30 Tips for First Time Thru Hikers (after 17,000mi)
30 Tips for First Time Thru Hikers (after 17,000mi)

30 Tips for First Time Thru Hikers (after 17,000mi)

Here’s 30 of my best pieces of advice for new and first time thru hikers, regardless of whether you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or anything else! These will help you to be successful, and to have more fun out there!

A thru hike in the end, even one of more than 2,000 miles in length, is just a very long walk. Sounds simple enough for sure! But when it comes to being on your feet, exposed to the elements, in remote places, climbing mountains every day, day after day… it turns out that a long walk can be quite difficult!

Standing at McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail in 2016, during my southbound thru hike.

Only 1 in 4 people actually complete a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. So in theory, out of the first 3 people you meet only one of you will go to the end. I have personally been on both sides of that spectrum. It sucks to quit, and it sucks to not complete this thing you’ve dreamed about.

A stat like the one above is kind of amazing these days, considering how much information is out there to learn from! So I hope you take this advice to heart if a thru hike is really something you want to do.

If you prefer to watch a pretty video and listen to these tips, I made a video about this same subject!

As of 2023 I myself have thru hiked the… Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail, Great Divide Trail, International Appalachian Trail, Pinhoti Trail, Florida Trail (twice), Sheltowee Trace Trail, Uinta Highline Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, Long Trail, Ocean to Lake Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, Superior Hiking Trail, (half of the) Pacific Northwest Trail, and a big handful of other shorter ones and long section hikes!

So, I hope after all my miles I have some good advice to share πŸ™‚

At the Canadian Border, the end of my 84 day thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2022

30 Tips for New Thru Hikers

1. The best way to train for a thru hike, is by going on a thru hike

We can’t all do the Appalachian Trail, before we do the Appalachian Trail, but what we can do is get out and hike! Short day hikes after work, walking more in daily life, and overnight trips on the weekends. These things will help in so many different ways; to condition your body, your feet, and teach you a lot of new things about fueling and taking care of yourself. You could take this even more literally, and even do a shorter thru hike, before your longer one which would be extremely valuable, but not possible for everyone.

2. Test gear on short trails near home

Practice in rain, in cold! Getting to know your gear is invaluable, and it amazes me every year as to how many people I will run into who haven’t yet used their kit! Coming into a multi month thru hike is not the time to find out your rain jacket sucks, your tent is too small, you don’t know how to use your stove, your layers aren’t warm enough, or that your pack is just too big! Go out on a trail near home, and go camping. It doesn’t matter if you leave home at 4pm and come back at 9am the next day. Do this in adverse weather, and get used to your kit. Ask yourself if you need the gear or if you could leave it at home. Ask yourself if you are happy with each individual item. Does it serve a purpose, does it operate the way it should and how you want it to. Pair things down as you go, and gather these skills near home rather than far away in the middle of nowhere, on some long distance trail around the world.

3. Dial in shoes

The last thing I really want you to focus on while getting out near home is your shoes and your socks. Ultimately it is your feet that are going to carry you the thousands of miles, and you need to be happy with how you protect them. Are you getting blisters? Maybe some adjustments can be made, or maybe you just need entirely new shoes. Is there a weird rubbing? That’s no good, as it likely will develop into something worse. It is much cheaper and easier to deal with these things near home, so figure this out before you go. Try different shoes, different socks, different sizes. Take advantage of return policies.

On the 800 mile Arizona Trail, heading down into the Grand Canyon is truly epic, and even more so having walked 600 or so miles to get there!
The northern terminus of the Arizona Trail along the Utah Border, after having walked across the state!

4. Start slow

Training is great…. but you know what is even better? Starting slow and easing into a thru hike. Anyone can do this, the problem is when people get a little overzealous and push beyond what they are naturally comfortable with. The vast majority of injuries on thru hikes happen in the first quarter. Start slow to avoid this! Let your body get used to this new routine of exercising every day, of eating weird food, of carrying a heavy pack. A thru hike of the PCT or AT is a very long journey, and we need to do whatever we can to go that distance. The vast majority of people out there would be way better off if they just started out slower, very gradually doing more as they feel stronger.

