CUPPLA THINGS BEFORE YOU GO: TINA CURRIN’S ADVICE FOR FIRST TIME THRU HIKERS
Words and Photos from Tina Currin @tina
The gear’s (mostly) purchased, the permits or hang-tags obtained, and the date’s set. It’s your first thru-hike! Congratulations. Yeah, your life’s gonna change. And yeah, it’s gonna be confusing, awesome, difficult, and insanely fulfilling. With five long trails and countless hours and miles now devoted to this hobby (lifestyle?) I still get that giddy pre-trail feeling. But instead of nerves and questions, I’m full of excitement and anticipation, thanks to several hard-won lessons. Here are a few things you’ll probably encounter on your first thru-hike and what I wish I knew beforehand about dealing with them. Do you have your own version of this list? Questions for someone who has been there? Add ‘em to this post!
Death, taxes, and–blisters. Unless you have thousands of recent miles under your belt (or you’re routinely training outside without shoes), you’re gonna get them. While blisters may seem like pretty minor stuff compared to what could go wrong on a long trail, they’re incredibly common, and if you don’t take precautions, they can be pretty darn debilitating. I’ve seen hikers laid up for multiple days, racking up hotel invoices while they wait for stubborn blisters to heal. Prevention is key.
—Before you depart, test your hiking shoes on a few longer hikes to make sure you’re comfortable with the fit for miles on end. What feels good on a five-mile hike could become unbearable by mile 20. Try to emulate, as best you can, the conditions and distance you expect to hike.
—Do the same thing with your socks. Toe socks, which keep your toes separated and therefore reduce friction, were a major discovery for me. I’m particular to Creepers, but XO Skin also makes a great pair. In a pinch, there’s Injinji, but I’ve found them least durable of all. Again, test your socks in your hiking shoes before you depart. You might prefer a lighter toe-sock liner coupled with a “regular” sock. You also might hate toe socks! That’s good to know before they become your second skin.
—Proper-fitting shoes and toe socks will go a long way towards keeping you blister-free, but you’re still not entirely protected, especially if you’re routinely exposed to wet or sandy trail conditions. Consider sizing up a half-size in both shoes and socks to accommodate swelling and changes in your feet. Lots of people use lightweight gaiters to keep sand, rocks, and other abrasives from entering their shoes, but I prefer to remove and shake out my shoes during breaks.
—Equip your first-aid kit with some blister management. I carry a tiny tub of Vaseline to slicken hot spots and keep them from developing into full-fledged blisters (plus, it pulls double-duty as chap-stick.) I also carry a tiny wad of wool, which I’ve found to be much more comfortable and longer-lasting than Moleskin or Band-Aids. Leukotape and a safety pin are also great multi-purpose items that can be used for blisters and about a million other things, too. Treat hot spots early, so they don’t have the chance to progress into painful blisters.
Social interaction is as much a part of the thru-hiking experience as the physical trail itself. On day two of the Appalachian Trail, I met an amazing trail family. We’d go on to hike most of the 2,200 miles together — like, together-together. We stuffed ourselves into tiny hotel rooms, hiked and ate lunch together, and camped together every night. We even mixed our laundry (deep intimacy.) Things were great, but they weren’t always easy. There were break-ups, make-ups, tears, and laughter. Five years later—despite some strong words and on-trail fallout—I still talk to my hiking buddies on a near-daily basis.
—Keep in mind that when you’re planning as a group, you might not always get the mileage, shelter, or resupply that you want. But the most successful trail families usually share a few key traits, like a common distance or pace goal, and are willing to take multiple viewpoints into account as long as they’re in service of the ultimate goal. If the enjoyment of your hiking companions no longer outweighs the sacrifice necessary to make it work, it might be time for a break. What works one day might not work the next, and that’s ok! This isn’t a marriage.
—Squabbles are normal; combative fights aren’t. It’s a long trail. You’re going to be exposed to people, experiences, emotions, and conditions you’ve never imagined. If you need to hike separately for logistical or emotional reasons, that’s perfectly reasonable. Don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself. It’s much better to do it early before things have a chance to fester or escalate. Don’t ghost! There’s a good chance you’ll see these people again—whether you like it or not.
