It doesn’t matter if you’re hiking through the snowy Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail, or over the rugged terrain of Maine on the Appalachian Trail, or passed the geothermal activity of Yellowstone on the Continental Divide Trail, most days in the life of a thru-hiker look pretty similar. Basically, a thru-hiker has two different types of days: a trail day or a town day.
A normal day on trail starts like any other day. If you’re an early riser, you get up with the sun–basking in the warmth it brings to everything around you. Not much of a morning person? Then you are awakened by an alarm. But instead of the buzz of your phone going off, it is the sound of the early riser’s air mattress slowly being deflated letting you know that it is time to get going or you may be left behind. Then you’ll be forced to play catch up all day. How many miles you are trying to make that day will determine what kind of breakfast you will have. If you aren’t too worried about miles, you’ll likely have a leisurely breakfast in bed before even starting to pack up. On the other hand, if you’re trying to maximize your day, you will definitely throw down as much of a Pop Tart as you can while packing up and finish it on your way out of camp.
The first few hours of hiking really sets the pace for the rest of the day. If you can get ten miles done by 10 a.m., then you are in a great position to either have a big mile day or have a very chill lunch and a decent day mileage-wise. I usually like to spend the first half of the day alone even when hiking with a group; it is a great time for self-reflection and dreaming of the future. I don’t listen to music, either, during my morning hiking. I like to use this time to really be aware and take in my surroundings.
Around 11:45 a.m. it is time to start looking for a good lunch spot. A good lunch spot is flat, shady, has a water source, and has no bugs. Finding a spot that meets all these requirements is tough to find sometimes and as it grows closer to one, the list gets smaller until you are fine eating about anywhere. Lunch is usually when everyone from the group meets back up and shares anything interesting that happened during the morning. Besides eating lunch, this time is usually spent discussing how many more miles to do that day, the next water spots, or what to look forward to in the next town. Lunch is also a good time to dry out any gear that might have gotten wet from rain or dew the night before.
Once lunch is over it’s either time to start hiking again or (my preferred but the less-likely option) take a nap. I found myself napping all the time on the AT, but on the PCT and CDT napping is a rarer commodity. Either way you’ll have to start hiking sooner rather than later especially to get those big mile days. In the afternoon I find myself listening to a lot of podcasts. A non-thru-hiker might not understand why a thru-hiker would want to “drown out nature”. They might say, “Isn’t that why you’re out here in the first place?” Yes. Yes, it is. But let’s be real. Four plus months is a long time to spend “in nature” even for the most dedicated nature lover. And you definitely get your share of it, but walking all day, day after day, can become, well, a bit monotonous, so it is nice to break it up. Now, as the day wears on, the group starts to clump together. The ear buds come out and you can hear conversations about anything and everything from how the world population will soon outgrow its food production, to the right way to dip an Oreo into milk.
As the five o’clock hour rolls around, it is either time to start looking for a camp spot or (my personal choice) a place to have dinner before continuing the day’s hike. My favorite time of day to hike is an hour or two before the sun sets. The day starts to cool down, and the sun gives that magical glow to everything it touches. No matter your choice, it is prudent to set up before it gets completely dark–unless you are really trying to make some miles! That is when the headlamps come out and the group starts hiking even closer together. When we hike at night, I get a kick out of messing with my hiking partners. “Wait. Did you hear that? I think there’s someone behind us!” Always a good time! If you do choose to night hike, then you will definitely be ready for camp by the time you reach your goal. This is where “cowboy camping” really comes in handy. Just throw a ground sheet down, blow up your pad, melt into your sleeping bag, and fall asleep with the stars as your ceiling. Before you know it the sun will be rising, and it will be time to do it all over again.
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