What Is Thru-Hiking?

Thru-hiking: Two thru-hikers on a difficult mountain trail

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Thru-hiking is all about epic journeys, breathtaking scenery, and connecting with nature on a whole new level. It’s an unforgettable adventure into the wild, pushing your limits across vast distances while carrying life on your back.

In this post, we’ll explore what is thru-hiking and uncover everything you need to know about this go-to adventure for outdoor enthusiasts. Let’s go.

What Is Thru-Hiking?

Thru-hiking is an epic adventure—it’s a really long hike, often spanning hundreds or thousands of miles in one go, from start to finish. Unlike shorter backpacking trips of a few days to weeks, thru-hiking is more intense and extreme.

Thru-hiking isn’t just a physical challenge; it’s a mental and emotional odyssey. It’s about pushing your boundaries, finding your inner strength, and embracing the unknown. It’s a test of endurance, resilience, and determination.

Thru-hiking, began in the 1920s with the construction of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Pioneers like Emma Gatewood and Earl Shaffer were among the first to complete it. The trend grew in the 1930s with the completion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), coinciding with advancements in lighter and more accessible outdoor gear.

Challenges of Thru-Hiking

Thru-hiking offers great benefits like clarity, perspective, and a fresh appreciation for the simple things. However, it also comes with significant challenges:

  • Mental Challenges: Solitude on the trail can lead to moments of doubt, but remember, these are natural and temporary. Embrace the opportunity for self-discovery and never quit on a bad day.
  • Physical Challenges: Covering thousands of miles on trails like the A.T. and PCT demands a lot from your body. Blisters, injuries, and ailments are common. Adequate training and preparation are vital.
  • Financial Challenges: Going on a thru-hike means leaving your job and income behind for several months. While you won’t spend much on transportation and lodging, budgeting for gear and food is crucial. The key to tackling the financial challenge is thorough research and planning.

Gear for Thru-Hiking

Two thru-hikers on a mountain trail

Choosing the right lightweight, durable gear for your thru-hike is crucial to minimize pack weight and stand up to months of rugged use. Here’s a breakdown of key considerations:

Backpack: Look for a light internal frame pack around 40-60L capacity. The hip belt and harness should transfer weight to hips and legs.

Popular backpack options loved by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 50L1lb 4.7 oz (589)
Six Moon Designs Swift V Rucksack2lb 0.1 oz (910)
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 551lb 15.6 oz (896)

Shelter: Opt for a lightweight trekking pole tent (1-2 lbs) for versatility. Other ultralight options include tarps and hammock systems with bug nets and rain flies.

Popular shelter options well-liked by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Zpacks Plex Solo Tent13.93 oz (395)
Durston X-Mid Pro 11lb 1.6oz (499)
3F UL Gear Lanshan 1 Pro1lb 12.2 oz (800)

Sleeping Bag: Lightweight and easy to compress sleeping bags or quilts with some weatherproof features are perfect for thru-hikers.

Popular sleeping bag options most favored by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Thermarest Hyperion 20F/-6C1lb 3.6 oz (566)
Sea to Summit Spark Ultralight1lb 10 oz (745)
Sierra Designs Get Down 20°2lb (930)

Sleeping Pad: Inflatable or foam pad with an R-value of at least 3 for adequate insulation and comfort.

Popular sleeping pad options loved by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Nemo Tensor Regular Mummy Sleeping Mat15.2 oz (431)
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT17.28 oz (490)
Thermarest NeoAir XLite NXT13.05 oz (370)

Clothing: Wear breathable shirts, base layers, insulating jackets, waterproof rain layers, gloves, and a hat. Opt for fabrics that dry quickly and wick away moisture.

Footwear: Trail runners or hiking boots with rugged outsoles, stability, and ample toe room. Break them in well ahead of time. Bring 2 pairs and plenty of socks.

Popular lightweight footwear options loved by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelMen / Women
Saucony Ride 15 TRMen
Salomon Ultra Glide 2Men
Nike Pegasus Trail 4Men
Salomon Ultra Glide 2Women
Adidas Terrex Agravic UltraWomen
Asics Gel Excite Trail 2Women

Cooking Gear: A lightweight backpacking stove, cookware, and utensils are essential for preparing meals on the trail. Consider a fuel-efficient stove to save weight.

Popular stove options embraced by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Vargo Titanium Triad Multi-Fuel Stove0.85 oz (24)
BRS OUTDOOR BRS-3000T0.92 oz (26)
Snow Peak LiteMax Stove1.97 oz (56)

Navigation: Bring maps, a compass, and, if necessary, a GPS device to stay on track. We highly recommend using a personal locator beacon or a satellite messenger for added peace of mind.

Popular satellite messenger options liked by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Garmin inReach Mini 23.53 oz (100)
Zoleo Satellite Communicator5.29 oz (150)
SPOT Gen45 oz (142)

Water Treatment: Ensure access to clean water by carrying a water filter or purification system. Reliable hydration is crucial. Make sure to understand the difference between filtering water and purifying water.

