Hiking is an outdoor activity which consists of walking in natural environments, often on hiking trails. Hiking may be broadly grouped into two categories:
- Wilderness backpacking involves a multi-day hiking expedition where participants carry the required supplies for overnight stay and two or more days of survival in the wilderness, and camp en route.
- Day hiking involves distances of less than a mile up to longer distances that can be covered in a single day.
The most common cause of failure to complete a more demanding trail is lack of preparedness. It is important to begin regular walks in the months and weeks leading up to the thru-hike, beginning with low-impact day-hikes in easy terrain while carrying a minimum of weight. When these day-hikes become nearly effortless, increase the distance and include several multi-day hikes that require a full backpack with food, water and gear. In addition, hilly terrain should be incorporated as soon as possible in order to build up strength in the muscles required for climbs and descents. Performing regular hikes that continually push the body's current limits will not only toughen the body but will also go a long way toward mentally preparing oneself for the constant strain on body and mind.
Preparing financially and logistically are also essential to a successful thru-hike. The cost of a hike will range from several hundred dollars a month on the low end to upwards of a thousand dollars a month for the high end. Each person has a different minimum level of comfort and nourishment; it is vital to discover what one's own level is as early as possible and to make supply arrangements accordingly. Study the route and identify towns that will serve as likely resupply centers and map out distances between post offices. An experienced thru-hiker resupplies his or her dry goods every 10-14 days, either through the post offices or through local purchases.
Equipment should be purchased well in advance of the start date and should be used as many times as possible to both allow the hiker to become familiar with the gear (backpacks adjusted properly, boots broken in, etc.) and to identify any broken, impractical or unsatisfactory items. Prospective thru-hikers should get in contact with local hiking clubs and solicit advice on what pieces of equipment are completely unnecessary, which are luxury items and which are essential. Different hikers have different philosophies on how much gear should be taken, from those in the "lean and fast" school of thought which advocates a minimum of everything - no stove, no tent, hiking sandals instead of boots and little else - to the "slow and comfortable" school which sacrifices speed and low weight for comfort. One should get as many opinions as possible and attempt hikes with various levels of gear until an acceptable amount of weight and speed has been achieved.
Weather is one of the main factors in preparing for any hike; check weather forecasts, ensure you have a good weather window, with lots of time to spare. Be aware that weather in mountainous or coastal areas can change dramatically and adjust your equipment accordingly. Heavy rainfall can cause rapid flooding of rivers. River crossings are one of the main causes of death and injury when hiking. It is almost always best to be prepared to wait for river levels to go down rather than to cross a river in flood. Also be aware of day light hours. It is never a good idea to be caught out hiking at dusk or at night. Watch your time and don't underestimate the length of the trail.
Get advice from other hikers, talk to your local hiking clubs, visit local equipment retailers and outfitters. There are some excellent books availably on safety in the mountains as well as guides to weekend or day hikes. Start small and build up experience.
Doing trail sections with two cars
Many well known hiking trails are of long distances, more than many people can tackle on a single trip. One method to do these is to walk in stages using two vehicles to get between start and finish points of a day hike. The method is simple once pointed out. You drive with two cars to the end of the trail, parking one of them there. Then everyone gets into the other car and drives to the start of the section you are walking. At the end of the hike you get back the first parked car and drive back to the start to get the other.
New Zealand is a mecca for hiking, both day hikes and multi-day hikes, with a network of trails and huts to cater for most abilities. The country has a number of Great Walks which offer both private and public accommodation as well as guided hiking. These include the following:
- East Sussex Footpaths
- Grande Randonnée
- Hiking and backpacking in Israel
- Hiking in South Africa
- Hiking in the Nordic countries
- Long distance walking in Europe
- National Trails System
- Tramping in New Zealand
- Trekking in Nepal
- Wilderness backpacking
- Packing for a week of hiking