One Day a Week - A Strategy for a Successful Thru-Hike

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“Big things have small beginnings.”

Do you recognize that quote from somewhere? Depending on your age and the kind of media you are into, you might remember it as a quote from the android David in the movie Prometheus. If you are older or into the classics, you might remember it as a quote from T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (to which David the android is giving a nod).

This is the time of year when many hikers and backpackers around the globe are dreaming of "big things": a thru-hike of a long trail. Facebook groups and online forums are buzzing with questions and the anticipation of a fast-approaching start-date, while aspirational onlookers sit back quietly and soak it all in. It's a massive research, information gathering, and gear acquisition frenzy focused primarily around a singular goal; to figure out the magic combo of gear and insider knowledge that will maximize the chances of success. I have some advice I would like to add to the conversation, especially for those of you who have aspirations but no start-date. Consider "small beginnings".

One Day a Week

I call it One-Day-a-Week. The way it works is simple: devote an entire day every week to the outdoors. One entire day, every week, all year, rain or shine, wherever you are. Here are the benefits:

  • You get a real world gear shakedown. You will find the footwear, clothing, first aid, water treatment, etc. systems that work well for you. You will become intimately familiar with the most important gear in your closet, the stuff you will need to use day-in and day-out. By the time you are ready to embark on the big one, you will have your gear already in hand and totally dialed-in.
  • You will become comfortable outside. You will learn about rain, snow, cold, heat, mud, wind, bugs, wild animals, and various permutations/combinations of said elements. Peeing, pooping, and/or dealing with your menstrual cycle in the woods will become second nature. Those things that may now be unfamiliar and uncomfortable will feel normal.
  • You will gain fitness. Your body will adapt to all-day physical activity. You will learn your limits and coping mechanisms for your specific physical issues /ailments (most of us have something we have to deal with). Learning sustainable "body management" is essential to avoid abusing it and being forced off the trail pre-maturely.
  • You will gain resiliancy. Getting out once a week will sometimes be difficult. You may be unmotivated by the weather, or your mood, or some other circumstance. You will learn how to work through those situations, and maintain a cadence. Continually moving forward and maintaining cadence are keys to successfully completing any difficult endeavour.

Becoming a master of all the bullet points listed above is required to succeed at finishing a thru-hike. If one of those goes wrong for you, you likely will not finish. Having some practice in advance will go a long way towards preparing you for the long hike ahead.

One Weekend a Month

You will often hear people recommend taking a shake-down hike - a multi-day trip where you test out all your gear and make sure everything works. While I believe those shake-down trips help, I don't think they will prepare you for much other than confirm that everything fits in your pack, that you know how to set up your tent and fire up your stove. It will not contribute to the adaptation process that will be required to hike day-in/day-out for months on end.

Rather than a shake-down trip before your thru-hike, my recommendation would be to follow my One-Day-a-Week protocol, and punctuate it with a One-Weekend-a-Month overnight trip (one or preferably two nights if you can swing it). This gives you the opportunity to string a few days together, and get familiar with some of the other gear you wouldn't use on your day-trip outings like your shelter and sleep system, and maybe a larger pack. The intervening weeks between multi-day trips will give you time to make adjustments as you learn what works and what doesn't.

A Recipe for Success

The point I am trying to make here is that while head knowledge (i.e.gear lists and shake-down hikes) help, they won't prepare you for doing the real thing in the outdoors. Some people are able to work through the process while on-the-job, starting their thru-hike with little-to-no real-world experience. Many, however hit a roadblock along the way (I believe the stats are that only 20% who start the Appalachian Trail actually finish). Some of those roadblocks are unavoidable, while others could have been alleviated through better preparation.

The One-Day-a-Week process works. I know because that's the process we used for succesfully completing our thru-hike of the Appalachian trail (as a family of five). Statistics would suggest only one of us should have finished. Instead of a 20% success rate, we had an 80% success rate (unfortunately my wife was injured and couldn't complete the last month). We were able to reverse the stats, and I believe that had we not had all that practice leading up to the big day, there is no way we would have finished.

Secondary Benefits

In addition to increasing your chances of completing a thru-hike, making the One-Day-a-Week protocol part of your life has a ton of other advantages:

  • You may realize you really don't want to do a thru-hike after-all, and save yourself the hassle of learning that reality while attempting to do one.
  • If you do it with family or friends, you will build stronger relationships.
  • You will build a practice that has life-long benefits for your health and well-being.
  • You will have a repreive from daily life, leave the distractions at home, and (hopefully) un-plug from everything that saps your mental energy.
  • You will get away from shopping, advertising, air pollution, noise pollution, and all forms of sedentary entertainment.

Who doesn't want a little more of that in their life?

We started our family One-Day-a-Week protocol when our youngest daugher was three years old. Our small beginnings were even smaller than an entire day. Our first outings were no more than a couple hours. That eventually grew to a half-day, and over time an entire day. Years later it culimnated in the successful completion of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Now that our kids are mostly grown-up and starting to make lives of their own, it is back to just Renee and I, but we are still maintaining our weekly rhythm. It has become a part of who we are and what we do together. I wouldn't change that for anything.

Journal It!

If you would like to start your own One-Day-a-Week rhythm, I encourage you to join us here on Outsideways and start a journal. Use the #onedayaweek hashtag in your journal description, and become part of our community of outdoor lovers looking to spend more time outside. Then if you embark on a thru-hike or a longer trip sometime, journal that too. We would love to read the adventures you are having outdoors, and support you in any way we can!

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