Everyone plans for a long distance hike a bit differently, and there's certainly no right or wrong way to go about pre-hike planning.  Some people obsess over gear, some try to get into shape, others spend all their energy on their mail drops and meal planning, and yet others spend hours pouring over blogs and trail journals or researching town stops.  In the end, you could spend decades preparing for a long distance hike, or you could be ready in a few days.

My advice comes from planning and hiking two long distance trails: the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.  In a way, these trails are easy to prepare for, because they are what I would call "pre-packaged vacations".  These trails have been done so many times that there are guide books that will walk you through the planning process and contain all the relevant information you'll need to actually walk the trail.


For the Appalachian Trail, AWOL's A.T. Guide is widely used.  There are other databooks available as well, but you could easily hike the entire Appalachain Trail without any other maps or guide books.

For the Pacific Crest Trail, Yogi's Guide is considered the standard for planning and in-town service data.  For the Pacific Crest Trail, however, it is harder to get away with not taking maps.  Most people use Halfmile's maps by having the entire set printed out, and mailing sections to themselves along the way.  An increasing number of people are using the Halfmile App on their cell phone in lieu of carrying paper maps.  If you do this, remember that you are putting vital information on something that will become a useless brick if you drop it into a muddy puddle (you can probably tell I'm not in favor of relying solely on technology).

If you're planning a trip on the Continental Divide Trail, you probably want to use Jonathan Ley or Bear Creek Maps, and if you're planning a Long Trail Hike, there's a book called the Long Trail End to Ender's Guide.  In fact, for many long distance trails, you'll find that there is published material on planning your hike.  If there isn't, or you're trying to piece together a journey on several different trails, here are most of the questions you will need to answer:

- Where will I resupply and how often? Remember you don't need to set all your stops in stone, give yourself some flexibility with options, if possible.

- Do I have the maps for all the areas that I will be hiking through?

- Do I have the permits for all the areas that I will be hiking through?

- Are there any regulations that I will need to consider, such as camping regulations, carrying a bear canister, or regulations on fires or alcohol stoves?

- What will the trail conditions and weather be like, and therefore what gear should I bring?


Planning the logistics of a long distance hike is probably the most time consuming and difficult part.  Will you sublet, sell or move out of your home?  What will you do with your car? How will you afford the time off of work, or will you quit your job?  What about your pet, your student loans, and your family?  Once you get all those big questions out of the way, the rest is easy. The biggest hurtles are all the obligations that keep you tied down to your job and your home.  But remember, there are "shorter" long distance trails such as the John Muir Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail, and the Colorado Trail (as well as many, many others), that you could do with a few weeks vacation time.

Besides logistics, the other two big preparation points are gear and fitness.  Personally, I find gear to be worth obsessing over more than fitness, but I stay in relatively good shape in my normal life.  If you're planning on going from being an overweight couch potato to a hard-core hiker, you may want to focus a bit more on your fitness.  The best fitness regime I can suggest is packing your backpack full of water or books, and hiking up the biggest hill or mountain near your home, and do that over and over again.  Be sure to wear the hiking shoes you plan on wearing on the trail, so you know they will be comfortable.  If you live in the middle of Kansas, you can either try to find the tallest set of stairs to climb over and over, or walk on a treadmill at a high incline.  This will probably bore you to tears, so I hope for your own sake that you can find a nice hill nearby.  If you start a trail out of shape, you will just need to start at a slower pace.  Hiking a long distance trail will quickly put you into shape.  Your fitness level on day one will just determine how enjoyable those first couple weeks are going to be.

Gear is something that whole books are written about, and still don't have all the answers.  A good book to start with is Andrew Skurka's "The Ultimate Hiker's Gear Guide".  Gear really comes down to personal preference, but my best advice is to buy your pack last.  You won't know how big, or how lightweight of a pack you can get away with until you know the rest of your gear.  Try to keep the weight of your gear down, especially on the "big three".  The big three consist of sleeping bag, tent and backpack.  Of those three, the best place to spend good money is on a decent sleeping bag.  Sleeping bags last a long time compared to backpacks and tents.  The rest is up to you!

There is one last thing that I haven't mentioned yet, and that is mental preparation.  Everyone is different in how they mentally prepare, and many people will tell you that a long distance hike is 95% or more a mental challenge.  If there is one thing I have learned from my time on long distance trails, especially the Appalachian Trail, it is that anyone can do it.  Just by judging someone's appearance, skill, preparation, or age, you will never be able to tell who will make it and who won't.  It is the determination that sets long distance hikers apart from the rest of the population.  In the end, it is one foot in front of another that will get you to your destination, and as long as you keep doing that, you'll make it the whole way there.

Good luck, and happy hiking!

By: Christine Martens