Most thru-hikers that I encountered on my 2014 SOBO thru-hike of the Colorado Trail were averaging about 15 miles a day. In fact, it was unexpectedly rare to see anyone doing more than that. I had a hard deadline though. I took three weeks off work and I bought a ticket from Durango to Denver for the day after I expected to be finished. I needed to go fast and I didn’t have much leeway.
Most days that I was on the Colorado Trail I hiked nearly 30 miles. Here is a collection of tips that I learned along the way that helped me thru-hike fast.
1. Keep your expectations realistic.
If you’re trying to thru-hike a long distance trail by a certain date, know that things happen and it’s very likely that you won’t make it. Injuries, sickness, blisters, bad weather, and any number of things that are out of your control could prevent you from finishing. When in doubt, allow yourself more time on the trail.
2. Get in shape before you hit the trail.
If you plan to start doing high mileage days from the start, you need to be conditioned. You especially need to condition the parts of your body that will be receiving the most stress, such as your feet and knees. Your number one problem on the trail will be injuries, so whatever you can do to avoid them will be useful. It’s really hard on your joints to go from a normal life to hiking 20 - 30 miles a day. You should be hiking as much as you can prior to your trip to ease your body into it.
If you’re planning on starting with moderate mileage and working your way up, this is less important. But if you plan to do 25+ mile days right away and sustain that, I can almost guarantee that you will be struggling with injuries unless you properly conditioned your legs beforehand.
I stopped at Leadville 7 days into my hike due to an ankle injury. I averaged 26 miles my first 4 days and then on my 5th day I injured my left ankle. I tried hiking on it for a couple more days and it got worse, and I knew I had to rest it. When I got to the Leadville hostel, I met another guy who was also averaging 26 miles a day, and he was also stopped there because of an injury, although his was knee tendinitis. His was so bad that he had to stop his thru-hike attempt. He was the only other person I met who was averaging over 20 miles a day, and he had to quit due to an injury. After I got back on the trail, I started to get knee tendinitis in my right knee as well. Injuries happen especially often when you put unconventional stress on an unconditioned body.
After you’ve hiked a few hundred miles you will be a lot less susceptible to injuries. Until then, be careful. Either condition yourself beforehand, or go slower in the beginning. Injuries will end thru-hikes prematurely.
3. Go light
I won’t belabor this point too much, since there are many books written on the subject. Regardless, it is one of the most important ingredients in fast thru-hiking. Your pack should be very lightweight. While my pack weight probably wasn’t ultralight, it was pretty close. If you don’t use something every day, don’t bring it. Invest in lightweight gear, especially for the big three (backpack, shelter, and sleeping system). You simply won’t be able to hike as many miles with a heavier pack, so do whatever you can to lower your pack weight. If you’re concerned about the costs of buying expensive lightweight gear, consider that the cheapest and lightest gear is whatever you don’t buy and don’t bring with you. Most people bring way too many things. Simply don’t put it in your pack and you’ll save 100% of the weight!
4. Hike longer
Wake up at dawn, or earlier. Be on the trail hiking early. Keep hiking late. Resist the urge to stop hiking because you’re tired. You’ll be the first person on the trail and the last off it, but you’ll have more time to hike!
I don’t think an alarm on a wrist watch could ever be loud enough to wake me. I used the alarm on my phone to get me up early, which was effective for me.
5. Carry food in your pockets.
Every time I stopped for a break I would refill my pockets with food. Keeping food in your pocket has two benefits:
- It’s less weight you have to carry on your back.
- It’s always available to eat on the go.
I rarely sat down to eat meals. I carried a lot of individually wrapped food items that I could keep in my pockets and eat on the go. This is especially nice for breakfast. As soon as you wake up, all you have to do before getting back to hiking is tear down your camp. Depending on how long that takes you, you could wake up and be hiking again in 15 minutes, eating your breakfast on the trail. Pro tip: pop-tarts for breakfast never got old for me.
6. Set a goal for where to camp the next night
At night, before going to bed, pick out where you want to camp the next day. It should be at or beyond your mileage goal for the day. Having a goal helps stay motivated. Only ten more miles to go! If you know where you need to camp before you start hiking each day, you won’t get behind schedule by taking too many or too long breaks, and it’ll help stop you from quitting before you meet the needed mileage to stay on schedule.
7. Forget campfires
I know. I love campfires too. It almost doesn’t even feel like camping without one. But after a long day of hiking, and with a full day of hiking the next day, your body could use more sleep. I frequently got more than 8 hours of sleep. My body was so exhausted that it needed a lot of time to recover.
Protip: Camp next to someone else who has already built a fire and enjoy it together. You’ll meet another hiker and you won’t have to waste time building one yourself.
8. Eat as much as you can
You’re going to lose weight, and there’s not much you can do about it. It’s essential that you try to get as many calories as possible. I think the most I ever ate was about 4000 calories in a day. It was very hard for me to eat more than that, even eating very calorie dense foods.
If you hike 25 - 30 miles a day with steep elevation gains and descents, you’ll likely be burning up to 7500 calories. 3500 calories is equal to a pound, so if you eat 4000 calories and burn 7500 in one day, you’ll lose a pound. Remember Michael Phelps and his crazy 12,000 calorie diet? Do whatever it takes to get your body more calories. You’ll have more energy to hike further.
