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Backpacking Shi Shi Beach and Point of the Arches on the Olympic Coast. Photo by Deanna Marie Molenda.

Long-Distance Hiking 101

So, you’re a frequent hiker, and you even try to get in a few weekend backpacks every summer. Now you're interested in taking it up a notch. Before you run out and try to join hiking’s varsity squad, you need to be prepared | by Eli Boschetto

One of the biggest misconceptions about long-distance hikes is that they are just like a regular backpack, only longer. Yes and no. Unlike a weekender in the Enchantments, a long-distance hike (we’re talking a week to a month or even up to six months if you’re looking at the entire Pacific Crest Trail) is an exercise in endurance and perseverance, both mentally and physically.

But it’s not all about pain and suffering. A long-distance hike offers an exciting opportunity to get away from it all and experience wilderness in a way that shorter trips often don’t allow. If you’re out for just a few days, you often have to turn around and head home just as you’re getting your trail groove on. But a long trip puts you out in big, wide-open nature where your everyday life fades into the background and your only cares become the next mountain view, the next cool water source and the next choice campsite. But in order to pull off a successful long-distance or thru-hike, you need to plan and prepare with a goal in mind but be able to take any curveballs that come your way.

Mind Over Matter

You don’t need to be an Olympic triathlete to do a long-distance hike. Just about anyone in good health with moderate fitness can hike a few hundred miles. One of the keys to a successful long-distance hike is being open and flexible enough to deal with whatever nature, or your own body, throws at you.

You will get hot; you will get cold; you will get tired; you will get wet; you will get dirty; you will get lonely; you will get bitten by bugs; you may get sunburned; you may get rained on; you may get blisters; you may get hurt; you may get scared; you may cry. While that sounds like a lot of detractions, it is nothing to be ashamed of when it happens—and it will happen. Even the most ardent hikers get discouraged or break down from time to time.

You don’t need to be an Olympic triathlete to do a long-distance hike. Just about anyone in good health with moderate fitness can hike a few hundred miles.

Often, the hardest part of an extended journey is the first week or two. That’s when your legs are fresh (despite how many conditioning hikes you’ve taken), your pack is the heaviest and your end goal is a million miles away. But the only way you’re going to see that far-off wilderness is to put one foot in front of the other and do it.

You will quickly find that the panoramic views suddenly make your aches go away, that refreshing drinks from icy streams reenergize you when you’re tired and that freeze-dried stroganoff tastes really good when noshing in a high lake basin with sunset alpenglow lighting up the peaks around you.

Sunset by James Brady
Enjoying a celebratory sunset after a long day of hiking. Photo by James Brady.

Plan for Success

Once you have identified the long-distance trail you want to hike, you need to start planning. This involves researching the trail, planning your itinerary, obtaining any necessary permits, identifying potential hiking companions and getting yourself into shape. Depending on the length of your selected trail, and the amount of time you plan on hiking, this can be quite an endeavor—albeit a fun one that will doubtless get you even more excited for your trek.


Do Your Research

The best way to learn about the trail you’re interested in is to study guidebooks and websites and to purchase trail maps, making sure that they cover your entire route. Read blogs of other hikers who have hiked the trail and can offer insights and advice. If the trail has an interest group or forum, try connecting with other hikers for helpful information. If the trail you want to hike requires a permit, know the application dates and deadlines.


Plan Your Itinerary

 Start with how many days you want to be on the trail. If your hike will be over a few weeks, you will likely want to plan pretty specifically; if your hike with be over a few months, you can build in a lot more flexibility. Also consider: known water and camp locations, resupply points, trail conditions for the time of year you’re hiking and “zero” days. You want to plan an itinerary that is reasonable for you (and any companions) to achieve and gets you from start to finish in the time you have available—but still allows you the freedom to stop and photograph the flowers or enjoy a nice lakeside lunch. If you plan too aggressive an itinerary or too many daily miles, your hike will feel more like work than recreation.


Get in Trail Shape

Nothing will prepare you for hiking like hiking. Once your itinerary is set and the other logistics are taken care of, start conditioning for your trek. Go out on practice hikes with a full pack. Be sure to add some grinders in there to build strength in your legs. Hit the gym or do a home workout to build back and core strength to help manage your pack weight and improve trail balance. Find the right boot–sock combination and get your feet used to working. By starting your trip physically, as well as mentally, prepared, you will feel much more confident about your endeavor and ready for the challenges ahead.