Popular water filter options favored by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Sawyer MINI Water Filtration System1.51 oz (43)
HydroBlu Versa Flow Lightweight Water Filter1.90 oz (54)
LifeStraw Peak Series Personal Water Filter Straw2.39 oz (68)

Food Storage: Safely store food to prevent wildlife encounters. Bear canisters or bear bags are often required in certain areas, especially in North America.

Popular food storage options beloved by thru-hikers include:

Brand / ModelWeight (g)
Zpacks Large Food Bag1.5 oz (43g)
BearVault BV500 Journey2lb 8 oz (1133)
UrSack Major 2XL Bear-Proof Bag10.9 oz (309)

Also remember to pack trekking poles, a power bank, headlamp, multitool, first-aid kit, knife, cordage, camp towel, sunglasses, gaiters, and other essentials.

Remember, every ounce counts on a thru-hike, so prioritize lightweight, high-quality gear. Test your equipment before hitting the trail to ensure it suits your needs and preferences.

How to Plan for a Thru-Hike

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, United States during sunset

Completing a thru-hike requires extensive planning well in advance of your start date. Here are some key aspects to research and prepare:

  1. Pick your trail, starting point, and direction. Get maps and check permit requirements.
  2. Create a gear list. Try it out on short trips to make improvements. Plan time and budget to get the needed equipment.
  3. Set your daily mileage goal. Plan resupply points for food/fuel. Don’t carry unnecessary weight. Consider terrain, fitness, and pace.
  4. Prepare an itinerary and schedule. Decide where to stay in towns for lodging, laundry, shower access. Allow buffer days.
  5. Budget costs for all gear, shipping supplies, town stops, permits, etc. Have emergency savings backup.
  6. Obtain permits if needed far in advance. Reserve campsites or lodging in certain areas if required.
  7. Connect with other hikers online to share advice. Join forums and groups to find community support.

Thru-Hiking Tips for First-Timers

Embarking on your first thru-hiking adventure can be exhilarating and challenging. Here are key tips to help you make the most of your journey:

  • Safety First: Learn wilderness first aid and carry a well-stocked first aid kit with an emergency blanket. Share your plans with someone and check in regularly.
  • Start Slow: Don’t rush your hike; take time to build your endurance gradually. Many hikers start with lower daily mileage and build from there.
  • Hydration is Key: Stay hydrated by carrying enough water or knowing where the next source is. Use a water filtration system and bring electrolytes.
  • Foot Care: Your feet are your most valuable asset. Invest in quality, well-fitting footwear and take care of your feet daily. Blisters can be your worst enemy.
  • Mental Toughness: Thru-hiking is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Stay positive, and remember that setbacks are part of the experience.
  • Leave No Trace: Follow Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Pack out all trash, and bury human waste properly.

Epic Thru-Hikes

The Great Himalaya Trail

Stuck on where to go for your next thru-hike? No problem! There are many stunning trails worldwide, famous for fantastic thru-hiking adventures:

  1. New ZealandTe Arora Trail – A 1,864-mile (3000 km) trail in New Zealand spans from the North Island’s northern tip to the South Island’s southern tip, highlighting diverse landscapes and cultural heritage.
  2. Spain and France Camino de Santiago – Is a 500-mile (800 km) pilgrimage route leading to Santiago de Compostela. It’s a historic and spiritually significant trail, attracting pilgrims worldwide for self-discovery and reflection.
  3. England, France and Italy Via Francigena – A famous pilgrimage route, spanning about 1,200 miles (1,900 km), connects Canterbury in England to Rome in Italy. This ancient trail provides diverse landscapes and culture.
  4. ItalyGrand Italian Trail – Is a vast 6,166-mile (9926 km) hiking network in Italy, covering diverse landscapes from the Alps to the Mediterranean. It’s a great choice for hikers seeking an extensive exploration of Italy’s natural beauty.
  5. NepalGreat Himalaya Trail – Is a respected long-distance route in the Himalayas, covering around 1,600 miles (2575 km). It offers a remarkable journey through some of the world’s most awe-inspiring mountain landscapes.

Epic North American Thru-Hikes

There are various long-distance trails to choose from, each with its own unique character and challenges. Consider these iconic options:

  1. The Appalachian Trail (A.T.), a 2,100-mile journey from Georgia to Maine, offers rugged beauty and a tight-knit hiking community.
  2. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans over 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada, taking you through the stunning Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges.
  3. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) meanders for more than 3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains’ crest, though it’s not for the faint of heart.

But wait, there’s more. There are variations, too:

  • Opt for a shorter trail, like the Superior Hiking Trail, which meanders more than 300 miles along Minnesota’s Lake Superior shoreline.
  • Embark on a section hike, like the spectacular 211-mile John Muir Trail, a stretch of the PCT.

Also consider the “flip-flop” approach, where you’ll hike the full trail in non-sequential sections, avoiding the crowds and tricky weather.

Final Thoughts

Thru-hiking is all about epic journeys, breathtaking scenery, and connecting with nature on a whole new level.

