Most people have the same basic problems in planning a thruhike - and the solutions aren't necessarily all that hard. But for those who've never done a long distance hike before, the hardest part of the process may be just finding the right questions to ask.
I won't give you all the answers, in part because that would take the fun and the challenge out of your planning process and in part because I don't have all the answers. But I will give you a lot of questions - and maybe a few answers along the way.
No two people, no two personal situations are exactly the same, so the answers aren't necessarily the same for you as they are for me - and you'll need YOUR answers. I found some of my answers - and while some of them might fit you, I'll also guarantee that a lot of them won't.
You should also be aware that the answers aren't necessarily written in stone either. Circumstances change and you may need to be flexible enough to change with them. For example, if there's a drought in New Mexico you might not be allowed to use a stove in the backcountry - and that can happen on any of the trails. Or if snow levels are high - or low - it might affect the way you want to hike the PCT or the CDT - or your starting date at Katahdin if you're southbound. Or if family problems require a delay, you may have to rethink your whole plan - quickly. Hang loose and stay flexible.
So -- as a beginning, I'll go back to where I started -- to the fact that a lot of people talk about the rewards of thruhiking a long trail -- but you rarely hear anyone talking about the price or the consequences. So I'll start with some straightforward questions for which you'll eventually get the answers if you thruhike -- even if you don't want them. The real question is whether you'll enjoy either the answers or the process of learning them.
Do you really WANT to thruhike?
- Do you really want to spend 4 to 6 months being hot, sweaty, dirty, tired, smelly, wet, lonely, sore, muddy, cold, hungry and thirsty - sometimes all at same time?
- Do you really want sore feet and shoulders, chafed hips and shoulders (among other body parts), blisters, heat rash, poison ivy, sunburn, strained muscles and tendons, possible stress fractures, blown knees, shin splints and/or guaranteed muscle pain and aching feet?
- Do you really want to walk for 8 or 10 hours a day (or more) - every day - in rain, snow, heat, bugs, humidity or whatever else, uphill and down, for month after month?
- Do you really want to eat the same boring food for 6 months?
- Or put on that "toxic" T-shirt every morning? (The "toxic" T-shirt is the one you have to hold your breath to get over your head - because if you smell it too closely you'll lose your breakfast.)
Do you REALLY want to thruhike?
- Do you really want to give up your job, family, lifestyle, retirement - supposedly for 4 to 6 months, but with the possibility that it might be permanent?
- Are you willing to accept the possibility that you might have to find a new job or even a new career when you finish?
- Are you really willing to accept the reality that if you finish (and maybe if you don't finish) you WILL change?
- Do you understand that there's a real possibility that you might change so much that you might not be able to go back to the life you knew before? Some of us really can't go home again.
How long do you want to spend on the Trail?
Some people are constrained by school - they have 3 or 4 months to work with. Others are constrained by work - maybe by a leave of absence. And others make their own schedules, whether they want to do a 6-month hike or 10 months - or 50 days. You need to make this decision early because the length of time you spend on the Trail and the time of year you intend to be there will also affect the equipment choices you make.
On the AT, the trail can be (and has been) done at any time of year but winter hiking through Katahdin/Baxter State Park and the Whites would require some heavy duty winter mountaineering gear. It's not easy and it does make its own demands in terms of equipment - but it is doable. If you'll be starting on the AT in February, you'll need to carry winter gear for at least 3 months and possibly longer. If you're starting in mid-May, you won't need winter gear unless/until you hike into Autumn. And if you want to do a 50 day hike on the AT in mid-summer, you won't need winter gear, but you will need some heavy-duty support. I don't really encourage the 50-day option - but it's your hike.
The CDT and PCT are different worlds - there's a shorter hiking season, both of them can have major snow problems, and there's altitude to consider as well - particularly on the CDT. Unless you're gonna spend months snowshoeing or skiing, neither is really doable in winter because of the snowpack and avalanche danger. On the CDT, that extends through Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. Even New Mexico gets its share of snow - after all, the Gila Wilderness is at 8,000 to 10,000 ft altitude. Planning a hike for either of these trails is somewhat harder and requires more flexibility in both planning and execution than the AT.
Which way do you want to hike?
If you'll be on the AT you have a lot of choices - North to South? South to North? Maybe starting midway and going south to meet all the thruhikers and then back to your starting point to go north so you can finish with them? Or maybe a flip-flop of a different sort? Or maybe by sections?/
There are lots of ways to walk, run, crawl, cruise, or meander along the Trail. But again, how you want to do it can affect your equipment choices, schedule, mail drops, cost, support requirements, etc.
Some of the same considerations apply to the CDT, but with the added complications of altitude, snowpack, runoff-swollen streams, dried-up water sources and horse-churned mud. There are those who do straight-through, linear hikes, but they're rare. A linear hike demands either the pure-dee luck to be hiking after a very low snow winter or that you be a really strong, fast hiker. Most CDT thruhikers do some sort of modified flip-flop. We started at Warm Springs and went north to Canada and then returned to Warm Springs to hike south to Mexico. But even that depends on the snow levels - and it could change drastically at the last minute.
