It took Jeff Alt and his wife all of a few hours to realize that they hadn't brought along everything they needed to safely complete the 200-plus mile (322-plus kilometer) John Muir trail, which takes hikers through California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney southeast of Fresno, the highest point in the lower 48 states [source: Peakbagger]. But it wasn't as though Alt, who is an expert hiker –- he's traversed the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail solo and is the author of "A Walk for Sunshine" –- didn't get all the right things in his pack. Rather, after hiking 8 miles (12.87 kilometers) and ascending thousands of feet, it started to rain and Alt and his wife stopped to put on their parkas. "As I rifled through my pack, I realized our bag of clothes was missing," he recalls. Turns out, Alt and his wife had mistakenly left their clothes on a shuttle bus to the trailhead that morning.
Forging ahead was not an option. "You need all the right clothing in the high Sierra. The mountain range we were hiking could toss out snow, sleet, hail and rain unannounced," he says. The Alts spent the next day hiking to a bus stop and retrieving their clothes from lost and found before successfully continuing on their way. Alt and his wife were experts enough to not even consider going ahead without all the proper equipment and supplies, understanding that a long trek that takes you far away from civilization leaves very little room for error or omission. Which is why it's so essential to pack wisely and bring all of the absolutely necessary items. For his part, Alt prepares for long hikes -- meaning ones that have him on the trail for weeks or months -- methodically, taking months to physically train and weeks or even months to pack.
Long distance trekkers, as opposed to someone out for a day or overnight hike, have the special concern of making sure they don't bring so much gear as to make their trip miserable. Although on this count, equipment manufacturers have done a lot to help. "A main concern for the long-distance hiker is weight, which isn't always the case for the day hiker," says John McKinney, the former longtime hiking columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the author of 25 books. "Companies will design backpacking products with ounces, not pounds in mind. The advancements that have been made here are incredible."
The beauty and attraction of long distance hiking is that it provides an opportunity to truly disconnect from the modern, hectic world for an extended period of time. The flip side of that, of course, is that being away from it all also means being away from medical care and assistance in case of an accident.
Bringing along a first-aid kit with the requisite bandages, band-aids, disinfectants and bug spray is vital. McKinney says it's important to keep in mind exactly where your route will take you. "Much of this is region specific," he says, pointing out that hikers in, say, Alaska would be wise to carry bear spray while those headed through the desert Southwest would be smart to pack a snake bite kit.
It may also be helpful, says Alt, to think of outfitting your first-aid kit to address non-medical emergencies. A Swiss army knife, matches and a lighter, for instance, are always handy, while duct tape to aid in fixing shoes and clothing can also be a big help. Some means to summon assistance is also essential, which is why carrying a whistle to alert other hikers, as well as a cell phone for true emergencies should find a place in a pack [sources: Alt; Davis].
Here's a tip that might sound, well, a little blunt or condescending but is nevertheless true. If you're planning on spending weeks or months hiking through the Appalachian or Pacific Crest or John Muir trails and you run out the night before to pick up some expensive new shoes, you might as well not go. Doing so would be, quite frankly, the very best evidence possible that you're not prepared to make such a long journey. Why? Because having even newish shoes -- ones that you haven't already covered many miles in -- is a recipe for blisters and misery [source: Alt].
Hiking expert Alt says that lightweight boots and trail shoes have become the norm for long distance hikers, but what's really important is to find a pair of shoes that fit best on your feet. For him, that's the Merrell Moab GTX trail shoes, though he emphasizes that different brands work best for other people. For his part McKinney, the author of numerous hiking books, says footwear also includes socks, which are often overlooked as people prep for a hike. There are hiking-specific socks made out of synthetic materials that can be far more comfortable than cotton socks [source: McKinney].
Here's the good news: If you're hiking 10 to 20 miles (16 to 32.19 kilometers) per day, day after day, with a heavy pack on your back, you won't have to worry that an extra piece of pizza will go straight to your waistline. Then again, since you most likely won't be packing a pizza with you (not exactly transportable) and certainly won't be in a place where you can get a pie delivered, it's a moot point. But you will need food to fuel your body as you spend very long days exerting yourself on the trail.
Planning what to bring on a long-distance hike is a balancing act. On the one hand, trekkers need to have around 2 pounds (907.2 grams) of food per day, and it's always wise to have an extra pound or so just in case [source: Alt]. But the trick here is to be able to get all the calories you need while keeping the weight of the food to a minimum and ensuring that your breakfasts, lunches and dinners are easy to prepare. It's beyond doubtful that you'll have the energy to whip up gourmet meals after a 12-hour day going up and down mountains. Some food items that combine the benefits of easy portability, plenty of energy and little prep work include bagels, peanut butter, honey, macaroni and cheese, energy bars and freeze dried meals that can be whipped up by just adding boiling water.
Staying hydrated is just as important as being well nourished. To that end, long-distance hikers should drink at least 1 gallon (3.79 liters) of water per day [source: Alt]. Steve Silberberg, who runs a company called Fitpacking, which helps people get in shape by hiking, suggests bringing along a 3-liter hydration bladder. It allows people to drink continuously and conveniently so as to avoid dehydration. "When you become dehydrated, your performance and judgment suffer, leaving you susceptible to poor decisions, hypothermia, sun stroke, precipitous falls and weakened ability to get to shelter or rescue," Silberberg says. As a precaution it's wise to bring along devices for treating water to prevent giardia -- a parasitic infection that can cause nausea, fever and diarrhea -- in case you need to drink from a stream. A water filter or iodine tablets can make stream water potable.
Dressing to kill can have a very real, very chilling meaning when applied to people who are exposed to the elements for long stretches of time. Indeed, hiking expert Jeff Alt is blunt about the possible ramifications of wearing cotton clothing: It can kill you. "Cotton retains moisture and can lower your body temperature causing hypothermia. Dress in layers of synthetic clothing and have a rain parka," he says.
When Alt hits the trail, he limits himself to just two outfits -- the one on his body and the other in his pack. Alt points out that more recently developed clothing can protect against the sun and stench. "Some of the latest clothing has UPF protection and antifungal agents that decrease your awful smell," he says. "As a rule of thumb, long distance hikers stink. Always stand up wind from a thru-hiker."
Sure, they're not as essential as food and water, but trekking poles can be a great aid to long-distance hikers, especially in rocky or slippery areas where keeping your balance is both tricky and necessary. Steve Silberberg of Fitpacking says that a wooden staff can work just fine as can old ski poles, especially if you don't want to spend any money. But there are other options that are a little more versatile, such as those that collapse and are easily packed into luggage on a plane. Besides being an extra arm or leg when you need to keep your balance, trekking poles have other uses on a long expedition. "They can be used with a tarp as part of a shelter lowering the weight carried," says Silberberg.
HowStuffWorks looks at the popularity of hiking in the U.S.
- Alt, Jeff. Hiking expert and author of "A Walk for Sunshine." Personal correspondence. Feb. 2, 2012.
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy Web site. Jan. 23, 2012. http://www.appalachiantrail.org
- Davis, Jennifer. Appalachian Trail speed record holder and author of "Becoming Odyssa." Personal correspondence. Jan. 26, 2012.
- McKinney, John. Hiking expert and author of numerous books. Personal correspondence. Jan. 23, 2012.
- Mount Whitney. Jan. 25, 2012. http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=2829
- Silberberg, Steve. Owner of Fitpacking. Personal correspondence. Jan. 23, 2012.