In this post, I answer a prospective thru-hiker's question, which is: “What do you think about attempting The Hot Springs Trail as my first thru-hike?” I'll also be addressing 3 concerns that has his attempt teetering between the HST or the AT.
Get my best advice here plus learn:
3 things to ask when attempting to complete a single season thru-hike of ANY long-distance trail for the first time.
A-Rod asks: “I've been planning a thru-hike this summer for the AT mainly because I'm fairly new to backpacking and the AT has one the most amount of resources of the long trails in the US. The idea of the Hot Springs Trail has been spinning through my head lately I just don't know if I am ready for a trail like this yet. I'm fairly decent at backcountry navigation I just worry that compared to the AT or PCT I'll find myself lost often. What do you think about attempting the HST as my first thru-hike?”
First Thru-Hike! Hot Springs Trail?
Before deciding, there are 3 things I would consider:
1. You mentioned that the AT has the most amount of resources…
What kind of resources does one need to complete a long-distance trail?
These resources have been included in the HST guidebook.
While the HST has just this one guidebook, the AT has many different versions;, essentially, all containing the same information. What the HST doesn’t have yet is a wide range of perspectives: from trail journals, adventure videos, and real experiences.
Information and resources aside:
"Do you want to follow in other peoples tracks on a well-used route or blaze forth on a trail that's less traveled, and possibly set a few new ones of your own?" - AZ
The bottom line to consider here is:
When taken one step at a time, both options are equally possible.
2. You also mentioned that you’re fairly new to backpacking…
What concerns me is not how many thru-hikes you have under your belt, but how long have you gone before between resupplies?
2? 5? 7? 10 days?
"During my first journey across the Frank Church Wilderness on the Idaho Soaktennial Trail, I departed from Bench Creek expecting to make it to Whitewater Ranch on the morning of the 7th day; however, it was on the evening of the 9th that I arrived. Why? It wasn't because I'd underestimated how long it would take me, it was because I'd underestimated how long I'd want to stay at the places the trail was visiting." - AZ
The bottom line to consider here is:
If utilizing each of the resupply options that are mentioned in the HST guidebook, and traveling at a decent pace during each section, you will still need to be able to do 5-7 days between resupply points to complete the more remote sections of the High Sierra, Nevada, and Idaho. If you can comfortably complete a 3 to 4-day hike, then I don’t see why you can’t scale the same recipe to a 6 to10-day hike.
Food for thought: Lightening your load and going for it!
If your food weight at the 7-day level, ~15lbs, is too much of a burden to carry during the first few days, there are 3 ways you can lighten it up some:
1. Carry less food and go faster to shorten the travel time between resupplies. (Not my most recommended option.)
2. Lighten food weight by swapping heavy, bland foods for lighter, more flavorful ones:
Rice Dinners > Salty Miso Soup & Dried Mushrooms
Empty Calorie Crackers > Spicy Kale Chips & Flax Crackers
Energy Bars > Tart Cherries & Sprouted Almonds
3. The best option, in my opinion, is to load up anyway and attempt to complete a 120-mile between resupply and see how it goes. This can also be done as an out & back or a loop hike. If you’re really concerned about not making it, attempt this somewhere you can bail easily if it's needed. This way you know you'll be ready for the High Sierra, the Frank Church, and the Selway-Bitterroot.
What's the longest distance between resupplies on the HST?
The current longest distance between resupply options on the HST is ~146 miles. This is encountered while traveling between Tonopah and Austin, Nevada. There are several ways to end this section and to reach Austin. Although these miles do contain portions of XC, for the most part, they can be traveled at a typical hiking pace.
3. Feeling like you’ll find yourself lost often…
The AT and the HST are about as opposite of a trail experience as you can have as far as blazes go. While the AT is known for having the next blaze visible from the last, the HST doesn’t have any official markers or blazes. However, the guidebook does contain a steady stream of indications which are used to stay on track.
If attempting to complete the HST as a thru-hike, once out there, use your guidebook like a checklist, checking off each segment and feature as you go. If you find yourself off track, return to the last feature to recalibrate yourself then look for the path of least resistance, which the HST has been designed to follow.
"During my own first attempt of the HST, all I had to follow were Benchmark State Atlas Maps and my intuition. You've got a full-blown guidebook with all the kinks and options of which way to go already worked out." - AZ
The bottom line to consider here is:
If your confident with your navigation skills, then I don’t think you’ll have any problem staying on the path – whiteouts and potentially swollen creeks aside.
Here's 3 things to ask when attempting to complete a single season thru-hike of ANY long-distance trail for the first time:
1. Can I complete a 20-mile waterless section? If not, here’s a few tips on how to.
2. Can I endure thru a wide range of conditions? From shade-less heat to surprise snow storms? From sandy beaches to rocky peaks?
3. Can I handle a wide array of terrain? On the HST, from dirt roads to groomed trails? Sidewalk surfing to trail-less ridge-running?
If you said yes to these last 3 questions, and have the grit and determination to get thru anything, then I don’t see why having completed a trail of similar length is a prerequisite to completing the HST. The way I see it, all a thru-hike is anyways, is a series of 2 to 7-day backpacking trips that you don’t come home from in between.
"If you can handle a weekend, then you can handle a week. And if you can handle a week, then you can handle a month. And if you can handle a month, then you can handle a summer on either one of these trails." - AZ
With the help of resupply boxes, proper gear, and adequate nutrition, you should be able to complete this or any long-distance trail successfully - injury and other unforeseen circumstances like weather and fire aside.
The choice between an AT or HST thru-hike is a tough one indeed. In the end, you probably can’t go wrong either way. Practically speaking:
On the HST, it’s going to be: “a wild overland voyage across a landscape that few people have ever explored.”
So what should I do???
In the end, I guess it just depends on what kind of adventure you’re looking for. But here’s the best advice I can give:
"If you think you got this, then you got this! But if you think you don’t, then you probably don’t." - AZ
Here’s 2 more things to consider:
On a trail like the AT, you have other people out there that can help you stay on track, to the degree that they’ll razz you if you go off-track and explore on your own. On a trail like the HST though, only a handful of people are out there and at times you’ll be free to create your own trail.
How can you make the HST an easier journey to complete?
Follow the XC bypasses
Take the bike-packing or pack-rafting options
Utilizing each of the resupply sources, especially the ones located off-trail
Thanks for your question A-Rod. I hope you enjoy your summer, whatever trail you wind up doing.
What are your thoughts, questions, or concerns as someone who's thinking about attempting the HST as a first-time thru-hiker? Comment below, I'd love to know.