For whatever reason, more and more people are putting their lives on hold to hike America’s so-called Triple Crown Trails: the super-long Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachain Trails (PCT, CDT, and AT for short). And most of them do not start with a short thru-hike.
Only seven people self-reported a thru-hike of the 3,100-mile CDT in 2012, but that number jumped to 47 in 2015. In that same period, the number of northbound thru-hiker permits issued for the PCT jumped from 988 to 2486.
But starting a long hike is not the same as finishing one. The percentage of successful PCT thru-hikes has remained steady at about 25%, and the AT Conservancy estimates a similar rate for their trail. A full half of aspiring AT thru-hikers drop out before they even reach the halfway mark.
Many of these hikers are on their very first thru-hike. They feel called to a great adventure, and they go for it. And then they fail.
So if you’re planning your own long-distance hike, I strongly suggest you first test your mettle on one of America’s many mid-length trails. It’ll help you in several ways.
1. Your body will be ready
It’s often said that nothing can prepare you to hike 20 miles a day every day except hiking 20 miles a day every day.
And on some level this is true, but the saying glosses over some of the physical skills and adaptations that actually can be learned over shorter hikes. Hike ten miles a day for a few weeks, and you’ll be far better prepared to hike long distances for days on end.
2. Your mind will be, too
Arguably the hardest aspect of hiking a long-distance trail of any length is learning to handle the rollercoaster of emotions that can arise along the way. Almost every hiker struggles with some self-doubt, loneliness, or homesickness.
Hiking a shorter trail will not only expose you to the types of mental games you will encounter over a longer trail, but it will also help you to see a Triple Crown Trail as a more realistic goal.
3. You’ll understand the logistics
Planning a shorter long-distance trail like the Long Trail, John Muir Trail, or Colorado Trail is quite similar to planning a longer hike of the AT, PCT, or CDT.
In terms of trip logistics, food, and resupplies, a shorter trail will give you practical experience in determining how much you eat, what you like to eat, and how you prefer to resupply (some hikers always mail themselves new food caches, others much prefer to go into town).
4. Your gear will be dialed
Much of what you would take on a shorter trail is the same stuff you’d take on Triple Crown Trail. For a new hiker, the initial investment in necessities such as a pack, sleeping system, and other miscellaneous gear may come with a nice price tag.
However, if thought out in advance, these can also be used for many future trips. Hiking a shorter trail actually gives you time to really field test gear for a week or two before committing to live with it for longer.
5. You won’t have to quit your job
For most people, completing a Triple Crown Trail takes anywhere from five to seven months. While some might jump right into one by quitting a job or finding a gap year between events, this isn’t a viable or attractive option for everyone.
Shorter long distance trails can take the average hiker anywhere from two weeks to two months and are also more geographically dispersed, making them accessible to more people across the country.
6. You’ll be more likely to hike again
There are two types of thru hikers: the ones who hike just one trail, and the ones who make the sport a part of their lives. For some, a thru hike of a Triple Crown Trail is similar to a modern right of passage: a one-time thing from which they return never needing to go back.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But by initially hiking shorter trails, you may be more likely to continue hiking trails of all lengths in the future, making hiking a lifelong practice. Start small, and hiking will likely become a bigger part of your life.
7. The hike will become your own
Confined to narrow seasonal windows, the thru-hiking of Triple Crown trails isn’t really an experience you adjust to your liking. Those regimented timeframes also often leave hikers with far less solitude than expected.
You’ll have more control over the hiking experience on a shorter trail. On those trails, you may find yourself traveling into isolated regions of Idaho on the Idaho Centennial Trail, avoiding large elevation changes by choosing the Florida Trail, or even eating home-cooked meals with wine in Spanish towns nearly every day along the Camino de Santiago.
Still not convinced you should start with a short thru-hike? Email your counterarguments to [email protected].