Most people are familiar with hiking as both a sport and a hobby. Thru-hiking is similar in some ways, but completely different in others. The core differences between hiking and thru-hiking mean different things for your fitness.
This isn’t your average hiking trip – it’s a veritable tour de force that will push your to your limits. For many thru-hikers, that push is well worth the end result.
Thru-hiking isn’t for the faint of heart, but technically, everyone who is prepared can enjoy a thru-hike. As long as you understand the proper way to approach thru-hiking, you’ll be able to enjoy the health benefits that come along with such an intense adventure.
Nothing is more satisfying than being able to say with honesty that you hiked for thousands of miles.
What is Thru-Hiking?
Thru-hiking is a complex voyage. If you’re a casual hiker, you’ve probably been on hiking trips that lasted a few days, stopping to camp during the night. Thru-hiking is more than just a few nights – in some cases, these hiking trips can last months.
Thru-hiking is sometimes called end-to-end hiking and it involves the completion of the entirety of a trail. Some of the most popular thru-hiking trails in North America are the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail, which is said to have only been completed by roughly 12,000 people.
These trips may seem impossible, but plenty of people have earned some well-deserved bragging rights. The 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail was completed by a 67 year old woman named Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, proving that anyone who is determined enough to complete a thru-hiking trip can handle the intensity.
It’s not your average hiking trip, and that’s exactly the appeal. It’s not for novices, and you may want to practice long hikes before you attempt a thru-hike, but you can do it.
How Do You Prepare for a Thru-Hiking Trip?
Thru-hiking can last thousands of miles. Some of these trails take half a year to complete, and there’s simply no way you can carry provisions for that long. Imagine carrying six months’ worth of canned goods on your back.
You won’t last very long. This is why many thru-hiking trails have stations where you can leave yourself nonperishable goods for later, setting up supply stations along the way.
Some thru-hikers start off with a limited amount of provisions and break the trail for the nearest towns when they need to stock up. Some of them will have friends or family members ship them supplies at regular intervals so they can stop and grab the packages.
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You’ll need to determine how you intend to keep yourself stocked up on the trail.
You’re also going to want to keep your everyday supply weight to a minimum. You’re going to want tools to help you build campsites, and you’re going to need a place to sleep. It’s worth looking into the best hammock brands, rather than carrying a tent. You’ll always be able to find a few trees to set up a hammock, and it weighs much less than a tent.
It’s small considerations like these that help thru-hikers remain committed to the trip for so long.
What Will Thru-Hiking Do to My Body?
Essentially, thru-hiking will do the same things to your body that hiking will do, but the results will be more intense. One day of hiking does the body good, but several months of hiking does the body much better. Since you’re going on a hike that’s so long it may change the scale of your personal fitness results, it’s important to consider how these results are going to stack. You’re constantly moving, and you’re constantly improving your health.
Of course you’re going to lose weight on a thru-hike. It’s constant cardiovascular exercise, and hiking burns a tremendous amount of calories. You also won’t have access to your vices – there are no fast food restaurants or junk food stops on the hiking trail.
Since you’re constantly in motion, your diet needs to reflect your body’s needs. Protein is very important, and you’re going to need a substantial amount of healthy calories to keep you powered for the journey.
The combination of necessary healthy eating and constant motion work in synergy to help you trim excess body fat. If you’re looking to shed some weight, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by your results. If you don’t have any excess body fat to trim, it may be worth gaining a few extra pounds before you take your trip.
You’re going to be a calorie burning machine for a very long time, and it’s better to stay on the safe side.
Thru-hiking is a truly incredible way to build muscle – just make sure you’re consuming enough protein to facilitate healthy muscle development.
All of that walking and climbing will help you develop your legs. If you’re the kind of person that likes to skip leg day, you’re embarking on an adventure where leg day is every day. Be prepared to finish your journey with calves so strong that you’ll want to start peak climbing.
Aside from your calves you’re also getting a great workout for your glutes and your quadriceps. Your entire lower body is going to be significantly affected – much more than they would be by your typical regimen of squats and wall sits. If you think Crossfit workouts can be intense, you’ll quickly find that thru-hiking is a completely different ballgame.
Hiking uphill also engages core muscles and your lumbar muscles. Your core is what’s going to keep you erect, and the weight of your camping pack will only amplify the affects. By maintaining proper posture as you hike, it’s not unusual to come away with a stronger back and some significant ab development.
Perhaps the most important thing you’ll gain from a thru-hiking trip is improved endurance. You’ll be taking breaks, but these breaks aren’t going to last for days. In order to successfully complete a massive trail, you’re going to need to develop better endurance.
You’re going to have to go long, even if you don’t go hard.
You’ll be hiking every single day. It may be hard at first, but your body is going to eventually adapt – it will have no other choice but to keep up with the pressure.
After a thru-hike, you might find that you’re better at every endurance based training method. If you’re already an endurance runner, you may find that the experience you gain with thru-hiking will make you even better than before. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, but by the end, the millionth step will feel just as easy as the first one did.
Always Thru-Hike Safely
Before you embark on your trip, remember that you’ll need to be much safer than you would on a regular hiking trip. This is more of a survivalist project than a typical outing. You’re going to be out in the woods for a long time, and there will inevitably be parts of your hike where civilization is far away. If someone is injured or you run out of supplies, this can complicate your trip. If you don’t want things to come to an abrupt end, it’s best to over prepare.
Thru-hiking trips are better in groups. Make sure at least one person has some basic first aid training, and carry some medical supplies.
mergency flares are also a useful accessory. Never venture outside of a thru-hiking trail, as entering deep woods or mountain ranges may inadvertently put you off the map. Carry a current map of the trail you’re exploring, and tell as many people as possible where you’re going.
You might want to stop in at a local town once a week to call home and let everyone know how you’re doing – especially if you’re hiking through a part of a thru-hiking trail that doesn’t have cellular signal. It’s crucial to use your best judgement when embarking on a trip of such a great length. Be mindful not to go off of the grid for too long.
Is Thru-Hiking Right For You?
Thru-hiking is right for anyone who is prepared to leave the material world for an extended period of time and develop a better relationship with nature. Always bring at least one buddy for the sake of safety, and make sure you understand when you’ve reached your limits. Even if you can’t finish your first thru-hiking trip, you’re gaining substantial experience that will lend itself to your second attempt.
If you aren’t sure, start by planning a two week hike and see how it goes. If you hold up well, start taking lengthier trips to help your mind and body acclimate to the idea of a thru-hiking trip.
You’ll know when you’re ready. It’s more than just the greatest workout of a lifetime – it’s a nearly spiritual experience that will provide you with an intimate connection to nature.
Make sure you bring the right buddy.