How to Show Support for a Thru-Hiker
Dropping a loved one off at a trailhead and driving away from them knowing you will not see them for several months is extremely hard to do. You feel as if you are deserting them, leaving them to fend for themselves in the great wild unknown. It’s hard to be supportive of something you don’t exactly understand; something you personally are not doing. There are however ways that you can feel connected to your loved one. You don't have to feel a void or loss when leaving them. You can be very much involved in their journey.
I personally have been on both sides of the above. I have watched a loved one drive away leaving me behind at a trailhead and I have also been the one behind the wheel driving away and glancing back in my rearview mirror at the hiker I left behind. Because of my experiences, I thought I could be of some help to the ones who drive away. The following information is specifically focused on ways to be supportive of a thru-hiker but can be easily used and adapted for any adventure a family member, friend, spouse, etc. takes on. You may not understand why your loved one is venturing out alone, but there are ways you can show your support before, during and after their journey.
Research On Your Own
Your loved one is dedicating months to doing one specific thing, hiking. Shouldn’t you have at least a small idea what they are hiking? How long it may take them? What will they carry with them? These are questions that you can easily ask your hiker but think about how much it will mean to them if you already have a small understanding of these things. A few minutes with Google will surely give you a brief understanding of what it is your hiker is doing.
Be Apart Of The Prep
Regardless of the trail, distance, and time it will take, your hiker is going to have to train and prepare. Be a part of that process! The best way to train for a long-distance trail is to hike and they are going to be doing a lot before they start their journey, go with them! You don’t have to carry a lot of gear just a daypack will do for a few miles or if you have gear, go on an overnight backpacking trip with them. The important thing is that you are spending time with them and are taking part in the journey before they even leave. This will also give you an idea of how they will be spending their day.
What will they be eating out there? Help them decide what they like and don’t like. Help them dehydrate food and then try out the meal together. Protein bars are great snacks but which ones taste the best? What drink mixes should they choose? Help them taste test! This can be done easily in the comforts of home or while out on a small hike.
Your hiker may want to pack their own food and send it to themselves to places along the trail. Help them! Go bulk food shopping with them, label their boxes, decorate them with stickers so they are easy to locate at pickup, help them carry those food boxes to the post office etc. This is an easy and fun way to again spend time with your hiker and be apart of their journey. Maybe you can even sneak in an encouraging note for them to find later in a food box! What a nice surprise when your hiker finds it a month or two later!
Be There At The Start
Getting to the trailhead of a long distance trail can be a huge challenge. Arranging flights, rental cars, shuttles etc. can be a big stressor for the prospective hiker so providing a ride can be a huge relief! Not only will you become part of their journey, but you will also most likely be able to see in person, a piece of the trail that your loved one will be living on for the next few months. You may also get to meet other hikers starting their journey and talk with their loved ones who are experiencing the same emotions you are. Having a loved one there at the start of a long-distance trail is like walking a child up to the classroom door on the first day of school; comforting and loving.
What About You?
It can be very lonely when your hiker is away especially if they are your spouse so make sure to plan ahead for this. Before you hiker leaves, make a list of things YOU want to do. Maybe you have always wanted to go on a weekend trip somewhere your loved one isn’t interested in or maybe you want to catch up with a friend in another city. Planning a small trip of some kind shortly after your hiker leaves will give you something to look forward too and plan for.
Want to catch up on a few books and movies that you have never seem to have time for? Now is your time! Your hiker is out challenging themselves and trying to reach a specific goal, how can you challenge yourself? What are some of YOUR goals to work towards while they are away? Setting your own personal goals and assigning a list of things to do while your hiker is away will give something to focus on and work towards beyond counting down the days till they are back home.
During The Hike
Your loved on has officially started their journey but your involvement in their hike doesn’t have to stop. You can still be apart of their hike from home and even in person on the trail.
From Home: Be Their Main Contact
Volunteer to be the person to communicate updates to other family and friends for your hiker. Signal is often limited on a long-distance trail so making phone calls can be a daunting task for a hiker. Don't forget that they will be hiking 15 to 25 miles a day often in extreme weather conditions so they may not be in the best mindset to have engaging conversations. Volunteering to call other friends and family members with information on your hiker’s progress, stories, etc. will be very helpful. Taking this information and posting it on their website to notify a broader audience will also allow them more time to relax and rest up instead of worrying who they still need to contact and what needs to be posted.
Even if you are not their point person you can still follow their progress on a map. Print out or purchase a map of your hiker’s trail and mark their progress as they hike along. This may even be of interest to them post hike if you keep noted specific dates they arrive in a specific area.
