When was the last time you got away – as in, really got away? If you’re looking for a change of scenery or pace and you don’t mind physical exertion, a long-distance wilderness hike might be a good option. The continental United States harbors countless miles of well-maintained hiking trails, including many long-distance trails that stretch for hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Whether you’re planning a day-long jaunt through the forest or a multi-week expedition across a mountain range, there are probably more options than you realize within easy driving distance of your home base.
What Is a Long-Distance Hike?
The concept of a long-distance hike can be subjective. Some hikers, often in their youth, are fortunate enough to be able to drop everything for a few months and hike the length of one of the continent’s great trails, such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. However, for many folks, such long trips aren’t possible. Even taking a week off of work is difficult for some full-time workers with families and other obligations.
Fitness level is another important consideration. Even on level ground, hiking is hard work – especially if you haven’t trained for it in a while. A couple of days on the trail can take a lot out of you. If you haven’t hiked in a while or simply want to take your time to smell the roses, it’s best to limit your hike’s duration.
A good rule of thumb is that a long-distance hike is any hike that would take the place of another type of trip or vacation. It could be as short as a full day without an overnight component (replacing a day trip), take place over the course of a weekend (replacing a sedentary weekend getaway), or replace a longer vacation of a week or more. Of course, you can complete a long-distance hike as one part of a longer trip – staying in a hotel for a few days and then heading out on the trail and camping for another few days.
While the length of your long-distance hike is affected by your fitness level, the terrain you intend to travel, and simply how much time you can spare, there are certain considerations and safety precautions that can help you get the most out of your trip.
Considerations When Planning a Long-Distance Hike
Even the most experienced hikers don’t jump into a long-distance hike without planning and preparing days in advance. For new hikers, preparation is doubly important. If you travel during the warm season and stay on marked trails, your journey won’t resemble a polar trek or Himalayan mountain climb. But any multi-day trip in the wilderness still requires careful planning and commonsense safety precautions.
Equipment and Gear
Your trip will be far safer and more comfortable if you have more or all of the following items. The listed price ranges are for new gear, but you may be able to save a significant amount of money if you purchase used. Gently used items are available at outdoor retailers such as REI and Gander Mountain, at general-purpose online marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist, and at niche websites such as GearTrade.com and Backpacker.com.
- Large, Sturdy Backpack: $140 to more than $1,000 for new, name-brand gear.
- Weather-Appropriate Tent: $75 to more than $1,000, depending on size and brand, with rentals from $15 per day.
- Hiking Boots: $30 to more than $200.
- Cooking and Eating Equipment: Might include a lightweight gas stove, aluminum pots and pans, and lightweight silverware. Cost varies depending on your selection and brand.
- Water Bottles: Metal water bottles are durable but heavier and more expensive, while plastic water bottles are cheaper but less durable. $5 to more than $20, depending on brand and composition.
- Sunscreen: SPF 30 and above is recommended for any weather, while SPF 45 or even 50 and above is ideal for high-altitude areas. $3 to more than $10 per tube, depending on strength and brand.
- Weather-Appropriate Clothing: This might include waterproof socks, waterproof under layers, sturdy pants, a cap, and sunglasses, depending on the location, altitude, and time of year. Cost varies depending on your selection and brand.
- Two-Way Radio: If you expect to be in a very remote area where cell phones may not work, this may be useful in an emergency. $50 to more than $100.
Health and Safety
Depending on the route, altitude, time of year, and your physical health, long-distance hiking presents certain safety risks. For starters, don’t overexert yourself. While experienced hikers can cover 15 miles or more per day, 6 to 10 miles per day – perhaps fewer in very rugged, high-elevation, or weather-affected areas – is more realistic for novices.
This is especially important at altitude – above 10,000 feet, even if you’re in good shape, and above 5,000 feet if you’re not in ideal condition. Plan your route ahead of time and give a written copy to at least one other person who’s not on the trail with you. If a weather or medical emergency strikes, this may significantly increase your chances of rescue.
