woods and over mountains, earning bragging rights that will last them all their lives.

Come autumn, only a relative handful of these eager souls will finish the trail. The rest will drop out along the way.


What makes the difference?

Answers to that question from hardcore backpackers and successful thru-hikers vary widely. What works best in terms of physical training or gear choices is very individual. Even then success isn’t assured for anyone: even the best-prepared backpacker’s plans can be thwarted by a stress fracture or an early-season snowstorm. But Triple Crown hikers — those who have completed all three of those long trails — generally agree on certain characteristics essential to success, especially preparation, perseverance, and flexibility

Those are also the keys to enjoying shorter trails, such as the 211-mile John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada, the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in California and Nevada, and the 273-mile Long Trail in Vermont, the oldest long-distance footpath in the United States. All are terrific ways to prepare for a longer trek.

The 2,178-mile AT is the most popular of the long trails. (Image courtesy of ATC)

By now, people planning to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), or Continental Divide Trail (CDT) next year should be deep in the preparation stage. The first choice, of course, is: which trail?

  • The Appalachian Trail, running 2,178 miles from Georgia to Maine, is by far the best known and the most popular. With its white blazes marking the trail, shelters every several miles, and easy access to roads and towns, the AT annually attracts well over a thousand wannabe thru-hikers … who quickly discover just how challenging it really is. Typically, around one in four make it the whole way.
  • Only about 300 thru-hikers tackle the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail each year, partly because it appears much more daunting. PCT thru-hikers begin their walk in the hot, dry desert at the California-Mexico border and climb through a succession of High Sierra passes, many exceeding 10,000 feet, before pushing through the Northwest’s stormy weather on their way to Canada. Roughly 60 percent finish.
  • Few except the very experienced tackle the Continental Divide Trail, which isn’t even a true trail yet — just a route from Canada to Mexico along the spine of the Rockies, roughly 3,100 miles long. Only a few dozen people attempt it each year and map and compass skills are crucial.
  • While the AT, PCT, and CDT are probably the best known long trails in the United States, other national scenic trails (some still in progress) include the 4,600-mile North Country Trail, the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail, the 1,000-mile Ice Age Trail, and the 1,100-mile Florida Trail. Canada’s long trails include the 885-km (550-mile) Bruce Trail, the 1,045-km (649-mile) International Appalachian Trail, and (in the works) a coast-to-cast National Hiking Trail.

Having chosen his or her trail, the wise backpacker investigates all available resources, including websites, books, magazines, and trail journals (see resources below). He or she may attend programs to learn or review specific skills (map and compass reading or first aid, say), or interview successful backpackers in person or online. Then he begins buying gear and getting into shape. These two chores are best begun many months before a thru-hike starts.



Wise thru-hikers preparing for cold, wet weather choose the lightest-weight gear they can afford before heading into the mountains. Here, snow clings to the North Cascades even in July. (Photo by Gary Chambers; click for PCT videos)

Triple-Crown hiker Jackie McDonnell, better known by her trail name Yogi, says the best way to keep pack weight at a minimum is to keep gear at a minimum and get the lightest version of each item that you can afford. (Unfortunately, the lowest weight tends to correspond with the highest price, for everything from cook pots and tent stakes to ice axes and sleeping bags.) 

On the other hand, since Yogi frequently changes her gear, even on the trail, her most important item may be the “800” number for REI stores. “I could order anything and get it at the next town,” she said.

Triple Crowner David Rainey, aka Pineneedle, has a simple formula to explain why he carries only the essentials and how he manages to move so quickly: “The less you carry, the faster you go. And the faster you go, the less you need to carry.”

Of course, the bare essentials differ from one person to another. Karen Somers, known on the trail as Nocona, wouldn’t step foot in the Sierra without her RailRiders Eco-Mesh shirt (proof against biting insects and sunburn) and a mosquito head net. John Muir Trail veteran Alice Bodnar found a comprehensive foot care kit was the most valuable item in her pack. My favorite possession is my MSR PocketRocket stove. Ask other thru-hikers, especially those with similar hiking styles to yours, what worked for them.

