group of person walking in mountain

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​Everyone has a dream to accomplish something great in their life. Everyone wants a story to tell their friends, family, colleagues. A journey through one of America’s legendary trails is this exact dream or story for some of us. The accomplishment of being in the wilderness and pushing yourself to get from point A to point B on foot is a primal feeling. If you have the desire to thru hike a challenging American trail, the dream is as simple as educating yourself on what it takes, properly preparing, and the gear you’ll need for the long journey. If you are still asking yourself, “what is thru hiking?” this beginner’s guide will help you understand what you’re getting yourself into and will help you accomplish your first thru-hike.

What Is Thru Hiking?

Some of us enjoy a peaceful backpack through the wilderness. However, thru-hiking differs from this. Instead of throwing on a backpack with a picnic lunch and spending an hour or two moving along a trail in the woods, thru hiking takes it to the next level. Thru hikers are your long distance hikers that want to cover great distances. They will spend several months sleeping in tents to hike over hundreds or thousands of miles.Not all of us can take five or six months out of the year to leave our friends, family, and home to commit to one of these thru hikes. Alternatives to thousand-mile hikes include those that are just a few hundred miles. This type of hike would take less than a month to accomplish. You can find dozens of these hikes all over the country.You can also thru hike in sections. This will involve hiking through a section of a longer trail, then being done for that season. When the next season rolls around, you do the next section. It may take several seasons to finish the thousands of miles in total, but that will depend on how big of a section you tackle during each season. Section thru hiking can be an ideal strategy for those who don’t have a lot of time but who are willing to dedicate every season to one particular long trail.

Preparing and Planning

Group of hikers are walking the mountain trail while wearing their hiking gears

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Now that you understand what thru-hiking will involve, it’s time to do your prep work. After all, this will be a major expedition. Preparation and planning will be highly critical, especially for a beginner thru-hiker. Expert thru-hikers will suggest preparing and planning for your expedition months before your actual trip, and more time should be spent planning than being on the hike. This is wise considering everything you will mentally and physically go through during the journey.What is thru hiking? It’s an enormous challenge. Your mind and body will be challenged in ways unlike you’ve ever experienced before. Your resolve will absolutely be challenged. Before you even consider food and water, dive into the mental process of it all.Mental preparation should be your first step because a lack of understanding about what you can mentally overcome can be the deciding factor when it comes to whether you make it home or not. Many hikers fail to acknowledge what they are and are not capable of, and this spells doom for them. Have realistic expectations for your journey because mental fatigue is quite dangerous when hiking for miles and miles every single day. Thru hiking will demand a strong mental fortitude for overcoming pain and suffering and loneliness. Even experienced hikers can question the hike several hundred miles in and quit.

Mental Strategies

To aid your mental preparation, try these strategies:
  • Remind yourself that struggle is part of the journey
  • Try out some small solo trips beforehand
  • Embrace community trail adventures
  • Set goals
Consider these strategies to strengthen your mental fortitude. The struggle is a real aspect of the journey, and it’s important to remind yourself of that so bad days on the trail do not spook you into quitting. Solo trips will get you used to the time being alone. Loneliness is a fear that can hit anyone out there on the trail for several months.Overcome this fear by building upon what it is like to be alone on many small trips. Look for community trips to gain knowledge and advice from other experienced or inexperienced hikers. Set goals by marking off certain milestones along the hike. This will motivate you and give you a strong sense of accomplishment during your thru hike.During your thru hike, you will be challenged possibly more physically than you ever have. You will be dealing with everything from the casual blister to possible major injuries. Lyme disease is a common sickness hikers are subject to, as well as altitude sickness. You may not need to prepare yourself for all of these physical challenges, but without question you will have to overcome some physical adversities.

