How To Walk Across America – Questions And Answers
In 2011, from February 26 to October 15 I walked across the United States from coast to coast, Delaware to California.
I get a TON of emails full of great questions from people curious about how to prepare for and actually complete a long distance walk, be it across America or another country or continent.
I figured I’d answer some of the more common questions here. If you have a question that is not covered here, please send me an email at natedammemail [@] gmail.com.
Important: Please note that the answers below are simply my opinions on these subjects. Many people have done long distance walks, and I’m sure every one of them would have different answers. So yeah, this is what worked for me and what I learned along the way on my journey.
A lot of people come to me wanting to know what to read to help them prepare for their walk and get a better understanding about what they’re getting themselves into, so I’ve put together a short list of books/resources below. I’d put these books in the “must-read” category for any aspiring walker. Read and enjoy!
- MY BOOK – Life On Foot: A Walk Across America. Obviously I have to recommend this one Get it here!
- How To Walk Across America by Tyler Coulson. A MUST READ if you are serious about a walk. The best book on the subject, no question. (Hard copy | Kindle version)
- A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins and its second part, The Walk West
- Planetwalker by John Francis (Hard copy | Kindle version)
- By Men Or By The Earth by Tyler Coulson (Hard copy | Kindle version)
How long does it take to walk across America?
It depends where you start and your pace. I was able to walk across in about 6 1/2 months of actual walking time. I know of people who have taken 8 or 9 months, or more. This is something you really won’t be able to figure out until you actually get out there and figure out what your pace is. Something to think about: Do you really want to plan anything around an estimation of time anyway? If you do, you’re really just setting yourself up for some pretty serious unnecessary stress.
Some people walk 12 miles per day, some walk 30. It really depends on a lot of things. For the first 1/3 of the trip I averaged about 13 miles a day. Then I made a crucial gear switch which I’ll mention in a couple of questions, and that immediately bumped up to 20+. For the last couple months of the walk, if I was walking, I was going at least 25 miles.
What route should I take?
Whatever one looks good to you. Much of this decision making process revolves around weather. If you start sometime around the beginning of March, there are no routes you won’t be able to do without much difficulty weather-wise. The biggest concern here is obviously winter and the mountains. If you go a northern or middle route, you will need to get over the Appalachians, Rockies and Sierras/Cascades. And those are just the main ranges. Weather in high elevations is unpredictable and dangerous. I’d recommend an early March start for nothern and middle routes if you’re going east to west. If you’re going west to east on those routes, you may need to start a bit later and/or be ready for some possible snow.
A southern route will give you more flexibility in terms of seasons and weather, but be aware that it still does get cold in the middle-southern and southwestern states during winter months.
The majority of walkers I’ve been able to connect with and follow have gone a central route, usually from the New York vicinity to the San Francisco area. They almost always start in early March.
Best way to plan a route?
I had very bad results using Google maps and GPS. Signal is spotty for such devices in places, and they are not perfect. Road names often change from county to county in rural America, which got me extremely lost quickly on several occasions. We’ve all heard or experienced GPS horror stories.
As I was entering West Virginia, I picked up a U.S. Road Atlas at a gas station on a whim. I did not get lost once the entire rest of the trip.
Using a Road Atlas makes finding accessible U.S. and state routes very easy. Interstates are also easily identifiable, as they are generally avoided. I found that the Atlas made finding roads that were a perfect medium between busy four lane highways and remote rural roads simple. Interstates need to be avoided because they are almost always illegal to walk on, and roads that are too small can cause problems in terms of resupplying, and even safety.
Additional maps may be needed around cities, but I avoided them for the most part, so this wasn’t an issue for me. Keep this in mind if you do want to hit large metropolitan areas.
So, I highly recommend using a U.S. Road Atlas. You can get one for cheap on Amazon right here.
What shoes or boots should I use?
To start, I definitely recommend walking/hiking shoes over boots. I used two pairs of boots and one pair of shoes on my trip, and the shoes were much better. First, they are lighter and a few ounces makes a big difference over 6+ million steps. Secondly, they dry much faster. Boots can stay wet for days on end, and this causes quite a bit of discomfort and a bad smell. Shoes generally dry out faster and these things are not as much of a problem.
As for quality, my personal experience says that there isn’t much difference between a high end walking boot or shoe and a medium quality one.
Any random pieces of gear that you forgot and had to get along the way?
