Planning for a hike across America

Experienced cross-country hikers advise against simply setting foot outside your house one morning and heading toward the opposite ocean. Planning is essential. The amount of time it takes to walk across America depends on multiple variables, including your pace, the route you choose, your conditioning and even your mental state.

How long will it take?

In 1980, Frank Giannino Jr. ran 3,100 miles across the U.S. in 46 days, eight hours and 36 minutes. Don’t expect to match this world record feat. Depending on the route you choose, plan on walking the 2,500-plus miles at a rate of 15 to 30 miles a day. Some walkers take as little as four months. Others stretch it out, with breaks, into years. Fifteen miles a day is optimistic when you start out, but as your hike progresses, you’ll be hiking longer distances each day.

Keep costs in mind. Realistically, the longer you’re on the trail, the more money you’ll have to spend, unless you forage for all of your meals and sleep at the side of the road. Hikers spend as much as $5,000 on food, water, lodging, new shoes, gear repairs and incidentals.

The best routes across the U.S.

If you’re not a happy wanderer, secure in your belief that planning is unnecessary, you’ll need to plan a route. The route can be a loose collection of connecting trail sections or a point to point plan with designated stops for camping and supplies.

A few east-west highways make ideal routes for thru-hikers. U.S. Route 20, for instance, stretches from Massachusetts to Oregon, taking a northern route that’s generally cooler in the summer. But, the route crosses the Great Plains at their broadest and climbs into the Rocky Mountains.

The American Discovery Trail, open to hiking, biking and horseback riding, is the only coast-to-coast nonmotorized trail. The trail’s two routes, one 4,834 miles long and the other 5,057, cross the country’s midsection from Delaware to California.

For the least elevation gain, choose a southern route. You will still have to hike through the Appalachians, unless you begin your trek with a leg that heads south before turning west. The weather on this route is moderate in the winter.

Conditioning for a long walk

Endurance is a major factor when training for a long-distance hike. Set a goal of how many hours a day you plan to walk, and work up to that goal in practice hikes before you set off. Regular stretching exercises help prevent muscle strain and cramps, and upper body strength exercises are critical if you’re planning to push or pull a cart rather than wear a backpack,

Condition your body for a diet rich in protein and carbohydrates, but keep in mind that meat is an impractical food for hikers to pack, unless it’s dehydrated. Plan on eating nuts and nut butters, beans, cheese and rice. To help establish a hydrating habit, carry a water bottle when you’re training and fill it whenever you have the opportunity.

What to take on a cross-country hike

Decide whether you’ll be wearing a backpack or using a wheeled cart on your cross-country hike. You can probably pack more in a cart, but you might tire of pushing or dragging it around. Keep weight in mind when packing. When choosing a tent or camping hammock, sleeping bag, clothing to layer, rain gear, cook set and camp stove, go as lightweight and minimalist as possible.

Learn how to use your phone’s compass and GPS, and carry a small solar charger. Pack a multi-tool or Swiss army knife. Add reflective tape to your backpack or cart in case you’re caught on the road after dark.

Tip list for a walk across the country

Spending the night in free campgrounds saves money, but a night at a motel with a hot shower and a warm meal can energize you. Besides, at some point you’ll want to do laundry.

Water is critical on a hike. Take no chance that you’ll find potable water along the way. Invest in a water bladder or other type of water reservoir system to wear under your pack, or leave space in your cart for gallon jugs.

Walking along roadsides is dangerous, and walking on interstate highways is illegal. Plan a route that avoids roads as much as possible. Wear bright clothing if you must walk along the roadway, and, if there’s no sidewalk, face oncoming traffic.

Send yourself care packages. If you know what towns you’ll be passing through, send supplies ahead of yourself to be held at the local Post Office until you arrive. Address them to General Delivery and write “Hold for (your name)” on the box.

Give yourself a rest day every week or two. Relax around camp or explore a nearby town. This not only gives your body a rest, but can improve mental attitude that may have affected your level of enthusiasm – a problem you may not anticipate.

Expect bad weather. Download a weather radio app to your smartphone. It probably won't always be accurate, but it will give you an idea of what you're walking into.

Expect some rough patches. Make sure someone trustworthy knows your route and check in with that person regularly. They may have to arrange for emergency services if you disappear, or a rescue mission if you have to cancel your walk partway through.