5. Know that you will get stronger

Again this is a long journey, and what you are able to do at the beginning is not indicative of what you will be capable of by the end. You will literally turn into a hiking machine out there. Calories will go in, and mile after mile will come out. Even if you are only doing 8 miles per day to start, you may later find that a 30 mile day is an easy thing. So remember that you will get stronger.

6. Set small goals & celebrate small stuff

A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step, and then another, and another. If you take this trip just one step time, it will be much simpler. It’s easy to get lost in the idea that you still have thousands of miles left to go. That Katahdin is still so far away, or looking at a map you never seem to get any closer to Canada. Instead of thinking about the end, set small goals! Be stoked to get to that next town, that next sections, or state. Maybe that iconic view coming up, that next campsite, or that easy section ahead. Make these goals very attainable, and as you complete them one by one, set new ones! This will help you to stay present, and keeping you moving forward always excited for something.

On the 175 mile Tahoe Rim Trail in California, an incredible and short thru hike with easy logistics and beautiful views!

7. Don’t be married to your plans

I love planning my hikes to a ridiculous degree. Endless spreadsheets, on gear lists, on weather reports. I love it, and feel that planning is a very valuable skill… but as soon as your hike starts you should be ready to abandon all of your plans. You should be ready to be flexible and in the moment, allowing yourself to adjust to how you’re feeling, and what is happening. It is a constant battle out there dealing with the unexpected and you need to be able to change your plans, your gear, your footwear, whatever it is to be able to happily continue on. Many get to deeply invested in their plans, and wind up injured from too fast of a pace, an unwillingness to change gear, or a desire to avoid town even when bad weather is coming. Change your plans accordingly based on the moment at hand.

8. Start date is very important

The difference in starting the PCT in March versus May is extremely different. Even just one month is a huge difference. The same goes for the Appalachian Trail or any other hike I have ever done. Plan your start date accordingly and know what is required. A couple weeks difference could mean more or less gear is needed, vastly different weather will be encountered, and the trail will be an entirely different world. You could be totally alone in the snow, you could be hiking through blazing heat and rain, or you could be surrounded by friends walking through fields of flowers! Start date is important.

9. Don’t be afraid to start alone

I have done most of my thru hiking alone. I start alone, and generally I stay alone. This is not exactly true, as you nor I will ever really be alone out there. Thousands of people each year attempt these trails, and they’re all cool people! Coming from foreign countries, hippies, doctors, accountants, recent college graduates, and recently retired. They’re all out there, for similar reasons to you, and starting their hike just about the same time you’re starting! Within an hour of beginning, I guarantee that even if you started alone you will soon be talking and hiking with someone new and interesting. It will be this way for your entire hike as well because we are all going the same direction. I generally choose to move on, but most find themselves in a ‘trail family’ and hike together to the end.

The Pacific Crest Trail in Washington is both incredibly beautiful, but also quite difficult!
Burney Falls is just a short side trail off of the PCT in Northern California. A beautiful waterfall cascading out of the moss and plants

10. It’s just a series of section hikes

Can you go on a three day hiking trip? How about a five day trip? I bet you can! I know that everyone reading this can which is great, because a long thru hike is nothing more than a series of three to five day section hikes, done back to back, with breaks in town in between. You get your food, you hike for three days, you go into town to rest, and then you repeat. A thru hike is truly as simple as that. Sometimes you’ll want more rest, sometimes you’ll want to keep going. Either way, remember the small goals, and just go from town to town. You can do this, I know you can.

11. Marathon vs Sprint

A thru hike like the Appalachian Trail is very long, the problem with the length is that it’s easy to burn out, run out of money, or get injured. So always keep in mind, that this is not a sprint, this is a marathon. You need to fuel yourself for the long haul, and take care of yourself so that you can go the distance. On a day hike it’s not so bad if you get a couple blisters, on a thru hike that is exasperated as you cannot simply go home and be stationary for the next week. Always remember that you are in this for the long haul. Be careful not to spend all your money in the first month, be careful not to push yourself too hard, take days off whenever you feel they are needed, and do whatever it takes to keep it fun!

