How To Mentally Prepare For a Thru-Hike: Tips, Tricks and Advice

To mentally prepare for a thru-hike is no small feat. A thru hike is an end-to-end affair over a very (very, very, very) long distance, and it normally takes months to complete such a thing. In the United States there are three famous monsters, collectively known as the Triple Crown to the legends that have wandered the entirety of them all.

They are the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. And you have probably heard of them.

Hikers leave home for months at a time and traverse various different environmental regions through a range of different climatic conditions over various elevations, all the while carrying everything they need to eat and sleep.

Understandably, this is going to require some preparation, both physical and mental.

Yet, there is only so much mental preparation you can do, and it will only get you so far. The real stuff, the good stuff, the stuff you find out about yourself; you learn that on the thru hike.

Nonetheless it is important to give yourself every advantage possible in order to complete one of these gargantuan endeavors.

So, here I present to you 15 different tips, tricks and pieces of advice that will help you to prepare mentally for what is to come. It is probably useful to jot a few of these down and take them with you for reference on the trail. You know, for when the times get a little rough.

1. Have an emergency toy for when things get too hard

You know when there is a baby that will not stop crying until it gets that one single toy. The favorite toy. Well, that is you on that crazy-long trail. A baby. At some point, you are going to spit the dummy, plonk your bottom on the ground, and refuse to budge another inch. At this time, you need that one special toy that is going to make everything alright again.

Now it might not necessarily be a toy. The toy can be representative of anything. For some people, they are just going to need to sit down and dig for that emergency Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate. For others it might be an early day and a sip of that 21-year-old scotch, or you have saved two hours of battery to get your Elton John fix.

It doesn’t matter what it is. Have that emergency dummy ready for when it all just gets too hard.

2. Test your gear in the worst possible weather

The peace of mind knowing you have awesome gear to rely on is invaluable. If you have crappy gear, then ahem… tough luck.

Go walking in that atrocious weather. Pitch your tent in the back garden during that weekend-long drenching, and go sit in it for hours and hours at a time. Get used to that gentle dripping sound of raindrops on your plastic roof.  Spend more time outside. The more time you are outside, the more you get used to being outside.

When you step foot on that trail for your first thru hike, you are going to be outside for 99.9% of the time for the next however-long.

3. Have awesome gear!

I thought I would hammer the final nail home here before we go any further. You do not want to be walking for five months with crappy boots from a department store. You do not want to sleep in a tent that leaks like a sieve.

You do not want to freeze in your $9 sleeping bag that you purchased for an absolute bargain online, written in a language that you do not understand – or even recognize – with a big -50°F sign on it. You don’t know what that says. It could say: Do not take this bag anywhere near temperatures of -50°F. OR: You will surely perish in this bag at -50°F.

If you do not have the dosh for some good gear, then wait a little longer, save a little a longer, and then when you can afford it, buy your key items bit by bit. The trail is not going to go anywhere, but your experience of it, and the way that you perceive it will change dramatically if you are prepared and have industry-leading equipment.

For me personally, this means I am looking for an MSR backpacking tent to go with my Sea to Summit sleeping mat and my Western Mountaineering sleeping bag. My gore-tex Mammut outer shell jacket keeps me warm, my Berghaus waterproof pants keeps the water out, while my luxurious Zamberlan boots can keep me on my feet all day.

Altogether it is thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff, but it is my stuff and it is good stuff and I could grab it all now, throw it in my Osprey pack and walk off into the wilderness and be quite capable of surviving.

You will build up a relationship with your gear. If you begin the trip as that part-time hiker who always shies away from engaging in hiking-gear-related conversations with like-minded people, do not be surprised if you end it as the person striking up those conversations.

“Ah, I see you went with the Marmot Tungsten ­two-man-er tent there. A solid choice. As you can see, I am a MSR Hubba Hubba kind of guy.” – you say with a wink.

Also read: 12 Best Ultralight Backpacking Packs

4. Go on a dummy hike

I use the word hike a bit carelessly here. I am not saying throw on your boots and wander along the local forest track, or out for the day in the hills near town. Get your behind into the backcountry, carry your own food and tent and try your best to replicate a week of a thru hike.

If, at the end of that week, you are kicking and screaming at the mere sight of a tree, then thru hiking is probably not for you. There, I just saved you a lot of time. You’re welcome.

5. Learn from someone else’s experience

Know someone that has done a thru hike? Good. Go ask them two of their horror stories (they are bound to have them, and you will acquire your own) about their thru hike, and then ask yourself if you still want to go. Do you? Good.

The internet is choc-full of thru hiking blogs where you can find out about everything that has ever gone wrong on a trail anywhere, ever. Skim through these. They are useful whinges. Make notes on little mistakes made. You may pick up some valuable little tips on things that you would never have thought about until you were out there and actually needed it!

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