Everyone makes mistakes. And when you’re taking on a monumental challenge like a thru-hike, you’re likely to make more than a few of them. Accepting the fact that things can, and will, go wrong sometimes on the trail is key to successfully thru-hiking. Educating yourself about common thru-hiking mistakes will help you avoid difficult growing pains when you hit the trail (or at least prepare you for when things do go wrong). These eight thru-hiking mistakes are insanely common and eminently avoidable, but they don’t have to ruin your hike.
1. Eating like crap.
Subsisting on honey buns and Slim Jims is budget-friendly but also terrible in every possible way. Eating like crap is one of the most common thru-hiking mistakes because hiker hunger is a no-good, dirty liar. It wants to take over your brain and convince you that M&M tortilla pizza for every meal is a great idea. Don’t listen.
Junk food alone won’t satisfy you or give your body the nourishment it needs. If you’re powering down Snickers bars and your hiker hunger continues to rage, maybe the solution isn’t to eat even more Snickers bars. A balanced diet with a healthy mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates will leave you feeling better and more energized. It might even make you smell better. Nuts and dried fruit are great examples of healthy, backpack-ready foods that are easy to find in stores. An occasional side salad with your burger and fries in town doesn’t hurt, either.
Pro tip: the high-fat, low-carb keto diet offers a wealth of healthy, calorie-dense snack and meal ideas.
2. Not drinking enough.
People on and off the trail rarely drink as much as they should. Unfortunately, even modest dehydration can affect your mental acuity and increase your risk of injury. The constant exertion of thru-hiking and frequent exposure to sun, heat, and wind make dehydration all the more likely. It’s crucial to stay a step ahead of dehydration. Once you start to feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.
Be sure to start drinking long before you leave camp in the morning and keep taking in water throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is to drink one liter of water per hour of hiking. If you stay well-hydrated, you may find that you have more energy, hike stronger, make better decisions, and don’t feel as sore at the end of the day.
3. But also carrying too much water.
It’s essential to drink plenty of water, but that doesn’t mean you should weigh your pack down with gallons of the stuff. At 2.2 pounds per liter, water can dramatically increase your pack weight in no time flat. It’s worth taking a few minutes to look ahead at the day’s water sources in your map or guidebook each morning.
On water-rich trails like the AT, it’s common to cross streams every three to five miles. When that’s the case, you can get away with carrying little to no water and just stopping frequently to gather more. Make sure to drink water before you start hiking and at each of your breaks. I usually shoot for one liter per stop. As a general rule of thumb, it’s good to drink a liter per hour you spend hiking. “Camel-ing up” on breaks is a powerful way to quickly and dramatically reduce your pack weight while staying hydrated.
However, it only works in areas where there are frequent, reliable water sources. If you carry the bare minimum in water-scarce environments, at some point, you’ll run out of water too early and get into a jam. Gauging how much water you need to drink and carry is personal and will only come with experience.
4. Blind devotion to trail runners.
Don’t make the common thru-hiking mistake of blind devotion to trail runners. Trail runners have become the ultimate thru-hiker status symbols, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be perfect for you or for every situation you might face as a hiker. Sometimes, boots really would be better.
Icy conditions are a perfect example. Crampons + trail runners = disaster. You’ll end up tearing big holes in your footwear and have to replace your shoes before their time. Boots are sturdier and can hold up better to the added stress of crampons or microspikes. Boots also have thicker shanks and soles that will do a better job protecting your feet from rough and rocky terrain.
Take the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail as an example. Also known as “Rocksylvania,” “Bootsylvania,” and “Painsylvania,” vast swaths of this God-forsaken (but still beloved) state are studded with sharp rocks. The terrain makes hikers feel like they’ve been walking barefoot on Legos for the past 100 miles. Rough lava fields out west, meanwhile, elicit similar feelings from PCT and CDT hikers. Tl;dr: Hikers who enjoy having actual feet to walk on, rather than meat tenderized, blister-deformed pain stumps, should seriously consider switching to boots for long, rocky sections. Try a few pairs on before you start your hike to get a sense of which style suits you best.
5. Ultralight packs with non-ultralight loads.
Ultralight backpacks can be several pounds lighter than more traditional load-haulers. However, they’re not designed to carry more than 30 to 35 pounds in total. With more weight than that, the foam cushioning can start to break down. The material and seams can also get stretched to breaking point, and the straps can dig painfully into your body.
Thirty-five pounds is a generous limit for many thru-hikers. But winter hikers, photography enthusiasts, and vintage gear owners may struggle to keep their packs under this threshold. If you have heavy gear, buying an ultralight pack to shave a few pounds isn’t the answer to your problems. Unless you can cut weight out elsewhere, get a pack designed for heavy loads—you’ll be far more comfortable.
6. Skin exposure.
Thru-hiker fashion is heavy on booty shorts and polyester muscle tees. That’s all well and good, but if you’ll be spending a lot of time in direct sunlight, you might want long sleeves and even pants. That giant ball of fire in the sky is not your friend, people. We all love basking in the sun from time to time, but it can also burn you in the short term and increase your risk of skin cancer in the long term.
Covering your skin will save you a greasy sunscreen mess, protect you from rough rocks, thorns, and other trail hazards, and might even keep you cooler if you pick the right clothing. Opt for something lightweight and breathable. Button-up shirts and convertible pants are nice because, in addition to being incredibly sexy, you can partially unzip/unbutton to increase airflow and stay comfortable. Lightweight sun hoodies are also popular among sun-phobic hikers.
7. Sleeping in.
This is a matter of personal preference, but there are definite advantages to starting your day earlier rather than later. You’ll see the sunrise each morning, hike when it’s cooler and quieter, and will probably get the first pick of campsites in the afternoon. Also, you’ll maximize your daylight hours. That means you’ll have plenty of time to get to camp even if you decide to make a spontaneous trip to town or your midday nap runs longer than anticipated. This is particularly valuable in the winter months when daylight hours are in short supply. Disadvantages of early morning starts:
- Packing up camp in the cold and dark.
- The fact that waking up early objectively sucks.
- Silver blazing (face-planting all the spider webs that went up overnight because you’re the first one on the trail).
8. Missing the beauty.
Thru-hiking is hard, and sometimes the only way you get through the day is by putting your head down, grinding out the miles, and “embracing the suck.” But those crappy days are part of the magic of thru-hiking in their own way. We tough them out because thru-hiking is worth it. We tough them out for the amazing people we meet in the hiking community, because of the endorphins and empowerment of accomplishing something incredible, because of the rare chance to really immerse ourselves in the natural world and live our lives differently.
Hiking is a gift. Don’t get so caught up in the bad days or the endless pursuit of miles that you miss out on the day-to-day joy and beauty of the trail.