How to Plan Your Thru-Hike
Though we are in the heart of wonderful winter, I keep thinking about the Pacific Crest Trail, sleeping under a deep blanket of snow up in the mountains about 20 miles from my house. Next summer, dust will rise from under hiker’s foot falls, legs and the inside of noses will be coated in fine volcanic grit. But for now the trail is frozen, quiet, and blanketed in white fluff.
I want to offer a few tips for those of you who hope to hit a trail next summer, hopefully helping your mid-winter daydreams to become mid-summer reality.
Visualize Your Trip
It’s easy to get sucked into planning the logistics of your hike, but before you dive into the physical details, take a moment to set the tone.
Why do you want to go on a hike? Where do you want to go? What do you hope your days are like? Who are you walking with (by yourself is a perfectly acceptable answer!)?
Begin establishing your expedition goals so the rest can fall into place. There are no wrong answers here- this is your trip & you get to decided what you want to bring to it.
Do you want to have time to do things like journal or fish every day? What about sleeping in or starting before dawn? Do you like having time to linger in town for a night, or are you on a budget & would rather get back out on the trail before you have to get a hotel room? Are you mile driven? Do you like taking side trips? Are you alright working with other travel companions or do you like to go alone? Do your hiking partners have similar goals? Be sure you and your travel companions are on the same page with expedition hopes.
Everything you plan will change when your vision meets reality, but when you have intention and goals, you stand a better chance of returning home with a smile on your face.
Study the Place You are Visiting
Look at maps—really look at them. Read them. Imagine yourself walking up the hills and down the box canyons (learn to understand those topo lines!).
Know what kind of weather can come your way in this place. Imagine walking down that box canyon in 103-degree temps or with icy rain blasting you in the face. Understanding the extremes of the land you will be walking across will help you be ready to enjoy that place in all of it’s moods.
Think About Water
Learn about water sources. Is this a trail you only need 2 liters of capacity on, or do you have 30 mile waterless stretches to plan for?
Figure out your resupply options & evac routes.
See the Big Picture
I usually get a set of Delorme Atlases (cover pic) for the states I’m hiking through, highlight my route, and make a couple sets of copies. One set is for me to take into the field, the other goes on the wall for whoever is my support person.
These atlas pages offer a big picture view of the region, and I use them when I have to re-route, figure out meetup locations for someone coming in for a visit, and to ease my curiosity about what’s over the next mountain. Use your overview maps, apps, or data books to figure out where you will be resupplying & what the easiest escape routes are. It’s a good idea to know what major cities are the closest to your route, so you have a good guess of what hospital you might wind up in if you are evacuated.
Flora and Fauna
Learn at least a few of the plants, rocks, and animals you will be surrounded by. Knowing the names of flowers and birds I see while I’m walking helps me feel at home.
I love hanging out in fields of shooting stars, picking Glacier Lilies to put on my lunch tortillas, and singing along with a creekside Hermit Thrush. Watching the rocks change from place to place—Sierra granite, Nor Cal Marble, & cascade basalt- helps me know where I am and why that place is unique.
Knowing names can help make your time on the trail less lonely and add depth to your experience. Instead of seeing faceless strangers, you will begin to think of the trailside critters as old friends.
Assess your skills & judgment.
What are you bringing with you in your head?
Before getting to the gear & stuff you are bringing, ask yourself what you know. Do you already know how to safely cross a flood stage stream? Does glissading down from a pass scare you to death? Can you set up your tarp in a storm? How do you feel about using your stove when you are exhausted at the end of a long day (maybe cook your hot meal for lunch and eat a tortilla for dinner to minimize your risk). Do you have first aid training & feel confident patching up blisters & scrapes? How about navigation? Have you thought about how to properly burry your poop and treat your water? Do you know how to figure out how much water to carry?
You do not need to be an expert to go out on the trail, but you should have a good sense of what your strengths and weaknesses are. Be honest with yourself. Give yourself credit when you know something, and be realistic about your weaknesses. Nature will give you a reality check when you get out there, but you can give yourself a leg up by tuning up your skill set before heading out.
It is not important to know everything to have a safe and fun journey. The important thing is to know when you know something well, and when you do not yet have mastery of a skill. When in doubt, I try to err on the side of humility. Assuming the world always has more to teach me allows me to be pleasantly surprised when I can manage a tricky situation, rather than die or get injured from being over confident.
To help freshen up your knowledge base, there are some excellent books to check out, YouTube channels to follow, you can sign up for a wilderness first aid class, or even hire an adventure consultant to help you figure out where to focus your efforts.
If you aren’t sure about hitting the trail with your current skill set, you can look into courses with Outward Bound & NOLS, or try to find a local class at a community college, guide service, or shops like REI. Outward Bound even offers a PCT preparation course!
Best of luck turning your winter daydreams into a stellar summer adventure!
Sage Clegg is an avid hiker, a wildlife biologist, and an outdoor educator who loves sharing her passion for wild places with others. She is available to help you plan hiking adventures, assess backcountry skills, and trim down your pack weight.