Thru-Hiking 101: Preparation, Challenges and the Best Thru-Hikes

appalachian trail
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What is Thru-Hiking?

Thru-hiking seems like an impossible dream to many of us who wonder how it would be to keep walking month after month in the wilderness. This guide aims to answer most of these questions, including what thru-hiking really is, it’s history, preparation and challenges and some interesting stories of legendary thru-hikers.

Thru-hiking is also known by many other names, including through-hiking, end-to-end hiking and end-to-ending. In the US thru-hiking is usually associated with three popular trails aka the Big Three which include PCT (the Pacific Crest Trail), AT (the Appalachian Trail) and CDT (the Continental Divide Trail).

Internationally, thru-hiking is associated with local trails such as the Great Himalaya Trail, the Via Alpina Trail (EU), the Greater Patagonia Trail (South America), Camino de Santiago (Spain), Te Araroa Trail (New Zealand), Via Francigena (France/Italy), Lycian Way (Turkey) and the Great Divide Trail (Canada).

Although thru-hiking lacks a standard and agreed-upon definition, it can be defined as hiking end-to-end in one direction on a long-distance and established trail. According to another definition by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is followed by many groups in the US, a thru-hike is a hike that can be completed within a 12-month period.

A thru-hike is a major accomplishment and provides an opportunity to discover yourself. It also helps you learn how to live with simplicity and get along with other people.

man sitting on stone beside white camping tent

Thru-hiking Variations

It’s not possible for most backpackers to commit to months-long trails and as a result, alternatives to thru-hiking have evolved over time. Since there is no standard definition of thru-hiking, it’s mostly up to hikers to define the challenge. Many hikers prefer picking shorter trails such as the SKT (Superior Hiking Trail), which is a 300-mile-long trail along the Lake Superior’s shoreline in Minnesota.

Section Hiking

Section hiking is a term associated with thru-hiking that refers to completing an end-to-end hike of one section at a time. However, section hikes are not necessarily done in a sequence and with continuity. Hikers can cover some sections in one hiking season and some in another. The John Muir Trail is one example of a section hike, which is PCT’s 211-mile breathtaking stretch. Thru-hiking generally refers to completing the complete trail at once and in a sequence.

Section hiking is about choosing your own adventure, with flexibility being the main benefit. You don’t have to leave without paychecks for extended periods of time when hiking a trail in sections. It’s easier to plan section hiking around your own life commitments, while it’s also not as mentally, financially and physically challenging as a thru-hike. You don’t have to meet daily high mileage requirements, which allows you to explore the surroundings in detail.

Flip-flop Hiking

Flip-flop is another variation of thru-hiking, which involves completing a classic thru-hike in a non-sequential way. Hikers complete the full trail in different sections in no particular sequence, usually starting from the middle. A ‘true’ flip-flop refers to completing at least one section in the opposite direction. Some purists also like to flip-flop to avoid severe weather, but as a downside, transportation itineraries become more complicated.

Thru-hiking vs. Backpacking

backpacker hiker at volcano

Thru-hiking is like a very long-distance version of backpacking with high daily mileage requirements that puts hikers into some real tests of endurance and stamina. Most hikers consider backpacking as a putdown version of thru-hiking, but it’s just a different form of backpacking with different objectives.

Most backpacking trips last over a weekend or are weeklong. Thru-hikers in the US must reach the northern terminus before the arrival of winter otherwise, they are at risk of getting stuck. That’s why they have to cover more distance than backpackers on a daily basis. Thru-hikers are also more inclined towards ultralight weight gear because they have to cover far more distances that backpackers. Compared to backpackers who prefer carrying everything they need with them, thru-hikers depend on resupply points because they cannot carry everything for thousands of miles.

Backpackers who hike on unpopular trails usually keep all the things they need with them, which adds weight. It might not be possible to carry the same amount of weight on a thru-hike. The conditions that backpackers and thru-hikers experience can also be different. The point is not to draw a line between backpacking and thru-hiking, but to understand that each has its own objectives and challenges and both get you out there.

History of Thru-hiking

thru-hiking history

The lines between thru-hiking and long-distance travel on foot blur as we go back in time. Traveling on foot was common (and a necessity) in the old days. We started to hike for enjoyment and exploring the world a long time ago. Although it might not be possible to establish when or how thru-hiking/hiking started, there are quite a few interesting stories in recent history.

In 1939, a thru-hiker George W. Outerbridge completed the 1st section of the Appalachian Trail while in 1948, Earl Shaffer thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail for the first time alone. Lee Barry was the oldest thru-hiker to complete the AT twice at the age of 81 in 2004. Some well-known thru-hikers who achieved a celebrity-like status in the hiking world include:

Lillian Alling

The 27-years-old Russian woman became homesick and decided to return from New York to her family back in Russia in the 1920s. Although she lacked funds needed to make it back home, she had all the courage and will power needed to embark on a 12,000-mile journey to Russia! She traversed Canada & into Alaska and was last reported to have been preparing to cross the Bering Strait to Siberia by boat. It is unknown if she successfully crossed the Bering Strait. She was last seen near Teller, Alaska.

Grandma Gatewood

A mother of eleven and grandmother of twenty-three, Emma Gatewood aka Grandma Gatewood was the first solo woman to thru-hike the AT at the age of 67 in 1955 (the entire 2,050 miles trail). Her old age was not the only surprising thing in her attempt. She completed the trail in sneakers and used a blanket instead of a proper sleeping bag. She had very inadequate gear even according to the old standards.

Grandma Gatewood carried a homemade knapsack, a shower curtain made of plastic and wore out six pairs of sneakers during her 146 days’ journey (May to September). She relied on complete strangers for direction and food and slept anywhere she could find a temporary shelter such as under a picnic-table or even under a bed of leaves.

She is also widely recognized as a pioneer of ultralight backpacking and completed a full section hike as well as a 2nd end-to-end hike. Her story is about finding peace, finding yourself and overcoming hardship. The Grandma didn’t stop after the first hike.

She thru-hiked the trail again in 1957, becoming the first person to complete the AT twice. According to her, she embarked on the same journey the second time just for the enjoyment. She did the trail once again in sections in 1964, becoming the first person to thru-hike the trail thrice.

Karel Sabbe

28-years-old Sabbe smashed the previous AT record by four days in 2018, beating McConaughy. He completed the 2,189-mile trail in 41-days, 7-hours and 39-minutes. Earlier in 2016, Sabbe beat McConaughy’s record on the PCT and still holds the honor to date. This makes him the record holder for both the AT and the PCT.

Thru-hiking Today

Many hikers prefer to section-hike instead of thru-hiking the complete trail due to various factors, including lack of desire and time or financial constraints. Thru-hiking is an endeavor that requires courage, patience and a strong will to complete the difficult and long journey.

For example, thru-hiking the 2189.2 miles of the AT takes around five months, while the PCT and CDT hikes also require from 4 to 6 months. The title Triple Crowners is given to thru-hikers who complete all three NSCs, i.e. the AT, the PCT and the CDT.

Several months of planning is required to prepare for resupply points, gear and ensuring that everything else has been accounted for. Thru-hikers have to train and prepare for the hike months in advance because they cannot afford to overlook any important detail, including organizing supplies and resupplies at villages and towns along the path.

Thru-hiking has become a niche industry as backpacking grew in popularity, especially in the US. Each year, a growing number of hikers (in thousands) attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail and other NSTs (National Scenic Trails). However, only around 20 percent of them manage to complete the trail, while around 180 thru-hikers complete the PCT.

Around 30 dedicated thru-hikers have at least completed the AT thrice. Thanks to better and lightweight gear, the internet and easy access to information, the percentage of successful AT thru-hikes has increased from 20 percent to 25 percent over recent years. On average, the base pack weight of these thru-hikers varies from 10-15 lbs.

The Big Three

The Triple Crown of Hiking refers to completing all three major thru-hikes in the US as follows:

The Appalachian Trail aka the AT

  • 2,184 miles/ 3,515 kilometers
  • b/w Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Maine’s Mount Katahdin
  • Traverses NC, TN, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT and NH

Mount Kathadin Appalachian Trail Northern Terminus-optimized

The Pacific Crest Trail aka the PCT

  • 2,654 miles / 4,270 kilometers
  • b/w Mexico and Canada
  • Follows the highest points of the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada and transverses through WA, OR and CA

Mount Whitney Pacific Crest Trail

The Continental Divide Trail aka the CDT

  • 3,100 miles / 5,000 kilometres
  • b/w Mexico and Canada
  • Follows the Continental Divide and traverses MT, ID, WY, CO and NM

Glacier National Park Continental Divide Trail

The length of The Big Three totals 7,900 miles / 12,700 kilometers with a vertical gain of over 1,000,000 ft. / 190 miles / 300 kilometers. These three trails run through 22 states. A total of 396 thru-hikers have been recognized as Triple Crown honorees by the ALDHA – West (American Long Distance Hiking Association) from 1994 to Nov 2018.

Choosing Between the Big Three trails depends on a variety of factors. A large number of first-time thru-hikers prefer the AT (4,436 attempts in 2017 with a 26.7% success rate) because of comparatively easier logistics and more accessible civilization.

The CDT (275 attempts in 2017 with a 29.8% success rate) is the favorite trail of hardcore hikers, while the PCT (3,934 attempts in 2017 with a 12.9% success rate) has a much lower success rate than AT.

Popular Thru-hikes Outside the US

Some of the most popular thru-hiking trails outside the US include (only 3,000 KM or above trails):

  • The Trans Canada Trail: 14,996 miles / 24,000 kilometers, runs from east to west across Canada, world’s largest trail network
  • The Grand Italian Trail: 3,831 miles / 6,165 kilometers, passes through the Alpine Arc
  • Via Alpina: 3,107 miles / over 5,000 kilometers, Monaco – Trieste, passes through six European countries
  • Te Araroa Trail: 1,864 miles / 3,000 kilometers, begins from New Zealand’s North Islands and ends at the South End
  • Hokkaido Nature Trail: 2,900 miles / 4,667 kilometers, Japan’s northern island, links many national parks, actively volcanic
  • The Great Himalaya Trail: 2,849 miles / 4,585 kilometers, passes through the entire Himalayas
  • The Transcaucasian Trail: 1,864 miles / 3,000 kilometers, traverses Armenia and the Caucasus region in Georgia
  • The Greater Patagonia Trail: 1,864 miles / 3,000 kilometers, South America’s longest trail

Shivalik range of Himalaya

Challenges Associated with Thru-Hiking

Thru-hiking is not an easy feat and is a real test of endurance, stamina and will power of hikers. The half-year hikes have their own physical, mental and financial challenges. Since most thru-hikers happen to be solo hikers, people need to be at peace with themselves and be able to deal with loneliness, which is probably the biggest of all challenges.

With that being said, hikers should also try not to over-plan and overthink. Thru-hiking will change you and how you see the world no matter how many months you spend planning and preparing. There are a lot of things that are not in our control, especially when you are out in the wild, including trail closures and bad weather. That’s why you need to stay flexible and stay put when things don’t turn out to be as expected.

Thru-Hiking Physical Challenges and How to Deal with Them

thru-hiking challenges

Take the PCT as an example, which is 2,650 miles (4,270 km) long, with around 500,000 ft. (more than 150km) of elevation gain. Hiking such as long distance requires stamina and a certain level of physical fitness. Hikers also need to take into account other physical challenges and untoward incidences, including risk of major injuries, altitude sickness, Lyme disease and blisters. Training well and taking a comprehensive first-aid course are good starting points in this regard.

Train well ahead of time and complete a lot of hiking trips before embarking on a thru-hike. Although no amount of short backpacking trips can fully prepare you for a 6-month thru-hike, you’ll still end up strengthening your feet and preparing them for a huge burden. Double and triple check the contents of the first-aid kit and make sure you are well versed with how to use the items. It’s also important to carefully choose the items of a first-aid kit according to the terrain and weather conditions.

Thru-hiking Mental Challenges and How to Deal with Them

As mentioned earlier, loneliness is one of the biggest mental challenges thru-hikers have to face. Many thru-hikers start wondering why they embarked on this journey after a few hundred miles and start thinking about calling it quits. Some effective strategies to cope with the mental challenges include:

Stay focused on intermediate goals and keep checking them along the way. This keeps hikers motivated to attain milestones and provides them with a sense of accomplishment along the way. Examples of milestones include a national park, a peak, or even a state line.

Keep reminding yourself that all challenges have some moments of soul searching. These reminders can be particularly helpful on bad days when you might start thinking about quitting. Contemplating quitting in the middle of a journey isn’t unusual, but what matters is how you deal with negative feelings.

Hikers also need to turn the fear of being alone into the feeling of being totally free, which is made easier if you complete some solo hiking trips beforehand. Don’t hesitate to embrace the unexpected and frivolous opportunities, such as participating in the activities of trailside communities. This also helps you a lot in learning about other people and makes you feel less lonely.

Thru-hiking Financial Challenges

A 6-month thru-hike means there will probably be no paychecks for quite some time and you’ll be without work. Not all hikers are lucky enough to have a boss who’d welcome you after half a year of absence. Managing finances in such situations can become a real challenge. In addition to no paychecks, hikers also need to consider the major expenses such as buying gear, food and other items. Depending on your hiking style and priorities, the cost of thru-hiking can vary from $1 to $3 per mile.

The Basic of Thru-hiking

Thru-hiking can turn hikers into master planners even if they were not good planners in the beginning. It’s not possible to plan for everything and there are many things you’ll have to leave on luck. However, there are some basic things you need to do to make it to the finish line.

Plan Well Ahead of Time

thru-hiking planning

A thru-hike is a major expedition, so you need to be prepared well for it. Most experts believe that thru-hikers should spend the same amount of time a thru-hike takes to plan. Planning is essentially a part of a hike, which means the excitement begins 6 months before the hike begins. Visiting the official site of the big three trails is a good starting point where you can find all the essential information such as maps and itineraries. Some important parts of the plan include:

  • When and where to start with a big focus on the weather and climate.
  • You need to get a permit for different things, including trail permit, border permit, campfire permit, camping permit and so on. You have to apply for some of these permits well in advance, while for some things, no permit is required. A thru-hiker needs to ensure that he/she has the required permits and isn’t exceeding any entrance quota.
  • Daily mileage can vary from one trail to another. But you’ll always be under pressure to cover a certain distance each day to make it to the end on time. Try projecting the daily mileage and covering a little more each day to be on the safe side.
  • Transportation not only includes getting to the start of the trail, but also includes trailheads and shuttle options.
  • Places from where you can get resupplies and have some rest are few and far between. You need to plan the resupply stops carefully to minimize surprises and untoward incidents.
  • Hikers also need to have a contingency plan like alternative routes and resupply stops to deal with unexpected situations such as severe weather, major injury and trail closures.
  • Be ready for the uphill parts of the trail and practice in advance for big climbs.
  • Keep your schedule flexible and avoid living and dying by it. Be careful about trail meet-up scheduling as it’s almost impossible to know months in advance where you’ll be on a trail on a specific time.

Food & Water

stream on trail

Food and water are perhaps the most challenging part of a thru-hiking plan because you have to balance your calorie requirements while keeping the weight low. Some thru-hikers prefer pre-planning the whole trip and mail food stash for each section ahead of time, while others prefer buying food for each section at resupply villages and towns.

You need to be absolutely sure about where to find water, especially in desert or hot/humid sections as it’s essentially a matter of life and death. Hikers also need to make sure that water is not contaminated where it is available in abundance. Lastly it’s also important to take into account the gear you’ll use to store, treat and carry water.

The three commonly used food resupply options include buying on the go, buying from resupply stops when needed and using USPS to mail prepackaged boxes along the trail. Some thru-hikers also use a combination of these to ensure constant supplies.

Thru-hikers usually get hungrier as they move along the trail. A 500-calorie breakfast coupled with heavy snacks and a 1,000-calorie dinner is a norm at the start, which balloons to a 1500-calorie dinner near the end. Packing the exact amount of food you’ll need is more a matter of luck than planning or skill so keeping some extra calories is always a good idea.

Gear

thru-hiking gear

Backpackers are expected to already have most of the gear needed for thru-hikes, but you might need some different gear because of the length and duration of thru-hikes. That’s the reason why thru-hikers try to pick the most lightweight gear possible when covering thousands of miles in one go, which translates into more cost.

The gear not only has to be lightweight, but it also needs to be more durable than average backpacking gear. Seasonal gear can be swapped out at some important resupply points along the trail such as clothing, sleeping bags and microspikes.

Expert thru-hikers prefer lightweight shoes such as trail runners or even barefoot shoes, but many still insist on heavy-duty leather boots. We have already covered trail runners vs. leather boots in detail in a separate post, but choosing between the two mainly depends on the terrain and your own personal preferences.

Avoid Overthinking

Plan for the day ahead instead of trying to get ahead of yourself and worrying about the whole journey. It’s not possible to accurately predict everything, especially the weather. Having a few campsite options is fine, but be ready to change course when needed.

