You’ve done plenty of day hikes. You’ve walked around the state parks and along the coastline. And now you’re ready for the adventure of a multi-day trip. How do you get started planning a long-distance hike? And what makes it different from the hiking you’ve already done?
Long-distance hiking and multi-day hikes have gotten increasingly popular in the past decade, thanks in part to pop culture, like the book “Wild,” and partially thanks to an increasing number of high-level athletes going after “fastest known times” on long sections of well-known trails. Jennifer Pharr Davis became the first woman to set an overall fastest known time — beating all the men and women to that point — when she hiked the entire 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes in 2011.
But you don’t have to be fast to head out for a few days. You don’t even necessarily have to spend your nights outside either — you could just plan a series of day trips back-to-back.
“There are people who day hike the whole Appalachian Trail,” says Pharr Davis, who leads hiking trips through the Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Those people simply plan day hike after day hike, with support crews or stops along the way.
KNOW YOUR OPTIONS
That’s the first question you should answer: Do you want to backpack (e.g., carry everything you need with you) or do you want to do a supported trip (e.g., have someone meet you each day with food and camping gear)? Or, you could even plan a supported trip where you map out routes during the day that have you staying in hostels or motels most nights.
Of course, planning a supported trip can be tricky if you don’t have someone who can drive a van while you hike. There are hiking groups and companies that will coordinate those logistics.
Some trails, like the Appalachian, says Pharr Davis, also have hostels and campsites that shuttle you to a trail head within a 200-mile range. This “slack-packing,” as they call it, allows you to ease in to multi-day hiking.
“All they have to do is walk,” says Warren Doyle, a hiking icon who runs the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Institute. He heavily recommends supported day hikes for multiple days in a row as a great way for beginners to get used to the woods, and especially for people with limited mobility or elderly hikers who have trouble with their joints. Not having to carry as much gear makes the hike easier. “The chances of success increase with the amount of weight you decrease,” he says.
FIVE TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Whatever way you choose to do your long-distance hiking, Pharr Davis and Doyle have a few tips.
1. DO YOUR RESEARCH
So much of the information you need is actually online. Almost every trail has a conservation group that oversees it and the ones that run through national or state parks typically also have rules that govern them.
“Talk to someone who’s not an equipment outfitter,” says Doyle, because they won’t have an ulterior motive of trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. And talk to someone who’s successfully done the trail you want to do, who is also your age, gender and background — so you have similar experiences.
You should also plot out the logistics beforehand. Which road crossings can your support crew meet you? Which towns can you resupply your food stores? There are sites where people who have successfully hiked the trails post their gear lists. That allows you to see what worked and customize the list to your needs. But don’t get overwhelmed by the logistics, says Doyle, it’s more about your temperament and willingness to be uncomfortable and adaptable.
2. DON’T STRESS ABOUT GEAR …
… But, be prepared. It’s not worth buying tons of expensive gear for your very first trip, says Pharr Davis, when you can rent or borrow instead. That also allows you to test-drive expensive equipment and see what works for you before you commit. “Hiking doesn’t have to be super expensive to get into it,” she says.
One of the most common mistakes Pharr Davis sees beginner hikers make is bringing too much gear. That all adds up to extra weight, which, over the long run, can cause injuries and slow you down.
3. DO A MINI-PRACTICE TRIP
Pharr Davis recommends a “shake-down hike.” The idea is that once you have all the gear you think you need, you go for a shorter multi-day trip, and “you’ll realize what you really need,” she says. Doyle requires the hikers who come on his expedition trips to do shorter trips beforehand to be sure this is what they want to do and they’re prepared. The mini trips also give you a chance to learn basic skills, like “the two Ds,” says Doyle — head downhill and downstream when you’re in trouble or get lost.
What you do need (if you’re going to be out in the woods for more than one day), says Pharr Davis: a pack, shelter, sleeping bag, a good pair of hiking shoes, wool or wicking socks, clothing layers, a rain jacket, a first-aid kit (which includes toiletries like sunscreen, bug spray, a headlamp, Band-Aids … all the basics, she says), food to last until your next resupply stop and your resources like a map, guidebook or compass. “Beyond that, a lot of things are luxury items,” she says.
4. GET FIT BEFORE YOU GO
The other common mistake Pharr Davis sees beginners make is they “go too fast, too soon.” Because your pack will get lighter as you go and you’ll get fitter, it makes sense to ease in, she says. But you want to show up on the first day fit and healthy enough that you can hike 10 miles per day. (Most hikers ultimately do 15–20 miles/day, depending on the terrain.)