Fire and Water
Fire safety is always critical, but especially in dry weather. Always completely douse your campfire before leaving – don’t just bury it and leave, as you could be liable for fines and even criminal penalties if a subsequent forest fire can be traced back to your campsite.
And since there’s no way you can pack in enough water to keep you going on a multi-day hike, you need a way to ensure that water you take from the trail is safe to drink. Otherwise, you risk a common parasitic infection called giardiasis, which can play havoc with your digestive system for weeks after your hike.
Options for ensuring water safety include:
- Boil (for several minutes) any water you take from the trail, even if it looks crystal clear
- Bring non-iodine water purification tablets such as Katadyn Micropur or Aquatabs (cost ranges from $5 to more than $15 per pack, depending on the brand and pack size)
- Use iodine droplets or tablets (cost ranges from $5 to more than $15)
Permits, Reservations, and Restrictions
Many long-distance trails pass through state or federal lands that control human access and activity. Before your trip, you should attend to these important considerations:
- Backcountry or Park Permits. Find out whether you need a backcountry or park use permit. Permits are often free. If not, they rarely cost more than $20 for a seven-day pass.
- Camping Options and Restrictions. Make sure camping is permitted – and, if you prefer formal campsites (possibly with toilets and electrical hookups) to primitive or dispersed sites (which typically have strict usage limits and may literally just be clearings in the woods), be certain that the formal sites are open during your hike. In northerly and high-altitude regions, camping may be permitted for only a few months out of the year.
- Camping Reservations. Separately, if campsites along your route take reservations, reserve as many nights as possible ahead of time. (However, depending on the location and season, many or most campsites on your route may be first-come, first-served.) This reduces the likelihood that you’ll have to camp illegally, which can incur hefty fines.
- Fire Restrictions. Pay careful attention to fire warnings and other use restrictions. In drought-prone areas such as California and Nevada, it’s common for authorities to ban or restrict open fires, with fines and possible criminal charges for those who disobey.
Picking Your Route and Transportation To and From the Trail
Transportation to and from a long-distance hiking trail can be logistically complicated, especially in remote areas. Before your hike, the biggest decision to make is whether you want to start and end at the same place, or hike one-way to a predetermined destination on the trail.
If you’re starting and ending at the same trailhead, you have two choices. First, you can hike to a location of your choosing, then turn around and head back to where you started. If you don’t want to see the same scenery twice, you can look for loop trails that don’t cover the same ground. Some long trails, such as the Tahoe Rim Trail in California, are giant loops.
For point-to-point hikes, you have several options. The best option is usually to drive your own car to your desired trailhead. If you have two cars in your group, drop one each at your starting and ending points for maximum convenience. You can also:
- Have a non-hiker friend or family member drop you off and pick you up.
- Take public or private transportation – such as a bus shuttle, taxi, or ridesharing service – to and from the trail.
- Crowd-source a ride through an online hiker community such as WhiteBlaze, whose members primarily provide rides to and from the Appalachian Trail, but may also serve the Pacific Crest Trail and others. Though WhiteBlaze users rarely complain about safety or security, you should pass over this option if the idea of soliciting rides from strangers makes you uncomfortable.
Though it’s not always as comfortable as sitting poolside at a hotel or visiting a secluded beach resort, taking a long-distance hike is an affordable, healthy, and often more inspirational way to disconnect from the daily grind and recharge your personal batteries. And no matter where you live, you’re likely to have multiple trail options within easy driving distance.
A multi-day hike does demand much logistical planning, as well as attention to safety and security issues that may not arise in a more controlled, civilized setting. If you believe that a vacation should be as comfortable and worry-free as possible, hitting the trail for a week or two might not be your idea of a good time. Then again, you might be rewarded for roughing it a bit – there’s something to be said for standing atop a high peak and looking back at all the ground you covered to get there. You can’t do that from your beach chair.
How do you prepare for a long-distance hike?