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Thru-hiking advice from people who’ve been there

January 14, 2020

Found in Activities, Community news, Stories

When it comes to outdoor activities, hiking tops the list for Canadians. But some hikers take things a bit farther (okay, a lot farther) with thru-hiking. What is thru-hiking? “A very long hike, travelled from end-to-end,” says two-time thru-hiker Mik Turje, “usually favoured by masochists, dirtbags, weirdos and those who never want a hike to finish.”

To find out more what it’s like to take on this type of challenge, we talked to Mik along with Bonnie Thornbury. Mik and Bonnie, who each identify as non-binary, recently tackled significant trails, and also brought awareness to the importance of representation of diversity in the outdoors. MEC is committed to supporting diverse lived experiences in the outdoor community and wanted to enable their journeys through our expedition grant program.

Read on for their advice on thru-hiking prep, food and meal advice, tips for gender non-conforming folks on the trail and more.

Bonnie Thornbury and Mik Turje

What hike did you tackle?

Left: Bonnie Thornbury (pronouns: they/them). A six-month, 5000-km solo walk of The Great Trail (formerly known as the Trans-Canada Trail) from west to east from Vancouver, BC to the Kawarthas in Ontario. In spring 2020, they’ll start the second leg of their journey from the Kawarthas to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Right: Mik Turje (pronouns: they/them). Solo 1200-km hike of the Great Divide Trail, considered one of the world’s most challenging thru-hikes. Started from the US border at Waterton Lakes Provincial Park, finished at Kakwa Lake in northern BC.

How do you get ready for such a big hike?

Mik: In many ways you can’t really train for it. What makes these hikes so hard isn’t the climbing or the speed, but the fact that you’re hiking 12 hours per day, day after day, month after month. It’s just not possible to do that kind of training while holding down a job and a life. I spent time working on my weaknesses, like core strength, eccentric movement, hunchy computer back and mobility. But the trail is going to kick your butt for the first three weeks no matter what you do. Be prepared for that – don’t feel like a failure if you’re hurting.

Preparation-wise, the GDT is logistics-heavy. Because it’s a strung-together collection of trails or cross-country routes going through provincial and national parks, you need to book your campsites months in advance. There’s an incredible amount of pre-planning to get your itinerary sorted, preparing your resupply boxes, booking accommodation, and sorting out gear. Every bit of work I put in paid off when I was on the trail.

Mik on the Great Divide Trail

Bonnie: To train, I walked to work – 6K each way – for a couple of months, slowly adding more weight to my load. In terms of skills, I’d spent five years hiking the Pacific Coast mountains slowly picking up backpacking tips and tricks. Experience is the best teacher! I also read up on thru-hiking in books, autobiographies, blogs. The Great Trail was just completed in 2017, so there isn’t a lot of information on it. I reached out to a small handful of people who’ve walked across the country to get an idea of what different sections of the trail would be like.

And although I started meditating long before I dreamed of taking on a thru-hike, I found my meditation practice immensely helpful to keep perspective on the challenges, work through body pain, and make time for deep gratitude each day.

Top gear recommendations: go!

Mik: The Western Mountaineering Versalite Sleeping Bag wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny! When I saw how small it could pack and how light it was, I didn’t believe it was real. In day after day of rain on the trail, everyone’s bags lost a bit of loft. That’s normal. But I never worried about being cold in this bag. Also: Injini toe socks. My feet were wet everyday but two over a couple months, and I didn’t get a single blister.

Bonnie: My Garmin inReach Mini and bear spray. I took a lot of comfort in the SOS button on my inReach, and I liked that my mom and sister could watch my progress online. Likewise for the bear spray… all the critters I encountered scampered, with the exception of one grazing grizzly that didn’t seem to care about my presence, but having bear spray on my hip belt gave me a sense of safety.

MEC Spark Tent set up

Food is key to thru-hikes. What are your eating tips?

