A Thruhiker’s Perspective on Prepping

(As posted to Reddit.)

I once went off on a hike in the mountains. It ended up lasting 22 months and over 7,500 miles/12,000km. (As far as ways to destroy your wallet/resume/body… highly recommended). I’ve also worked as an Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner and a wilderness first responder.

Because of all this, my friends often ask me for advice on prepping / the survival of fan-shit-hitting scenarios. At first my answer was “lol idk all I know how to do is walk a bunch.” But I’ve thought about it more, and I think I might maybe have a few interesting things to add? Anyway, here’s a thruhiker’s advice on prepping.

1) WILL THERE BE HIKING IN THE ‘POCALYPSE?

There are some emergency situations where a person will want to take a long hike, or even a short hike. But what are those situations?

Just in general, I recommend people do the following.

  • First: take a minute to draw up a list of EVENTUALITIES that could threaten you – fire, flood, famine, attack by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, etc.
  • Then: draw up a list of PLACES that you might be when these things happen – home, work, commuting between home and work, LAN Party In Formal Attire, etc etc.

I’ll call each unique combination of Eventualities and Locations a SITUATION.

  • I then recommend you think about how to achieve safety in each situation. Is it okay to stay where you are? Do you have to get somewhere else – or maybe you don’t have to but it’ll still be a good idea? How long will the emergency last? And: will it last longer or shorter depending on where you are?
  • From there you can ask, How can you get to that other place?
  • And only then can you ask: what will be necessary, or at least helpful, to get you there?

In a nutshell, my guess is:

  • There are a lot of situations where you’re best bet is to shelter in place. But also there are a lot of situations where your best bet it to bugout.

HOWEVER, a lot of these will probably involve the use of a vehicle: easier, much faster, larger carrying capacity, greater range, not abandoning your precious Tacoma to the zombie hordes.

  • There are some bugout situations that involve you moving by foot.

HOWEVER, a lot of these simply involve you moving very fast for a short period. Either you’re running as fast as you can for a few minutes (tsunami), or you’re hauling ass to cover a few miles (sloth invasion). At which point you’re looking at a pretty standard bugout-bag analysis – very dependent on the particular situation, and not generally influenced by thruhiking.

  • There are a few bugout situations that involve you hiking for longer periods.

Those are mostly what I’ll talk about.

2) WHEN MIGHT YOU NEED TO HIKE?

Here are just some situations where you might need or want to hike a long distance.

  • You live in a nice secluded spot at the end of a holler in Kentucky. A wildfire breaks out, cutting off the only road. The fire is moving up the holler. The only way out is to hike out and over the hillside. But then there’s a hundred miles of national forest to get through before the next town.
  • You live in a housing development in Plano, Texas. A winter storm knocks out the power grid, and also shuts down the roads. It’s been a week and the power’s not up yet. You’ve got a buddy in Tishomingo which is just over the border into Oklahoma – and just outside of ERCOT. You know that if you can make it the 80mi to his house you’ll have power again.
  • You live in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills – just you, your collection of classic cars, and enough cocaine to qualify for its own congressional delegation. A severe drought leads to the complete breakdown of water supplies in the city below. This leads to millions of very desperate people heading up into the hills. You’re a mere 25 miles as the crow flies from Cajon Pass and an evac center. But to cover those 25 linear miles will take you 90 miles of hiking with 15,000′ of elevation gain.
  • You live in an apartment building in Kyiv. Shells and missiles are hitting residential buildings all around you. The roads are jammed and the trains are overwhelmed. Your only way out is a 150mi walk to the Polish border. There’ll be food and water stations along the way – but you’re pretty sure you’ll never be going back.
  • It’s been ten years since societal breakdown. You’ve been living your absolute prepper fantasy with a solid community of likeminded knifemakers and sisterwives. You’re all out of MREs but not a week goes by that you don’t slaughter a pig and roast it over open flames. The gasoline has long gone bad but who needs to drive when you have everything you need right here? Then one day a little drone lands in the middle of your community. The note says “evacuate by tomorrow or the Union of Nazi Furries (UNF), in league with the Revisionist Quaker Army and DOUBLE ISIS, will come and take yo shit.” You prepare your weapons, form defensive perimeters, and wait. The next day you hear a faint buzzing up above and then suddenly all your buildings are aflame. You try to douse the fires but there are just too many of them. Your life – your world – is gone. You don’t know where you’re going. Surely there’s an abandoned farm somewhere where you can try to start again? You don’t know how long it’ll take to get there, or what you’ll encouner along the way. All you know is, the yiffing shaker jihadis are coming – so you better start walking.

3) WHAT HELPS, AND HURTS, A LONG HIKE?

An adult of reasonable health and ability can do a lot of walking or hiking. A random person with nothing but a pair of Chucks can hike for 24 straight hours and cover 50+ miles of path – if the weather’s good, if the route’s clear, if the hiking’s not too strenuous, and if they are motivated.