Rainbow by Andrea Sassenrath
Pushing through 2,500+ elevation gain to make it to the rainbow. Photo by Andrea Sassenrath. 

Pack Smart

Packing for a long-distance hike is much the same as packing for a weekend hike, with just a little more thoughtfulness about what you want to carry. For a short weekend jaunt, you may be willing to lug a camp chair, bottle of merlot and fresh avocados with you. But after just a few days of starting a multi-week endeavor, you start thinking about every single thing in your pack and how it’s weighing you down.


Reduce Pack Weight

If you’re going to be hiking a trail that offers resupply locations, take advantage of these to minimize your food weight; if you’re going have access to lots of water, carry only what you need to get you from one source to the next, and time your breaks and camps to replenish your supply.This doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to buy the latest ultralight hiking gear, cut the handle off your toothbrush and trim away spare inches of pack strapping. Look for ways to trim weight without compromising your comfort and safety, and don't overpack with extra apparel.

Of course, cutting weight is not an excuse to discard essentials. You should still carry all of your Ten Essentials, including rain gear, first aid kit and a water filtration system.

  • Gear: Minimize the number of comfort items you’re packing along, especially electronics that require extra batteries. Choose items that can serve dual purposes: roll up your puffy jacket to serve as a pillow, and use your sleeping pad as a camp chair.
  • Food: You should not skimp on food to cut weight, but instead choose lightweight foods that still supply the calories you need. Freeze-dried foods are lighter than dehydrated foods and require less water and cooking time to prepare. Repackage all food into ziptop baggies and avoid canned items to minimize trash (and often contain water, which also adds weight).
  • Water: Water is heavy, weighing in at 2.2 pounds per liter. On trail, carry only as much as you need (and a little extra) to get you to the next good water source. Instead of carrying a bulky water filter, opt for Aquamira water treatment drops or chlorine dioxide purification tablets. Both are effective without the icky taste of iodine.
  • Apparel: Pack less clothing. You can get away with as little as one extra set of socks and undergarments. Wear the first set for a few days until you start to get a little stinky, then switch to the other. Rinse out your dirty items in camp and let hang dry on your pack while you hike. Change out again after a few more days. Repeat.
  • Footwear: Most popular long-distance trails are usually well-maintained so you can ditch the heavy mountaineering boots, which will quickly become lead weights on your feet. Choose a pair of light to midweight hikers that provide the support you need and supplement those with good trekking socks and ultralight liners.
  • Camera: You definitely want to get photos of your adventure, but unless you’re snapping for National Geographic, you can leave the DSLR, extra lenses and tripod at home. Pack along a small bridge camera or just use your smartphone. There are plenty of cool apps for iPhones and Androids that let you get really creative with outdoor photography.

Indulge a Little

On the flip side, there are some items that you may want to add to your pack that can help you recover from long miles and ensure that you enjoy your trip. Pack along a pair of lightweight camp shoes or sandals so you can let your feet escape your sweaty boots at the end of every hiking day. Carry a supply of treats in your food bag that you get to enjoy as your reward for reaching the next campsite. Yes, you want to watch your pack weight, but you still want to enjoy yourself.

"Don’t believe that thru-hikers are superior to [other] hikers. The beauty of backpacking is that there are so many wonderful ways of doing it. Discover what brings you joy. The important thing is to get out on the trail." — Joan “Hemlock” West, PCT section hiker, 2014

Hike Your Own Hike

For most hikers, taking an epic long-distance trek is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Ask yourself what you hope to get out of your adventure, and make that a priority. If you like taking lakeside naps in the afternoons, then work that into your itinerary. If you like photographing wildflowers or identifying trees, then add extra time in your days for that.

Don't feel like you need to be one with the crowd and that you’re required to hike a specific number of miles each day. Hiking is not a contest, and you have nothing to prove. Do what’s good for you. After all, you’re doing this for fun, not for punishment.

Build in “zero” days to relax at special locations. Send yourself treats and fresh socks in your resupply packages. Carry a small journal for notes and lessons learned along the way. Greet fellow hikers and share experiences and trail beta. Take the ups with the downs, make discoveries and make friends but, above all, enjoy. Only then will you look back on your experience with fondness, as one that was truly worth the effort.

Chikamin Lake by Drew Larrigan
Looking over he edge of a waterfall near Chikamin Lake. Photo by Drew Larrigan.
This article originally appeared in the March+April 2015 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.