[pct-l] How? Planning vs. Preparation for a Thru Hike
ned at mountaineducation.org
ned at mountaineducation.org
Wed Sep 21 16:22:08 CDT 2016
"How?" (Thru Hike Planning vs. Preparing)
Planning is like making a shopping list.
Preparing is knowing and practicing what it will take to go get them.
For the long-distance thru-hiker, planning is researching what you'll need
to accomplish the hike. There are the known obvious things like clothing,
shelter, food, maps, and resupply logistics, but too many novice hikers seem
to forget to realize the serious importance of preparing to do the hike.
To prepare to go shopping, for example, we realize that we need to get
ourselves ready, first, make sure the car has gas and is insured, know the
way there and how to park without hitting something, know how to get around
in the store and find what you're looking for without getting lost, and have
enough money to buy everything on the list. So, there is a lot to know
before you go, but there must be an awareness of what actions are required
to be successful and that takes experience.
I can hear the novice asking, "Ok. I want to hike the John Muir Trail
because pictures of it are so pretty, but I have a ton of initial questions
running around in my head! How is it done? How do I stay safe? Can I get
hurt? Is it dangerous? Where does it go? How long will it take? What happens
if it rains? What do I need to do to prepare?"
Interestingly enough, most of our initial, broad-based, romantic questions
regard the doing and not so much the planning. It seems as though once
people have decided they want to do something, whether realistic or not,
they immediately launch into discovering the doing of the thing, then get
lost in the planning of it, and completely forget along the way to practice
the doing. Every year, energetic thru hikers take off from their trailheads
and suddenly realize they don't know what they're doing and numerous
problems immediately arise that can send them back home. They have planned
to do it, but don't know how!
As we said above, Preparation teaches the "How" of doing something, at least
in our minds. Preparation basics usually involve learning how to use your
selected food, clothing, and equipment to where you're happy with it. This
will also include practicing how to live outdoors efficiently to where
everything you do each day is safe, relaxing, and satisfying. (Yes, even
wilderness challenges, once you gain experience or training, become simple,
though maybe more detailed.) Both of these areas of outdoor learning are
progressive. Good and thorough preparation will allow your planning to
include everything needed for a successful hike from the start!
Start by conditioning the physical body to walking. Muscles know no age, but
they can be very out of shape! Walk as long and as often as your body's
complaints will allow. Treat every complaint seriously and seek medical
attention if swelling or pain shows up.
Walk around the block. Walk to the store and back. Do this once a week.
Stronger? No issues? Do this every-other day. Find a local park or
recreation area where there are hills and uneven trail. Train your joints,
tendons, and ligaments to become used to the vibration and pounding. Ease
into your training mileage and work up to the daily distances you think you
want to accomplish once on-trail. Listen to your body's complaints and
adjust accordingly! Too aggressive a start can bring too much pain or
discomfort and send you right back home to rest for a week.
Change your footwear, once on trails, to the kind of shoes you think will
work well and you'll like for backpacking. Add a backpack with only day
hiking supplies. Listen to your back and feet. Treat the aches, pains, and
blisters as needed. Try different shoe types as needed. Ease into this
regimen, too, then add weight and miles. If anything you're using is
bringing you grief or doesn't work as desired, change it and go again. This
process is giving you experience that shows you what "works" for you and
what could be intolerable! Remember, one man's heaven can be another man's
Now, at the same time, spend a few nights in your tent of choice in the
backyard. While you're at it, cycle the sprinklers to come on during the
night. This kind of simple test can answer many of your planning and
preparation questions regarding camping like:
- How big and heavy is the packed tent?
- How many parts does it have and how easy is it to pitch?
- Is it really waterproof? Windproof?
- Do I have enough room inside to change my clothes after pitching
in the rain?
- Can I store all my gear inside during a storm and still have room
- Is it easy to get in and out of the door?
- Is there enough room inside to safely use my stove when it's
- As the tent gets wet, does it loosen up and sag? Can I tighten it
up so it doesn't flap in the wind?
- When it's cold outside and warm inside, does condensation build
up on the inner walls to drip down and get me wet?
If anything becomes frustrating, dissatisfying, or simply doesn't "work" for
the way you're discovering how you like to do things, seek further advice,
find a different way of doing the same thing, or get a different tent
because you don't want to have these issues once on your thru hike!
At the same time, cook your home menu on your backpacking stove in your
kitchen. Get used to using it. Learn its quirks, problems, and repairs. If
it's too heavy, bulky, or complicated, seek further advice, but remember,
you may have to use your stove in your nylon tent when it's storming
outside, so alcohol stoves don't qualify. Then, cook outside in the wind,
wet, and cold.
At the same time, start eating your hiking menu at home while you still have
a toilet nearby. If a food is going to give you diarrhea or make you
constipated, it is best to discover this at home rather than miles from the
trailhead with limited toilet paper. You may find that a popular food item
just doesn't "work" for you or your body. Design your trail menu this way.
Now, take the whole mess onto the trail for an overnight! This will answer a
whole slew of questions, even before you leave your house, like:
- Does everything I want to bring fit in my pack?
- Where do I want to put each item for balance and ease of access?
- How does a fully loaded pack feel on my back, shoulders, pelvis,
hips, knees, and feet?
- How do my feet feel in my shoes of choice?
- Yes, I can strap stuff to the outside of my pack, but should I?