Mik: My favourite trail meal is an invention I call “Ramen Noodle Surprise”:

  • Take super high-quality udon-style ramen noodles (Neoguri spicy seafood is my fave)
  • Add dried shiitake mushrooms and other veg (I like to dehydrate my own shredded carrots and greens)
  • Add coconut milk powder (that’s the “surprise”)
  • Top it off with packet tuna

The umami flavour of ramen is great because it is always palatable, even when exhaustion starts to impact your appetite, and the coconut milk powder is a lightweight and delicious way of adding more oil to your meal.

Bonnie: After a few weeks on the road, I had crazy muscle cramps keeping me up at night. I discovered that I had to eat constantly to avoid waking up with hunger pains and I learned a bit about nutrition too. Electrolyte drink mixes became a staple, as did dates and (in town) bananas to keep my magnesium up.

Note in yard that says: Hi Bonnie! This is the right yard. If you beat us here, help yourself to a glass of water in the fridge."

Why do you think people set out on thru-hikes?

Bonnie: I think hiking in general is becoming more popular because these incredible landscapes are more accessible. There are better roads to trailheads, more trails being built, and knowledge about trails is more accessible than ever. We’re even starting to see trails built with wheelchair accessibility in mind, ensuring everyone has access to the outdoors. My motivation grew from taking on longer and more challenging trails – a thru-hike was a natural progression. City life and work life can be so busy; even though we’re more connected than ever, I often feel disconnected from myself and the world around me. Time in nature is an antidote to that feeling.

Mik: One of the biggest gifts of the thru-hike is the gratitude I feel. A half-decent burger in a trail town moves you nearly to tears; hot running water seems impossibly pleasurable. Gratitude is a cheap joy that no one can take away from you. Also, doing something big and epic and scary shows us what we are capable of, that we are bigger and stronger than we knew. I believe that this kind of growth is such an important part of what it is to be human.

Mik next to river

Any tips for gender non-binary people on the trail or backcountry?

Mik: I stayed in the closet as trans for my first thru-hike [on the Te Araroa]. I didn’t love the idea of being asked uncomfortable questions or facing hostility when stuck in the backcountry. Although staying in the closet helped me avoid these moments, it ended up being an incredibly lonely experience. There I was, having the most incredible time, but living a disingenuous double-life and never really allowing myself to be known by my trail friends.

So [on the Great Divide Trail], I wanted to be more authentic, even if that meant having uncomfortable conversations. It honestly worked out great. I finally got to experience real trail community, and although people did have a lot of questions and I had to do a lot of teaching, it felt like a worthwhile investment. Of course, my experience was mediated by my relative privilege as a white and masculine trans person, but my advice would be to suss out the people you meet on the trail, trust your gut if you don’t feel safe with someone – your gut is smart, it has kept you safe so far! – but also be brave and test your assumptions of people. People can be surprisingly good (if unfamiliar with our world) and being gender non-conforming doesn’t need to keep you from doing what you love and having the adventures that make you come alive.

Also, if you’re planning on going on testosterone, I don’t recommend starting at the same time as your thru-hike. I thought that it would give me an edge with my fitness (testosterone = muscles, right?), but it took a toll my body. When you first go on testosterone, your body starts to grow rapidly, and you need a lot more food during those first few months. I was easily eating (and having to carry!) double what others were, and I was still starving and exhausted. When I returned home, I found out that I’d become anemic. I’d suggest to either start your testosterone well before a thru-hike, or afterwards.

Bonnie with they/them button

Bonnie: I struggled with gender on the trail – I feel like I’ve lived in a bubble of inclusivity the last five years in Vancouver. It took me a bit by surprise to remember that not everyone is familiar with non-binary pronouns, and some people are outright non-accepting. But I’d also been surprised to meet people in small towns who I would’ve judged to be non-accepting, and then heard their stories about their kids coming out, or someone transitioning at the coal mine and how the company supported them by educating their staff.