Yes. Umbrella. Definitely have one of these! It took me an embarrasingly long amount of time to figure out how to stop getting wet when it rained. No joke. Get an umbrella not only to keep dry while waiting out or walking through storms, but also to use for shade in the desert. This saved my ass many, many times.
Also, get a second or third cell phone battery. These will come in very handy when your phone is dead and you need it badly. Just charge all of your batteries up when you do get access to an outlet. Always nice to have some reserve power!
I think of walking sticks as a must have if you are going to use a backpack. These can take an incredible amount of pressure off your knees and feet. Plus, they work great as weapons to keep off animals or people. You do not need expensive sticks, a pair of cheap trekking poles from Walmart did the trick for me and they held up great.
How much does it cost?
My trip cost around $4,500. I’m not completely sure, but that’s my best guess. Probably around $1,000 of that came in the form of random donations I received along the way from awesome people. It can absolutely be done for cheaper than that, and also can be done for much more. It’s all a matter of your budget and how willing you are to rough it a little bit.
Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed that it cost me so much do to my trip. I view $4,500 as a pretty high amount. If I did the same walk today, I could do it for much less because of what I learned along the way and the fact that I’m now well seasoned to the road and traveling with very little money as a permanent nomad. People such as Hobo Nick have done a walk across the country with NO MONEY at all. In other words, you shouldn’t view money as a huge obstacle, there is always a way to make your walk happen if you want it bad enough and are willing to make sacrifices.
I’m a woman who wants to walk across the U.S. solo – any advice?
I clearly have no expertise on this matter, but my friend Kelly does. Check out her website here.
What do you eat?
Typically for breakfast I would have Pop Tarts and maybe some granola. Lunch was usually either peanut butter and jelly or tuna on bread or tortilla. Dinner was almost always some sort of canned pasta and canned fruit. I rarely ever cooked, but did carry a JetBoil stove, which was great. It came in very handy when I did need it. Snacks were anything with a Little Debbie label, granola bars and other bar shaped goodies, or whatever I could scrounge up at a gas station. My diet was not healthy, by any means.
If you do carry a stove and actually use it a lot (I was just too lazy to cook), then your options increase quite a bit. Any sort of rice or pasta dinner, either in a packet or box will do great for your evening and/or lunch meal. Oatmeal is also an option too for breakfast.
I am not an authority on this, as my diet was pretty bad. I basically just tried to get as many cheap calories as possible as my budget was tight.
As for where to buy food, just go with whatever the best option is at the time. This will often be a gas station with limited choices, but you’ll have to make use of what they have. Ask people about grocery store locations, then double check what they say with someone else. Then triple check what they say with yet another person. You don’t want to use your last bit of food to walk to a town that actually doesn’t have a store, even though the guy you met in the last town told you it did. Trust me.
Slightly unrelated but important: Follow this rule of triple checking regarding the distances between places as well. Most people have an incredibly bad sense of distance. In all seriousness, you can almost always double the mileage someone tells you. If a store is two miles away according to someone, plan on at least four. I once had a lady tell me a campground was two miles away, so I decided to walk to it in the dark. Nine miles later I arrived at the campground. You don’t want this to happen to you.
Beware that you will have a craving for sugary drinks like you’ve never experienced before. Arriving at a gas station on a 100+ degree day and drinking a large cup of soda, then refilling it and drinking another one will be something you do often. After talking to many walkers, this sugary drink craving has been unanimous. Even people who didn’t drink soda (or pop when you’re in certain areas) before their walk found themselves addicted to it. Embrace this. When you’re walking 20 miles a day you are allowed to eat and drink anything you want (or you can at least just tell yourself that).
Should I use a backpack or a push-cart?
You should use whatever you see yourself using. You can always switch it up if you don’t like what you chose.
With that being said, in the western U.S. a cart is almost a necessity. Almost. I’ve heard of people making it without them, but logistically I think that would be a nightmare. Towns are 50-100+ miles apart, and that gets tricky when you can only carry as much water as you can carry on yourself. Think about this: When I was in Utah and Nevada, temperatures were at 100 or more every day. I was drinking at least two gallons of water each day, and towns/stores were typically two or three days apart. A gallon of water weighs a little over eight pounds. You can do the math there.
This is why I recommend a push cart of some kind. I got mine in Missouri and used it to the finish line in California. It changed everything immediately. Average mileage went up, pain in my knees, feet and back went to zero.
I used a Schwinn Spirit bike trailer with a stroller attachment and got it at WalMart. It was around $120 and I used it for over 2,000 miles. My backpack that I used for the previous 1,200 miles before I got the cart was a Jansport Carson external frame, which cost me about $90. My gear was cheap, yet did a pretty great job.
