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Life of the Wanderlust

Which Trail Should You Hike? – How to Thru Hike ep1

backpacker magazine map (somewhat inaccurate but good for reference)

Some of these trails aren’t so much ‘trails’ but again great for reference or ideas

So you’ve decided you want to do a thru hike!

That’s awesome! I’ve found love in these types of trips.

Hiking across the country, the small towns I get to experience, the animals and plants that I see, the epic views, the people I meet, and the community I’ve become a part of.

It’s really an amazing world to be in.

The first question you’re probably asking yourself is, which trail should I hike?

Now maybe you’ve already decided on a trail, I still recommend you watch this video as I take maybe a different position than most do on this subject

There are mega long trails like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail

Both over 2,000 miles, take months to complete, and are really a standard in the long distance hiking world.

But there are also shorter trails, I have done the 300 mile Sheltowee Trace Trail in Kentucky, The 300 mile Pinhoti Trail in Alabama, The 100 mile Uinta Highline Trail in Utah, and the 60 mile Ocean to Lake Trail in Florida, among others

In many ways hiking a shorter long trail you get a very similar experience to going off to hike something 2,000 miles. But you also gain a lot more than that, and that’s what I’ll be talking about today.

I would never tell anyone to not hike the AT or to not hike the PCT

I and many others have had incredible experiences on both

But what I will say is,

Hike a shorter trail first

Something that’s in the range of 40 to 200 miles.

A trail like the AT or the PCT that is upwards of 2,000 miles is a massive commitment. Often times you have to quit your job, sell your things, leave your family and friends behind for months

and the problem here being, these trails aren’t guaranteed. Only 1 out of 4 people that attempt the appalachian trail, are actually successful.

Imagine leaving everything behind, and then within that first week, or for many, that very first day…

you realize this isnt what you thought it was, its harder than you thought, its not that fun… and you wind up going back home.

After telling everyone in your life, that you’d be gone for months doing this thing, that would be pretty depressing

It’s a very unfortunate thing! But it can be avoided!! And here’s how…

Start small and then go big.

Do a trail thats shorter first, less of a commitment, something that can be done in a brief vacation from work, and then plan the big hike after you’ve seen how much in person, you actually want to do this

For many, the AT or PCT is their first ever overnight trip. It works for some, but of all the reasons to quit a thru hike beyond injury, or finances this is something that’s very much in your control

So why hike a smaller trail first?

1. Less of a commitment

we’ll we’ve mentioned that it’s less of a commitment, you can easily the take time off work to do a trip near home, in the 40-200 mile range, vs something that will take months upon months

this way you’ll have the opportunity to see for yourself and ask yourself, is this even something i would enjoy doing for months. Maybe the shorter hikes are truly what you enjoy! And that’s awesome, I love these shorter trails.

But it would be a hard lesson to learn early on in a super long distance trail

Less of a commitment to see where your heart is, is a big one.

2. Get used to your gear

Beyond that, doing a short trail first is also a great opprotunity to get used to your gear!

I personally had attempted the appalachian trail in 2012 as my first thru hike, and not only did I fail as that was one of my very first backpacking trips ever, but also that was the very first time I was using most of the gear that I had brought.

This is a similar story to many. My first night on the AT was my first night ever using my camp stove for instance. Your first night of a multi month backpacking trip, should probably not be the first time you’re ever using your gear.

This is actually known as a shakedown hike, to go hike something smaller prior to your big trip, and get familiar with your gear.

Or to see that maybe some of this gear you have you don’t actually like

vs finding that out later on the big trip, which would be much harder to swap things out or change what you don’t like.

3. Learn some new skills

These shorter trips are also a great opportunity to learn some new skills!

How to deal with the rain, how to use your gear, becoming more comfortable and confident in the outdoors, how to deal with blisters, what foods you like and how much you should be eating…

and generally just a proper backpacking 101 course for yourself before you head to the big time

try to find a short hike near where you live that would be great for doing this and learning

4. You can easily bail

you then also have the massive benefit of being close to friends and family should anything go wrong

it would be very hard to deal with gear failure, or crazy weather on your first ever trip if you were far away from home.

in other words it’s good to learn when you’re not that far from those that can help you, and those that care about you. it’s good to learn, close to home.

