When thinking about a gap year or time off, does your mind jump to thoughts of sky-high vistas overlooking mountain lakes? Do you imagine waking up to the scent of pine trees and the sound of trickling streams? If so, a long-term hiking trip might be right up your alley.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really get into hiking until moving to the Pacific Northwest but now I’m hooked! The next time I find myself in a transitional stage or taking some time off, I’ve already decided I would like to complete a thru-hike. I just finished a memoir about the Camino de Santiago and find myself day dreaming about hiking it constantly.
If you’re American or Canadian and looking for an exciting gap year hiking without spending a lot on airfare, North America holds vast trail systems for long-term hikers. From the Appalachian Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail, thousands of backpackers set off each year to tackle these challenges.
There are also several popular gap year hikes around the world, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain or Tibet’s Mount Kailash. Since there are thousands of amazing trails, pilgrimages, and thru-hikes throughout the world, this list featuring the top 25 hikes in the world is a good source of inspiration.
Because these trips have increased in popularity in recent years, backpackers receive a lot of support and often reach their hiking goals. Even with a wide network of group camps and hostels along the most heavily-trafficked trails, it’s important to be fully prepared for a long-term hiking trip. This includes female hikers going it alone as well. For tips on staying safe while hiking alone as woman, check out this guide from The Trek.
First and foremost, you want to make sure you have high-quality gear that’s weather-appropriate. Remember: even if you’re hiking through the Carolinas, it still snows in the mountains in March and April. Fortunately, high-quality doesn’t have to mean expensive. Check discount retailers for clothing and hiking boots. You can also find jackets, gloves, hats, and socks with heavy markdowns.
For other gear, online shopping is your go-to. Amazon, of course, offers low prices on backpacks, first-aid kits, sleeping bags, tents, and anything you could possibly imagine needing for your gap year hiking trip. Two other great sites for discounted gear are Steep and Cheap and Sierra Trading Post. Definitely consider buying trekking poles as well! I’m in love with my Black Diamond poles, they make every hike much easier on my knees and ankles.
If you’re a novice hiker, I would recommend going to REI for help selecting equipment. Finding the right equipment can be hard, especially with hiking boots and backpacks. REI seems to be consistently more expensive than Amazon (even for the exact same products) but all items come with a life-time guarantee.
Getting an REI membership is also a great option, as they frequently send members coupons and exclusive invitations to sales, classes, and outdoor activities. Members also receive dividends for their purchases every year!
Finding Your Way
Even the most experienced hikers can get turned around in an unfamiliar area. Before you start your gap year hike, make sure you’re practiced in the art of navigation. Yes, that’s right – it’s an art! Having quality topographic, or “topo,” maps can help you understand the difficulty level of the trail system, and they are invaluable if you end up lost.
Buy a base plate compass (try brands like Silva or Suunto) and learn to navigate a local trail before you set out on something more ambitious. Consider practicing your newfound skills on a self-guided orienteering course. Check online to see if any local parks have a permanent route in place.
Practice with Day Hikes and Overnights
Your gap year hike will undoubtedly be a rewarding and challenging experience. Practice lugging your gear around and break in your new boots by taking short trips beforehand. Not only will it prepare you for the journey ahead, but you’ll be able to gauge if your pack is an appropriate weight.
Remember the Ten Essentials
Every hiker should have the following ten items on them at all times: a knife, a first aid kit, a change of clothes, rain gear, a water bottle, a flashlight, food, matches, sunscreen, and a map and compass. These can save your life if an emergency arises.
The Road Ahead
Your gap year hike will be one of the most ambitious goals you ever set, and when you finish your journey, you’ll have a lifetime of stories to tel and a newfound sense of accomplishment. Keeping these tips in mind will help ensure you’re prepared for your upcoming adventure.