An Introduction to Thru-Hiking

Camping & Hiking expert Reece Kothe explains how to plan extended one-way trips into the great outdoors and what to expect.

Photo by Andrew Neel
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Extended one-way trips into the great outdoors produce experiences that last a lifetime. Fading away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life soothes the soul; it reconnects us with the natural world. The fresh scent of pine or the uninterrupted stillness as we lie in our tents jolts us awake, giving us peace and appreciation for the present moment. It is one thing to spend a day outdoors, but spending weeks on end outside is an entirely different experience. Thru-hiking is capable of producing deep meaning and appreciation for the most important things in our lives.

Embarking on such a journey requires meticulous, logistical planning and mental readiness. It is important to assess all the variables prior to committing to such an experience. Rest assured, if everything aligns, thru-hiking is an incredibly rewarding and valuable endeavor. Listed below are important elements to understand in order to begin your own thru-hiking adventure.

What is thru-hiking?

Thru-hiking consists of hiking from one point and ending your trek at an entirely different point. Varying drastically in length, thru-hiking can be anything from a day hike stretching all the way up to a multi-month adventure.

The Triple Crown

A green mountain view on the Pacific Crest Trail
Photo by Ken Theimer

The most common thru-hikes are the most famous, consisting of the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail spans 2,653 miles from the southernmost point of California all the way up to the northern border of Washington state. The Continental Divide Trail spans nearly 3,100 miles from southern New Mexico to the northern border of Montana. Lastly, the Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia all the way up to Maine. Each of these monstrous thru-hikes cover equally stunning, wild regions of the United States, reigning as the pinnacle of backpacking feats (each one of these treks are not for the faint of heart and should only be attempted by the seasoned backpacker).

Where to Begin: Start Small

The back view of a backpacker on a cloudy day with green forest scenery in the background
Photo by Tristan Pineda

Before setting your sights on one of the thru-hike pinnacles, garner the critical knowledge you need through experience with a shorter option first. Selecting a backpacking trip that might be a four-to-five day thru-hike is a great way to get your feet wet before tackling one of the more iconic trails. Depending on your region, look up potential thru-hiking options in your area and map out a trek to gain some experience. After successful completion of a few shorter thru-hikes, you can then scale into something more involved. Trails such as the Colorado Trail or the John Muir Trail are excellent, shorter options, yet still challenging in their own right.

The Challenge of Time: Opt to Hike in Sections

Oftentimes it may be difficult for someone to put their life on hold for months on end while they are completing one of the longer thru-hikes. Therefore, a lot of people opt to hike the larger thru-hikes in sections. This option allows people to strategically hike sections when they have the time and can eventually piece together the entire trail. This option also allows more difficult sections of the hikes to be focused on and granted ample time that may not have been accommodated otherwise.

Understanding the Logistics

Two backpackers standing alongside a wooden sign for Waterton Canyon Recreation Area, Colorado Trail
Photo by Nikki Mayer

Regardless the length of the thru-hike, each trek still requires excellent planning in advance to ensure a successful and enjoyable adventure. Buying the appropriate gear can be worth its weight in gold, especially on longer, more remote thru-hiking sections. An emphasis on lighter-weight, higher-durability gear is an absolute must. Spending a few hundred dollars more on that ultralight tent will have your back thanking you a week into your hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Likewise, it is equally important to have the necessary gear for varying climates and potential weather conditions. Purchasing the proper footwear is vital. Lighter-weight trail shoes are popular options when thru-hiking. Bear in mind that over the course of one of the larger thru-hikes, several pairs of footwear may be necessary in order to maintain proper fitness. Special gear considerations would include a high-function handheld GPS, multiple water filtration devices, and potentially a satellite phone for peace of mind.

After you feel confident with the gear you have selected, it is important to focus on the necessary permits and logistical supply points you will need to sustain your journey in a comfortable, healthy way. This can consist of orchestrating the needed transportation and coordination with outside parties (friends or family) who can help you with the critical resupplying efforts.

Physical and Mental Challenges

A wooden arrow sign in a blizzard in the mountains
Photo by Jens Johnsson

Thru-hiking is not only a physical feat but also, and even more so, a mental one. Readying your mind and body for the endless miles and isolation is key to enjoying a thru-hike weeks in. Training your body ahead of time to ensure that your body is fit and able can prevent injury and make the journey less of a physical strain. Just as importantly, preparing the mind for the long trek in front of you can make your experience incredibly transformative, rather than something that becomes merely a chore. Thru-hikes are not only great opportunities to experience Mother Nature in a raw, unedited way, but they also offer a tremendous self-discovery opportunity. If harnessed correctly via the proper mental readiness, thru-hikes can be life-changing events that you will look back on fondly for the rest of your life.

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Written By
My love for the outdoors has produced many adventures. By the age of 16, I successfully summited all of Colorado's 14ers. I have also completed the Colorado Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. I continue to explore Montana and the Bozeman area through hiking, backpacking and climbing. Through my time in...

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