According to the always reliable Wikipedia, the definition of thru-hiking is described as: ‘Thru-hiking, or through-hiking, is to hike an established end-to-end hiking trail or long-distance trail with continuous footsteps in one direction.’ A thru-hike is a long walk, an anti-loop, a pass-thru versus an out and back, wandering in one direction in the wilderness for a very, very long time.
Although technically through hiking could be short day trips where you simply end at a different point from which you begin, most classic thru hikes are days, weeks, and month-long adventures.
So how did thru hiking start? What do you need for a long backpacking trip? What are some long distance thru hikes to tackle? Well, I hope to answer these questions and perhaps more that you did not know you had in this guide to thru hiking basics.
How Did Thru-Hiking Start?
Man has since the beginning of time needed to walk from place to place in order to hunt, gather, or catch up on the latest neighborhood gossip but when did the concept of hiking come into being? This is a murky history to nail down to be honest. The first recorded trek which many historians consider ‘hiking’ was that of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to Etna in 125 AD. Between the 1400s and 1500s religious peoples of the Inca Empire would hike the Andes on spiritual expeditions.
Centuries later in 1874, a team of mountaineers reached Elbus. The highest mountain peak in Europe. This spurred on more recorded expeditions to the Southern Alps in 1882, the highest peak in the Andes in 1897, the Grand Teton of the Rocky Mountains in 1898, Mount Denali in 1913, and the most epic summit of the highest peak on earth – Mount Everest – in 1953.
But these great achievements are more in mountain bagging and less in backpacking. In fact long distance thru hiking is a relatively modern phenomenon and was first captured in official history in 1948 when Earl Shafer became the first to through hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 124 days, according to the National Geographic 1949 article about his journey.
What Do I Need to Bring?
Now that you know a little history geek information you might be wondering, “What exactly does a person need to through hike?” I mean you can’t exactly bring your home with you. Plus what about a bed? Or a way to cook? I mean, what if it rains; do you need an umbrella?
Here’s a simple list to work from:
- Backpack: There are two trains of thought with backpacks. One is the ‘bushwhacking’ style where you take what you need and then some. The other trend growing in popularity is the ‘ultralight’ style. This group loves to take as little as possible with glossy spreadsheets with each item weighed and measured. Honestly, most folks will fall in the middle. The most important factor is what fits you and feels good. Here are a few favorites of mine:
- Trekking Poles: I was very against trekking poles until I tried them out on my first thru hike. The extra effort in carrying them will save your legs and knees on steep, rocky terrain. They support the weight you carry on your back. Plus, they’re great for impromptu sword fights.
- Tent: When I’m solo backpacking I prefer smaller and lighter solo tents. When the family tags along we find the double sizes work best. Anything larger is cumbersome and best for traditional drive-up campgrounds. Some great tents to try out are:
- Sleeping Bag and Pad: Sleeping bags are important to choose with what type of temperature you will be sleeping in. Sleeping bags have EN temperature ratings to help you choose the level of comfort and protection you’ll need from your bag. Often on warmer summer nights you can simply ‘cowboy camp’ and forgo a tent altogether. A pad is what you lay under the sleeping bag for a more comfortable sleep set up with less rocks.
- Extras: Here are miscellaneous items that can make your thru hike more successful. Not all are necessary but helpful to try out and consider what you would like to pack:
Should I Just Go Naked?
Let us go with a short answer of nope. However there are a few articles of clothing that can make your thru hiking a bit more comfortable:
- Puffy jacket: A good versatile puffy jacket is great on the trail. It can easily be stuffed in a pack when not wearing and very comfortable over layers. When choosing one look at synthetic insulation. These are great for wet conditions with recovery being important.
- Layers: Layering is so important on thru hikes. Since weather changes as you go along, having versatility is key. The three helpful principles of layering are base layer, insulation layers, and outer layer.
- Base layers: These are the bottom layers of your clothing. I recommend looking for wicking materials to keep your body dry such as silk and polyester. Many folks pick shorts but I personally opt for light synthetic hiking pants.
- Insulation layers: These, in essence, are the clothes that will keep you warm. They also will be the first you remove once the day heats up from the morning chill. Materials to look for are fleece or down materials.
- Outer layer: Arguably this top coat can really make or break your thru hike. The goal is protection from wind, rain, and even snow. You really want to look for quick drying, waterproof and durable items. Gore-Tex is my go to product to ensure I stay dry in all elements.
- Socks: Socks are the most underrated article of clothing in the through hiking arsenal. The right sock will prevent horrible blisters, soothe swollen feet and keep you going after many days. The best socks are breathable, have some cushion, are ultra durable and are able to dry quickly. I prefer wool but new technology like compression running socks are great as well.
- Shoes: There are many types of hiking footwear out there. When hitting long distance hikes most hikers pick trail runners over boots. Why? They have rock shield soles yet are so lightweight. Often the toes are wider which help with sore feet after long miles.
What Trails Are Out There To Thru Hike?
I hope by now you are feeling prepared to either tackle your first official thru hike or perhaps discover some that you may not know of yet. Here are some from shorter week long trips to the classic triple crowns of thru hiking:
On the Short Side:
Trans Catalina Trail: This trail is a unique experience complete with Bison. The length is about 54 miles as you go from one coast of Catalina Island to the other. Well marked with great campsites, this is a great thru hike for first timers.
Colorado Trail: This trail is 500 miles through the most gorgeous Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Many hikers will add on a 14er mountain or two when trekking this dreamy mountain filled trail.
Arizona Trail: A trail that is just shy of 800 miles that starts at the Mexican border and ends at the border of Utah and Arizona. This is not some easy desert trek as you will climb over mountain ranges, deep into the Grand Canyon, and through endless washes.
Pacific Crest Trail: This 2,653 mile trek up through California, Oregon, and Washington state is the most attempted thru hike of the Triple Crown trio. With incredible sections such as the John Muir Trail and Goat Rocks, it is easy to see why.
Continental Divide Trail: Mileage on this United States Scenic Trail is 3,100 in total running from Chihuahua to Alberta. It is a difficult trek crossing five states and the Rocky Mountains.
Appalachian Trail: As you recall this is the OG of thru hikes. Running on the east side of the country, the Appalachian Trail is the shortest of the Triple Crown at 2,200 miles.
Thru hiking for me and my family has been life altering. Together we tackled the island hopping Trans Catalina Trail and on my own I was able to thru hike both the Colorado Trail and the Arizona Trail. This year, if it all goes to plan, I obtained a permit to walk from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Coast Trail. I hope to see you on the trails.
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus.