What is a Thru-Hike?

The classification of hikers may confuse those new to backpacking or unfamiliar with navigating hiking trails through the backcountry. Enthusiasts often speak of day hikes, section hikers, and thru-hikes. Long-distance hikers make the backcountry sound like a wonderland when they regale listeners with tales of trail magic and trail angels. Sure, these aren’t as complicated as more technical terms to describe hiking and camping gear, but their meaning isn’t immediately apparent and novice backpackers shouldn’t feel discouraged for not knowing what long-distance backpackers are talking about when they speak about thru-hiking in the backcountry or their Triple Crown Award

Thru-hiking,” like the rest of the expressions just described, may mislead those who aren’t sure of its meaning already. Day hiking doesn’t mean backpackers are only hiking in daylight, necessarily, but rather that they don’t intend to camp anywhere on that particular excursion. In a very similar way, thru-hiking doesn’t mean that backpackers are traversing a particular forest or region, but rather that they are tackling all of a long-distance trail. A long trail isn’t one that backpackers might tackle in a day or even a week. Long-distance, in this case, means the really long-distance trails. In the United States, that means the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the relatively new Continental Divide Trail (CDT), or, on the shorter end of the long-distance spectrum, the John Muir Trail (JMT).


Woman walking on a dirt path in a field.

The Pacific Crest Trail and the CDT are long-distance trails that offer thru-hikers some of the best backcountry views in the United States.


Of these trails, the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail comprise the long-distance hiking trails that, once tackled, entitle the successful thru-hikers to claim the Triple Crown Award from the American Long-Distance Hiking Association – West. The Triple Crown is one of the most distinguished decorations for backpacking enthusiasts simply because thru-hiking these long-distance trails is so incredibly difficult. Backpacking hobbyists can probably imagine the difficulty of continuing their last strenuous backcountry hike for the whopping five or six months of long-distance hiking it takes thru-hikers to conquer each of the Triple Crown hiking trails, or even the comparatively shorter but still lengthy three weeks a backpacker must dedicate to thru-hiking the John Muir Trail.

Long-distance thru-hiking takes a massive amount of time, energy, and investment both physical and emotional. The payoff is huge; not only can dedicated thru-hikers win laurels like the Triple Crown, but the personal sense of accomplishment and inner peace one can create by thru-hiking just one of these trails is life-altering and permanent. That being said, thru-hiking is rife with difficulties and considerations that begin long before backpackers hit the trailhead. Along one of these long-distance trails, thru-hikers’ mettle will be put to the test in a variety of ways and it is essential to properly reflect on all of them before a serious thru-hiking attempt. Read on to find out how long-distance backpacking will challenge you, surprise you, and reward you, and how you can make sure to reach the end of a mammoth thru-hiking trek.


Making an effective thru-hiking plan

At the very beginning stages of a strategy to tackle a long-distance trail, it isn’t yet necessary to nail down absolute specifics like a gear list, a daily mileage goal, or resupply points where you’ll stop to rest and replenish perishables while you’re thru-hiking. Starting with research on online forums, hiking guides, and sample gear lists will give a solid basis for the rest of the planning a bit further on. It’s really never to soon to begin training for long-distance thru-hikes and the absolute best training you can do is to go on a shorter day hike whenever you possibly can with a rucksack and gear similar to what you plan to take thru-hiking. As your final gear list materializes, you can start to emulate your thru-hiking pack and start to get used to the exact weight you’ll have with you on the long trail.

If you plan on trying to tackle the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail by yourself, there are some additional mental stresses you’ll encounter. Whether you’re intentionally planning on solo thru-hiking for extended moments of solitude or not, you can bet you’re going to spend most of your time in the backcountry alone. Backpackers who aren’t used to such a situation can prepare by studying any of the various meditation or self-reflection philosophies out there. 

Even though the days are usually busy with physical tasks while you’re thru-hiking, at night and during rest stops there will be lots of time to think. Backpackers might also consider reading just about whatever they can get their hands on that interests them and contains new information. Learning how to keep a trail journal will ensure that the quotidian details of your thru-hiking journey are available to others and to yourself as you forget them over time.


Man laying outside next to a fire during sunset.

Solo thru-hiking can be edifying for long-distance backpackers who can hike their own hike.


Hike your own hike

Before we go on, there’s an adage frequently heard on the Pacific Crest Trail, “Hike your own hike,” that will save wannabe thru-hiking champions a lot of strife in the initial stages of their long-distance backcountry backpacking trip. There are many interpretations of “hike your own hike” depending on the nature of the backpacker who says it. Some say “hike your own hike” means don’t try to copy other thru-hikers regardless of how successful their long-distance trail traversal was. From the opposite perspective, some say backpackers shouldn’t try to tell others how to go about completing their own hike. 

A third explanation indicates that thru-hikers shouldn’t be self-conscious about the goals they set for themselves. Perhaps you aren’t the kind of thru-hiker that is overly concerned with daily mileage goals or maybe you flip flop between how frequent or infrequent your resupply stops should be. Maybe you aren’t even worried about reaching the official end of your long-distance trail when you go thru-hiking. Whatever the case may be, HYOH means you should feel free to aim for whatever purpose you want when you go thru-hiking. 

If you aren’t thru-hiking solo, don’t let the group influence your goals too much. Even teams of two thru-hikers can sometimes have conflicts or different strength levels and hiking abilities, so always make sure everyone has enough of their own gear to go as far as they personally wish to make it on the long-distance trail. In the end, it’s your thru-hiking experience and the only way to give these challenging long-distance trails their due is to hike your own hike.