The author (right), husband Gary Chambers, and their Eureka! Zeus 3EXO tent in the Southern California desert during their family’s 2004 PCT thru-hike. (Photo by Mary Chambers; click for PCT videos)

On the other hand, plenty of backpackers give little thought to mosquitoes, blisters, or cooking on the trail, and do just fine. But the successful ones agree that a shelter of some sort is crucial, preferably a lightweight tent.

A sheet of nylon might be enough for the ultra-light crowd, but for most people, a tent is best. It keeps out rain, snakes, mice, and mosquitoes, and it gives shelter from the wind and the cold. It gives you a place to stow your belongings and organize your stuff when you camp with other hikers. And a tent provides one more thing that’s often in short supply on the trail, especially the more popular ones: privacy.

Whatever gear you choose, familiarize yourself with it and break in any footwear before your thru-hike begins.



As with gear, advice for getting into shape is all over the map:

  • Jackie McDonnell, aka Yogi, perches atop the monument at the south end of the Pacific Crest Trail on the Mexico-California border. Yogi has written handbooks for the PCT and the CDT. (Photo courtesy Jackie McDonnell)
    Yogi likes to start the trail completely conditioned, which isn’t easy while working 50 hours a week during the off-season, in her home state of Kansas. She starts walking an hour a day, six days a week, about nine months before she wants to start a trip. During the last three months, she adds ankle weights, and swaps 20 minutes of walking for 20 minutes on a stepper.
  • Nocona recommends traveling to a point near the trailhead a week ahead of your start date to adjust to the heat during day hikes, especially out West.
  • Alice found high-mileage backpacking trips on weekends just before a big hike the key to a good trip.
  • Trail angel Donna Saufley, who took up backpacking after meeting and helping hundreds of thru-hikers, tries to match her training regimen to the elevation gains and losses she’ll experience on the trail. “Flights of stairs would work for those locations without mountains,” she suggested.

What it comes down to is building up your strengths and skills, discovering your weaknesses, and then acting on what you’ve learned. Try to fit in at least one backpacking trip of 10 to 14 days that includes terrain similar to the harder parts of your chosen trail a few months or even a year ahead of time, and take several shorter trips as close to your anticipated hike as possible.

If you plan to travel alone, then practice alone. There’s a huge difference between going alone and being with another person. Until you actually do it, you don’t know if you can hike to your backcountry campsite all by your lonesome, set up your tent, and then actually get a good night’s rest despite all the strange noises emanating from the dark forest. 

And if you do have a prospective hiking partner, be sure to practice with him or her. There’s a popular misconception that you can advertise for a hiking partner online, meet up with this person for the first time at the trailhead, and by some miracle you’ll both have the same goals, hiking style, daily mileage capacity, ability to deal with the weather, need for rest days, and so on.

Yogi is adamant: “Never agree to hike with a partner.” Unless the partner is a spouse or significant other — and someone you’ve done a lot of backpacking with already — don’t do it. Instead, start on your own and you’ll soon discover fellow backpackers who will make good companions for a section or even the entire trail.


Up next, Part 2: What am I doing out here on the trail? And what am I going to eat?


Resources for planning an AT, PCT, or CD thru-hike include:

(Check online and with other thru-hikers for additional publications and resources, as new material is published every year.)

Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The ATC provides a wealth of information on planning an AT thru-hike on its website. The ATC publishes official trail guides and maps, the Appalachian Trail Data Book, and the AT Thru-Hikers’ Companion, both updated annually. Members receive the magazine A.T. Journeys and discounts on maps and books purchased from the extensive online Appalachian Trail Store.

Pacific Crest Trail Association
PCTA members receive the PCT Communicator magazine. The website has answers to FAQ, information on planning a thru-hike, and maps, guides, and planning books for sale. The PCTA issues, upon request, Thru-Permits for trips of 500 miles or more on the trail, plus special permits for side trips to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Lower 48 States.

Continental Divide Trail Alliance
In 2009 the CDTA began an extensive mapping project with the U.S. Forest Service to capture an accurate “center line” for the trail. The data collected will be made available with up-to-date trail information, GPS coordinates, and CDT maps. 

