After my trip to Colorado and Wyoming last summer, I’ve been itching to try a longer trail. As a Minnesota native, the Superior Hiking Trail just seemed like a natural choice! I’ve explored most of the state parks on the North Shore, and I’m excited to string them all together in one long walk.
I plan to hike “Southbound” from the Canadian border to Duluth. At about 270 miles, this plan is considered a “traditional” thru-hike. The “total” hike includes the extension down to Wisconsin. After reading trip reports, I decided I’d be perfectly happy ending my hike sitting at a Duluth brewery. Even though I’ll be missing gems like Jay Cooke state park, I read that camping in the southern section can be a little sparse and the trail somewhat unsatisfying. Still, even the “shorter” version will be my longest hike yet, by a lot. As always, planning this trip comes with the familiar thrum of anxiety. Here are a few thoughts that have been keeping me up at night:
Can I do this—physically?
I’ve been on hard hikes. The Pemigewasset Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains damn near killed me. The altitude and steep climbs on Maroon Bells left me wheezing louder than I’d like to admit. But still, I haven’t done a hard, long hike. In order to finish the hike in my time frame (about three weeks), I’ll need to hike a little under 15 miles a day. While this sounds doable from the comfort of my couch, I don’t want to underestimate this trail. There may not be mountains, but there are steep ascents, rock scrambles, and grueling lake walks. I’ve had issues with my knees and hips before (is this what getting older feels like?), and I’m trying to preemptively train the pain away (as much as possible) with strength training and long hikes.
But just like I don’t want to underestimate this trail, I also don’t want to underestimate my own ability. I had a lot of doubts in Colorado, but once I hit my stride, I moved much fast than I thought I would be able to and rolled into camp by early afternoon each day. I could have cut a night from that trip, though I don’t regret the somewhat leisurely pace I was able to take. As long as I approach my miles slow-and-steady, I think I’ll be able to stay on track.
Can I do this—mentally?
A few weeks ago, I ended up talking to another women who attempted to solo thru-hiked the SHT on r/ultralight (side note: this subreddit is exceptionally helpful, though a little intimidating and …bro-ey?…at times). She ended up finishing the trail early, largely because she was behind schedule, but also because she underestimated how mentally and emotionally exhausting thru-hiking can be. Even though it’s a shorter thru-hike on a popular trail, the loneliness, repetition, and discomfort can take a toll. With her advice in mind, and with my own experience with my mental health while traveling and hiking, I plan to build in small comforts. A warm meal in town, a luxurious body lotion (don’t worry, it’ll live in my bear bag), podcasts, and having something to read can make all the difference.
Ultimately, despite the unplanned outcome, the solo female hiker recommended the SHT without reservation. She’s also gearing up for a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail next year!
How do I even plan this thing?
You should see the number of articles I’ve read and YouTube videos I’ve watched trying to plan this trip (and it’s only March!). I piled up maps, books, and spreadsheets, only to feel even more lost and confused. In the depths of spreadsheet hell, where every detail feels like a math word-problem (“It’s an extra 7.8 miles from West Kennedy Creek to East Palisade Creek, but what if it’s a dry year??!”), I had a realization: this trip is unlike any other trip I’ve planned (duh). Sure it might be obvious, but I’m used to planning international itineraries that are pinned in by tight train transfer and hostel check-in times. With the SHT, my schedule will be entirely determined by how fast I can walk, and that’s something I can’t fully plan for. Sure I’ll have an estimate, but nothing concrete enough to make reservations or plan every single day.
Instead of planning each leg of the trip down to which brand of granola bar I’ll eat that day, I’m going to focus on building up my knowledge so I can adapt to what the trail throws at me. I’ve resolved to improve my navigation skills (coming from someone who gets turned around in the Target parking lot…), dial my gear in to a more nimble weight, and build an adaptable menu-plan of calorically dense food. The uncertainty of this new (for me anyway), more adaptable way of planning is making me squirm a little, but ultimately I think learning to adapt in-the-moment will be a good thing.
And finally…I’m so excited.
I really am—even with all the mud, bugs, roots, and blisters I’m bound to encounter. I already know Lake Superior is enchanting, but I can’t wait for the level of intimacy I’ll gain after three weeks of clinging to its shore. And after all these months in our little apartment with my truly wonderful husband and two adorable but obnoxious pet rabbits…I’m excited to be alone. To rely on myself completely. At the risk of asking too much of a hike, I’m excited to test, stretch, and ultimately keep the best parts of myself, and leave the rest on the trail.