No matter how much day hiking and training you do to prepare, it’s all about the attitude. The most successful hikers have a good attitude, she says, and are ready for things to get a little messy.
5. MAKE A PLAN, BUT BE FLEXIBLE
This is both Doyle and Pharr Davis’ philosophy: Be adaptable to the trail, because the trail won’t adapt to you. You need to have a plan before you go — what route, how far you’re going to go each day, where you’ll meet your support van each day or where you’ll resupply every few days if you don’t have a support crew. Resupply can either mean hitting a road and walking into a small town for food or mailing yourself a package in advance at a designated hostel or post office, where they can hold it for you.
But be prepared to change your plans. “It’s all about adaptability,” says Pharr Davis. That’s why she also likes to bring an extra half-day’s worth of food, in case something goes wrong. In fact, the biggest dangers, like weather, only become huge problems when you’re not adaptable. If you insist on trekking through a storm, instead of seeing it coming and getting to a safe place or hunkering down, then that’s when you could get hurt.
You should also “be accountable to someone else,” says Pharr Davis, which could mean hiking with a buddy or telling someone where you’ll be and when you’ll check in or even bringing an emergency GPS beacon if you’re hiking solo.
READ MORE > 5 GREAT COASTAL HIKES TO KEEP YOU INSPIRED
FOUR POPULAR TRAILS
While these rules apply to almost every trail you’ll hike, there are also some specific suggestions for a few of the most popular routes:
The AT isn’t easy, but it is accessible. That means there are road crossings and small towns along the way, which makes it possible to do supported hikes or spend the night in hostels and motels. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains the trail and lists all the basics you need to know, including transportation options and dangers to watch out for. There are no permits or fees to hike, but there are permits required in some campgrounds. Some of the most popular parts are the 101-mile section through the Shenandoah National Park and the Presidential Range through New Hampshire, which includes the 6,288-foot Mount Washington. Thru-hiking the entire AT typically takes 5–7 months, but only 1 in 4 hikers who attempt it succeeds.
Pacific Crest Trail
The PCT, unlike some of the other popular long-distance point-to-point trails, has a permitting system for areas — in part because hiking the trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, has gotten so overrun. While the trail covers national and state land, under different departments, the Pacific Crest Trail Association is the organization that oversees all trail information — and that can get you pointed in the right direction. While many thru-hikers take the full five-month season, when there isn’t snow, to do the complete 2,650-mile trail, there are also popular shorter sections. Because it can be longer between road crossing or towns, it’s harder to do the PCT as a supported hike and you may need to bring more food with you. Plus, with the snow in the mountains, you need to time your trip so you aren’t hitting the Sierras until after late spring and even early summer, depending on the weather.
Yosemite National Park is best known for its day hikes, like the Yosemite Falls Trail or Half-Dome (which requires a permit), but there is also extensive backcountry hiking and backpacking in the park. Free wilderness permits are required for overnight trips, so park rangers can keep track of who’s camping. Permits are processed by lottery, though there are some available on a first-come, first-served basis, so plan ahead. Seventy miles of the PCT actually goes through Yosemite, but the most famous backpacking is likely on the John Muir Trail, which stretches up to Mount Whitney — the highest point in the continental U.S.
The Grand Canyon
“The Grand Canyon is a whole different beast,” says Pharr Davis. That’s partially because of the heat but also because of the terrain. Most of the visitors to the Grand Canyon stay on the South Rim, which is open year-round, and do day hikes. But the hike down to the bottom of the canyon or down and back up to the North Rim, which is open May–October, has become increasingly popular. In fact, it got so popular with people trying to do rim-to-rim or rim-to-rim-to-rim (and needing to be rescued) that the park temporarily instituted a permitting system below the rim. Now, however, you just need a permit for any overnight camping, but plan ahead. While there are some campgrounds, they fill up fast, and Phantom Ranch — the lodge at the bottom of the canyon — fills up so quickly it operates a lottery system. There is also a lodge on the North Rim, if you make it all the way down and up to the other side, but be warned: Hikers frequently underestimate how hard the hike is with about 6,000 feet of elevation from rim to river, and how hot it can get. You want to do a long-distance hike here at the right time, when it’s not too hot but when the water spigots have been turned on — either early (May) or late (October/November).