Hiking at Recreate.com
Preparing for a

Long-Distance Hike

by Sue Freeman

authors: Sue & Rich Freeman sit atop a peak in the Mahousic Mountains of Maine along the Appalachian Trail.
Long Distance?

Long-distance is a relative term. For some, it means a 150-mile, 2-week hike on a local trail. I've met others who define it as an around-the-world trek. My long-distance hikes consisted of 2,200 miles (6 months) on the Appalachian Trail and 500 miles (5 weeks) on the Bruce Trail. It doesn't matter how long your long-distance hikes are, the planning and preparation required are the same.

That's not to assume that people all approach the planning the same. Some (especially the young and foolish) wing it and do very little planning. They throw together some gear, arrange transportation to the trailhead and off they go, leaving the trail periodically to re-supply food. It works for them, not for me. I find that planning allows me to reduce the weight I have to carry. Plus, I'm a planner, an organizer by nature. I get as much enjoyment out of planning and anticipating as I do from the actual hike. I do a lot of planning but once on the trail I go with the flow of nature and do not rely on a schedule.

Where to go?

The choices are getting more numerous each year as more long trails are built. Do you like desert hiking or northern woods hiking? How about a lakeshore walk vs bagging mountain peaks. Consider your preferences as you research and select a trail. Then get books and read all about the trail you've selected. Many people have written about their long-distance hiking adventures. I find reading these books both helpful and enjoyable--anticipating my own experience through the adventures of others. But everyone's experience is different so read as many travel narratives as you can find. We read at least a dozen before heading out on the Appalachian Trail. One didn't exist for the Bruce Trail so we wrote one after our thru-hike. If they're available, buy a set of current maps and trail guides. They'll be helpful in the planning as well as execution of your hike.

Is my body ready for this?

Once you've decided on what trail to hike and have some idea of the distance and terrain you'll cover, you need to access your physical conditioning. The best thing to do is to load a pack with 40 pounds of "anything" and hike up and down mountains for 8 hours a day for several weeks. This is usually out of the realm of possibility. So, do what you can. Attend aerobics and weight lifting classes, walk instead of driving to anything within reach, take the stairs instead of elevators. The more physical conditioning you can do before the hike, the easier (and more enjoyable) the hike will be. Regardless of your condition start slow on the trail. Plan for the first few days to be short mileage and build gradually. On the Appalachian Trail we started with 8-mile days and progressed to 15-mile days within 2 weeks. After a month we could achieve 18 to 20-mile days.


What can I eat?

The secret to trail food is to find the lightest weight food that packs the greatest energy boost and is easy to prepare. If money's no object, go for the freeze dried meals. Cost can add up quickly on a long trek, so I find dehydrating meals to be easy and much more affordable. For the Appalachian Trail I started a year in advance with a dehydrator, drying vegetables from the garden and every concoction of food I could come up with. Today's grocery stores are also a wealth of dried foods. Boxes of powdered humus (garbanzo beans) and dried black beans make an energy packed lunch when rehydrated to a paste & spread on bread, crackers or bagels. Avoid Stove Top Stuffing. There's no energy in it.

As you prepare food, think in complete meals. Combine various dehydrated components with all the things needed to complete a meal. For mac & cheese combine macaroni, powdered cheese sauce, powdered milk, and salt & pepper in the same zip-lock bag. Another meal might be a Lipton's rice dinner with dehydrated sweat potatoes and instant pistachio pudding (include the powdered milk) for desert. I poured the powdered milk into the corner of a baggie then tied the baggie off & cut away the excess. The key is to combine everything you need to prepare a meal (except the water) in a single zip-lock bag. Then you know you're carrying just enough of staples like powdered milk--but no more than necessary.

What else do I need?

Keep a list. What do you use everyday? Can you live without it? We've eliminated soap, shampoo, razors, and deodorant. They're nice to have but not worth the weight to carry. We do carry toilet paper, feminine sanitary supplies, and multi-vitamins. Allocate what you'll need--no more. Remove excess packaging wherever feasible. For example, we reduce weight by removing the toilet paper cardboard core. To carry liquids, we use the small plastic hotel shampoo bottles.

I can't carry all this!

Nor do you have to, thanks to the wonders of mail drops. Box up pre-packaged meals and supplies you'll need and mail them to yourself c/o General Delivery at Post Offices along the route. First determine where post offices are close to the trail or accessible via an easy hitchhike from the trail. Often trail associations sell guides which contain this helpful information. Then comes the tricky part--estimating how many days it will take you to hike from Post Office to Post Office. I scrutinize the maps and trail guides, and use computer spreadsheets to do the math and generate a hike plan. It helps me estimate how many days worth of each supply to add to each mail drop. It's also a good idea to leave a copy of your plan with a trusted person back home.

When you're done allocating each mail drop, make a list of what is in each and put it in the previous drop. When you reach point A it will tell you if the batteries are in drop B or C. Sometimes this can be helpful to know.

Life goes on . . .

It would be nice to think we could actually walk away from all of life's responsibilities for 2, 6, 12 months or more while on a long hike. But that's not usually the case. Begin by turning off any services you won't need such as newspaper delivery or cable TV. Then think of bills that will come due and pre-pay as many as possible. Then as a back up, we left pre-signed checks with the person who was going to monitor our mail. Finally, don't forget birthdays and other special occasions while you're gone. We shopped ahead for gifts and cards, wrote and addressed them, and had them labeled with the date to be mailed.

Now I'm ready?

Well, maybe. Check with the government agency or trail association that manages the trail to see if you need to get any permits in advance. What about shots? Depending on where you're going you may need inoculations. Then, keep exercising.


packing food: Sue Freeman prepackages dehydrated
food into meal packages.

packing clothes: Sue Freeman sorts through clothes, food, and supplies to prepare mail drop boxes for the Appalachian Trail.
Author: Sue Freeman, and her husband Rich Freeman have written 14 guidebooks to hiking, bicycling, paddling trails and finding waterfalls in central and western New York State. They have published them at Footprint Press, Inc. and have lots of interesting information on their website.


Look at what people have said about the Freemans' books! Bruce Trail - An Adventure along the Niagara Escarpment and Take a Hike! : Family Walks in the Finger Lakes (2nd edition)  and Take A Hike! Family Walks in the Rochester (NY) Area (2nd edition) If you're planning a trip to any of these areas, you'll want these books. They're entertaining to read and packed with the details you need to know when hiking in Ontario, Canada and New York.