Long-distance hikes are experiences of a lifetime. How much planning and preparation do you need to do beforehand? How fit do you have to be for a long-distance hike? What psychological and logistical challenges does a hike lasting several days, or even weeks or months present? What happens if something goes wrong on the trail?
So many questions. We asked four experts from Europe and America and noted down their thru-hiking tips.
You don’t have to be a professional to embark on a thru-hike. However, not all routes are suitable for beginners. But the skills and equipment required depend on where you want to go.
Well-known routes in the US, like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, are easy to accomplish with a little camping experience. On unmarked routes or trails through challenging deserts, forests or mountainous terrain where you’re cut off from civilisation, it’s quite another story.
An average level of experience is sufficient to manage classic thru-hikes in Europe, such as Munich to Venice across the Alps, or the Kungsleden (King’s Trail) in Sweden. In central Europe in particular, you’re never more than a day’s hike away from civilization and can stop if you need to.
Can I just fill my backpack and set off? It’s easier to set off if you’ve done some planning. Decide whether you want to hike alone or in a group.
Socializing and interacting with others are important factors to consider for long thru-hikes. Whether you set off alone or with a partner is also a question of mentality. Not everyone likes being alone all the time. Let’s examine the key arguments for and against going it alone.
Which is why most thru-hikers go it alone or with one other person. But even solo hikers are now facing peer pressure. “As a solo hiker, it’s lovely to join other people sometimes,” says Christine Reed. “But talking all the time can be tiring.” But she goes on to say that peer pressure sometimes makes it hard to simply retreat. Christine jokingly remarks that “It’s like a romantic relationship. Just tell the other person what you need to feel good.”
Ultimately, your budget depends on your habits and needs. Some thru-hikers can get by for six months on less than 6,000 euros. At the other end of the scale, the sky’s almost the limit. What matters is how much money you want to spend in places you pass through.
If money’s tight, Chris Townsend’s advice is “Don’t spend too much time in built-up areas, just leave as quickly as possible.”
One of the most frequent questions novice thru-hikers ask is whether they’re fit enough. You don’t have to be a marathon runner. But long distance walking training, so regular endurance training (jogging, cycling, hiking) to prepare you for your thru-hike makes it easier when you actually set out.
Your back and abdominal muscles are just as important as your legs. Strengthening exercises or regular yoga in the weeks before the hike starts will get you in shape. And British thru-hiker veteran Chris Townsend says that “The best long distance walking training for hiking with a backpack is to do exactly that.”
As long as you’re healthy and can walk, even older people can manage long-distance hikes. Human beings have an astonishing capacity to tough it out. Thorsten Hoyer (born in 1968) even reports that he’d “noticed that older people tend to have a higher pain threshold than their younger counterparts.”
Starting off on an expedition is easy if you’re in good shape. But caution’s required. People who feel really fit risk covering the first legs too quickly or going too far and quickly burning themselves out. It’s better to moderate your pace.
If you don’t feel very fit at the beginning, don’t worry. You’ll gradually build up stamina automatically. However, you do need to persevere on the first sections of the trail without overexerting yourself. Otherwise, you’ll risk injuring yourself or having achy muscles. And these complaints might not be so easy to ignore or even cause you to abandon your hike.
“By stretching and doing exercises frequently, you can prevent aches and pains or problems with tendons and muscles,” says Christine Reed. “You should treat minor injuries straight away,” advises Peter Hochhauser.
“Of course, some legs are allowed to be tiring occasionally. And you need to have a touch of ambition. But you shouldn’t view the trail as a competition,” comments thru-hiking expert Thorsten Hoyer. “Don’t put yourself under any pressure if other people are faster.” Take enough time for your thru-hiking project. There are spectacular record times for virtually all thru-hiking trails now, but that’s not the purpose of the undertaking.
You won’t always be in peak fitness every day of expeditions that last weeks or days. Occasional peaks and troughs are normal because your body’s not a machine. Treat it to shorter sections occasionally if you feel like it. If you need to, take a break for one or two days to recharge your batteries.
“You’re always hungry,” comments Peter Hochhauser when he talks about his thru-hikes. Energy requirements on thru-hikes are enormous. It’s good for burning calories and losing weight fast.
But prudence is a must because once those reserves of fat are used up, the body draws on energy elsewhere. Therefore, highly calorific food and drink are definitely allowed. “If you’re hungry often, you’re not eating enough. Then you’ll soon feel tired and sluggish,” confirms Peter.
If you eat too little, or your diet’s too one-sided, your body will feel weak. This can cause problems in the long term. Because of the weight, hikers often don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. Which is why towns and villages with shops should be used to stock up on vitamins. Wild fruit can also make a diet more interesting.
“More important than eating, is drinking enough and doing so regularly,” adds Thorsten Hoyer. Dehydration can quickly cause people to collapse. Dry regions might mean you have to lug large quantities of water with you. Whenever you start the next leg, you should know where to fill up your water supplies.
You sweat on long hikes all day. “Take enough salt with you and drink enough,” advises Christine Reed. This prevents cramp and muscle strain.
Pictures and videos of thru-hikes are always just snapshots of reality, particularly on social media. And they’re often staged too. A breathtaking landscape and highlights with an emotive appeal often take centre stage. But it’s taken a lot of hard work to reach that point. The low points are part of the experience – even if these never appear on social media. Keep reminding yourself to stay realistic.
Psychological hurdles: “Monotonous legs are usually the most challenging. For instance, when you spend days hiking through dull areas, virtually never leave a forest, or make slow progress on tough terrain,” says Peter Hochhauser who managed the Pacific Northwest Trail. Then it helps to set small goals that you can achieve in a moderate amount of time.
The time trap: “After months on the trail, you almost feel like you’re getting nowhere,” says Peter Hochhauser. To stay motivated, it’s crucial to keep sight of the big picture and accept that not every day will be amazing.
Unpleasant surprises: “Always expect the unexpected. Keep reminding yourself that your hike is all about freedom,” comments Thorsten Hoyer. Then even the toughest of trials will be sources of strength.
Monotony: “Even deserts or plains can be diverse and beautiful. It depends on your vantage point,” says Thorsten Hoyer. If that doesn’t help, grab your headphones, listen to some music on your smartphone and head on.
Rewards: While thru-hiking, you’ll learn to do with very little, otherwise you’ll give up. But a long-distance trek doesn’t have to mean endlessly depriving yourself. “Little rewards now and then keep you motivated. I love espresso pocket coffee chocolates for instance. Just one, every 30 kilometres. I stop and savour the taste and it really motivates me,” says Thorsten Hoyer.
Failure isn’t a disaster. “You can’t always have everything under control,” confirms Thorsten Hoyer. Changes require new strategies and new ideas. It’s usually better to take this on board than obstinately stick to original plans.
Life experience also makes you calmer. “Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have done the things I do today. Perhaps that’s because the older you get, the more stubborn you become,” says Thorsten jokingly.