IMPORTANT: If you get a push cart, take the time to get solid rubber inner tubes for the wheels. If your cart has a tire size that is a common size used on bicycles, then you can usually find these at any bike shop or even Walmart (that’s where I got mine). In my mind, these are an absolute must. You don’t want to have to worry about flat tires and be repairing them constantly.
Where do you sleep?
This for me was without question the most stressful part of the walk at the beginning. With that being said, as the days went on, I gained knowledge and confidence and things got much easier. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep every night is something that you will get used to, believe it or not.
For the most part, I did what is called stealth camping off the side of the road. I’d find a hidden place in the woods or over a hill and set up my tent. It made me nervous at first, but I got used to it. Your skills at doing this will get better each time you do it. The key is just doing it over and over again.
Cheap motels and paid campgrounds are also an option when available.
Another place I stayed a lot were town parks, and if there is one bit of information you pay attention to here, let it be this:
When heading into a town, or if you know what town you’re going to be ending your day in, call the local police dispatch. This will either be a local police department number or a county sheriff dispatch. Having a smart phone comes in really handy here so you can Google this information. If you don’t have a smart phone, just ask someone where the police station is and show up there in person. That works too.
So, you call them. They answer. Say exactly this:
Hey (operators name if they say it), just have a quick question for you. My name is (your name) and I’m walking across America. I’m planning on finishing my day of walking today in (town name) and was wondering if there is anywhere that I might be able to set up my tent and get some sleep for the night, like a town park or a place like that?
This works almost every single time, and I did it very often. The police are your friends. Be courteous and personable and they’ll help you out.
If for some reason they do not help you, do not be rude. Be just as nice as if they had helped you. I say this because one time a police dispatcher said there was nowhere I could camp and that she couldn’t help me. I kindly thanked her for her time and told her to have a nice night. Five minutes later she called me back, said that she felt bad and had made a few extra calls, and I was all set to camp in a place outside of town. It pays to be nice, always.
One additional thing to keep in mind: The world becomes a very different place at night. If dark is approaching and you are having a lot of trouble finding a place to sleep (this will happen, count on it), do your best to not panic. This is because once the sun does go completely down, you will have no trouble finding some shadows to hide out in, no matter how busy of any area you are in. This will likely mean that you need to get a very early start and likely have to wake up before sunrise, but at least you’ll have a hidden place until then. I’ve camped safely right along roads or in towns in places were I thought that there was no way I could have gone undetected when I saw them during the daylight hours. Behind buildings, in bushes, you name it. Just keep this in mind when you find yourself getting stressed about not finding a place to sleep. Once dark comes, you’ll have a multitude of little nooks and crannys to choose from.
How do I train for a long distance walk?
Well, the only way to train for walking 15+ miles per day is to walk 15+ miles per day. If you don’t have time for that, which most people don’t, there are still things you can do to help yourself prepare.
First, do a lot of upper body exercise. Push-ups and pull-ups are great. If you will be using a backpack, this can really help, as a heavy pack puts a lot of pressure on your core and back.
Also, take time to stretch every day. The more flexible you are, the better off you’ll be.
In addition to those things, walk as much as possible.
You have to realize that you’ll never be fully prepared unless you have the time to walk all day. For my trip, I decided to just do those two things I mentioned before and sort of get in shape as I started. I took things slow the first couple weeks of my walk and eased into it. The beginning was rough at times, but things got better every day.
Did you get lonely?
Definitely. But when you plan to walk across the country you have to realize that you will get lonely. It’s just part of the experience. The sooner you make peace with the idea that you’re going to be alone almost all the time, the better off you’ll be. Learn to embrace the loneliness and solitude. When you do this, things really open up to you and you’ll find that you can really enjoy yourself.
“Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, embracing his aloneness, realizing he is one with the whole universe.” – Lao Tzu
Were you afraid of people?
Not often, and when I was afraid it was typically when people were behind the wheel of a car. On only on a few random occasions were people rude to me face to face. An overwhelming majority of the people I met were very nice and were interested in what I was doing and how they could help.
I did walk through some bad areas, and you undoubtedly will too on your walk, but you should be ok as long as you try to get through these areas during the day.
When people offer to help you in some way, go with your gut instinct about them. There were a few times where I was offered a place to stay or a meal from someone and they just had something odd about them, and I turned them down. You’ll learn how to read people very quickly on a trip like this, and it’s important to follow your instincts. In most situations, they’re really all you have go to on.