12. This is not a camping trip, it’s a really long walk

We want our gear to reflect that by having a lightweight kit, making the hiking itself more comfortable, and injury free. Afterall you will be spending the majority of your time daily walking up and down tall mountains, over rocks and roots, and lugging this giant pack. Let’s do ourselves a favor, and lean more towards the ultralight side of the spectrum. The length of a thru hike is often times the hardest aspect these trips and a light pack will greatly help to avoid injury while traversing that length. It will make your daily life significantly more comfortable, and allow you to more easily succeed.

On my second thru hike of the 1,100 mile Florida Trail. Sometimes swampy, but truly a unique trail and beautiful experience

13. Have fun!

Pack out that entire pie, drink a beer, hang out at a waterfall all day. This is supposed to be fun! For some fun may mean doing 30 mile days, for others fun might be hiking in a group. Maybe doing some night hiking with a bunch of glow sticks, carrying a frisbee to throw around at camp, bringing along a book to read before bed. Do whatever it takes to keep a positive outlook and to keep it fun. Change things up often and try different things. If it’s not fun, make it fun.

14. Know that it isn’t always fun

Unfortunately not everyday can be sunshine and rainbows. I know looking at social media, a thru hike can appear to be endlessly beautiful with people magically on tops of mountains and standing in a wonderland of snow capped peaks. What you don’t always see however is the days of rain, the repetitive food, the loneliness, the cold, the fear of animals. We all go through it, and I think it’s important to be aware that this is just part of the trip. These bad days pass, and the sunshine will come out again.

15. Write down your thoughts

Being out in the woods for months on end, you have a lot of time to think to yourself. What you enjoy, what you want out of life, career changes, new hobbies, relationships, ways you’d like to improve yourself. A lot of potentially life changing revelations can come from a thru hike. The issue I found is that after the trail, it’s far too easy to immediately forget these things! Write them down, take notes, have one big list of the thoughts you have while out there and you will thank yourself later. They won’t all be winners, but so many of them will be.

On Mt Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail extending from Georgia to Maine, up the east coast of the United States. A very special place, and a very special sign.

16. Pay attention to your body

It’s amazing how much your body is always trying to tell you, and how much it wants to help you. Are you craving pizza, or steak, or fresh fruits? Maybe you are missing something in your diet, and should eat more of those things for a while. If you are feel sore maybe you should slow it down, take some zeros, and rest. Or maybe you need to stretch more frequently, or soak your legs in a cold stream. Thru hiking is this constant state of exercising so much that it’s difficult to recover, so when your body is telling you something it’s worth listening.

17. Take care of your feet!

The most important part of your body while thru hiking… is your feet! So taking extra care of them is of an utmost importance. Many will replace shoes after about 700 miles, but if you have the budget it’s definitely better to do it more frequently than that. Many will ignore hot spots on their feet, or weird rubbing feelings, and then they’ll get tons of blisters. Take care of it immediately! It’s not going to get better without some intervention. Soak your feet in cold water daily to help with recovery. Keep your feet clean, rather than waiting until the next town with a shower. Your feet are everything out there and should be treated as such.

18. Stretch nightly

I personally know, that if a stretching routine is too involved or too long, I’m just not going to do it. So what I mean here is not to do a two hour yoga routine before bed, but instead just to do some very easy and basic stretches. I like to stretch while I am in camp, in bed, warm quilt on top of me. I do them for about 10 to 15 minutes, am happy with that, and feel so much better the next day because of that! Point and flex your feet, stretch your quads, splay your toes, stretch your calves. Nothing crazy, but your body will greatly thank you as this will help to get stronger, and feel better.

In the North Cascades National Park, along the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington
Sunrise and Mt Rainier on the PCT, with just a few hundred miles left until I finished my thru hike

19. Eat eat & eat!

You’re now hiking 10-30 miles every day, this level of exertion is not something your body is used to, and we need to eat to be able to keep it up! And when I say eat, I mean endlessly, and constantly, be eating. I like to consume about 200 calories an hour while on a thru hike, with a much larger breakfast, lunch, and a dinner. There’s all sorts of numbers thrown around as to how many total calories you will want per day, and how much you are actually burning, but I don’t know if any of those have any merit. That said, this is about what I aim for. To start I know I wont be as hungry and so for the first week i’ll want to consume about 2,500 calories per day. From there I slowly bump it up until by the end I am eating about 7,000 calories a day, or more! You really have to do what feels right for you though, as everyone is different. In general you should be eating much more than you think, and it’s worth forcing yourself to do so.

