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[at-l] Thruhiking - Training

This is gonna be about training - but probably not the way you're

A couple years ago, we spent a weekend with a friend and former
thru-hiker who told us about her extensive contact with a wannabe AT
thruhiker.  For months they talked about the trail, with constant phone
calls and letters back and forth.  The information was passed on to
another friend, who also was anxious to do the trail.  They knew all
about gear, the towns, the shelters, and the AT, backward and forward,
and felt totally prepared for the big adventure.  Sound familiar?

Then came the Big Day.  The two hikers were dropped off at the base of
Springer Mt. and started hiking. One of them reached the top of
Springer, turned around and went home.  The other hiked on for a couple
days, got off the trail, came back, and finally went home from Neels Gap
--- 30 some miles up the trail.  

What happened?  

As the story unfolded, they were both active and avid day-hikers, but
neither of them had ever actually put a pack on their back, hiked up a
mountain and spent a night in the woods. And they didn't realize that
backpacking is different. (Very different!)  And they didn't like
sleeping in the woods.  

How many people will totally disrupt their lives preparing for a
thruhike only to be disappointed because they didn't take the elementary
precaution of finding out whether they actually like to backpack?

Several years ago there was a survey done at Springer  - and, of the
people who passed through there during the time of the survey, 40% had
never carried a pack before they started hiking the AT.  And we wonder
why only 10% of the starters make it to Katahdin!! The higher PCT
finishing rate may be due in part to the fact that fewer start the PCT
with no long distance experience.  

For those who are planning to thruhike a long trail, why don't you go
out this weekend, with all your gear, and find out if it's what you
really want to do?  If you aren't near the AT - find someplace else to
try it.  You may not have the shelters, but then you won't always have
them on the AT either - and there are only a couple shelters on the
entire CDT and probably no more than that on the PCT. All the head
knowledge in the world won't get you to Katahdin (or Canada) if you
discover you just don't like sleeping in the woods. If you haven't tried
backpacking for at least a couple weekends, what makes you think you'll
want to do it for 4 to 6 months of your life?   Don't you think the time
to find out is BEFORE you leave home??  And it'll give you chance to
test your gear and get comfortable with it. Just go do it.

Romanticizing the Trail is one thing, and soon enough reality will slap
you upside the head.  But going into a thruhike on any long trail with
no physical or mental preparation and no realistic idea of what it's
like to carry a pack all day or to never have camped on the trail at
night?  C'mon gang --- I know you're smarter than that.  As my lady once
said - if you don't love walking, you'll hate thruhiking.  So, my
question is - are you hiking - NOW ??

I've been asked several times "Where's a good place to train?"  And the
answer depends on where you live. If you live on the West Coast, you've
got mountains within reach - the Sierras, the Cascades, and everything
in between.  If you live in New England, you've got mountains within
range - the Berkshires, the Adirondacks, the Whites are  great training
grounds. If you live in Georgia or the Mid-Atlantic States, I know
you've got mountains.  They may not be the Sierras or the San Juans, but
they're still good for training. On the other hand, if you live in
Florida or Kansas, I can't help you.   Allow me to clarify this - Ginny
and I will leave in the spring to thruhike the CDT (or at least give it
our best shot).  We don't have 8,000 or 12,000 ft mountains to train on
- but we do have the Shenandoahs.  And if we start at the bottom, go to
the top and make loops, we can get in 15 - 19 mile, 3,000 - 4,000 ft
elevation gain hikes with 80% of the elevation gain in the first 3

In some cases, the best place to train is on the trail you're gonna
hike.  That's particularly true if there are special conditions, like
high altitude (the PCT and CDT).  Ginny and I have spent 2 years hiking
parts of the CDT - not just for "vacation", but as part of an overall
training program to prepare us for the thruhike.  We spent some time in
Colorado to find out about altitude effects.  And we spent some time in
Montana to find out what it was like.  And those two trips have greatly
increased our probability of finishing our thruhike.  Can you do that? 
Can you - or will you - spend some time, energy and money to find out
first-hand about the trail you want to thruhike?  Some people can't
(maybe because of family obligations, for example), some people won't
(and that's their choice).  But if you can - and will - it's another
kind of training, and it could make a tremendous difference in the
results of your hike in terms of both finishing and the quality of the

