In the summer of 2011 I walked across the United States, from Maryland to California. Since completing my walk I’ve gotten quite a few emails from some adventurous people planning their own Walk. People looking for tips on how to prepare for such a journey – what gear to take, how to decide on a route, questions about food, etc. I thought I’d go ahead and answer some of the more frequently asked questions here.
If you have any questions I haven’t covered here feel free to comment on this page or send me an email at: ameranth (at) gmail.com
Note: The answers below are just my opinion based on my own experiences. Pretty sure if you ask everyone who has done a long distance walking adventure you’d get different answers from each of them. The most important thing is finding out what works for you.
For another perspective on how to walk across America check out my friend Nate’s page on the topic: How To Walk Across America – Questions and Answers
How long does it take to walk across America?
This is really dependent on the individual. For me it took about 6 months, but for others it’s taken more and for some less. It’s not something you can plan exactly or figure out until you’re out on the road for a bit. Length of walking depends on a lot of different factors: starting point, ending point, pace, style of walking, luck.
And honestly, I don’t think you should pile on the added stress of trying to make some arbitrary deadline you set for yourself. The walk will take as long as it takes.
How much does it cost?
I ended up spending around $5,000 on my trip. By the end I was pretty much running on empty, but I still think it’s totally possible to do the trip with less depending on budgeting, style, and choices you make along the way. And of course it’s also possible to rock out with more.
What do you feel is the most important thing to have with you?
A positive attitude and an open mind. You have those two things and it won’t even matter what kind of gear you have with you, the right attitude and mindset will get you anywhere.
What do you feel is the most important thing to do to prepare?
Research. Learning about what safety concerns you’ll be walking through – what to do in certain weather, signs of heat stroke, how to respond to bears and other wild animals you might encounter, basic first aid, and just gaining basic knowledge of the areas you plan to be walking through.
I think being mentally prepared is actually more important than physical fitness preparedness. With walking you can always start off slow and build up your endurance and fitness, but you don’t want to be learning safety on the road or catch yourself in a dangerous situation with no clue as to how to handle. Know what you’re getting into.
Knowing, after all, is half the battle.
What about physical training?
Walk a lot. Seriously, take hikes around varying terrain, go for walks down your road, through the woods, just walk walk walk. Walk with a pack, without, while pushing a stroller. Just walk.
If you’re going to be using a pack then I suggest doing some upper body training to help build muscles to make carrying the pack easier.
I happened to have a job where I was walking 5-10 miles at work every day pushing a heavy cart for most of it. Then I’d get home and take my dog for a long walk through the woods. I didn’t do anything special, just walk walk walk.
What’s a good pace to set? How many miles a day should I be walking?
There is no right or wrong pace to set. It’ll also change depending on terrain and your own fitness. When I started I was walking 5-10 miles a day (mostly because the trail I was on had campsites every five miles), and by the end I had a few 30+ miles and averaging anywhere from 15-25 a day. Across the middle of the country – Iowa and Nebraska in particular – I was walking much longer days than in, say, Colorado or Nevada where I’d be taking elevation or desert temperatures into consideration.
Some days you’ll walk more, some days you’ll walk less. I advise not getting too focused on the numbers and instead learn to focus on your body and what you can accomplish each day.
Is there a route you would recommend?
Whatever appeals to you. I wanted to be on as many trails as I could, as opposed to roads all the time, so I based my route on the American Discovery Trail, which I followed off and on throughout the country. There really is no wrong answer. Look at where you want to go – are there certain states or cities you want to avoid or hit?
Honestly? You’re going to end up changing the route at least a little, so don’t try to lock down too many specifics or worry too much about it. Pick a general route and go for it.
Also think of weather and different seasons. You don’t want to be walking in the desert in the middle of summer, or crossing the high mountains too early or late in the year.
Where did you sleep?
This is definitely a stressful part of the walk and something that took some getting used to. Most of the walk I slept in my tent. In the beginning I’d mostly be using set camping sites and sleeping in my tent. After getting more confident in myself I started yard camping – which is exactly what it sounds like. Throughout the middle of the country I was yard camping 9 times out of 10.
For the budget conscious yard camping is the way to go. Make yourself presentable (as much as you can while on the road), put on a friendly face and walk up to a house that looks like it’d have a spot for you to set up on. (Over time you’ll be able to get a feel for houses that will be more likely to welcome you in.) Explain, in a friendly and open manner, what you’re doing and what you need. About half the time this resulted in not only a place to camp but dinner and a shower as well. I think, overall, I averaged about one hotel stay per state up until I hit the Rockies.
