When I set out to Thru-Hike the entire Appalachian Trail in 2003, one of the things I first did was get in shape. I mean, you are walking over 2,000 miles up and down every day right? However, not that long into my hike I realized I wasn’t battling the physical part of it. Although, (and let me be brutally honest here), I hurt like nobody’s business the first four weeks. What really took me by surprise was the mental part of the hike. The loneliness, isolation, being wet all the time, being hot all the time, being cold all the time. One could say it’s physical, but the mental hardiness is as important as the physical part of your long distance hike.
There are two dominant schools of thought when it comes to the necessity of physical conditioning before a long distance hike. The first one asserts that the only way to prepare the body for the rigors of hauling a heavy pack up and down mountains is to haul a heavy pack up and down mountains. This being the case, the long distance hiker simply limits mileage and duration for the first few weeks, slowly increasing both as the body adjusts, increases its fitness, and hardens. You will get in shape as you go. No doubt about it. I prepared physically, but nothing does it compare to when you are actually out there.
My recommendation is: Do your best to prepare physically. Take your time in the beginning. You are NOT in a race and hike your OWN hike. Getting to know your gear before you go is VERY important. Practice a number of weekend trips before you carry a pack up and down mountains. Do you know how to pack your backpack up in a pouring rain without getting your sleeping bag wet. Nothing will give you the mental shit’s than knowing you’ll be sleeping in the wet spot tonight. Know your Gear!
The truth is — I’ve been backpacking for years and I’m still learning and five to six months is a long time to hike in the backcountry. You will be hot, cold, tired, wet, lonely, and scared. You will itch, ache, and smell bad. The smell bad part is a huge one by the way. You will be hungry all the time. You will get homesick. After awhile, hiking becomes your job, and you’ll be bored. You’ll want to quit. The hardest part of completing a thru-hike is knowing you don’t have to. No one is making you hike day after day. You can go home anytime. The trick is to keep that far-away goal in the back of your mind while focusing only on the immediate day’s hike. Don’t think of hiking 2,000 miles; the longest trail is just a series of week-long hikes. From one town to the next. Rest. One day at a time. Just this next climb. Beating the Mental breakdown is keeping a positive attitude about why your hiking in the first place. It can be a journey where you will meet and become friends with people from all different parts of the world. You will see the beauty of the trail and what it brings YOU. Laugh when you hurt, smile when you smell, and enjoy it. You may only get one change to hike your long distance hike.
My recommendation: Bring your Ipod and regularly download new songs to listen to at camp. Laugh at yourself. Don’t be seduced by town you are re-supplying in. Have all new clothes brought you to half way in. This gives you a good feeling and reduces the odor you’ve been hiking in for awhile. Stay in contact with others and let them be inspired by you. They may be living vicariously through you.
Mix up your food choices. I seriously could eat anything out there and still be hungry. However, I became sick of freeze dried food out there. I started buying pre-cooked food and started cooking gourmet. Was the food heavier, yea a little, but I really enjoyed cooking it. Spaghetti, sauce, sausage was eaten a lot on the trail.
THE BIG TIP: Don’t buy ANY BOOKS, OR BELIEVE ANYTHING YOU HEAR Before you’re Thru-Hike. IT’S YOUR EXPERIENCE AND YOURS ALONE. Nobody can tell you how to psychologically prepare. They think different than you and everyone’s experience on the trail is different. Sure, they can give you some pointers, and some advice, but in the end all your planning will probably go out the window anyway.
If I had to instill one thing in a new backpacker or a wanna be Thru-Hiker (AT or PCT) makes no difference, is this: BE GRATEFUL YOU ARE EVEN OUT THERE. Gratefulness when it sucks the most will be your most important piece of gear. And nobody can teach you that.