Tips for Hiking the Foothills Trail

I’ve attempted the 77-mile long Foothills Trail twice now, but you won’t find a part one post to this story, as my first attempt during summer 2016 with my parents was not documented enough to even write about. This was mostly due to the fact that I only made it 15 miles into the trail. Having never attempted a backpacking trip prior to that moment, I was proud I made it two full nights and 15 miles in, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed in myself shortly after for not accomplishing a goal I had set. Over the following two years, the desire to return and prove to myself I could complete this hike grew stronger. So, in October 2018, my brother, Justin, and I decided to hike the trail together.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it to the end on this attempt, either, but I definitely left with a better understanding of how I should approach the Foothills Trail on my third attempt (third times a charm, right?). These are a few things I learned if you want to be successful on the 77-mile trail that runs from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park.

Don’t Go Completely Out of Shape

Many thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail say the first week or two of their long hikes are best for acclimation and getting your body used to the groove you will be in over the next several months. You don’t have that on this trail – the first week is the entire trail and then that’s it, you’re done. Justin and I were not in great shape, and if you start from Table Rock like we chose to, you will feel it almost immediately. Embrace the fact that there will be some suck, but if you can get into decent shape prior to going, I guarantee you will have less suck and more enjoyment.

End of day one, the Homesite. Completely worn out.

Don’t Over Pack

This point sounds obvious, but it also includes don’t wait until the last minute to plan your supplies. Take the time to lay out everything in advance. Pack it all into your pack. Weigh it. Take it all out and remove excess items, then pack again, and weigh again. Seriously, take the time to do this. The last thing you want to do when you get well into the trail is realize you packed 5 extra pounds of stuff you just don’t need and you now have to carry it to the very end. This was one of my problems the first go around. I just packed too much, and I packed inefficiently.

Prioritize food, shelter, sleeping pad, water filtration, and anything else that is essential. The extra stuff will only add more weight, and climbing hill after hill with extra pounds will make you loathe that big bag of fruit chewies and shovel. Keep everything simple. And please, for the love of God, inspect all gear prior to starting the trail! If you have a rip in your bear bag and only notice when you get out there, you better hope someone else has room in there’s. This happened to us!

Food planned and portioned for the trail
What I used to cook all my meals

Don’t Rush or Strive for 20 Mile Days

This goes in line with the first point of not going out of shape. If you’re in shape and can do 20 mile days, that’s awesome! If you can’t, don’t try to push it.

As soon as we reached the goal campsite on the first night, I somehow thought it was acceptable for me and Justin to jump right into 20 mile days and get done as soon as possible. That was a horrible idea, but we awoke the next morning with 19 miles planned. We definitely accomplished the 19 miles, but at the expense of hurting my right knee. I hoped the rest over night two would help, but you can see from my face, below, that this was not the case.

The morning after our 19 mile day. Worn. Out.

My point is, be patient with yourself and the trail. Don’t try to rush through it just to get home early. If you get injured, you can’t even finish.

Don’t Wait to Take Breaks

Food and water are your fuel, and taking proper breaks for these necessities will be your life saver on this hike. You are constantly climbing hills and burning tons of calories; your body needs the short moments of rest in order to make it to your goal resting point for the night. The 15 – 30 minutes spent resting and eating will not ruin your progress for the day, I promise.

Plan to use your short breaks for everything all at once – resting, eating, refilling your water, relieving yourself. The most efficient way to accomplish this is to plan your breaks around your water sources. If you know everyone has plenty of water, you can always skip a source, but look ahead to the next one to make sure you won’t run out ahead of time. You never know what might happen, and you don’t want to run out of water.

The only break we took on day 1 – Bald Knob
Taking a break under a bridge on day 2

Don’t Expect to be Comfortable

Now, having been on the trail before, I wasn’t exactly planning to be comfortable. But there is comfortable at home, and then there is comfortable on the trail. You want your gear to be as comfortable as possible, and there are great lightweight items you can purchase to help with keeping your pack light. BUT this is not going to ultimately help you be comfortable. You will have to ‘go’ in the woods, you will have to sleep basically on the ground, you will be carrying everything on your back. At times, you may want to quit simply because the mental game can be harder than the physical game. The mental game absolutely got me the first time, while the second time was mostly physical.

It’s incredibly easy to romanticize nature and long hikes when you see awesome shots of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail, and any other long hike you can think of. The problem with only looking at these pictures, is that you completely miss all the moments where those same people thought about giving up, whether only for a brief moment or long enough to do it. Those moments are real, and they are hard. I have walked away from this 77-mile trail twice now, and I am still going back again. Some of these photos I share are not pretty, but they are there to show you what I truly went through… such as the image below.

Morning of day 4. You can see my excitement.

So don’t get it into your head that everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows. It won’t, but if you make it through to the end, you will be damn proud of yourself. I am determined to make my third go the one that sees me to the end. And with this, I leave you with my last tip…

Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

Make an honest effort to stay in the moment and really soak it in – the good, the bad, the awesome, everything. This is how you learn more about yourself and appreciate the difficulty of what you are doing. Remember that YOU wanted to do this, for whatever reason. Don’t give up on yourself when it gets tough, because it probably will.

I hope everyone enjoyed this post! Leave a comment below if you’re thinking about hiking the Foothills or feel drawn to this trail. If you’ve hiked it before, what other useful tips can you think of? I will be making my third attempt at the entire trail this winter break (end of December 2019, beginning of 2020) with the whole family. I’m determined to complete it!

Trail crossing at Sassafras Mtn

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