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Advice for Transitioning to Long Distance Backpacking from an Ultrarunner

In 2017, my future fiancé and I took the leap from being a couple of dirtbag runners to bonafide thru-hiker trash by hiking the Continental Divide Trail together with our 2-year-old pup Moose. I must admit, coming from a background of trail and ultra running, I immediately thought our 25-mile per day goal (+ rest days) to make it from Mexico to Canada along the backbone of the country would be doable - hard, but doable. In retrospect, I was an idiot, but so were all of the people who told me, “the transition from runner to thru-hiker is seamless.” It’s not, but it does certainly put you at an advantage to have some hard mountain miles on your legs prior to a thru-hike.

Below are a few tips on making the transition a little more seamless if you’re planning a long distance hike.

Myth: I can run 30-50 miles in the mountains and get up relatively pain free the next day, so….back-to-back-to-back 20-25-mile days should be no problem! It’s only walking...

Reality: That’s a great start if you can run a mountain ultra! Now strap food for the next 5-6 days, shelter, sleeping bag and pad, extra clothes, first aid supplies, electronics, and enough water to make it through the desert onto your back, and see how you feel.

Do you know how much water weighs? We started the first stretch of trail from Crazy Cook, NM to Lordsburg with well over 6 Liters of water each (that’s over 13 lbs). Not to mention food for us (and the dog) and some questionable gear we wouldn't end up using. We were petrified there would be no water at the caches since we started later than typical thru-hikers (spoiler alert, there was plenty of water). I remember the fear of bending my legs too much when I picked up my pack, thinking I wouldn’t be able to get back up if I did. It would have served me well to spend some full days on my feet with a loaded pack, not just an ultralight running pack and a water filter aimed to scoop and move. Also, I don’t care about your pride, hiking poles are extremely helpful in saving your leggies.

Myth: I’ve beat up my feet enough running, I never get blisters!

Reality: Being on your feet all day every day is different than one long run a day. You’re in and out of water constantly (80 or so river crossings a day in the Gila), and the trail is dusty and rocky (gaiters are a huge help!). You’re probably going to run into every type of terrain you can imagine - we even had to put on and lace up frozen socks and shoes several days, SUPER bummer. Best case scenario, you’re going to get hot spots at some point, worst case scenario, you’re lancing an infected blister in the backcountry with a needle and thread.

Your socks are one of your most important pieces of gear. I would say wool socks are a must, but I haven’t tried anything else so I guess I can’t make that blanket statement. Wool is great for many reasons - it’s moisture wicking, it’s an incredible insulator - keeping you warm even when wet - it’s strong and resilient, making it able to put up with the abuse of a thru-hike. Balega’s Blister Resist socks are a favorite of mine, they seem to have extra cushioning in all the right places, and mohair is even softer than other wools, which makes putting on a fresh pair of socks on the trail a real treat (even if they aren’t 100% clean...).

Myth: These running shoes are my favorite, they’ll be perfect for a thru-hike!

Reality:Test that theory, the mechanics of running and walking are different. Bonus! A couple of long days with a pack and you’ll inevitably do a gear shake, keeping only what you need for future hikes. Also, sorry ladies, your feet will swell, so consider sizing up. My feet “grew” an entire half size on the trail and have yet to go back to my old size.

Shoes with wide toe boxes are a crowd favorite on the trail since they give your feet some room to spread out. I personally enjoy a zero drop shoe for running, but that ruined my feet on the first stretch of trail, and I ended up needing to get insoles to balance it out. In fact, insoles are great for stretching your shoes that extra mile (or 150 miles) so even if you’re not having issues they’re great to have.

Myth: I can coast on gels and liquid nutrition for long days in the mountains.

Reality: Hiker hunger set in for me at about two weeks in. The struggle is real y’all, you literally can’t get enough calories (actually, the only “snack” that left me satisfied typically finds itself on “what not to eat” lists - Whoopie Pies from my home state of Maine at over 800 calories a pop). We originally packed some gels thinking they’d be a quick and easy snack, but they weren’t filling enough to even be worth it. Also, you’re moving so much slower than you are when you’re running that you don’t have to worry about upsetting your stomach as much so real food is a lot easier (and more satisfying!) to eat.

The best advice I can give if you’re thinking about a thru-hike is to do it! It was easily the most life changing experience I have ever had (that much alone time in your own head will do that to you). There were points I wanted to quit so badly - nights I woke myself up from nightmares of incredible pain only to find out, yup my legs just actually were in that much pain. But those hard times are so quickly eclipsed by the positive experiences. The realization that most people won’t ever see the views you’re seeing, the daily dose of sunrise and sunset, the friendships and camaraderie you find in fellow hikers, the endless generosity from trail angels and random strangers; it’s a dose of restoration in humanity and a lesson of the important things in life.

- Kendra (Dumpling)