As a Floridian it would be much easier to learn and practice near home than say here, in Washington state, deep in Olympic National Park on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Some trails to consider

In the past I had done a video about some shorter trails out there that I felt were really awesome, you can check that out here

Maybe you live in the southern appalachian area, the foothills trail is only 77 miles and would be an incredible jumping off point

If you live in Florida the Ocean to Lake Trail is a wonderful 60 mile trail

If you live up near minnesota the 300 mile superior hiking trail may be the one

Or lets say you’re in northern California, how about the 40 mile timberline trail, or the 165 mile tahoe rim trail

Or for those in washington the 90 mile wonderland trail would be incredible!

Even things like the 200 mile vermont long trail

or the 100 mile uinta highline trail in utah

Texas has the 90 mile lone star trail

and the list goes on!! Nearly every state has some cool short trail for you to go find your legs on, and later tell others about when you are doing that massive 2,000 mile journey.

But you don’t have to necessarily do an entire trail from end to end, maybe you live close to a much longer trail!

A section hike is also a wonderful option.

Getting out on that super long trail near home, and setting aside so many days, and seeing how far you can get!

I know doing a section hike doesnt have the same romantic aspect as doing a thru hike, but I promise no matter the distance, or trail that you choose to do you can have a life changing experience.

Hiking the 100 mile Uinta Highline Trail in Utah

So what long trail should you do!

So lets get back to the original question here, which trail should you do? I dont mean which short trail, as I think the one closest to home is probably the best one for that.

But I mean which uber long trail

This may sound obvious but I think you should do the trail that calls to you the most.

Hear me out on this one, most people that hike the triple crown start with the appalachian trail, because in a lot of ways it can be the most convenient and accessible thru hike of the three.

But maybe you want to hike the continental divide trail, and deep down that’s what calls to you the most…

but maybe you’re afraid of the exposure, the vast wilderness, the animals, the navigational problems…

I think potentially you should go for that one, despite the fear.

I say that because, you may only have one chance at this. Say you go off and hike the Appalachian Trail when you really wanted to hike the CDT instead, you come home, find the man or woman of your dreams, find the job of your dreams, and never get to thru hike again.

That’s a pretty optimistic reason to never thru hike again, but i’m sure you could come up with worse scenarios to never make it back out there.

So you may have had a great experience on the AT, but forever will wonder what it would have been like on the CDT instead.

So I think you should follow your heart, and do what calls to you most. Some may require more research or planning than others, but in the end I think it would be worth it.

Do what you love

after failing my first thru hike attempt, I came back 4 years later, having done loads of shake down hikes, researching a lot, and training hard

I came back and not only hiked the Appalchian Trail but hiked 5,000 miles from quebec to key west florida, including the appalachian Trail.

It was what my heart truly desired, and ultimately I don’t think I would have been as happy if I had settled for something less at the time.

Having to quit your job, and leave your life is very hard. Make it worth it in every way.

Finishing my 5,000 mile walk down the east coast on the Eastern Continental Trail (which included the Appalachian Trail, Florida Trail, International Appalachian Trail, and many others) I did what called to me most, and made the best of my time

There’s a lot of cool trails out there, and I hope this series is useful to you in getting out there and doing them.

As a final little recommendation, in choosing exactly what you want, I recommend looking up a list of trails, then searching for youtube videos of them! The world is vast, and I promise there is something out there, that will totally blow you away

Thanks for watching or reading this first installment, I look forward to having you back for the next one.

See ya next time!

2 Comments

  1. What a great primer for the newb that has been inspired by your adventures!

  2. I love the well seasoned advice you give and it makes me want to hike a small trail or section of trail so much!! Thanks for the inspiration only a true hiking enthusiast can convey. I am going to start making my plan today!!

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