20. Don’t forget electrolytes

Most people should get their electrolytes from the foods they are consuming, but! Given all this exercise out in humid or hot places, you should also be sure to pack some extra electrolytes, and to be using them often. In every town when I am grocery shopping I will buy enough electrolyte packets to be able to add at least two per day to my water. You will feel significantly better by doing this, both your body, and your mind. The consequence of not doing this is muscle fatigue, cramping, poor decision making, or worse if it get’s really bad! So it’s always something to remember when resupplying, and the out on trail.

21. Don’t bother with sending resupply boxes

There’s two predominant methods when it comes to getting more supplies and food while thru hiking, buying as you go, and sending resupply boxes. You’re either shopping at some small grocery store in a trail town, or your shipping food from home to that trail town before leaving. I think that for 99% of people resupply boxes have absolutely zero benefit. They require an intense amount of planning and preparation, and then you’ll get to that town you sent it to, and realize you don’t even like any of that food anymore! Thus wasting a lot of money, and a lot of time. Just buy food as you go, and only every extremely occasionally send yourself a box when necessary, from the trail itself.

The Superior Hiking Trail is just 310 miles, but an incredible hike to do if you enjoy autumn colors!

22. You don’t have to do the AT or PCT

Consider doing a shorter trail instead! A hike that could last 6 months, and cost upwards of $15,000 is a massive undertaking. Generally requiring the hiker to quit their job after having saved up for years, put their things in storage, and then leave their home, friends, and family for the duration of the hike. This isn’t for everybody, or something everybody could do. An awesome alternative to this…. is a shorter thru hike! Something you could do in a typical amount of vacation time from work. The Tahoe Rim Trail for example is 175 miles, has easy logistics (since it’s a loop,) is near a major airport, and is absolutely gorgeous. The 40 mile Timberline Trail, the 100 mile Uinta Highline Trail, the 310 mile Superior Hiking Trail. The list is endless. Even a hike like the 800 mile Arizona Trail will be much more manageable for most, and just as awesome, compared to a hike like the PCT. You’ll also learn a ton on these trips, and if you really do love thru hiking, could then make the more difficult effort to take on a longer one.

23. Find what makes you happy out there

What’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for you. Everyone has different desires, and wants, and needs. Try different things to see what you enjoy the most out there. Maybe it is camping alone or hiking alone. Maybe carrying a big heavy pair of binoculars for birding is not something I’d do, but something you’d love! Maybe it’s those big trail families, or swimming in lakes, making gourmet camp meals. Maybe you like the minimalism, silence, or big mile days. Do more of what makes you happy out there regardless of what others are doing.

24. HYOH & Do what is best for you

Being a bit selfish while on a thru hike is a very important thing. Just because another person is hiking a 30 mile day today, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Or if you’re on a budget, maybe skipping that expensive town that other group is going into could be good. You have to do what is best for you, as in the end regardless of how many other people are out there, this is your trip. I see a lot of people get caught up in trail families that are bad for them or draining their budget. I see a lot of people trying to keep up with someone much faster than them. I know a lot of folks don’t like the phrase “Hike Your Own Hike” but it really is a valuable lesson.

Various photos from my Appalachian Trail thru hike, a very unique and fun experience. Though sometimes grueling, there’s nothing else like it out there

25. Expectations

Every year I see so many people who are so down on themselves for not being able to do more, whatever more is to them. Don’t get lost in what you aren’t able to do, and instead stay in the moment and try to enjoy what you are able to do. Find the good in where you currently are! To do the opposite just seems like a horrible way to go through a trail. Hiking just 3 miles today is fine, taking that extra zero to rest up is fine! Expectations of what you feel you should be doing, can be a thru hike killer.