That person will not be happy. They will be very, very unhappy the next day. And probably for a few days after that. But they can do it.

It’s incredible what kind of bad conditions a person can push through. With a few thick layers and a nice big sleeping bag, ten days crossing snow-covered mountains can be basically the same as ten days strolling through fields of flowers. With a sunbrella and a bunch of water, the same can be true of a ten-day desert cross. I once hiked through a week of rain without any sort of rain gear. I wasn’t happy! I smelled like pickled death and there was green stuff growing on my sleeping bag! But I did it!

On that subject: The difference between a hike that takes 3 hours with a break in the middle, a hike that takes 12 hours with a nap in the middle, and a hike that takes 10 days and you camp out every night – is very little, really. Unless you absolutely need to cover as much ground as you can as fast as you can: don’t. Stop. Take breaks. Head a little off trail and take a damn nap. If you’ve gotten away from the danger, but have yet to get to safety, that does not mean you are necessarily still in danger. If you have time, take it. If you don’t have to push yourself in an emergency, do not.

If you’re out for more than a day or maybe two, you’ll need water. Get to know how abundant this actually is in your area (at different times of year) – the answer may surprise you. Don’t forget that big rivers and urban canals are just as drinkable in an emergency as any babbling brook or mountain stream. Just… filter. Filter filter filter filter filter.

If water isn’t reliable, remember: a person can carry an awful lot of water at a time. I once carried 10 liters of water (2.5gal, 22lbs) in my backpack, plus a gallon in each hand, to get through a 100mi water carry in the desert of Arizona. (And by “once” I mean “three times,” because Arizona.)

The calculus for food is similar. You can hike without food and just burn your fat reserves, but A) it’s gonna get very unpleasant very fast, B) your body stores energy but it does not store electrolytes, and it’s hard to burn energy when you’re lying on the trail all cramped up. My advice is that eating a little (salty) food as you go will be wildly effective at unlocking your stored energy. If you’re 20 pounds overweight, and you’ve got even 20 Snickers bars, you can probably hike for 20 days. Throw in a few jars of Gatorade mix and you can probably hike for 40. You’ll be pretty Twiggy by the end of the hike, but you’ll also have covered a thousand miles. The human body is wonderful like that.

The general rule is that the more weight you carry, the slower you will hike. But I must offer that this is less important than a lot of people think. If you need to cover absolutely as many miles as you can, as fast as you can, then cut your weight down low. But if you are not in this absolute desperate race against time and distance… don’t worry about a few pounds. Don’t worry about 10 or even 20. Bring the warmer sleeping bag. Bring the more durable tent. Bring the extra water. And absolutely bring the second water filter.

Directly related: for bugout hiking, it’s a great idea to have a backpack that lets you carry a lot of weight comfortably. This is very different from a little ultralight thruhiker’s backpack. You will definitely want a large bag with a substantive internal frame. You might even consider an external-frame backpack. (Just say it was your dad’s, for hipster cred.) This will let you carry things like extra layers, extra water, extra food, or even things unrelated to the hike like your family Bible or a sack of gold coins.

This will also let you carry things for other people. This is something you should absolutely consider as you bugout. Carry extra first aid gear for others. Carry a two-person tent, or three, or four. Hell, my ultralight thruhiker ass can’t even get out the words “carry an extra sleeping bag”… but there’s probably no single item more likely to save a life out in the wilderness – and that might be your life, if it keeps a stranger from killing you to get your quilt.

This brings us to the subject of weapons. I’m guessing every single person on this sub knows more about this than I do, so I’ll only say a few short things. One, be prepared for very rough conditions – dirt, dust, and ash come to mind. As does rain. And possibly getting very hot or very cold – and on parts of the gun that you might have to touch. Two, a lot of thruhikers have remarked that it is a better deterrent to carry a 1″ knife that people can see, than a 10″ knife that they can’t. A lot of thruhikers (solo women in particular) wear neck knives for this purpose.

Of the things to pack: I strongly recommend packing for the most extreme conditions that you could possibly encounter. This does not mean bringing a polar expedition sleeping bag in Florida in June. But if it’s very unlikely that the temperature is gonna get below 40F at night, please be prepared for it to get to 30F, and you might consider being prepared for it to get to 20F. It is quite possible that the emergency situation you are running from is directly linked to other unusual variables. Prep accordingly.

There are some situations where you will not want to hike on established trails. At this point you will need skills in route-finding, crossing rough terrain, and maintaining direction. You’ll also need the patience to go slowly and the stiff upper lip to double back if you get cliffed out. This will be slow and arduous assuming you can do it at all. This might well mean you won’t be able to anticipate resources, especially water sources.

On the other hand, there are some situations where you can hike in places that aren’t generally considered trails. On several occasions I’ve hiked right down the middle of closed highways. It’s never not an incredible feeling – and very easy hiking.