If flexibility is important on the AT (and it is) - it's absolutely essential on the CDT. In 1998 even the PCT hikers found that out - to my knowledge only a handful of them went straight through from Campo to Manning Park - a lot of them flip-flopped from the Sierras to Manning Park and headed south.
How do you want to do it?
Again, on the AT there are lots of choices - Do you want to be a purist or a blue-blazer? Or maybe a yellow-blazer? Are you willing to slackpack or do you want to carry your pack all the way? Do you want to do 15 miles per day - or 30 - or 10? Will you spend a lot of time in towns - or will you avoid them except for resupply? Will you be out there to thruhike -- or to party? Just remember that town time and partying are expensive.
On the CDT, most of those questions don't apply. Blue-blazing, for example, isn't really a consideration. Sure, there's the Creede cutoff, the Anaconda cutoff, and a whole gaggle of other alternate trails. Choosing among "alternate routes" is part of the package - some alternates are shorter, some more scenic, some have fewer or easier river crossings and some are simply impassable at times.
One of the differences is that the CDT hasn't been completely "designated" yet - much less constructed. And even the "designated" sections very often have alternate routes. In one place, a newly "designated" section would add an extra 20-miles and 3,000 ft of elevation gain - and require the hiker to get a camping permit for Rocky Mountain National Park (which is another off-trail detour) rather than the older straight-through-the-Park route. Which one is a thruhiker gonna take?
Slackpacking would be really tough on the CDT - personally, I wouldn't want to be caught without a full pack by a Rockies storm. And partying happens - but not nearly as much as on parts of the AT because, for those who have been there, Hot Springs would truly be a metropolis on the CDT. There's not the same town/hiker connection and a lot of the resupply towns are 20 to 30 mile hitchhikes. It's a different world - with different rules and different attitudes.
Personal Answers and Decisions
The previous 5 questions are basic - and a lot of people start a long trail without having any idea that the choices even exist. But they're questions that nearly everyone has to answer at some point - and the answers you come up with will determine the character of your hike. It's surprising how many people make those decisions out of ignorance. For example, a lot of AT thruhikers blue-blaze at some point, whether to take an easier or shorter trail or to take a more scenic route (like the Virginia Creeper Trail). But if you start by blue-blazing Blood Mountain because you're afraid of wet rocks, what will you do on Albert Mt. in the snow? Or on Moosilauke in the fog and rain? Or on an ice-coated Katahdin? Those are some of the best parts of the Trail - will you feel the same sense of pride if you don't face the harder challenges? That's not my call - but it's something to think about.
There are a lot of people who go back to hike sections of the AT that they blue-blazed the first time. There are some repeat thruhikers who are out there because they weren't happy with the results of their first thruhike and they want to do it smarter or lighter or purer or slower - or even to do the blue-blazes just to see what's there.
Conversely, there are also some who are out there because they WERE happy with their first thruhike and they want to repeat the experience. And some who go back to explore the side trails that they missed the first time because they were in too much of a hurry to stop and smell the roses. The bottom line here is that YOU are the only one who has to be happy with what you do on the Trail. Why not decide what will make you happy NOW when you have the time to think about what you really want - rather than being surprised and having to make instant decisions when you're on the Trail and someone offers you your first slack - or your friends decide to take a blue-blaze and you have to decide instantly whether to go with them or not. Or when your friends are 3 days ahead because they're faster than you - and you're trying to decide between hitching ahead to join them or continuing to hike your hike with the knowledge that there are other fun and interesting people to meet along the Trail.
Just remember - if your friends are ahead because they're faster than you, they'll still be faster than you when you catch them. And then you'll have to hitch ahead again - and again - and again. That doesn't sound to me like a great way to hike - how much of the Trail are you willing to miss like that? When did your purpose change from "thruhiking the Trail" to "hiking with friends"? It's nice to hike with people you like - but if their hiking speed/style isn't compatible with yours, then you won't be hiking YOUR hike. And they may not be hiking theirs either because you may be interfering with their hike.
Remember why you're out there. If you're out there to thruhike, then suck it up and hike. If you're out there to hike with friends, you may be doing something other than thruhiking.
Notice that I didn't ask "Why do you want to thruhike?" I doubt if one thruhiker in ten could give a real answer to that question.
We all have what we think are good reasons, but if we really examine them, most of us find that they don't really make sense - there's no logic to them. Most of us hike for emotional reasons - and sometimes we even discover what those reasons are. But that usually happens during or after our thruhike - not before.
Real people always have three reasons for what they do - the reason they tell others, the reason they tell themselves - and the real reason.
I'll also say that it doesn't matter what your reasons are - because whatever they are, your reasons and motivation are YOURS. No one else has either right or reason to criticise them or to tell you that your reasons aren't valid or to tell you what's the "correct" reason for thruhiking. There ARE "correct" reasons - they're whatever YOU decide is"correct" for you. It's YOUR hike - so hike it your way.