From Home: Send A Surprise Care Package
Even if you have helped with the packaging and sending of food boxes for your hiker doesn’t mean you can’t send another unexpected package. Maybe this package is filled with encouraging notes and pictures from friends and family. A hiker is going to be hungry so sending homemade cookies and other goodies would be a perfect surprise for the hiker and something that they can eat while in town or even share with their fellow hikers. Don’t be afraid to send to many goodies in one package as Hiker Boxes (free donation bins with leftover gear, supplies, food, etc. from other hikers) will be prevalent for your hiker to donate to if needed.
From Home: Surprise them with a Hotel Room or Hostel Stay
If you know a nearby town where your hiker will be heading to in the next few days paying for a hotel room or hostel stay at a location close to trail in advance, will give them something to look forward too. A hot shower and break from sleeping outside is usually a welcomed treat to any hiker.
From Home: Share With Them
It’s easy to feel close to your hiker even though they are not with you! It is likely that your hiker will be listening to music, audiobooks, or podcasts at times while they are hiking, so maybe you can too! Listen to a few of the same albums or podcasts and discuss them later when your hiker calls. This will also make you feel good knowing your hiker is listening to the same thing. Reading the same book/ listening to an audiobook is another great way to connect with your hiker when you get to talk with them.
From Home: Continue Your Research
While your hiker is away keep researching their journey. Thanks to social media you can follow their hike if they are posting on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc. but you can also follow along with other hikers currently doing the same trail. This is another way you can somewhat be connected to your hiker’s journey without being right next to them.
Research the area you hiker is heading into or the towns they are passing by. You can easily look up the places along the trail as your hiker reports them to you thanks to the Internet. Did they hike past a historic bridge or cabin? Did they rest-up in a famous town? Research it and learn more!
In Person: Hit The Trail With Them
Going out and meeting your hiker for a day or small section of trail could be just the boost your hiker needs. Homesickness can be a challenge for a hiker of any age while out on the trail and seeing a familiar face from home could be a welcomed sight. This idea will take some planning between both you and your hiker. Keep in mind that your hiker is out on the trail every single day so their abilities may be far advanced from yours; hiking just a small day with them may be best for them and for you.
Another option that may be easier to plan and more comfortable for all involved, would be to spend a zero (or complete day off from trail) with your loved one. This allows you to still enjoy the comforts of home but spend time mid-trail with your hiker. Experiencing a trail town, helping your hiker resupply, and meeting some of their fellow hikers will be a good opportunity to get a glimpse into their life on the trail.
In Person: Provide Trail Magic
After hiking a few miles with your loved one or spending a day off in town with them, linger around and provide some Trail Magic to other hikers. Trail Magic can be as simple as filling up a cooler with ice cold drinks or as extravagant as setting up a grill and fixing up hamburgers and hotdogs for hikers as they pass by. Typically hikers will appreciate any kind of snack, meal, beverage, etc. that is different from their everyday food intake (which isn’t always the greatest). Hikers also burn an insane amount of calories so any additional food they can consume without carrying it in their pack is always welcome.
Providing a few rides back and forth to town from a trailhead or even down the street to a grocery store is also a form of trail magic. Just because a hiker walks miles and miles every day, doesn't mean that walking one more to the store is exactly a wanted task.
Keep in mind that trail magic can happen on any long-distance trail; just being around hikers can allow you to feel closer to yours. Most long-distance hikers are willing to share their stories which can also give you another perspective of what your hiker is experiencing. If you are providing trail magic to hikers on the same trail as your loved one, they may have insight on where your hiker is at if you haven't already seen them. This will also make your hiker feel good when they come in contact with hikers down the trail who received trail magic by someone they personally know.
In Person: Volunteer
Just like coming to help your loved one move, redecorate, or fix up something in the yard or in the house, the trail your loved one is traveling needs to be maintained. Volunteering with a trail association or a trail cleanup crew of some kind is not only overall helpful for the environment but it also helps support the trail that is supporting your hiker. Helping with trail maintenance will also ensure that the trail your hiker is on is safe and clearly marked. It will also give you a perspective of the trail different from what even your hiker will know! If your not one for manual labor there may be other opportunities to help with! Simply contact the trail association!
Throw A Party
Your hiker has been gone for several months unable to see most of their family and friends. Planning to get all those people or even a small intimate group together to show your hiker how much you missed them and to celebrate their accomplishment, can be a great idea. It is easy to want to rush back into old routines but your hiker has taken on a huge challenge and just completed something that not everyone can do. Give them the spotlight and focus on their accomplishment. They deserve to be celebrated!
If your hiker didn't exactly reach their desired destination or maybe had to leave trail due to an injury, a party or gathering of any kind may not be the best or it could give your hiker a boost and get them to focus on what they did accomplish. You, however, may need to evaluate how appropriate this will be.
