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How to Navigate on a Thru-Hike

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When it comes to completing a thru-hike, there are a lot of factors to consider. Some thru-hikers prioritize their gear, while others concentrate on the physical preparation. For a beginner, both of these are critical, especially when setting out to accomplish something very few in the world have ever done. Completing the Appalachian Trail (the first long-distance trail I completed and the longest known continuous footpath in the world only accessible by walking) requires countless hours of research, preparation, and anticipation. Equally important are the tools you choose to help you navigate.


Before I set out to complete the task of hiking 2,190 miles, I first had to understand that while the Appalachian Trail is marked with white blazes starting in Georgia and ending in Maine. These blazes are the same in each direction; a person could easily confuse if they were walking north or had accidentally turned south.image2

This watch kept ambassador Elliot Pacheco headed north on his 2018 AT thru-hike. All images: Elliot Pacheco

Watch and Compass

To combat this mix-up, one of the most important pieces of gear that I chose to carry with me was my Garmin Fenix-5X GPS watch. In addition to a compass and elevation plot, the watch also showed me which direction I had come from. Of all the gear I made sure to bring with me, this watch was absolutely essential. It showed me my heart rate so I didn’t push my limits and become overly fatigued. At the same time it informed me about how long I had been hiking for the day and the distance I had traveled within that time.

The watch lasted over 12 hours a day while I hiked and guaranteed I was always walking north.

Essential Guidebook

Many thru-hikers purchase the AWOL Guide, a comprehensive guidebook for traveling the trail. The AWOL guide is filled with essential information about the upcoming towns, hostels, the elevations one will encounter, bear activity in the area you’re about to hike in, the shelters, the festivals they have for the hikers, water sources, and just about anything else a hiker will need to arrive safely to their destination.


I carried this book the entire length of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail making sure that it never left my side. In all actuality, it proved to be a lifeline and would go down as one of the most important pieces of equipment to carry while on the trail.


If carrying weighted books isn’t essentially your thing, many thru-hikers choose to use the other method of mapping which is an application on your phone known as GutHooks. This phone app was the most prominent and well-known software available for the modern-day hiker. It is essentially a map of the entire trail that can be used in Airplane mode when one is immersed in the deep wilderness where many have no service.

This app contains the same information that is available in the AWOL Guide—from water sources to town information. It’s also well known for its ability to leave comments for other hikers to see as they browse. This is one incredibly useful since the trail is constantly changing. One week a water source may be flowing and the next week it could be completely dry. I experienced this on my hike when there was a drought in Pennsylvania and the next week there were floods. Many hikers also post about the available stealth campsites along the trail, which can be very helpful for those who push big miles into the night and need a place to set their daily mileage to. Guthooks is an absolute goldmine of information for hikers and should be considered a priority for those choosing to be in the backcountry for longer periods of time.image5

Electronics Charger

Phones run out of power. Being able to charge your electronics is always important and that is why I chose to carry an Anker portable battery charger. Choosing one with Qualcomm Quick Charge made recharging easy when I reached a hostel or any place with an outlet and guaranteed that it would be completely charged the next morning. Keeping all of your electronics completely dry is also very important, so I made sure to keep them in a separate Ziploc bag with silica gel packets to ensure that no moisture would damage these important pieces of equipment.

These methods are just some ways one would be able to go about staying on the trail safely and informed. It worked for me in 2018 on the Appalachian Trail and I will continue to use these methods and equipment for the PCT in 2019 and the CDT in 2020. Happy trails and remember to Hike Your Own Hike!

Elliot “Beats” Pacheco, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, completed the Appalachian Trail in 2018 and is attempting to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019 and the Continental Divide Trail in 2020. Find him on Instagram at @e4exploring.

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