9. Carry less food
This might seem like a contradiction to the last tip, but it’s important. When you arrive at a resupply town, you should’ve eaten the last of your food a few hours before, and you should be hungry again. People are afraid of doing this, because they don’t want to run out of food. I never met a single person on the trail who was worried about running out of food though. Every person has too much food and will gladly give you any of theirs so they don’t have to carry it.
What’s the point of spending $400 on that ultra lightweight tarp tent that saves you a pound if you’re going to carry a couple extra pounds of food everywhere you go? Fun fact: a pound of food weighs precisely the same as a pound of sleeping bag. Hikers are good at reducing base back weight, but all too often bring way too much food.
When you’re buying food at a resupply town, think about when you will eat everything you buy. Segment out food by breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. If you know when you’re going to eat something, you’ll probably eat it. If you grab it thinking, “I’ll eat this sometime,” you probably won’t. Count the calories and get the precise amount that you need for however many days you’ll be on the trail.
People tend to eat about 1.2 to 2 pounds of food per day, if the food is fairly calorie dense. You’ll eat a lot less at the beginning of your hike, but your appetite will keep getting bigger and bigger. Protip: when resupplying in a grocery store, weigh your food on the vegetable scale. Get your food per day between 1.2 and 2 pounds, depending on where you are in your hike and how much you’re eating.
Don’t be afraid to bring too little food. Err on the side of not having enough food. Seriously. Unless you’re in a remote place like Alaska where running out of food could be a serious disaster. Most places along the big hiking trails in the US, though, you’re never that far from a road. If worse comes to worse, you can ration food on your last day. Just don’t bring too much food. Remember that you’ll be eating in town before leaving town and before hitting the trail again, so you won’t need to carry those meals.
10. Don’t over-carry water
If you’re in a place with plenty of water, such as times where you’re walking parallel with a creek, you don’t need to carry any water. When you get thirsty, stop for some water, and chug a good amount. Don’t bother carrying any. In 45 minutes or so when you want some more, stop and do it again. If you don’t have a filter and the water needs some time to be treated, carry it with you for the required time and then chug it. Be proud to hike without any water. It should be rare that you have to hike with more than a liter of water.
One liter of water weighs 1 kilogram, which weighs 2.2 pounds. For reference, my 30 degree sleeping bag weighs about one pound. Carrying one liter of water is like carrying over two sleeping bags. Can you imagine having over two sleeping bags in your pack? Yeah, that’s crazy talk!
Be careful and stay safe though. Being caught in between water sources without enough water is dangerous, and you should take it seriously. I heard of a guy who was so dehydrated on the Colorado Trail he had to be rescued. You don’t want to be that guy. Study your map, and where it makes sense, carry less water. Chug water at water sources and stay very well hydrated, but keep it off your back.
11. Spend less time in town
Try to time your trip so that you hike all day before you get to town. You want to avoid reaching a town in the middle of the day and losing precious daylight hours walking around town and shopping. I typically hiked a full 25+ mile day before reaching town in the evening. That way you can treat yourself to a bed in a hostel or motel. Get groceries at night and pack everything up so you’re ready to go in the morning. Wake up early and be back out on the trail as soon as you can. With a bit of luck you can resupply without taking a hit to your daily mileage.
12. Go to town less often
If you can get into town at night and leave in early in the morning, it’s not that big of a deal. But sometimes you can’t time things so well, because the distance between towns isn’t exactly under your control. In those situations, I advise to skip the town stop and carry more food. It’ll be faster in the long run. Your pack will be heavier, but as long as you’re not over-carrying food you should be all right.
13. Make rules for breaks
You have to take breaks. Even if you’re hiking 30+ miles a day. But don’t let your breaks get out of control. Establish time limits and note the time when you stop moving. Sometimes it can feel so nice to stop hiking when you’re tired that the time flies by. If you take note of what time the break started it’ll be harder to lose track of time and waste too much time not hiking. I found that I wanted to take breaks more often later in the day when I was tired. It’s okay to take breaks–but don’t let them get out of control where you’re constantly stopping and taking a lot of time at each stop.
14. Consider going stoveless
Everyone loves a hot meal on the trail, but if you want to put in a lot of miles every day, I would seriously recommend that you consider leaving your stove at home. I brought a stove on the Colorado Trail and I soon regretted it. Most nights I was too tired to even want to cook a meal at night. At the end of the day all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. I ended up cooking a meal about every other night, and usually only because I was carrying the food and figured that I might as well cook it so that I don’t have to carry it. I could’ve saved plenty of weight by not bringing the stove, fuel, pot, and lid.
15. Wear lightweight shoes
Forget the heavy Gore-Tex boots that weigh pounds each. Find a pair of lightweight trail running shoes that you like and break them in before the trip. Your shoes will get wet, regardless of what kind you bring, so it’s best to have shoes that breathe well and will dry fast. The lighter they are the less work your legs have to do to move them around. I enjoyed my pair of Inov8 trail runners.
16. Be mentally prepared for long, challenging days
Thru-hiking fast is possibly more mentally challenging than physically challenging. It can be difficult to keep going at the end of a long day when you still need to hike more miles. There were days that I hiked all day until night, set up camp and passed out immediately, and then my alarm would go off seemingly instantaneously and it was time to get up and do it all over again. I won’t lie–at times it was hard to do.
Be prepared for bad weather with no end in sight. For a week I had all day storms. I spent 12 - 14 hours hiking in sopping wet socks and shoes every day. Be prepared for relentless bad weather. You might not have any, but if you go in with the mindset that you will, you’ll be in better shape if it does find you.
Nobody said it would be easy. But it’s very rewarding and well worth the effort!