Lessons learned from a camper van adventure on the Arizona Trail while supporting a thru-hike

In the spring of 2021, my wife, Erin, thru-hiked the 800-mile Arizona Trail (AZT) northbound from Mexico to Utah. I supported her hike. The experience was an encouragement to follow Erin’s footsteps down my own long trail. Traveling in a van, enjoying day hikes almost every day, seeing the landscape of Arizona change was also an adventure in its own right. Below are some questions you should ask yourself before supporting someone else’s thru-hike.

van life supporting thru-hike
The author sits outside the van he lived in while supporting his wife’s thru-hike.Zach Fitzner


This may be one of the most important questions when it comes to supporting a thru-hiker. There are many ways to support a hike. Many people send packages and encouraging letters to post offices along the route. Others might hike a section of a trail with someone and bring supplies. When I supported my wife, Erin, on the AZT, I followed along in a camper van with provisions, probably one of the most intensive ways to support a hiker.


Pre-made backpacking food is expensive. This is probably an expense the thru-hiker themselves will cover, but supporting hikers isn’t necessarily free either. For me, a major expense was gas, as well as time off work. These two things alone put a dent in my savings. Other expenses to consider include buying and sending care packages for those who support remotely, or the expenses of hiking a section of trail with someone. On the trail, there were stories of injuries, excessive heat and other complications that ended people’s hikes early or cost more. It’s a good idea to consider in advance how much extra support you’re willing to lend in an emergency and budget for it, just in case.


It may seem silly to consider, but part of supporting someone’s thru-hike is supporting them emotionally. Are you prepared to hear about blisters, exhaustion, hunger, bad weather and bear encounters? Will these things scare you or will you reflect on them as part and parcel to a grand adventure? At one trailhead where I met Erin, a man’s wife was looking for her husband thru-hiker in a bit of a panic. She was sure he was out of water and was having troubles. Eventually the man walked down the trail, perfectly healthy and happy to be hiking. The sort of extra stress someone can put on a hiker by exaggerating the dangers and challenges might be enough to convince someone to drop out at an especially vulnerable moment. Sometimes it’s better to keep distance rather than give discouragement. Can you take on the role of sunny supporter for a thru-hiker?    


Remember, as support for a thru-hiker, you’re playing second fiddle. Many people I met on the Arizona Trail were enthusiastic about my supporting Erin’s hike and everyone was friendly. I was also very happy to see Erin accomplish such an incredible hike, mainly on her own. There were other days when I really just wanted to be hiking all day, for weeks on end, and I couldn’t. To support a thru-hiker, you have to remember: you’re a sidekick. You won’t earn a commemorative belt buckle, patch or certificate. The only satisfaction you’ll get is from the satisfaction of someone else. Is that role, of living vicariously through someone else’s success or failure, something you can do? 


Sometimes supporting a thru-hiker means giving advice. Sometimes it means withholding advice. When someone’s been walking for days and is tired, sore and hungry, it’s normal to ask for an opinion on the next section. Should I hike a 10-mile day or a 20? Should I take a 0 mile day and rest? Sometimes, it’s good to supply advice from your own hard won experience. Other times, it’s good to just talk it through and give no opinion. At the end of the day, every hiker is in a privileged position to assess their own situation. Do you have the experience to give good advice and stop short of telling someone how to manage their own adventure?

ZACH FITZNER grew up in Wyoming and Colorado, studied and works in the natural sciences and spends as much time outdoors as possible with his wife and two dogs. He just completed writing his first book, “Tears for Crocodilia,” scheduled to be released in the spring of 2022.