Keep a buffer and expect a zero day every two weeks for things like not being able to reach the post office on time and missing the package needed to keep the dice rolling. Trail re-rerouting is becoming more common with growing wildfires. In such situations, it’s better to wait for guidance instead of getting lost.

Show Courtesy

Be kind to those who are curious and don’t get annoyed at repetitive questions such as how long have you been hiking for or what will you get out of this? Donate generously to people who have helped you along the way. Thru-hiking might not have been possible without them.

Have Realistic Expectations

Understand the pitfalls and avoid them to become part of a minority group that makes it to the end. Unrealistic expectations, mental fatigue, lack of financial resources and fitness, and family-related events are some major reasons why most thru-hikers exit early.

Don’t Forget to Take a Mental Break

Prepare yourself to deal with the mental fatigue as thru-hiking is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. You can take mental breaks in a variety of ways such as photography, reading, writing, listening to music, videography/vlogs and having a conversation with the local people. You need to find your own system of having a break; otherwise 6-months is a really long time for your mind to keep wandering in the woods.

It’s Not a Race

Unless a thru-hiker is trying to set a speed record, thru-hiking is not a race and should not be treated like one. Things like who is ahead or behind you do not really matter and instead, thru-hikers should focus on what’s best for their own body. Anyone who can complete a thru-hike is a winner in the end, so someone who finishes last will still be crowned with a massive achievement.

Treat Your Feet with Love

Take good care of your feet that keep you alive on a trail. Breathable, lightweight and comfortable trail running shoes and hiking socks such as Silverlight hiking socks help keep weight down while minimizing chances of developing blisters. We have already covered how to choose the perfect hiking socks in a separate post, so you might to have a look at it for more details.

Thru-hiking Communities

group of people thru-hiking

The connections thru-hikers make with each other are deep and long-lasting because it’s a very small and tight-knit community of people that share a common vision. Then there are trail angels who are people willing to provide support and aid without expecting anything in return.

These people can sometimes even mean the difference between life and death, but the usual things they can do include giving food, rides and a place to stay. It’s a good practice to make a modest donation to these people to show appreciation and encourage them to keep helping other thru-hikers in the future.

You can also get a lot of useful information from thru-hiker communities on social media, including Facebook and Reddit. Here are some links to popular Facebook pages of thru-hiking communities:

Some Common Terms in Thru-hiking Language

thru-hikers on hilltop during daytime

Every trade has its own language and thru-hiking is no exception. Thru-hikers are a close-knit community and has its own terms including:

Nero day: Means almost a zero day when a hiker only hikes a few miles, mostly because he/she spend most of the time in a nearby town

Zero day: A day in which no mileage is gained, which is usually a resupply day

Hiker Midnight: 9 PM when hikers are usually asleep

Camel up: To drink as much water as possible before the next water source

NOBO/SOBO: Northbound/Southbound

Trail magic: Coming across a trail angel or an unexpected help

Yellow Blazing: Refers to skipping some trail sections by catching a ride, often a disliked practice in the thru-hiking community

White Blaze: Distinctive trail markers on trees along the AT

Blue Blaze: Refers to a spur trail or an alternative route along the AT, usually leading to water

Slack Packing: Hiking ultralight or packing minimal gear, usually only a few things other than food/water, the rest of the stuff is transported ahead by a car, etc.

Yoyo: Completing a thru-hike in both directions (finishing then turning around)

Triple crown: Having hiked the all three trails i.e., the AT, CDT and the PCT

Hiker Box: Community-based boxes where people can take or leave unwanted gear and food at the resupply stops

Bounce Box: Thru-hikers ship gear not needed on a particular section to a section ahead of it where it will be needed, as an advance resupply box

Hike Your Own Hike: Means respecting hiking style of other thru-hikers and planning your own hikes according to your own mantra

Conclusion

Thru-hiking is a profoundly rewarding and equally challenging life achievement that can transform how we see the world around us. Developing such a lasting friendship with nature requires a lot of endurance, courage and toughness. Thru-hiking involves a great deal of planning, training and mental and physical fitness and isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Deciding between section hiking and completing the trail in one go remains an important question for many hikers. In the end, it’s all about your own goals, personal preferences, financial situation and physical strength. Both approaches would get you closer to nature and that’s what really matters. A positive mental attitude remains the key to success, whether you are sitting in a cubicle or thru-hiking for months at end.


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