The weather forecast is perfect. Not too hot or too cold; a light breeze with fluffy clouds framing views all around you. You have a reasonably sized backpack, a water bottle, perhaps a snack or two for those hangry pains and a few hours to experience some wilderness. Relatively clean, you make your way to the trailhead to climb a mountain, trek through a forest to discover or simply meander by a peaceful, bubbly stream.
When you are a mile or two into your hike you stop to take in the view. That is when you notice a person up ahead of you; slightly hidden by a birch tree or two. They have a heavy pack, a trekking pole or two that they are presently leaning on, and you can clearly see the markings of caked-on dirt and thick dust along their bare legs.
Are they lost? – you ponder to yourself. Are they camping? Why would they be in such need of a shower and with that hungry look about them? I mean you are on a day hike but how many days have they been hiking?
As you exchange pleasantries with your new trail buddy you hear for the first time a collection of words you do not quite understand – ‘thru-hiking.’ Is that camping? Or backpacking? This lonely yet somewhat truly happy hiker is thru-hiking they inform you again. While you roll the words along your tongue – you inevitably part ways. As your paths disperse and you return to your car to head home, the encounter leaves you slightly baffled. Thru-hiking.
What in the world is thru-hiking?
You may have heard the term ‘backpacking’ before. Perhaps camping is a more common vernacular. Both may have some concept of what they are and what they look like to you. Is thru-hiking just another way of saying camping or backpacking? Yes and no. Many ways yes, they are similar but in some ways, distinctively no.
The term ‘thru-hiking’ is most commonly associated with the epic hikes of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). All three of those hikes are over 2,000 miles in totality and span pretty much the entire United States of America, north to south.
These long hikes take anywhere from 4-6 months to complete from start to finish. That is days and days on end hiking miles and miles with all your food, water and temporary home strapped to your back. Logistics like restocking supplies such as food and water and maintaining hygiene, at somewhat lower standards, are often overwhelming and take months to plan out prior to ever stepping on a trail.
Here are some distinctions that make a long hike a thru-hike
- Thru-hiking focuses on long distances and high daily mileages. Backpacking usually spans a weekend or week-long trip. Less miles a day and less days in total.
- Thru-hiking typically starts at one location and hikes through a section to different ending points. Hence the name ‘thru’. Camping often is an out and back. Where you start and end at the same location.
- Thru-hiking is defined as being completed within a 12 month period. Lifetime hiking is a thing all of their own. Lifetime hiking is a thing right? Asking for a friend.
- A thru-hiker typically carries lightweight gear and minimizes what they choose to carry. Less gear = more ability to hike farther and longer. But less gear also = less comfort with tent size and other necessities.
The PCT, AT and CDT are often referred to as the ‘Triple Crown’ trails of thru-hiking. These three journeys are massive and incredible athletic feats that test your physical and mental strength. But as gorgeous as they are, they are not the only beautiful long trails you can test your thru-hiking legs on.
Some of my favorite, not quite as long thru-hikes in North America
- Colorado Trail: An epically gorgeous long-distance trail running for 486 miles to 500 miles depending on which route you choose. Typically starting from the mouth of Waterton Canyon near Denver and ending in Durango, Colorado. The official highest point on the trail is 13,271 feet above sea level, and most of the trail is above 10,000 feet.
- The Long Trail: Known as Vermont’s “footpath in the wilderness”, the Long Trail System is a 272-mile footpath, with 166 miles of side trails to explore. This thru-hike follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont state line to the Canadian border, crossing Vermont’s highest peaks.
- John Muir Trail: Located in the inspiring Sierras, the JMT is 210 miles in length, starting from Yosemite National Park and ending in Kings Canyon National Park. The arguably most amazing part of this trail is getting to climb the highest mountain in the continental United States – Mount Whitney. With climbing nearly 46,000 feet of elevation, this trail is not for the faint of heart.
- Arizona Trail: Properly known as The Arizona National Scenic Trail, this 800 mile trail traverses the whole north–south length of Arizona. Beginning at the Coronado National Memorial near the US–Mexico border you hike north through parts of the Huachuca, Santa Rita, and Rincon Mountains ending at the Arizona-Utah border in the Kaibab Plateau region. Since it is a desert hike, this hike is best to be tackled October-November and March-April.
- Superior Hiking Trail: Also known as the SHT, this lovely trek is a 310-mile long hiking trail in northeastern Minnesota that follows the rocky ridges overlooking Lake Superior for most of its length. In contrast to most long thru-hikes, this trail is mostly in the shadows of birch trees, aspen trees, and cedar trees.
Those are just a handful of all the lovely thru-hikes North America has to offer. Thru-hiking is not just limited to North America; you can thru-hike all over the world! International thru-hikes include: Wales Coast Path, Patagonia, Kungsleden, Great Himalayas Trail, Te Araroa Trail and so, so many more!
At the end of the day, and end of this article, does using the term thru-hiker, day hiker, section hiker, or backpacking really matter?
No. No, not at all.
Call your adventure whatever suits you. The most important factor of all outdoor adventures is that you are outdoors and enjoying the beauty of nature. Please remember when in nature to practice Leave No Trace principles to protect the wildlife for future generations.
So whatever sub category of exploring you fall into – adventure awaits!
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