- Where do I put immediate-need stuff like camera, map, lip balm,
Once on-trail, hike half the total miles you were able to do without the
loaded pack and get into camp early enough to take time pitching and getting
organized the way you think you'll like to be. This process of camping in a
foreign place will teach you many more "how-to" details like:
- Campsite selection, location, access to water (or not), exposure
to wind and sun, sanitation issues, and more. Toilet paper? Trowel? Baby
- How you like to be organized in your tent. What needs to go in
- What to do if your stakes can't pierce the ground. How to make a
- Getting water out of a lake or creek, filtering it, and keeping
enough of it in your tent for dinner and breakfast. Which water purification
method and canteen "works" for you.
- Cooking on uneven ground, whether in or out of your tent, and
dealing with the weather.
- Clean-up, after meals and of the body and personal hygiene.
- Leave-No-Trace ethics and practices (leave your campsite as you
found it). Pack out waste!
- Evening and morning things you want to do.
- Re-packing your pack so you can get to priority things easily.
Make mental notes of things you want to change, go home, and get re-packed
for a 3-day weekend trip!
The 3-day weekend trip should teach you how to stay out a bit longer and how
that might affect you and what you bring and do. You need to learn:
- Do I get lonely? Do I prefer to hike with a friend? Do I like
being by myself for an extended time?
- Do I like camping or hiking? Do I prefer relaxing and exploring
around camp or the challenges of backpacking into the night or hiking long
- Weather can change from day to day, so I might need to carry a
wider variety of clothing for rain, sleet, hot sun, cold, wind, etc.
- To be more self-sufficient and independent. Since the car and
home are so far away, I'll need to take care of my crises right on the trail
and not wait to go home to solve the problem.
- How to pack up every morning, eat snacks and tend to blisters
along the trail, find lunch and purify more water at noon, watch the
weather, how to follow a trail and anticipate landmarks so you don't get
misplaced, and set up camp at the end of your day.
- What you like to eat once on-trail (this may differ from what
"worked" at home).
Make mental notes of things you want to change, go home, and get re-packed
for a week-long trip!
The week-long trip will teach you how to create systems of operation and
action that are even more efficient. The car will be even further away, so
you'll have to become even more self-reliant, cautious, and wise to minimize
mistakes or injury far from help. You will learn at this stage of
- How fast you go through fuel, both in your body and in your
- How you deal with internal and external factors like altitude,
cold, wet, heat, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, cramps, rain, hail,
snow, fatigue, loneliness, hunger, gastric upsets, miscellaneous fears and
concerns, daily logistics of mileage and campsites, creek crossings, use of
map and compass or trail guidebooks, extended personal hygiene, and more.
- Wilderness medical treatments to keep you sound of mind and body.
- How to repair stuff that breaks, rips, or gets chewed into by a
- That you will make mistakes, but with wisdom and caution you can
Lastly, for the long-distance thru hiker, go home, make changes, and plan a
2 or 3-week trip!
This extended outing is crucial for these reasons and more:
- You'll need a resupply! Most hikers are not willing to carry 20
days of food and supplies, but there may be places along the trail where,
even if just a short distance off-trail, they can buy food off the shelf or
pick up a resupply box they mailed to themselves.
- You'll be out long enough to develop "hiker hunger." Most hikers
can go about 4 days without feeling really hungry. The meals they brought
have been a little too big. Then things change! Somewhere around the week
mark, people start being glad they brought large meals because they're
"Really Hungry!" This experience will teach you how much food you need to
pack to maintain clarity of thought, body temperature, muscle strength, and
overall energy. Everyone's needs are different here, too! This is how you
find out how much you need to do what you want out on the trail.
- Dealing with weather extremes. Most of us can watch the weather
forecasts to select a fair weather window for a backpacking trip. If you
stay out longer, you just might have to deal with some nasty stuff like
wind-blown rain or hail, below freezing cold, or even snow. In mountainous
terrain, the very elevation changes can create local weather with clouds
overhead bringing rain, high winds, thunder storms, and maybe lightning. On
your anticipated thru hike, you'll be out long enough for these conditions
to occur, so you should prepare to ensure your warmth and safety through
- Accidents and unfortunate stuff happens. The more time you spend
in risky or inclement conditions, the greater the chance something will
happen. Whether due to haste, inattention, thoughtlessness, poor planning
(you brought the wrong stuff), inadequate preparation (you never faced this
challenge before), you simply didn't know what to anticipate (which is
probably poor planning and research), or insufficient skills training (how
do you walk on snow or cross creeks?), you may experience anything from a
mild injury to finding yourself completely lost. They say that you can't
anticipate everything, but when you are miles from help, you might want to!
Yes, it might mean a heavier and bulkier pack, but when the tent pole
breaks, your blister becomes infected, a tooth cracks, your sleeping pad
pops, you twist an ankle, your pack's waist belt rips, or you get stung by a
bee, you'll be able to take care of yourself or others, should something
like these happen to them. You are a member of the hiking community, now.
Watch out for each other!
Thru Hike Preparation:
On-trail experience already learned that will allow your planning stage to
create a thru hike that,
- "works" for your style and purpose of hiking,
- starts off in wisdom,
- minimizes trail mistakes and hazards, and
- keeps you on-trail, well supplied, in-touch, and on schedule to a
C Mountain Education, Inc. 2016
Ned Tibbits, Director
Mountain Education, Inc.
ned at mountaineducation.org <mailto:ned at mountaineducation.org>
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