Are you ready for a long distance hike? Answers to FAQs here

The PCT is one of the nation's premier long-distance trails, stretching from Mexico to Canada.

Mike Lemmon, flickr

So you’re thinking about taking your hiking adventures to the next level? A long-distance hike on a trail like the Pacific Crest Trail or  the Appalachian Trail offers unparalleled adventure, but it will require a lot of planning.

Whether you do the entire length of the trail, or just a few week stint, you will experience loads of wilderness areas, national parks, and other outstanding destinations within one trip. The question is, are you ready? Here are few tips to get you started.

The Continental Divide Trial, flickr, Brian & Jaclyn Drum.

Choose the right companion

The first choice you’ll need to make is whether to go solo or share your memories with someone else. Hiking alone provides contemplative solitude and the ability to set your own pace, but feelings of loneliness can be a drawback. If you go with someone else, you’ll have someone with which to share the load. You will be spending A LOT of time with this person, so consider their abilities and preferences as well.If you do go solo, it's important to tell someone the details of your route and schedule and check in with them whenever possible. Click here for thoughts about women hiking alone

photo: Florida Trail in Big Shoals State Forest. credit: Flickr, B A Bowen Photography.

Decide on your journey

You (and perhaps your hiking buddy) will need to pick a trail. While it's a feather in one's cap to say they've completed on of the hike in the "Triple Crown" of long distance hikes --the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, there are shorter options as well.  Here’s some suggestions for shorter hikes that require less time commitment and could be good for starters: 

  • Sierra High Route - 195 miles in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains (takes about a week at 20 miles per day). Challenging because it’s less marked and maintained.
  • John Muir Trail - 211 miles running in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail in California (see below). Best traversed from July to September. Catch a glimpse in a video here.
  • Long Trail - America’s first long-distance hiking trail runs 273 miles through Vermont. Best late spring through late fall.
  • Superior Hiking Trail - 275 miles across Minnesota. Best late spring to early fall.
  • Colorado Trail - 486 miles (takes about 4 to 6 weeks). Challenging because of elevation, and best hiked in July and August.
  • Hayduke Trail - 800 miles through some of America’s most incredible national parks in Utah and Arizona. Best in spring and fall.
  • Pacific Northwest Trail - 1,200 miles (at least two months). Best in summer and fall at higher elevations, but sections can be hiked year-round at lower elevations.
  • Florida Trail - 1,400-miles (two to three months). Trail is passable year-round but peak season is from October to April.

photo: Superior Hiking Trail in Cascade River State Park, Minnesota. credit: Flickr, Brian Hoffman.

If you’re feeling ambitious and are able to take the time, you may want to consider exploring America’sTriple Crown” of long distance hikes:

  • The Appalachian Trail (also known as the A.T.) runs over 2,100 miles through 14 states between Georgia and Maine, so it takes about five to seven months from spring to fall to thru-hike. Passing through 26 designated wilderness areas, it was initiated by Wilderness Society founder Benton MacKaye, and is now largely maintained by wilderness lovers such as The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards. You can check out sections here and hear more about trips here.
  • The Pacific Crest Trail (P.C.T.) in the Western U.S. is longer - over 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada - so a thru-hike usually takes the entire five-month snow-free season. It connects with other trails such as the Pacific Northwest Trail and the John Muir Trail (see above).
  • The Continental Divide Trail is the most challenging of the three - only about 25 people a year attempt to hike its entirety. Stretching 3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains through 21 Wildernesses from Montana to New Mexico, it’s best journeyed from April to October. It connects with the Pacific Northwest Trail in Glacier National Park.

photo: packages mailed to an A.T. hiker. credit: Flickr, Mark Larson.

Prepare for your trip

Once you have the excitement of wild landscapes awaiting you, you’ll be ready to start planning your adventure. Begin by reading all about the trail and obtaining current maps and trail guides. Find out if you’ll need to obtain any permits in advance.

You’ll also want to condition your body. The best way to prepare is to spend several weeks hiking long days with 40 pounds of weight, but there are other ways to get yourself in shape. Regardless of your condition, plan to start your long-distance hike slowly, with 8-mile days building to 15-mile days within the first couple weeks to 20-mile days within the first month or so.

To fuel yourself you’ll need to pack food that is energy packed but also lightweight and easy to prepare. Freeze dried prepared foods are more costly than dehydrating meals yourself, which alternatively could take considerable time.

As for supplies, start making a list of what you absolutely can’t live without. Toilet paper might be more important than soap, for example. Remove any and all excess packaging and weight (such as cardboard tubes inside toilet paper rolls) and use travel size bottles for liquids. What you can’t carry you can mail to yourself via General Delivery to post offices along the route (see your trail guide), but plan how much to include in your mailings and keep a list of items being mailed. Don’t forget you’ll want to reduce and store trash as part of leave no trace principles.

Part of the pleasure of hiking long-distance is that you can expect the unexpected. Before you begin your trek, learn as much as you can from others who've gone before, and then just enjoy the journey! It's sure to be one you'll never forget.