In this post, we’ve explored legendary trails around the world and uncovered why thru-hiking is the go-to adventure for serious outdoor enthusiasts.

We’ve explored challenges, covering mental, physical, and financial aspects. You’ve gained insights into planning, essential gear, and valuable tips.

Whether you’re beginning a thru-hiking journey or thinking about your next long-distance trail, always remember to have fun outdoors and appreciate what modern backpacking gear lets us accomplish.

FAQ

What is the meaning of thru-hike?

A thru-hike, short for “through-hike,” is a long-distance hike along a continuous trail that spans hundreds or even thousands of miles, typically from one end to the other. Thru-hiking involves covering substantial distances daily, usually ranging from 10 to 30 miles (16 to 48 kilometers) per day, depending on the trail’s terrain and elevation changes. It’s an epic journey that requires significant physical fitness, mental resilience, and careful planning. The goal is to complete the entire trail within a single hiking season, connecting with nature and experiencing the adventure of a lifetime along the way.

How hard is thru-hiking?

hru-hiking involves covering substantial distances daily, often ranging from 10 to 30 miles (16 to 48 kilometers) per day, depending on the terrain, elevation, and individual hiker’s pace. This requires a good level of physical fitness, including cardiovascular endurance, leg strength, and stamina. It’s important to progressively build up your endurance through training hikes, focusing on both distance and varied terrains. Flexibility and core strength are also beneficial to prevent injuries.

How long on average does it take to hike the Appalachian Trail?

The whole Appalachian Trail is about 2,190 miles long. It usually takes most through-hikers between 5 to 7 months to finish the entire distance. On average, hikers cover around 15 to 20 miles per day, but this can vary a lot based on the terrain, weather, injuries, and personal fitness level. Some faster hikers might finish the trail in 4 or 5 months, while others take a more relaxed pace over 6 to 7 months. Taking breaks from hiking along the way can also make it take longer. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy thinks that only about 1 in 4 people who start the trail from Georgia to Maine actually complete the whole journey. However, with the right preparation and pace, an Appalachian Trail thru-hike is a reachable goal for most backpackers.

Can you set up camp anywhere on the Appalachian Trail?

While the Appalachian Trail offers beautiful scenery for camping, there are some restrictions on where you can set up camp along the trail. Generally, camping is only permitted at designated campsites or shelters spaced at regular intervals along the trail. Camping is not allowed at just any random spot in order to protect the natural environment and avoid overcrowding. Backcountry camping away from shelters may be allowed in certain areas, but requires a permit. Overall, responsible camping at designated sites is encouraged for all hikers to ensure the sustainability of the trail.

How long on average does it take to hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) stretches 2,650 miles from the California-Mexico border to the Washington-Canada border, passing through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Thru-hikers aim to complete the entire PCT in one season, usually from April to September. Most hikers take about 5 to 6 months for the journey, covering approximately 20 miles per day. However, some faster hikers finish the PCT in less than 4 months, while others take up to 7 months. The terrain and weather change a lot along the route, from hot, dry Southern California deserts to cold, snowy northern Cascade mountains. Hiking the whole PCT requires careful preparation, training, logistics, and pacing.

Can you set up camp anywhere on the Pacific Crest Trail?

Camping along the Pacific Crest Trail has some rules to protect the environment. You can only camp in specific sites and areas, not wherever you want. Backpackers spending the night must camp close to water sources, trails, and shelters. In National Parks and certain wilderness areas, you might need permits for backcountry camping, and campfires might be not allowed. Even though the stunning views might make you want to camp anywhere, the PCT’s remote location means you have to stick to the rules and camp in designated areas. This ensures that the natural beauty stays untouched for everyone to enjoy. With good planning, there are plenty of campsites along the trail to pick from.

How long on average does it take to hike the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail is approximately 3,100 miles long, traversing the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada. Thru-hikers typically take around 5 to 6 months to complete the entire Continental Divide Trail. Hiking roughly 20 miles per day, the journey can be completed in as few as 4 months for the speediest hikers. However, many take 6 or 7 months due to challenging terrain, weather, injuries, or a more leisurely pace. Proper physical training, planning, and self-sufficiency are vital since the Continental Divide Trail is more remote than other long trails. With determination and perseverance, an end-to-end hike of the Continental Divide Trail is an epic yet grueling accomplishment.

Can you set up camp anywhere on the Continental Divide Trail?

Backpackers on the Continental Divide Trail can’t just camp anywhere they want. Camping is only allowed in specific areas, and you might need permits for camping in certain wilderness areas, parks, and public lands. The Continental Divide Trail covers different terrains across 3 states, each with its own rules. Even though the trail has beautiful spots for camping, it’s important to camp responsibly to protect the environment and trail resources. Minimizing campfires, avoiding tree damage, not disturbing wildlife, and reducing pollution are essential. With good planning, there are plenty of designated campsites for thru-hikers to enjoy the stunning landscapes of the Continental Divide Trail while keeping the areas clean and untouched.

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