Go the Distance

Explore the nation’s most pristine long-distance hiking trails – and discover your inner strength along the way.

man on mountain

If you’ve ever hiked for hours, relished a warm camp-stove meal under a starry sky, and then hunkered down in your tent, thinking, “I wish I could just stay out here” — you’ve tasted the elixir that entices long-distance hikers into the wild.

These adventurers will cover between 10 and 30 miles a day, in all kinds of weather and over constantly changing terrain, to escape the trappings of modern life and experience the stunning natural beauty of pure wilderness. And they carry everything they need — food, water, tent, sleeping bag — on their backs. The thrill of venturing into the wild trumps any passing discomfort.

“Every single day, you’re waking up and doing exactly what you want to be doing in the most beautiful places on the planet for 12, 15 hours a day, without any schedule or outside responsibility. Who in America gets to do that?” asks Shauna Cozad, a Santa Cruz, Calif., landscape designer who in 2008 hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Mexico to Canada.

“Sure, it’s extremely physically rigorous,” Cozad admits, “but that’s part of finding out who you are. You’re getting back in touch with yourself, with your body, your breathing, your mind. It’s the greatest gift you can give to yourself.”

The Long and Short of It

While there are plenty of “thru hikers,” like Cozad, who cover the entirety of a trail in a single trip lasting several months, there’s room out there for anyone willing to challenge his or her own physical limits. In fact, most of those hikers you’ll find exploring the nation’s scenic trails are taking them in sections.

“I like hiking long trails but can only get away for a couple of days at a time,” says Philip Werner, a product manager for an Internet software company in Cambridge, Mass., and blogger at www.sectionhiker.com. “So I break them into shorter trips.”

In 2008, Werner completed the 273-mile Long Trail, hiking the length of Vermont from Massachusetts to the Canadian border in eight weekend trips totaling 22 days. Last year, he tackled the northern parts of the Appalachian Trail. “If I wasn’t working, I’d be hiking,” he says.

Werner mostly hikes alone; he loves the solitude as well as the chance to escape his daily routine. His section hikes are challenging, and often unpredictable. It rained about half the time he was on the Long Trail hike, he recalls, with one weekend thunderstorm’s lightning bolts striking nearby trees and pelting him with hail as he scrambled for shelter on a mountaintop. “You get through these sketchy situations, then have this permanent memory of surviving life-threatening danger, in the middle of nowhere, far from help,” he says.

Trish Francis, a blogger at www.hikingthesacredself.com and massage therapist in Hovland, Minn., has hiked many sections of the 235-mile Superior Hiking Trail, which follows the ridgeline above Lake Superior from just north of Duluth to the Canadian border (there are an additional 39 miles of trail through Duluth from Jay Cooke State Park, just south of the city). This year, when a thru hike she’d planned on the popular Appalachian Trail fell through, she opted for a less strenuous trip: a monthlong thru hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. Even though she’d hiked much of it before, she’d never completed the entire trail in one trip. And she knew that the same trail had never shown her the same thing twice.

“You always wind up seeing things that you’ve never noticed before,” she says. Like stumbling upon a group of 20 moose grazing in a bog, or coming face-to-face with a mama lynx and her cub. “We made intense eye contact,” she recalls. “We just stood there and stared at each other.”

Be Prepared

Whether you tackle a long-distance trail in its entirety or savor it in sections, backcountry hiking takes planning. First off, when you’re covering between 10 and 30 miles a day, you need to have a basic level of fitness — and be prepared to get fitter as you go.

“The only way to get in shape to hike 20 to 30 miles a day with a pack on is to hike 20 to 30 miles a day with a pack on,” says Angela Ballard, a writer and editor in San Francisco and former editor at Pacific Crest Trail Association (www.pcta.org), who hiked the PCT with her husband (then boyfriend), Duffy, in 2000. In other words, there’s no real way to anticipate the kind of endurance you’ll need on the trail until you get out there.

To prepare for those tough first days or weeks, experienced hikers suggest boosting your cardiovascular endurance, strengthening your legs and ankles (which suffer the most on long hikes, especially when you’re carrying extra weight), and learning to feel comfortable lugging a backpack.

Before their PCT trip, Ballard and Duffy would practice by filling up their packs and doing some light hiking. On one of these day trips they learned how important it is to anticipate their hydration needs — they ran out of water while hiking down mountain switchbacks in 110-degree heat.

“I was starting to lose it,” Ballard recalls. “I was so hot and thirsty and dehydrated.” Fortunately, they made it to a water source and spent the rest of the day nearby, resting in a small cave.
“We were definitely more cautious after that,” she says. “I got to know myself better. It became clear that I need more water than Duffy does. That’s part of what you learn on the trail — about how to be responsible for your own physical needs.”

You’ll also want to be confident in your gear. Long-distance hikers test out products before they leave and are prepared to make adjustments along the way. Before setting out on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cozad says she tested several pairs of shoes and backpacks, loading up the packs with weight to get an accurate feel for life on the trail. “I would fill apple juice jugs with water and go for day hikes,” she says. “I tried out six pairs of shoes before I found the ones I wanted to wear.”

Whether you’re section hiking or thru hiking, you should know how to use a compass and read a topographical map, master some basic safety skills, plan ahead for water and food needs, and prepare yourself for extreme changes in weather and temperature. Camping stores and online forums at the major trail Web sites are good places to learn the basics before you set out.

Even when their hikes involve unpredicted challenges and unprecedented discomforts, people who spend time on the trail tend to highly recommend the experience to others. The combination of natural beauty, freedom and personal discovery is just that good.

“Once you have that experience in your back pocket,” says Cozad, “you’ll never ever forget it.”

Kelle Walsh is a writer and editor in California.

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