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How to Successfully Thru-Hike the Arizona TrailMay 16, 2016
The Arizona Trail (AZT) is a rugged, challenging 800+ mile thru-hike that stretches from the border of Mexico to the border of Utah, and is riddled with challenges such as extreme heat, freezing temperatures, snow, blowing sand, lack of water, consistent elevation change, and many stinging and poisonous critters. It also traverses through some of Arizona’s most spectacular landscapes that very few ever see, bringing thru-hikers past one jaw-dropping landscape after another, but only if you’re well-prepared. I learned good preparation is absolutely essential to completing this trail, especially if it’s your first thru-hike. I failed in 2015 when I tried to make the AZT my first thru-hike, but went back much better prepared in the spring of 2016 and was able to finish it.
Most people stress about the water situation, so we’ll start there.
Water Along the Arizona Trail
In all honesty, the water’s not that bad. I took two 2-liter bottles with me and that turned out to be perfect. I probably could have even gotten away with three liters total, but it’s better to be safe than sorry out there.
Assuming the winter was decent if you’re hiking in the spring, most creeks and streams will be flowing which eases a lot of the stress. Likewise, many of the ponds and tanks will also have plenty of water in them. I was also told that hikers in the fall in recent years have been treated to much greater amounts of water thanks to bigger monsoons, sometimes making the water actually better in the fall than in the spring. On average, expect to go 5-10 miles before the next reliable water source for most stretches, but 15 is not uncommon, and is in fact frequent. Roughly 20 miles will most likely be your longest dry stretch, but those are rare.
That being said, don’t take water lightly (so to speak). Never move on from a water source without hydrating, and always bring plenty with you. Dehydration comes quickly and easily, especially when the temperature is even moderately warm. Give yourself a few hundred miles to learn how much water your body needs on an average day, which will involve a lot of elevation change for northbound hikers. For southbound hikers, expect to increase your consumption once you’re south of the Mogollon Rim.
Finally, download the AZT App. It’s a well-spent $10 because hikers ahead of you can (and will) leave comments about each water source and whether or not they’re worth stopping for, or even going out of your way for. It makes life on the trail much easier when you know you don’t need to hike a quarter mile out of your way for an empty tank.
Ideal Baseweight for the Arizona Trail
The Arizona Trail consists of a lot of elevation change and relatively few water sources. In fact, many people I met had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and nearly all said, aside from the distance, that the PCT was easier than the AZT because of those two factors. The southern 450 miles is nearly constant up and down. A few flat miles during that distance are an extremely rare treat, and though the gain and loss is occasionally hills, it’s mostly mountains. Sometimes these are in the form of massive sky islands, a total of four that you need to ascend, then descend, all increasing in difficulty for northbound hikers. Other elevation change comes from large mountain ranges once you reach the transitional territory – the rugged Superstition Mountains and the infamous but epic Mazatzal Mountains. Then of course there’s also that Grand Canyon, among other places along the trail.
Because of all the gain mixed with the need to consistently carry a few liters of water at a time, plus several days worth of food at least, it’s highly recommended you try to keep your baseweight below 15 pounds if you can. This will make your life much easier when you have a full pack of food and need to load up on water multiple times. If you can get it down to 10, you’ll be in great shape, but 15 is still really good. Any more than that and it won’t be long before you start wondering what you can leave behind.
Staying Comfortable on the Trail
Choosing the Right Socks
It’s best to get your sock situation figured out before you start. My sock situation was a disaster and my feet paid for it which meant several sections of the hike were uncomfortable at best. That’s no way to go through long distances on your feet.
I initially thought that thicker wool socks would mean more comfort, but I soon found out, even with non-waterproof shoes, that my feet weren’t getting enough air. Instead, they stayed saturated from too much sweat which ultimately began to have a negative reaction to the muscles in the feet. Many people have many different systems. Some people just hike with liner socks, some people with multiple pairs of socks. In the end, I (finally) found that a mid-weight wool sock, combined with airing my feet out during 3-4 breaks per day, worked out best for me.
Do a Trial Run
This also applies to the previous section about socks. You basically want to test out your entire system before hitting the trail by doing a multi-night trip with everything you’re planning on taking on the trail. I had a friend join me in the Mazatzals who was testing out what he was planning on bringing for his southbound trip the next fall and realized he was way off and not comfortable at all. Since I was in Jackson Hole preparing, I didn’t get much of a chance to test out my actual gear on a multi-night trip since I was training in the middle of the winter there. I discovered the day before that I had some issues with a third-party batter charger connecting to my solar panel and went into panic mode. Fortunately the customer service for Voltaic, the company that made the panel and wasn’t even responsible for the charger, is outstanding and got me going again, but many situations are not that simple to fix.
Inevitably, you’re going to realize some systems are working, and some aren’t, but the fewer systems and gear you need to tweak and switch out, the easier the adjustments will be once you’re on the trail which will help you keep moving and not have to stress too much. Likewise, you don’t want to realize that three or four pounds of gear, for example, is just dead weight that you need to get rid of.
Test it all out thoroughly.