26. Take more zeros early on in your hike

A zero is a day off, it is a day where you hike ‘zero’ miles. These rest days are much more valuable early on rather than later, as early on your body is just getting used to everything. Further down the trail and you’ll be stronger and there will be less of a physical need for them, at least by comparison. The vast majority of injuries happen within that first quarter of a thru hike, so take those days off! Rest up, and hike happily. Allow yourself to make it to those northern sections, allow yourself to get stronger. Take more zeros in your first month.

27. More money saved = higher chance of success

The more you can save, the better your chances are of success. The less you have saved, the higher risk you are taking of not making it. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing, as even if you only make it a quarter of the way, you’re still going to have an amazing time. Still I think if you intend on thru hiking, it would be a bummer to not actually do the thru hike due to money. On average people spend about $10,000 to do one of these long trails, and I don’t think that includes a buffer for when they return home. So that’s maybe a good figure to shoot for. Every year people do hike on a budget, but it will certainly make your life harder. Bad weather? Probably need to tough it out as hotels cost. Gear failure? Maybe glue it, tape it, and sew it. Food cravings? you get the idea. For most this is a once in a lifetime trip, and it would suck to have to deny yourself a lot of things along the way due to money concerns. So save up before you go! Make this the best trip it can be.

Various photos from my Pacific Crest Trail thru hike which travels through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.

28. Leave no trace

These trails are becoming much more popular. With something like 8,000 people attempting the Pacific Crest Trail each year it is more important than ever to leave no trace. If I am behind you; I don’t want to see your trash in a fire pit, I don’t want to see evidence of where you’ve camped, I don’t want to find where you’ve used the restroom, and I don’t want to hear your speakers playing out loud. Neither does anyone else, and the same goes for the animals which live out there too! So please, lets protect these wild places, leave them better than we found them, and leave no trace.

29. Be weary of the fear mongering

On every trail I have ever done, even the easiest trails I have ever done, there is always an amazing amount of fear mongering surrounding them. A lack of water this year, record snow, that one section is ‘impassable,’ this town sucks, or or or the list is endless and you will surely soon see for yourself! Just do the best you can, be safe, and don’t get too caught up in what others are saying online. Frankly a lot of the online fear is coming from people who aren’t even out there themselves! Sometimes you just have to go for it anyway.

30. Be skeptical of every piece of advice you’re given

and that includes me πŸ™‚ Use the gear and the information that makes sense to you, but don’t copy things one for one from that random person online. Remember that everyone has a different style, everyone enjoys different things. That person on the facebook group doesn’t know what’s best for you, and different techniques work for different people. Always be skeptical! And do what is right for you.

Looking off to Jack Mountain while on the Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200 mile thru hike spanning from the state of Montana heading west to the coast of Washington

I hope that these tips have been helpful! They come from the heart after watching others year after year. What has allowed them to succeed, what has allowed me to succeed, and what do I see frequently that cause people to drop out early.

A thru hike of any length is a difficult thing, but with this advice under your cap I am confident that you will be much happier out there!

Thank you for reading

5 Comments

  1. Fantastic advice, based on sound experience. I have hiked many thousands of miles myself, but far far less than you, but can still relate to and agree with just about all of your points (less so electrolytes). All hard learned lessons, many thanks

  2. Yermo

    I have read everything you have written that I can possible fine, and will continue to do so. Know what buddy? It isn’t all about hiking. Lots of valuable information this old guy is using in my life. I really like your enthusiasm and good nature. Your writing and videos always makes me happy.

  3. Thanks again Jupiter. Always enjoy and appreciate your well written advice. When I saw 30 in the title I thought 15 to 20 would probably be better and I would probably speed read the last ten. However, they were all excellent and given thoughtful consideration.
    While reading this and recalling some of your other posts I began thinking it would be great if you would write at least a couple of books on your experiences.
    One, more of an adventure story of your hikes and their good and bad aspects as well as general lessons learned and insights and introspection you and your hiking and people along the way . Another on gear, food, trail health, logistics, etc. Much of this is already in post and vblogs but it would be helpful for future backpackers to have it all in a book.
    Good luck with your future endeavors.

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