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.