Share Your Accomplishments & Other Events
Share with you hiker what you accomplished while they were away. You know what they have been doing but do they know what you’ve been up too? What has been happening at home? Important events and accomplishments can fade in the memory after a month or two so recording such things in a journal and allowing your hiker to read them or discuss it with them, would be a great way to start to reconnect. What did you accomplish on your to-do list and personal goals you set before they left? What family and friend events happened you didn’t get the chance to share with them during their hike? A lot of things can change within a few months; get your hiker up to date!
Chances are a lot of movies and music have been put out into the world while your hiker was gone. Even though they may not have been completely cut off from the world during their hike, they still may have not been able to see or listen to everything they wanted. Plan a movie night and catch them up! This will be especially fun if you avoid watching certain movies until you can enjoy them together.
Hike & Exercise Together
Your hiker’s metabolism is going to be moving at a high rate of speed and the amount of food they continue to consume post trail will catch up with them as they are no longer hiking twenty or more miles a day. Keeping their body in shape and adjusting back to a more sedentary lifestyle will be something you can be a part of. Hitting the gym together is a great way to hear more stories from your hiker’s journey and for both of you to stay in shape.
Don't be surprised if even after months of hiking, they still want to hike! Continuing to hike around on local trails will not only help you and you hiker stay in shape, but it will also help your hiker slowly adjust back into life at home. Hiking with your loved one will likely be more doable now that they are backing down their mileage and not trying to be at a certain destination by a certain time.
Important Things To Remember Along The Way
A thru-hike is not an easy task to plan, attempt, and to finish. Your hiker is going to be testing themselves in ways that you will not exactly understand unless you yourself have taken on a long-distance trail. The below are just a few important things to keep in mind in regards to your hiker.
They Are Going To Be On A Different Brainwave
Your hiker’s main daily focus for months at a time will be hiking, eating, and sleeping. They will probably not be around large groups of people, and they won’t be connected to the world at all times. When you talk to them, don’t be surprised if they don’t talk much. A majority of their time on trail is going to be in their own head. Talking can actually be exhausting for them during their hike and even awhile after they finish their hike. Feeling a little more than the physical distance from them is not uncommon.
If They Don’t Call, They May Not Be Dead
Your hiker may try to check in with you and even make a plan to call you on a certain day, however, keep in mind that Mother Nature may have another idea. Your hiker may not make it into town on the day they thought. The terrain is often unpredictable along with weather, which can and will affect how fast your hiker progresses. If your hiker hasn’t sent even a text message for a few days or maybe even a week, this doesn’t mean they are dead. A lot of areas on long-distance trails are far away from cell signal and civilization in general, which would prevent your hiker from contacting you. To avoid any worry or embarrassment in reporting your hiker missing after they are only a few hours or a day late, discuss with your hiker options with carrying a SPOT, In Reach or other GPS tracking device. Knowing your hiker at least has one of these to use if in trouble, will hopefully give you a sense of peace when they don’t check in right away.
They May Be Overwhelmed Easily, Go Slow
Your hiker has been traveling only as fast as their feet can carry them, they’ve been living a slower paced life and making a small number of decisions. Keep this in mind. On your hiker’s first day back home post trail, it may not be a good idea to take them on a drive down the freeway while playing twenty-questions. If you want a sure way to clam up your hiker, this is it. Instead, go slow and let your hiker tell you what they need, let them talk to you and really listen to what they are saying.
Maybe talk with them while taking a walk to the grocery store. Limit your amount of questions you give them at once. Allow them time to answer your question to the fullest. It is very easy to want to unload your current life on them forgetting that a thru-hike is a lot more then just walking; they will have a lot to share with you if you give them the chance.
Adjust Your Expectations Of Them
Don’t expect your hiker to be motived to return to the life and routine they had pre-hike. It is common for hikers to experience "post-trail depression" especially if their hike ended unexpectedly and they were not able to reach their initial goal. You may be glad to have them back home, but they may not share the same feelings. They have experienced another way of life that only another long-distance hiker can understand. The transition back into their old life may never exactly happen. It’s unfair to expect your hiker to be exactly the same person as they were pre-hike so expecting them to have the same wants and needs as before, will only cause both you and them frustration and stress. Be supportive of them and comfort them the best ways you can and encourage them to reach out to talk to someone, even if that's not with you.
Hopefully, after reading this article, you will have a better understanding of how to feel connected with a loved one before during and after they tackle a long distance trail. Keep in mind these are only a few ideas to branch out from and I encourage you to try these and other options. Being both the long-distance hiker and the family member that stays beyond has taught me a lot of which I learned first hand. The most important thing I hope you take from this is the fact that you can still be apart of the hike without actually hiking.