I also camped in a lot of town parks after consulting the local authorities (being either the police station or town hall, depending). For most of these I’d call ahead and ask. I’d call whatever authority I could track down, introduce myself and explain exactly what I was doing and ask if they knew of a place I could set up my tent for a night. Usually whoever is on the other end is more then happy to help me find a spot, either by connecting me with someone who knows, directing me to a local camp spot, or giving me permission to use some public land in town.
If for some reason the local authorities can’t help you out DO NOT be rude or get angry. Anger and rudeness will get you absolutely nowhere.
Now a lot of campers do what they call “stealth camping” – where you wait until dark, set up stealthily, sleep and get up and going before dawn and nobody is the wiser you were ever there. While I do have some friends that did a lot of stealth camping, personally I did not think this was a safe option for me. I much preferred someone to know where I was and what I was doing. I did stealth camp once or twice but it was a nerve wracking experience and I got very little sleep those nights. But it is an option.
Should I use a stroller or a pack?
I had both – I had a stroller that carried my pack. That way if the cart broke down beyond repair I could always keep on walking.
I highly highly recommend using a stroller/cart. Nearly everyone I know who has made the trek across America on foot either started with one or ended up getting one at some point. There are just so many benefits to using a cart or stroller and very few negatives.
When I walked the Erie Canal in 2010 I didn’t have a cart, just a backpack. My daily mileage was ridiculously low compared to my 2011 walk with a stroller. Also, I was in pain every day. My knees, back, hips, ankles – all were painful at the end of each day. With a stroller all of that was relieved. Then you have the bonus of all the extra gear you can carry. With a trip like walking across America – a 3000 mile journey – you’re going to have a lot of gear.
What kind of shoes should I have? How many pairs should I bring?
I used New Balance trail runner sneakers the entire way and didn’t have a problem. I think the main downfall of sneakers as opposed to hiking boots is that sneakers wear out a lot faster. However, they’re lighter, more flexible, don’t need as much breaking in, dry a lot faster, and cheaper. All important factors when walking all day for months.
Over the entire walk I went through five pairs of sneakers and one pair of sandals. I always had two pairs with me, switching each day. But I don’t think you should pack more than that, it’ll just weigh you down and take up space. There will be plenty of places to buy new shoes along the way – or you can have them mailed out to a post office you’ll be passing by.
What about water purifiers?
I had water treatment solution with me but never used it. I never got my water from any questionable sources, always managing to find public restrooms or gas stations or generous strangers.
If you go into most gas stations across America and explain what you’re doing and ask if you can fill up your water bottles (I had 2 32oz Nalgene bottles that I’d fill) at the soda fountain with water or ice they will almost always say yes. Actually, for me they always said yes.
Whenever you’re at a place where they have water, fill up. Doesn’t matter if you’ve only had a couple of sips, fill up your water whenever you can.
Should I bring a tent?
There are a lot of options for sleeping, but I definitely recommend bringing camping gear, including a tent. You can get some pretty small light-weight tents these days.
The one thing I strongly encourage is that you get a free standing tent. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll always have a place to stake a tent in, so you want your shelter to be able to stand on it’s own if all you have is a slab of concrete or straight rock face to set up on. I learned this lesson the hard way, as my tent on my Erie Canal walk was not a free standing tent and caused a few sad sleeping arrangements.
Should I bring my dog?
This is totally your call. However, there are a few things to consider:
How old is your dog? Is she fully grown?
If you’re going to have your dog carrying a pack I recommend she be at least two years old. Dogs are still growing for up to three years depending on size. During those first years they may look fully grown but their bones and ligaments are still forming and shouldn’t be put under too much weight or stress.
What type of dog do you have? Are they suitable for the challenge of walking all day throughout various weather and conditions?
Not all dogs are created equal. Some breeds just will not be able to handle a walk across the country, either due to the amount of exercise, the weather, or some other health issues.
Are you ready to handle the limitations and added stress of a dog?
A dog definitely limits what you can do and where you can go. It adds a whole other layer of stress to what can already be a stressful situation. You can’t take your time shopping when you have a dog waiting alone outside. There will be campsites that you won’t be allowed to camp at. There is a large added cost – food, first aid, pet fees at campgrounds and hotels.
How well do you know your dog?
The one thing I feel is an absolute must is a strong bond with your dog. Know your dog. Know what’s normal and abnormal. Know what their fur looks like when it’s healthy or when it’s unhealthy. Know their eating habits, grooming habits, behaviors, body language. Dogs can’t talk; they won’t be able to tell you how they’re feeling so it’s up to you to make sure everything is okay. You have to be the one to call it quits because you see your dog is getting overheated or tired, because most dogs will just keep going.
I got my dog specifically for this long walk, and I spent years bonding and training her. I know the difference between Anna spotting prey or predator, between tired or stubborn, between sick and just not hungry. We have commands and phrases and I know how far Anna will get off leash before she turns around, and where it’s safe for her to go off leash and where I should always keep her on leash. I repeat, know your dog.
