This is gonna be about training - but probably not quite the way you're expecting.
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.
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?
Some 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 15 to 20% of the starters make it to Katahdin!!
The higher PCT completion 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 PCT and only one 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 have hiked the CDT twice. We've never had 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.
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). Prior to our 1999 hike, Ginny and I 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 greatly increased our probability of finishing the 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 experience.
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, more washed out trail, steeper climbs, and 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've run into on any of the long trails. 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".
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. 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.