Around Nelson, BC, I started wearing a button that says “they/them.” At first, I was a bit uneasy that it would out me in ways that might be unsafe, but instead I found it just helped me identify safe people and increased my confidence to have conversations about gender. Ninety percent of people who commented on it were people who’d already been exposed to non-binary gender and are supportive. The other 10% were mostly curious and open. I definitely had a good number of people message me after we met to say they’re thinking about gender in new ways.

I don’t really have any solid tips – I think it’s still a strange world out there and it’s still uncharted territory in some places. Do what feels safe, be gentle on yourself when you’re not up for the conversation, and enjoy the pleasant surprise when you meet people who are open or aware that you may not have thought would be.

Hardest day on the trail?

Bonnie: Walking in the Prairies in a heat wave. It was over 35 degrees, and I was in the middle of nowhere. I’d anticipated drought and was carrying 5L of water (and topping it up at every chance), but the heat wave and huge distances between towns caught up with me. I was in a water pinch and could feel my anxiety building. When I finally came to a house, relieved, I asked the home owner if I could fill up.

Bonnie sitting on a Manitoba marker

“Oh no, I can’t give you water, I just ran out,” they said. I laughed, barely holding in tears of relief, thinking they were giving me a hard time. “No joke,” they said, “we’re on bottled water here and I just ran out.” I was a bit incredulous and suggested I could draw from their tap and treat it. “Oh, you can’t drink the well water here – there’s gas in it…” I hastily thanked them and scurried off to the trees at the end of their driveway – the only shade for miles – and proceeded to have a meltdown. Stressful as it was, it was a beautiful moment to be cooled by my tears. Eventually I pulled it together and a few miles down the road I found another homeowner who filled up my 5L and more. So heavy, but worth the weight.

In retrospect, I wish I could have asked a few more questions. Gas in the water!? It’s shocking and eye-opening to realize that some people in our country don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Mik: Day two of the second section. My Achilles tendon had gotten completely toasted in the first section, and I was forced to hike an eight-day section, mostly on ATV roads, on an injury. The daily mileage and elevation gain/loss was high and it was constantly raining. I had to set up my tent on some unmemorable spot on the side of the road just as an evening thunderstorm began. The weather was too bad to cook dinner outside, so I ate a sad cold dinner of random shit in the tent before collapsing until the next morning. I had never been so tired in my entire life. At one point, I just sat on the side of the road and sobbed like a baby. I missed my partner, I didn’t know why I was doing this to myself, and I wondered if there would even be any positive payoff.

Section E of the Great Divide Trail

Best day on the trail?

Bonnie: One that stands out was a day on the Columbia & Western Trail in BC. I knew from the map that I had a tunnel to walk through. The tunnels freaked me out – some are up to a kilometre long, and they were always dark, cold and wet. I was inclined to wait for someone else to come along (highly unlikely) or put off the tunnel for another day, but in the end I decided to just get it over with. My solar headlamp wasn’t super bright, so I lit a firestick and headed in. Coming out the other side, I was over the moon to find an old journeyman’s cabin overlooking a small village in the valley below. The weather cleared enough to build a fire and do some writing, and it was such an empowering feeling to have walked through fear (the tunnel) and be sitting high above the village. A thunderstorm rolled through that night, and I was so grateful to be warm and dry.

Beautiful mountain view, with snowcapped peaks and alpine lake

Mik: The last day. It was the end of the longest section of the GDT, and after struggling through mud under the weight of 10 days of food, my pack felt impossibly light. After two months of near-constant rain, it was bright and sunny, and I opted to take an alternate high route through a remote and deeply wild place. I was filled with gratitude that I’d stayed strong throughout all that rain and pain and hunger. I crossed rivers, snow patches, passes, tarns, and brushed shoulders with the biggest glacier on the whole trail that day. From Wapiti peak, mountains stretched south as far as I could see, and I knew I’d come all that way on my own two feet. And once again, I sobbed like a baby. When I looked north, I could see Kakwa Lake down in the valley, the official terminus of the GDT, and I knew it was over.

Have dreams of doing a thru-hike? Check out maps and guidebooks for inspiration.

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