Planning a Thru-hike

Physical and Mental Preparation

Thru-hiking any long distance trail is a physically grueling and mentally demanding endeavour, especially if you are going to take on one of the tougher, longer ones, but with great challenge comes great reward, and with the proper preparation, that reward is within your reach, before you even start preparation is key, read books, articles, watch you tube videos, anything that will familiarise yourself with that trail.

If you’re looking for suggestions to physically prepare for hiking any long distance trail , it’s simple – hike! Start small and work your way up in mileage. When you’re comfortable with that, it’s time to add a pack. Start with lighter weights, and work your way up to a full load. When you’re comfortable with that, start focusing on vertical gain. Carry your pack up and down the biggest hill you can find, or substitute some stairs. A high level of physical fitness prior to your departure will make for an easier transition into the trail life and to fully enjoy you're adventure, but it’s important to remember that nothing is going to make you comfortable with hiking more than 20 miles a day, every day, with a loaded pack on your back, besides hiking more than 20 miles a day, every day, with a loaded pack on your back. Work some extra time into the beginning of your itinerary to help you safely find your stride.

While a strong body will be helpful before your hike, a strong mind is a must. You will get lonely, lost, scared, hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, soggy, sunburned, bug bitten, bee stung, tired, and uncomfortable. You will lose the feeling in your toes, and maybe the toenails off of them if you’re not careful! You will struggle, and you will hurt… This isn’t going to be easy. If you’re the kind of person that thrives in challenging environments, then thru-hiking is for you; but be honest with yourself about your limitations and expectations for your choice in trail – do you really think that you have what it takes?

Gear and Equipment

There are a huge number of products marketed towards hikers, and opinions on what’s best to carry are as varied and plentiful as the gear options themselves. Finding the best combination of gear for you, and becoming comfortable using it all prior to your big hike is crucial to your success. Pack lists are large and differ from one hiker to the next, but here are some basics about the pieces that will make it into anyone’s kit.

Pack – While largely dependent on your other gear selections, a pack with a 55 litre capacity is generally plenty for most hikers. These days, there are a lot of nice 55 litre packs that weigh around two pounds or less. These are ideal – balancing the right capacity, suspension, and cost. Fit is the most important criteria to select a pack on, however. If a pack with all the right stats on paper is uncomfortable on your back, keep shopping.

Tent – There will be the chance of bad weather wherever you decide to go, especially here in the United Kingdom. What you need to feel comfortable in the elements is subjective, but at a minimum, your tent should be able to keep you and your gear dry while you sleep. Small, lightweight backpacking tents are popular, as are tarps, and even hammocks. A good shelter is one that protects well, weighs little, packs small, and sets up quickly. It’s easy to find an affordable shelter in the two to three pound range, but they also come much smaller and lighter at a price.

Sleep system – A typical sleep system consists of a sleeping bag or quilt, and an insulated sleeping pad. There are a lot of options, and each have strengths and weaknesses to consider. Most hikers will find that a sleeping bag rated to 15 or 20 degrees will be appropriate for summer hiking. Goose down is typically lighter and packs smaller than synthetic, but it’s also more expensive and more sensitive to moisture. Quilts are typically lighter than bags, but they can be drafty for some sleepers. Foam pads are bulky, but they set up fast, and are maintenance free. Inflatable pads are more comfortable, but also prone to puncture. A good sleep system is one that you feel comfortable with, after taking all of these strengths and weaknesses into consideration. Most hikers should find what they need for under three pounds combined, but sub- one kg combos are available for those looking to save more weight.

Footwear – While the sturdy leather boot is an iconic image associated with backpacking, it’s also outdated. The vast majority of long distance hikers have been enjoying the benefits of wearing lightweight, breathable, hiking boots or trail running shoes for years. When selecting footwear, most thru-hikers benefit from purchasing shoes that are one full size larger than what they typically wear, to accommodate the inevitable swelling that comes with such an endeavor. Also look for shoes with a wide enough toe box to allow you to spread your toes apart to avoid lost toenails, and look for shoes that breathe well and drain moisture easily to keep your feet healthy and blister free, i use the solomon 4d Gtx quest a great all round hiking boot, dont forget the baby talc.

Rain gear – In the United Kingdom rain is a certainty, you will need to be prepared for rain on the trail. A small, lightweight, packable, and breathable jacket is a must. Also consider packing bottoms, such as rain pants or a kilt, and make sure you’re capable of keeping the contents of your pack dry as well. This can be done with a pack cover, a pack liner (trash bag), or waterproof stuff sacks. You can find a whole range of weather apps but the most reliable i find is the met office

Camp kitchen & Food – Most hikers opt to carry a backpacking stove, but with this luxury comes the duty to use it responsibly. Many forest fires across the world have been caused by hiker carelessness, so please consider safety your number one priority when selecting a stove. Canister stoves that can be turned on and off are generally considered to be the safest, but alcohol stoves are also popular with many hikers for weight savings and fuel availability along the trail.

First Aid – It’s going to be impossible to be prepared for every scenario out on a trail, but it’s not hard to be ready for the most common ones. Ibuprofen, alcohol wipes, will treat most hiker injuries. Compeed, second skin (ask a nurse) and surgical tape are great for blisters, and many products are now available for the dreaded chafe. Duct tape will also fix a lot!

There will be a lot more that will make it into your kit than what’s described above – spare clothes, an insulated jacket, trekking poles, camera, journal, phone, toiletries, etc… it’s your trip, equip yourself as you see fit. Just remember that you have to carry it all!

A full kit checklist of what i carry on a through hike can be found here.

Trip Planning and Research

In the age of the internet there is an increasing amount of information available to hikers with each passing year. Just remember that the trail corridor keeps changing, and that no two thru-hikes on any trail are the same.

Another resource you’ll want to have for planning and help along the way is a good guidebook. Cicerone are the number one hiking guide book publishers out there,

It’s important to remember that while planning will help alleviate undue stress and concern about what lies ahead, it’s likely that little will actually go according to plan. The ruggedness of the terrain, weather conditions, trail closures, fires, fatigue, hunger, and injury may slow you down much more than you anticipate. The key to planning a successful hike is to give yourself the time to make changes; be fluid and adaptable; and have a plan – but not be married to it.

At a minimum, hikers should understand:

  • What kind of conditions they’re comfortable hiking in.

  • How long of a weather window is typically available each year to accommodate those comfort levels.

  • When they need to start to get those conditions.

Maps and GPS

One of the biggest challenges facing thru-hikers is navigation. A GPS or GPS-enabled smartphone, or another navigation app and maps, is also recommended, but no electronic device is a suitable replacement for paper maps, Ordnance Survey (OS) is the national mapping agency for Great Britain, the agency's name indicates its original military purpose which was to map Scotland in the wake of the Jacobite rising of 1745. I’d also recommend carrying copies of the guidebook of the trail you choose. The route descriptions can be a life saver!

The Os Map app can be found on the official website

I use the Fatmap website for all my route planning and sharing, Fatmap can be found here which is great for route planning and tracking.

Osprey Backpacks featured a great article which you can read here

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