And finally: your place of safety might be a relatively short hike into the woods, but you might need to stay there for a long time while the danger abates. If you’ve got a tent, the right sleeping bag, enough food and water… you could stay in one spot for months. So… bring a book. Seriously.

4) A THRUHIKER’S ADVICE ON LONG-TERM PREPPING

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think a few of the specific lessons I learned as a result of thruhiking might be helpful even in stay-at-home scenarios.

  • The simpler, the better. A fixed-blade knife will just be less of a hassle than a folding knife. If there’s a tool that will not require regular servicing, that’s the better one; if there’s a tool that won’t stop working because it’s dirty, it’s worth its post-apocalyptic weight in gold.
  • The vast majority of hiking gear is not hi-tech. It is not glamorous. It will earn you no tacticred. This is doubly true if you are preparing for surviving a long or indefinite emergency and durability and repairability (and comfort!) are more important the ultralightness. For example, I’m pretty sure an ideal bugout bag for a long hike will probably involve a flannel sleeping bag that would have looked familar to your great-grandparents.
  • There might be a lot of small animals immediately following a disaster or Collapse. Food is useless if it’s not properly stored. The same is true for pretty much everything else. Buy bearcans or buckets or plastic boxes.
  • As in a home, as in a backpack: a very useful thing to pack is extra space. A 1000sqft shelter is not an invitation to buy 1000sqft of stuff. A
  • After the glut of small animals, there will be a lot of of large animals eating them. This will culminate in a superabundance of apex predators. They will have plenty of prey and will not be interested in you.
  • The most dangerous point will be when there are so many apex predators that they start reducing the number of smaller animals, and become hungry. This might also mean predator migration. So be careful during this period if there’s anything even remotely nearby that could eat you.
  • Conversely, there might be very few small animals immediately following certain kinds of disasters. This will leave apex predators starving and desperate – and possibly forced to relocate. This is also known as “why forest fires lead to mountain lions gnawing on you in your backyard.” Be wary.
  • Take care of your trash. Especially food trash. Animals will be attracted to it. If this means a 1/2-mile walk, once a week, do get rid of your waste in a safe fashion – worth it.
  • But also be careful of your regular trash. You don’t want to spend the whole ass apocalypse surrounded by MRE wrappers, do ya?
  • Also, be careful of your waste. A long walk to take a poop is not fun. Neither is living near poop. Or having your well be right next to your privvy-hole. The longer the interruption to normality, the more important this becomes.
  • I strongly recommend merino wool clothing. Aside from being generally durable, breathable, easy to repair, quick to dry, and insulating when wet, merino wool is naturally antimicrobial. What does this mean? It means it won’t smell! You might not have the luxury of doing laundry a lot during the End Times. You might even be the average redditor and are incapable of doing your laundry at all. There is really nothing worse than pulling off your shirt at the end of the day and then explosively vomiting because it smells like a fire in a tartar sauce warehouse.
  • Filtering water does not necessarily improve the taste. A filter that’s been used on yucky water can impart a yucky taste on clean water for a very long time. But even more than that: you can get sick of water. If you’re working hard – hiking, or planting row after row of Survival Potatoes – you might drink more water than you ever have before. It might take a month, it might take a year, but you can get real sick of water. And this leads to you drinking less, which is bad. If you are trying to save money or space in your supply stash by assuming you will only drink water for a long time, I strongly encourage you to invest in some flavoring. A single tea bag can add some small flavor to dozens of liters of room-temperature water. A $5 assortment of herbal tea could last you half a year.
  • Consider stocking up on safer-sex supplies. People can get unexpectedly and wildly horny during emergencies, or during extended bouts of physical activity. I feel like the arrival of Ragnarok could be a very bad time to get pregnant, or even get an STD.
  • The best kind of shoe is one that fits. Everything else is secondary. If your preparations involve being physically active – whether that’s hiking or going The Martian on some taters – you really want a shoe that you can wear and move in all day. For those like me whose average day now involves sitting for long periods, you might consider going for a full-day hike or walk and seeing if your shoes feel tight at the end of the day. If they do – size up.
  • Insoles usually wear out before soles do. Replacing the insoles in a pair of shoes will often extend their useful life by hundreds of miles/days.
  • Never turn down the opportunity to rinse off. Never ever forget to brush your teeth. Do you think you’ll be able to pay less attention to chores after a Collapse? No. No. You will have to pay attention more.
  • The best thing you can have is other people. People to share burdens with. People to help defend you. People to talk to. People to tell you when your Great Idea is actually dumb as hell. If you’re dreaming of self-sufficiency, you are starting at an indescribable disadvantage. If the basis of your prepping is a dream of isolation – friend, I really hope it stays a dream.
  • Sunsets are still gonna be good in the ‘pocalypse. They’ll be better when there’s nothing else to look at, better if there’s tons of ash or poison in the air – but sunsets are pretty good now. So. Hope you remember to look at them, even if SHTF.

-silver the thruhiker

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