Physical Strategies

These strategies will help you prepare:
  • ​Train for the adventure
  • ​Take first-aid courses
You should train for the hike longer than you’ll actually be on it. Go on many backpacking trips before the thru hike. This will get you used to the weight of the gear and what it’s like to be out there moving along a trail. Be sure to emulate the weight of your gear so it will get your feet used to the weight and the burden of the hike.Take a first aid course because this will give you knowledge about what to do and how to react to minor or major injuries. You will have a great idea of what your first-aid kit needs to have in it.


This will seem like obvious advice, but know your limits financially before you pack your gear. Gear and food will be expensive. The gear you will need may be cheaper than lodging, but you will still need critical pieces of equipment to survive. This can be costly. The key strategy for your financial budget will be doing a lot of research on the trail you want to thru hike, the miles, and the gear you will need to accomplish the journey.

Planning Process

Once you understand and feel good about the mental, physical, and financial challenges of thru hiking, you can move on to the fun planning process of it all. Key areas of the planning process will require substantial research. Research topics for the trip will include:
  • ​When and where to start and finish
  • ​Permits
  • ​Transportation
  • ​Mileage
  • ​Resupply stops
  • ​Contingencies
Weather will be a major consideration on when and where to start and finish the thru hike. Do your best to research what the weather will possibly be like during your month or months-long adventure. Regulations will change often, so it is critical that you know what kind of permits the trail will require. This could be anything from the trail, camping, or fire permits. Be sure to apply for these permits well in advance.Plan how many miles per day you will be hiking. This can give you an accurate finish time. Plan where the resupply stops will be along the trail so that you know which days you can fit this in. Severe weather, injuries and trail closures can be obstacles along the way, so plan alternative routes and situations for these pitfalls.

Food and Water

Food will be one of your biggest challenges. It is wise to pre-plan your entire trip and list your meals for each day or section of miles. You can even pre-mail your food stashes to each resupply station ahead of time. Know that you will be burning a lot of calories per day hiking. You will need to factor in the calorie amount you will need to digest every day.Water can literally be a matter of life or death, so do not overlook how important water is for you or how much you will need. Water is one of the most important parts of the entire journey.

​WHAT GEAR YOU’ll need

Group of hikers are climbing the rock mountain while wearing their hiking gears

Photo by Mathias Jensen on Unsplash

Now that you have completed your process and planning, you can move into a final stage of your adventure: the gear. You may already have the gear you think is suitable for a thru hike if you are a backpacker. Look extensively into:
  • ​Lightweight gear
  • ​Robust gear
  • ​Seasonal gear
  • ​Footwear
You will be hauling gear for hundreds to thousands of miles. Obviously, you will want to travel as light as possible with few luxuries. Buying robust gear may cost more, but it will last longer. If your thru hike lasts for many months, you will be hitting different seasons along the way. Plan your resupply stops to have alternative gear depending on the seasons. Trail running shoes or full-leather boots will do the trick for a thru hike. You may want both, and you will definitely need more than one pair.Other than this gear you will want simple things. Other essential gear may include:
  • ​Sleeping bag/tent
  • ​Hiking clothing
  • ​Cook set
  • ​Repair kits
  • ​Cleaning wipes
  • ​Repellents
​Start a list months ahead of time. Add to it along the way for anything you may think of as important or essential for you to accomplish the thru hike with comfort and success.​


Group of friends Hiking together

Photo by nic on Unsplash

Popular thru hikes in this country include those along the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. These are the three long-haul treks for thru hiking that will involve a journey of thousands of miles. Work your way up to these types of month-long journeys. Do not be discouraged if purists out there say you aren’t a true thru hiker because you aren’t traveling thousands of miles by foot. Choose one of the alternative, shorter trails if that suits you better..Many will ask you, “what is thru hiking?” if you do decide to commit to one. At its core, thru hiking is ultimately about challenging yourself. How you define that challenge is simply up to you. Use this guide to aid you in researching and preparing for your first thru hike. Get moving and get away from that grueling 9-5 job and average life. Your thru hike adventure awaits, and you’ll never know what the feeling is like to complete one if you never challenge yourself and give it a try.Featured Photo by Eric Sanman from Pexels