—However, if someone is making you uncomfortable, get outta there. If you can, tell a trusted hiking partner or a trail angel. Most trail communities rely, at least to some degree, upon strangers helping strangers. Don’t hesitate to use these resources to keep yourself safe.
—Long trails are incredible melting pots filled with hikers of different skills, careers, ambitions, personalities, backgrounds, and affiliations. It’s a rare and special place where you can interact with folks radically different from you in a warm and welcoming way. Be open, don’t force things, and stay flexible. It’ll work out.
Long water carries, crazy resupply routes, trail closures: if you hike long or far enough, all of these things will happen. If you don’t have it already, download the FarOut app. Part map, part social network, FarOut is your go-to source not only for trail maps but also for communication between hikers about current trail conditions. You can download it in advance of your hike to check out water sources, trail towns, where to mail resupply boxes, etc.
—Plan, but don’t over-plan. Before your thru-hike, do some reading (you’re already here —¸ great job!) on places like The Trailhead, Reddit, WhiteBlaze, etc. Join a Facebook group dedicated to your thru-hiking class. Follow hashtags like #at2023 or #pct2023. Having access to a robust social network of fellow hikers and trail angels puts you ahead of the curve if (when?) logistical nightmares occur.
—Assign an off-trail emergency contact and consider a communication device like a Garmin InReach, especially if you’re starting out with the PCT or CDT. Both of these trails are susceptible to fire closures, which may not go into effect until you’re already far from roads and cell service. Get in the habit of checking trail conditions during fire season.
—The solution to 95% of your logistical problems will be to hitchhike around them. You may be able to arrange rides or call a ride-share service every now and again, but for things like minor medical issues, far-flung trail towns, immediate food or water needs, and weather-related closures, your best bet is to grab the quickest ride you can from a stranger. I always offer to pay for gas and carry cash for this reason. Although I’ve never had a problem, it’s always best to hitchhike with a friend (or three.)
Just like with your shoes, the best thing you can do with your gear is to test it beforehand. Not everything that looks good on paper feels good in the field. But even the best gear can fail, especially if you’re slogging through harsh conditions with delicate fabrics. That’s why it’s always good to have a backup plan ready.
—Before you set out, research and buy the best gear that you can reasonably afford. It might mean more cost upfront, but durability tends to trump the routine replacement of inexpensive pieces over time, and reliable protection is invaluable when you need it most.
—Carry patch kits. At a minimum, I carry a patch for my inflatable mattress, a piece of Tenacious Tape to quickly patch a tear in a sleeping bag or a puffy, and a strip of DCF for tent or pack repair. Duct tape or Leukotape are also popular catch-all solutions. Wrap a strip around your hiking pole, so you aren’t lugging a roll around.
—Be (just a lil’) redundant. If you’re considering a ground cloth, look for something that might double as an emergency tarp or poncho in a pinch. In the event that your sleeping bag gets wet, is your puffy or insulating layer robust enough to keep you safe (or vice versa)? Do you have two methods of water purification (Sawyer Squeeze + Aquatabs or a stove for boiling, etc?). Could an extra pair of socks double as gloves in the event that you drop one? Could your rain gear keep you covered on laundry day?
—Like most gear nerds, I make a digital spreadsheet of everything I plan to carry with links to the product, if possible. That way, if I need to replace something on the fly, I can easily send it to an off-site “logistics manager” (Hi, Mom.) This is especially helpful if you’re in an area with limited cell service, which you often will be. Remember, you can usually mail items down trail using the USPS “General Delivery” service.
Tina Haver Currin is writer, activist, and outdoors enthusiast currently based wherever the trails are. From 2016 - 2018, she lived in a Sprinter with her husband, two cats, and a dog, climbing as many mountains, running as many routes, and seeing as many National Parks as humanly possible. Whether climbing in the Rockies, bushwhacking through Arctic backcountry, hiking deep within the Grand Canyon — or thru hiking the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails— she discovered the variety of experiences one can have in our wild spaces and the joy of sharing what she has learned with others. Tina currently spends her time writing, hiking, eating, and planning her next trip.