Another possibility is to hike in places that are rougher and tougher
than anything you're likely to encounter on your thruhike. How can
anything be tougher than a thruhike?  Think about it - the major trails
(with the exception of the CDT) get massive maintenance efforts every
year.  You want something tougher - try one of your local trails that
gets one or two weekends of maintenance per year.  You'll find more
blowdowns, more rocks, washed out trail, steeper climbs, worse sidehill,
than you'll find on that major trail you want to thruhike.  And, while
it may be frustrating, while it may anger you - it's great training. 
And maybe, just maybe - it'll inspire you to get out there and help
maintain trail someday.  Ginny and I hike and maintain trails in
north-central Pennsylvania that get one weekend of maintenance per
year.  They're as rough as anything we're likely to run into on either
the CDT or the PCT.  It's good training.  
Now let's talk a little about physical conditioning.  Over the years
I've run into people who intended to thruhike the AT - but had the idea
that they'd get in condition while they were on the Trail rather than
doing the training beforehand.  Some of them used the excuse that it was
too cold or rainy or snowy to hike during a Mid-Atlantic winter.   And
they didn't seem to understand that if they started in Georgia in March
or April, that's exactly what they WOULD be hiking with in Georgia and
North Carolina.  The same comment applies to the PCT and CDT - if you're
gonna thruhike either of them, you will run into snow - why aren't you
out there learning how to deal with it now?  Why wait? I'm not saying go
into areas where there's avalanche danger - but I am saying - learn to
use your ice axe, learn about snow camping, learn about snowshoeing or
crampon usage, learn how to hike in whatever winter you're gonna have to
deal with on the trail.  

I know some of you are hiking, but how about the rest of you?  If you're
not out playing in the woods, if you're not taking your pack for a walk
on a regular basis, then you're decreasing your chances of finishing. 
And I want you to finish, so go take that pack for a long walk.  The
only way to really get in shape for a thruhike is to carry the pack -
and walk.  

I know - some of you think running, or working out in a gym, or rock
climbing, or soccer, or any of a lot of other activities will get you in
shape for thruhiking.  After all, thruhiking is only "walking" - right?? 


Let's start with the fact that those activities WILL help because
they'll increase your cardiovascular capacity, strength, flexibility and
endurance.  And that's good.  But carrying a pack is a whole lot
different than "just walking".   And the basic reason is that the weight
of the pack re-distributes the stresses on your muscles, tendons and
joints in ways that you're not accustomed to.  I've seen long distance
runners and 20 year-old football players wilt under the weight of a
pack.  I've seen young, strong males develop knee, hip and back problems
because their pack was heavy - and their joints had never been stressed
that way before.  Thruhiking is NOT "just walking".   And carrying a
pack is the only way to really prepare for it.  And, as a bonus, it
gives you the chance to figure out if you'll like sleeping "in the
woods".   :-)

But DON'T neglect the rest of the physical conditioning you should be
doing as well, because the other part of the equation is endurance. 
Thruhiking is walking - with weight - for at least as many hours every
day as you now spend at work.   And that means it IS work - and we'll
get back to that.  But it also means that you need the endurance, the
stamina, to keep going for that long each and every day.   And for that,
the other activities in your life ARE good conditioning.  Increased
aerobic capacity and development of physical strength, flexibility and
endurance will make a positive difference, especially in the early days
of your hike. If you're exhausted and in pain after only a few miles
every day, it becomes much harder to think about (or believe) that you
can go all the way.  And it becomes easier to justify quitting.  So get
yourself into an exercise program.  It will help.
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