  Continental Divide Trail Society
The CDTS publishes the Guide to the Continental Divide Trail, a series of guidebooks and supplements that provide a mile-by-mile description of the Continental Divide Trail.
Wilderness Press, Berkeley
Wilderness Press, publisher of outdoor hiking books and maps for 40 years, publishes the three “official” PCT guidebooks — for Southern California, Northern California, and Oregon/Washington — and the PCT Data Book. Other titles cover hiking maps, planning, trails, skills, and narratives. (Wilderness Press also published Zero Days, the author’s book on her family’s 2004 PCT thru-hike.)
Pocket PCT
PCT thru-hiker Paul Bodnar just published Pocket PCT: An Elevation Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail available at
It provides an elevation profile of the entire PCT, mile-by-mile markings for water sources (graded by reliability), resupply points, and other landmarks (such as other trails, roads, etc.).
Yogis Guides
Triple Crowner Jackie McDonnell publishes Yogi’s PCT Handbook, the companion book for the PCT,  and updates it frequently. (The old Town Guide is out of date and out of print; the PCTA recommends using Yogi’s handbook instead.) Yogi also has published a CDT companion, Yogi’s CDT Handbook.

Read the full series:

Planning a Thru-Hike: Part 1: tips on choosing a trail, gear, training, and resources.

Planning a Thru-Hike Part 2: What am I doing out here? And what am I going to eat and drink?

Planning a Thru-Hike: Part 3: advice from Triple Crown thru-hikers.

Planning a Thru-Hike Part 4: advice from trail angels.


Normally I don’t comment on articles however this one has several good points.

First, what you carry is very much up to the individual, but packing light is important to an enjoyable hike – pack for the specific trail. My first weeklong hike required 65 pounds of food and dry gear; I quickly learned it was just over 80 pounds wet. Now, if my pack hits 35 pounds I have too much. At 55 I have decided my next trek will not exceed 30 pounds of pack gear. Experience with gear dictates when you find what’s right for you, keep it! For example, I still use my original 40 plus year old Optimus camping stove that burns any fuel except lead free gas. What you carry is personal and depends on how little you need to survive. If you read the “must have in your pack” lists you better invest in a mule; those that created the lists never carried all that stuff themselves for a trek. My advice is to pack wisely and pack for you. After 43 years of backpacking I only have two to three required items, first aid, a good knife, and sometimes a pistol (coyotes have ruined my trip twice, I have ruined their investigation once).

Second, I definitely agree with breaking boots in before you start! I wear “old school” (heavy) leather Scalpa class B climbing boots and do not care for modern style high tech boots. The several pairs I have tried lead me to believe the designers never did a real trek in them – I’ll try more but at the company’s expense, not mine. I can deal with all other stresses, but if the feet don’t feel good all day, each and every day, no matter how long or short the hike, it is not enjoyable.

Third, experience dictates always plan on hiking the trail yourself. It seams every time I go to hike with someone else I picked the wrong partner and end up with a choice, do the hike some other time or continue by myself and find my own way home – this included a potential other half who walked out of my future. However, for the last 28 years I have enjoyed my non-trail spouse who drops me off at one end of the trail and picks me up at the other!

So far this is a good article and I look forward to the rest.

Really glad to see this series of articles being started. The wife and I are now preparing our lives so that in about 10 years we will be free to hit the long trails. All the information on how to do these hikes that we get now will increase our enjoyment and chances of being successful when we do beging to attempt these thru hikes.

Great information. Thank you:


here is a good link for all the weather through the trail

It is interesting that 25 % of the people that try the AT finish it, but 60% of the people that try the PCT are successful. Anyone care to try to answer the reason why this is true?

I've heard lower number for both ppine, but a similar ratio. My supposition is that the difficulty in accessing the PCT, the challenge or resupply and the more intense wilderness experience serves to select a set of people more likely to finish. While the AT is easier to access, it is, IMHO,  more "difficult" in terms of grade and tread surface. It's very seldom that the grade of a slope on the PCT exceeds 13%, where nearly vertical rock occurs on the AT in many locales.

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