Rain Gear and Jackets
Before leaving, I was convinced by a trustworthy friend to take a fleece instead of a down jacket, and a thinner, lighter rain jacket instead of a slightly heavier one. It saved me a bit of weight, but the lighter rain jacket turned into a disaster and the fleece wasn’t sufficient on colder nights. I was able to get my down jacket and better rain jacket before ascending the Mogollon Rim, and that turned out to be one of my better decisions. You’re going to have rainy weather and you’re going to have freezing temperatures. As a friend on the trail pointed out, it’s better to carry just a few more ounces and be comfortable than try to save weight and be miserable. This was fully realized when I was forced off the trail two differnet times on two different days by two different blizzards.
Yes, there are over 300 sunny days in the desert, but that still leaves 65 days of not sunny weather, not including the days you’re up in the higher elevations far above the deserts. You’re going to get a few of those days so be prepared.
One lesson I learned the hard way is that if you’re going to bring an inflatable pad to sleep on, make sure you have at least a lightweight foam layer to go underneath it. My pad got over half-a-dozen holes and one of them continued to elude me through the end. An inflatable pad with nothing but a thin layer under it, such as a tent or tarp, will get a hole. It’s inevitable. A foam pad to roll out beneath it will help reduce a lot of stress and will help you sleep much better each and every night. This falls back under the concept of a few extra ounces being worth it for comfort. (But see how it’s starting to add up?)
You’re going to have crappy days here and there. You’re on a trail for roughly two months. Eventually, something is going to wear you down and you’re not going to be the ecstatic person you thought you’d be just because you’re hiking every day (do not go into this hike thinking that’s what a thru-hike is). Whether it’s weather, too much weight, too much forest, or getting sick, something’s going to mess with your mood and you’ll question whether or not you really care about finishing. Somehow, you have to find a way to stay positive through it. It could mean praying to God, Buddha, John Muir, your dead pet, or just meditating in a quiet place. Whatever you need to do to stay focused on why you wanted to hike the entire trail in the first place, do it.
This happened to me just north of Flagstaff. Though I had narrowed down a better sock situation, my left foot was still uncomfortable most of the time because it never got the opportunity to recover from its initial discomfort. On top of that, much of the trail had reverted to simply hiking through forests with minimal views. It was getting repetitive and much less interesting from the earlier days when cresting one mountain after another and seeing amazing views every time was the norm. I had reached a lull and the realization that I had now hiked most of the trail had come into my head, withering away at my motivation to finish up that last bit. As much as I wanted to finish, as much as I had been wanting to hike the entire trail, the grumpiness was taking over, and even though I had had a recent zero day in Flagstaff, I wanted to take another, but you can’t do that if you’re not near a town. Food dictates that you need to keep moving, but I just wanted to stop. I didn’t want to do anything that day. I just wanted to stop.
This will most likely happen to you. You need to do something to talk yourself into moving on. The grumpiness will eventually take over, but you need to recognize that that’s all it is and that it will pass, and give it a day or so to do just that.
Don’t Force It
I met several people on my hike in 2016 that fit this description, and it was me when I tried it in 2015. If you’re hiking the trail, and each day is a struggle, and you realize that after a week, maybe even two, that you’re just not having fun, leave the trail. Unfortunately, this is not the time to do it. Forcing yourself to stay on the trail when it just isn’t working is only going to lead to bad decisions and one way or another, the trail will slap you in the face with it. Recognize early enough that it’s not working out.
Think of the trail as an amplifier. If you’re enthusiastic and optimistic, it will amplify that. If you’re frustrated and not having fun, it will amplify that. Don’t let the trail turn you into a statistic. Swallow your pride and call it quits if it’s not working out. You’ll earn more respect by recognizing you were forcing it than the trail eventually forcing you off.
Have Fun Out There!
The Arizona Trail is meant to show you some of the most beautiful natural resources that Arizona has to offer. Bask in them! Revel in every sighting of an animal, whether it’s an elk or a rattlesnake or a western bluebird. Treat each day like an adventure. Don’t let the challenges that you’re presented with overwhelm you. Treat them like they’re just part of the adventure, knowing you’ll make it through to see the other border. If you’re caught in a blizzard then appreciate how white the landscape is. If you’re tired of climbing that mountain then stop and check out the view. If you’re tired of seeing just trees then hug one.
The Arizona Trail will challenge you physically, mentally, and emotionally. You’ll have a much better chance of finishing though if you stay optimistic and enjoy the journey because if the point was to just get to the other border, then you’d just drive it and say "Mission accomplished." The point isn’t to get to the other border though, it’s to create memories and have experiences all along the way, both good and bad, that can’t be duplicated anywhere else or in any other way. Just keep an adventurous and open-minded attitude and you may find yourself wanting, like I was tempted to do, to just continue up the Hayduke Trail.
Want to read about every day I spent on the trail? I managed to write a blog post every night, so you can start here with Day 1.
Want to browse the photos I took plus my logged route? Check out my Arizona Trail page here.
Interested in seeing how I handled my mail drops? Read up on my AZT Mail Drops post.
Wondering what my essential gear setup was? I document my favorite gear here.