If you’ve taken a recent interest in hiking and backpacking, you may have seen the term “thru-hiking” used before. Thru-hikes are a subcategory of backpacking – long-distance backpacking trips that cover hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Get the low-down on Thru-hiking and consider what it would be like to tackle one below!
So, what is thru-hiking, anyway?
Thru-hiking is one of the few backpacking terms that is easy to define: a thru-hike is a hike on a long distance trail, typically going further than 80 miles and taking more than 6 nights. Most often, thru-hiking is used when talking about people who hike trails that are hundreds or thousands of miles long, such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail.
The basic definition is backpacking, but longer. More miles, more nights, more difficult. The backpacking skills are the same, but it gets more complex with every added day. That means there is more to learn, even though it’s not that different from a shorter backpacking trip.
How do thru-hikers get food and supplies?
In the US, the three major thru-hiking trails keep you close enough to civilization that you can usually leave the trail, buy new food and get stuff delivered to you at resupply points. There are many places that cater specifically to the needs of thru-hikers, so resupply and recuperation are relatively easy to plan.
Can you come back home in the middle of a Thru-hike?
Yes you can, and it isn’t considered cheating. Thru-hikers are human beings, who have to come home for summer weddings, family emergencies, and sometimes just to rest. You can plan to come home for a week or two in the middle of your thru-hike and then pick up where you left off; nobody’s going to judge you.
Is thru-hiking harder than backpacking?
Oh yeah. A lot harder. Just the same as the NBA season is a lot harder than the NCAA basketball season, thru-hiking is harder than backpacking. Because thru-hikes can last weeks, months, even years if you’ve got the money, your body has to be durable.
The likelihood of you getting injured or becoming burned out goes way up when you’re thru-hiking. Whereas you can probably make it through one backpacking trip without getting hurt, there’s no guarantee your ankles and knees won’t be shot after doing the entire Appalachian Trail. This means training for thru-hiking is also a lot harder, and takes a lot longer, than training for a backpacking trip.
Considerations before you commit to a thru-hiking trip
Thru-hiking is difficult. Like, to the point that many thru-hikers have to go home early from injury or exhaustion. It’s also expensive, time-consuming, and mentally daunting. Before you decide on joining a thru-hike, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have the ability to take 2-5 months off work or school?
- Do I have enough money to sustain myself through a couple of delays, setbacks, and emergencies?
- Am I comfortable meeting new people?
- Am I in appropriate physical condition? Do I have any joint, bone, or muscle problems that may make thru-hiking unsafe for me?
- Am I comfortable going solo on a thru-hike? If not, who will join me?
What about section hiking?
Section hiking is intimately related to thru-hiking, because they often take place on the same trails, but they aren’t exactly the same. End-to-end hikes mean that you do the entire length of the trail consecutively, with minimal breaks.
Section hikes, on the other hand, take each piece of the trail one at a time. You can do each section one right after the other, or you can wait a month or a year between each section hike. Either way, section hiking makes it easier to complete the entirety of a long trail, because it gives you wiggle room to deal with personal matters, health issues, weather constraints, and trail closures.
Popular thru-hiking trails in the US
This is the one that started it all. The 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail was born in 1921 and completed in 1927 and has captured the imagination and desire of millions. The trail begins in Appalachian Georgia and finds it end in Maine (Mount Katahdin pictured above), covering 14 states and more than 500,000 feet of total elevation gain.
It’s a grueling trail that puts all the wonders of the Appalachians on full display. It typically takes about 3 months to complete, and can be done going NoBo (northbound) and SoBo (southbound). Most thru-hikers on the AT hike NoBo, because it’s easier to fit a NoBo hike into the traditional school calendar.
Pacific Crest Trail
The PCT is the west-coast version of the Appalachian Trail, covering 2,650 miles and crossing through 7 different National Parks. Starting in California at the US border with Mexico and finishing in Washington at the Canadian border, the Pacific Crest Trail is incredibly scenic, meandering through the Sierras, Cascades, and more.
Continental Divide Trail
The least accessible and least thru-hiked of the 2,000-mile-plus trails, the Continental Divide Trail is the ultimate test, full of physical challenges that you can’t find anywhere else and mental challenges that you’ll love conquering.
Stretching 3,100 miles through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, the CDT is a mountain lover’s dream thru-hike. You’ll walk through Rocky Mountain, Glacier, and Yellowstone, as well as over a dozen national forests and recreation areas.
The Wonderland Trail is a 100-mile loop that surrounds Mount Rainier National Park. It takes about 10 days to complete for most people and is one of the best places to experience thru-hiking for the first time. If you love the thought of seeing snow-covered peaks, mountain meadows, and a massive volcano from all sides, this is the trail for you.
Vermont Long Trail
Not nearly as popular as any of the other trails, the Vermont Long Trail still has a ton to offer over its 272 miles. It’s a perfect practice hike for a long-distance trail like the AT and PCT, letting you get in shape and perfect your thru-hiking skills over a couple of weeks.
John Muir Trail
This 210-mile trail is named after the famed conservationist and early California settler. It roams through the Sierras and contains some of the absolute best views that California has to offer. Many of the John Muir Trail’s miles are actually shared with the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s an experience all its own.
There is no set number of miles you have to cover to call something thru-hiking, but most thru-hiking trails are at least 80 miles long. On top of that, “thru-hiking” often refers specifically to the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails, each of which are over 2,000 miles long.
End-to-end hikes of entire trails are called through hikes simply because you go “through” them; you start on one end and finish on another, usually taking a plane or bus to get back home. Also, a lot of the time, backpacking trips take place on out-and-back or loop trails, hence the new term.
Yes – but not without a lot of planning and some good trail buddies. Physical fitness is a concern, but as long as you manage a healthy number of miles to start without getting injured, you will get fitter and faster as you go.
Beginners can typically handle 10-12 miles per day, and will gradually get faster. Those who are in great shape can manage up to 35 miles in a single day, and some thru-hikers will reach that speed by the time they finish. Of course weather, elevation, and terrain mean that even the best hikers will sometimes only manage a few miles on a given day.
Not really – all the needed gear for backpacking, you need for thru-hiking. There are some extra things you’ll need on a thru-hike like resupply boxes, but as long as you’ve got backpacking gear, you’re pretty much good to go.
It’s pretty much the same as the difference between backpacking and hiking; one is shorter, the other is longer. Thru-hiking also requires more money, more time, and more fitness to engage in, while backpacking is a lot more accessible for most people.
As safe as it can be. Injuries, medical emergencies, and other events can pose a risk to your health, but most thru-hikers are totally safe from beginning to end. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious – it’s only as safe as you make it. Backpacking is very safe, and so is thru-hiking, but not if you aren’t taking safety seriously!