Words and photos by Liesl Hammer
Thru-hiking is more popular than ever. It seems that everyone knows at least one person who knows someone who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the rare Continental Divide. You can find people on YouTube who have vlogged their entire hike and even captured gorgeous aerial shots with drones.
But maybe you just haven’t done it yourself. Yet. And those 2,000+ miles seem so daunting.
What if you went a shorter distance to test it out? My first long-distance hike was in Scotland. I hiked the West Highland Way, a 96-mile trail that starts just north of Glasgow and heads up into the highlands of Scotland. I was brand new to this whole “carry your whole home on your back” thing. Here’s how I prepared.
- Run to train
Three months before my long-distance hike, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping. I wanted to get into running, but found it miserable and boring.
And then I learned something vital: run slow.
It might feel like you’re barely moving faster than walking. But running slowly, especially up hills, will increase your lung capacity and endurance and, let’s face it, patience.
Running helped me with long-distance hiking because a lot of the time, you’ll find yourself out of breath. Other types of medium-intensity steady state cardio can help as well, in case running isn’t really your thing.
- Walk everywhere
Outside of my running, I decided to walk everywhere I could. This wasn’t hard—I didn’t have a car. I was living in a small college town in Germany while my husband had an internship. Since I was a poor recent college graduate at the time, I wanted to save any money I could, and that meant no public transit.
So I walked. Everywhere. Every night after dinner my husband and I would go for a walk in the large forest just a quarter mile from our apartment building. This was useful in getting us used to our large impending task.
- Cut costs where it doesn’t matter, splurge where it does
Again, poor college graduate. My husband and I spent $30-$40 each on our backpacks and accumulated gear over the course of three months before the hike. The backpacks we got were “good enough,” although questionable at times.
There are actually quite a few solid backpacks out there that are on the cheaper end of the spectrum. You’re going to want one with an internal frame and that rests on your hips so you don’t experience upper back pain.
I also got a cheap sleeping pad and we got inexpensive sleeping bags. The only thing that we splurged on was the tent, which we bought in Glasgow an hour before we left. It was from a Scottish company, perfectly waterproof, and was the best investment we made.
- Get solid shoes
The great debate: what kind of hiking shoes should I get?
Backpacking boots typically come with ankle protection. A lot of people will recommend getting boots with ankle support, especially if you’re hiking longer distances and carrying a heavy backpack.
However, I chose ankle hiking shoes and they gave me the support and weather protection I needed. They were heavier than trail running shoes and more waterproof, but still breathable. I was able to run, hike, and walk comfortably in these shoes with minimal blisters.
- Restock along the way
This depends on where you’re hiking. If you’re going to an area where civilization is practically nonexistent, you’ll need to supply enough food along with a water filter to keep you going.
We were lucky that the West Highland Way had plenty of towns for food and water. There are plenty of long-distance trails that, if you need it, are alongside towns where you can restock on food and supplies. This lightens the weight of your backpack, which helps you with your overall hike, energy, and foot pain.
- Prepare for all weather
Scotland isn’t known for dryness. I got myself a coat with a removable windbreaker rain jacket on top and a fleece jacket underneath. It was perfect for intensely rainy days and nasty wind.
Of course, weather preparation doesn’t just include rain, snow, or shine. It can also include bugs. Scotland has a nasty bug that’s the lovechild of a gnat and a mosquito: the midge. Regular insect repellant didn’t work on this nasty creature, so we got a special brand called “Smidge,” which helped defend us against the midges. Even then, those suckers are persistent.
- Just keep going
The more you slow down, the more you slow down. Taking a break every time your feet hurt is counterproductive. It’s easy to fall into temptation and rest whenever you feel like it. This can especially be an issue if you have a time constraint.
Listen to your body and pay attention when something serious might be going on. But sometimes you need tell your body to please shut up and just keep going.
Thru-hiking can be done on cheap, lower-quality gear. It can be done as a newbie, as long as you prepare sufficiently. Whether you hike 15 miles or 2,000, thru-hiking is exhausting and wonderful. Any type of distance is good enough.