Assuming you decide to bring your dog….
Should my dog use a pack?
Some dogs love wearing their pack, some dogs despise it. If you’re dog is happy wearing a pack then that’s great! They can carry a lot of their own gear (food, first aid, toys, poop bags, blanket, etc) which helps lessen your load.
If your dog has never used a pack, ease them into it. Start out with the pooch wearing an empty pack as you go for a few walks. Ease into carrying a few lightweight items then slowly increase the weight to whatever you plan to carry for the full walk (no more than 1/4 of your dog’s body weight).
Does my dog need a sleeping bag?
Not really. This is one of those items you can bring if you want and depends on both the weather you’ll encounter and if your dog would actually enjoy a sleeping bag. As for Anna, she had a sleeping pad with a blanket on top and enjoyed it.
I definitely think you need at least a sleeping pad to insulate your dog from the ground. The ground saps just as much heat from your dog as it would from you if sleeping directly on the ground. I cut a regular sleeping pad in half – perfect size for Anna and added barely any weight to the load.
During my Erie Canal walk all Anna had was a blanket. I’d wake up nearly every morning shoved to the side of the tent with Anna taking up the entire sleeping pad. On my second big walk I brought Anna her own pad along with her blanket and I never woke up shoved off of my own bed. And Anna never woke up shivering. Everybody wins!
What about food?
Look at the ingredients of the dog food and make sure it’s not a grain or corn based food. Your dog will need the most from their food to keep them healthy and moving throughout your adventure. They will not need corn. Pay a little more for the good stuff, make sure it has real meat and not just by products and filler.
Anna’s food of choice if we can get it is Acana , which is darn hard to find in the middle of nowhere, so we didn’t have it all the time. But I’d always find decent food at grain or farming stores
If you have the money and organization you can always buy a bunch and mail sections out as needed. Or have someone at home buy it as you go and mail it out.
I get a lot of questions about being a woman alone on the road – mostly about safety and hygiene.
Ladies, you too can pee in the woods! Seriously, not that big of an issue. Yeah, it’s a little more involved than a dude might deal with but it’s no big thing. And honestly, you will be amazed at how many outhouses, public restrooms and port-a-potties there are out there.
Now the big one – periods. I super strongly highly recommend getting some sort of birth control that limits your period. Definitely something to at least look into. Because let me tell you, that is a pain to deal with while on the road.
If you do decide to go au natural and deal with your period each month on the road you have some options. Menstrual cups, pads, tampons, other natural deals. You know what works for you. The important thing is to bring clean water and soap or wipes to keep clean, ziploc bags to hold until you can properly dispose of things, and any medication that works for you.
Edit to add some sound advice on the topic of birth control from my friend Susie:
“If you’re new to [birth control], you might want to give yourself 3 months before you head out to know how they affect you (emotionally and physically). Anyone who’s been on them or switched their brand will tell you that it takes your body some time to get used to them, and you wouldn’t want that to slow you down.”
First, be prepared for men constantly asking if you’re afraid of rape. I am completely serious here. It’s a little unsettling at first but you soon realize that men are kind of oblivious to the fact that women are afraid of rape on a daily basis, not just when one is walking alone across the country. These men don’t mean to be scary, they’re just honestly confused and concerned.
(The rest of these tips could be applied to anyone walking solo, not just the ladies.)
Second, trust your gut. If someone seems off, leave them alone and keep on walking. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from going against your gut in this situation, and there is really no harm in not talking to a person. It could be nothing, it could be everything.
Third, I really recommend letting people know where you are on a pretty regular basis. I had a smartphone and I kept a mostly-daily updates of, at the very least, where I’d be sleeping that night. When I camped I’d let people know where I was (so if I ended up screaming in the night or something they’d know it was me and come running….I have a bit of an over active imagination.)
Fourth, you know what to do. Honestly ladies, you know the drill. You’ve got it covered. A lot of these basic safety tips you’ve been doing unconsciously for years. Don’t walk alone after dark, don’t accept alcohol from strangers along the road, be aware of your surroundings – environment and people, let people know where you are, yet don’t tell strangers your exact destination, be prepared, carry pepper spray.
And lastly, which ties in with the first thing, be prepared for a lot of sexism thrown your way. A large percentage of people I met told me straight to my face that I should go home, that a woman shouldn’t be doing something like this alone, that if I were their daughter/wife/sister/lady they wouldn’t have let me out the door. They told me I’d be raped because “men are crazy” so I shouldn’t take risks. Other cross country walkers told me I should go home and that it was too dangerous. You’ve just gotta ignore them all and stick with it, because you know it’s all sexist bullshit.
Stick to your guns and trust your gut.