Which side of the road do I walk on?
You want to walk against the flow of traffic. The reason for this is so you can face the vehicles that are coming at you. It’s much safer than walking with traffic. Always keep your head up and read the oncoming vechicles. You do still need to be mindful of what’s coming from behind you, however. You will become very good at listening and judging not only what types of vehicles are coming from behind you, but how close they are.
You will come close to getting hit by a car, and it will probably happen very often. This happened on almost a daily basis on my trip. I managed to make it safely because I placed an extremely high amount of attention on my surroundings at all times. It is dangerous walking along busy roads for thousands of miles, there’s no doubt about it. But by being smart you can reduce the danger greatly.
If you are going to listen to music and wear headphones, make sure that the shoulder you are walking on is wide. Any time you do this, you sacrifice a bit of your awareness, but should be ok if you do it in the right situations.
What about wild animals? Will I run into any issues with bears, mountain lions, wolves, etc.?
Yeah, you probably will run into them. But as long as you are prepared you will be fine, both in an encounter and in terms of your peace of mind. I know this because I wasn’t prepared once and it was the scariest moment of my life. In Colorado a bear ran full speed at me for about 200 yards, then came to a screeching stop about 15 or 20 yards away, and stared me down. I yelled and tried to look as big as I could, which ultimately worked and it ran off. But I had no protection, no bear spray, no nothin’. I fixed that problem very quickly and felt much better from then on.
Taking care of your fear of animal encounters is as simple as getting a canister of bear spray, which is basically high powered pepper spray, usually with a range of about 30 feet. This will work on bears, mountain lions, wild dogs or whatever else is out there. Bear spray is a must-have, in my opinion.
>>> Great bear spray option here on Amazon.
Should I carry pepper spray?
Read the answer to the previous question. Bear spray works on humans too. You should get some, even though the chances that you’ll actually use it are slim.
Do I need a tent?
No, but I think you’re crazy if you don’t have one. Some people use tarps instead of tents, but there is one main problem with this.
First, you are going to need the protection from bugs and snakes that an enclosed shelter offers (hammocks are often enclosed so they’re great, bivys too). The bugs during the summer months are almost unbearable at night in certain areas. The first morning you wake up and the outside of your tent is coated in a variety of strange beetles, worms and flies, you’ll be glad you had an enclosed shelter. In the desert areas, scorpions are an issue, as well as snakes, which like to find heat sources (aka you).
Go to Walmart and get the cheapest one they have if you’re on a budget. It may be a bit heavy, but you can figure it out. Or find a used one on Craigslist. This is your home, it’s ok to invest a little bit of money into it if you do have the funds available.
One important note about tents: Get a free standing tent. A tent that will require stakes will be a problem in a lot of situations. Free standing is absolutely the way to go.
Use what you have!
“This is a weird motto I came up with on the walk, which is kind of hard to explain: Use what you have. But it makes sense in my weird brain. Anyway, basically, if someone offers you a candy bar, take the damn candy bar. Don’t think ‘oh, there’s a store up ahead, I’ll want a candy bar more then and I’m kind of full from breakfast’ and then get there and see the store doesn’t exist. That sucks. Same goes with water. Top your bottles off constantly. Or if you slightly have to take a shit and are at a gas station that has a bathroom, take the shit there. Don’t think that you will find a place in the woods later or bask in the glory of a full sized Wal-Mart bathroom later on, only to stumble into a residential area and have to go RIGHT NOW and have to squat under a filthy, very low bridge near a bunch of houses and hope that nobody sees you. That may or may not have happened to me.”
How many people have walked across America?
A lot. Don’t do this because you want to try to be in a super elite group of people. Do it because you just want to do it. It’s certainly not an everyday thing, but it’s not as special as you may be thinking. People have been walking across the continent forever. My best guess is that between 10-20 people a year do it now, on average. This Wikipedia page, List Of People Who Have Walked Across The United States, exists and does not include even a fraction of those who have walked, but is a good resource if you want to read more about a bunch of folks who have already done what you are planning on doing and looking to learn a bit more.
Any more questions? Email me at natedammemail @ gmail.com. I hope these answers have been helpful to you. If you are still considering a walk or looking for a bit more guidance, I once again encourage you to check out the reading list at the top of this page. Reading several of the books on that list went a very long way in terms of preparing me and helping me get my mind right before my walk began. Have fun :)