Thru-hiking during hiking season

As you can imagine, thru-hikers have seasonal preferences that align with those of the majority of backpackers who go on shorter day hikes. On the Triple Crown long-distance trails, it’s particularly important to leave at the right time because the weather can make some of the sections impassable or, in the case of the Appalachian Trail, a critical part of the most difficult New England Section isn’t open year-round. Mt. Katahdin is the tallest point in the United States state of Maine and serves as the beginning point for southbound thru-hikers and the finale of the Appalachian Trail for northbound, or NoBo, thru-hikers who start the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. 

Since hiking conditions on these long-distance trails can already be challenging in good weather, it’s important to take stock of your own physical strength and hiking ability so you can decide the part of the hiking season in which you want to reach a certain section of the long trail. In the case of the Appalachian Trail, the White Mountains in Maine are the most difficult. Some people start in Maine and tackle this difficult section first. They would be the most experienced thru-hikers, as less adept thru-hikers usually give up or, in the worst cases, get injured when they start in Maine and hike southbound to Georgia.

When you start to draft your gear list, you’ll want to know more or less when and where you want to start your thru-hiking excursion and what kinds of conditions you’re going to face along the way. If you can accomplish the whole long-distance trail within 5 or 6 months and avoid the cold weather and icy conditions, that means you can also leave behind a ton of additional winter equipment like thicker sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Keeping your rucksack is really critical when you’re thru-hiking because any extra weight is going to weigh on you much more than on a day hike because you’re going to be carrying it on your back for a long time as you’re thru-hiking in the backcountry.


A person jumping on a rock.

The ALDHA-West has only given 396 thru-hikers the lauded Triple Crown award since 1993 as of 2018.


Daily mileage on a thru-hiking journey

Even if your greatest concern isn’t racking up high daily mileage numbers out on the long trail, it is important to keep some kind of goal in mind because the only way to keep to any sort of a timetable and make sure you aren’t still out thru-hiking in the beginning of winter is to make sure you’re reaching critical locations in time. Resupply points, which are usually towns or shops near the long-distance trail (but not on it, don’t worry), are great for receiving postcards or care packages while you’re thru-hiking, but you don’t want to have family and friends sending you additional supplies or correspondence to a town before or after you’ve crossed through it. Distance hikers won’t want to be caught out in the backcountry days before a planned resupply without enough food to reach the resupply point. The best way to solve this problem is to set a daily mileage goal and stick to it as best as you can. 


Thru-hiker’s gear lists

Getting your gear list down is going to be much easier if you’re already a seasoned hiker. So much the better for your thru-hiking excursion if you already know the ins-and-outs of ultralight backpacking because you’re really going to want to shave off every ounce you can. Many wannabe thru-hikers experience shake-down in the early stages of their first thru-hiking attempt. “Shake-down” is the name distance hikers give to the shedding of gear that thru-hikers brought with them before they left and before they got out on the long-distance trail and realized just how heavy their rucksack was. When they realize they can’t carry as much as they brought with them, they shed it, and that’s called shake-down. 

Thru-hikers will need all the normal equipment you’d expect for a day hike, plus many other pieces of hiking gear that will come in handy over 5 or 6 months on the long trail. The sleeping bag and sleeping pad are probably no-brainers, but so are proper hiking boots that are capable of preventing blisters and protecting your feet while you’re thru-hiking. The most critical part of the gear list is the food you’ll have with you. There are chances along the long-distance trails in the United States to stop and resupply and have a rest or potentially even a meal at a restaurant, but the in-between sections of the long trail will test how well thru-hikers can portion the food they have with them.


Trail magic and trail angels

One of the most unique aspects of thru-hiking compared to day hikes or hiking in a national park are the people who live in the towns crossed by long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail and want to help thru-hikers on their way. Thru-hikers call these people trail angels, and the help they give is called trail magic. It can come in many forms. Some trail angels offer a place indoors to rest or shower. Others give thru-hikers money, or treat them to a meal, or even render professional services like cutting hair or small dental procedures for free. Trail magic can also be a complete chance, like finding exactly the tool or medicine you need in one of the trailside boxes you pass by. Any thru-hiker can be an unintentional trail angel for someone else if they have spare equipment or food at the end of their thru-hiking or close enough to a resupply point that they can spare something.

It’s not wise to depend on trail angels or trail magic when you’re planning your gear list or resupply schedule, but they do tend to help fairly frequently. The Pacific Crest Trail publishes guidelines governing the behavior of trail angels along the PCT to preserve the solitude and quiet atmosphere of the PCT, so you won’t be accosted by a trail angel desperate to help, but you may find a little trail magic in the form of a free meal or a place to stay in town. It will raise your spirits and give you a convenient place to clean everything up if you can find a trail angel willing to let you crash on the couch for a night or two.


Leave no trace when thru-hiking

Thru-hikers are often traversing some of the most pristine and naturally beautiful areas of the United States backcountry, which is why adhering to the Leave No Trace guidelines is so critical for long-distance backpackers. You can generate a lot of refuse in 5 to 6 months so you’d better start doing the research now to get the proper disposal know-how in time. Other leave no trace guidelines like planning ahead, campsite selection, and not disturbing other thru-hikers are all common sense for experienced hikers but are not necessarily so well known to more novice-level hikers. It’s always good to review the guidelines so you can go out in the backcountry and return knowing you’ve left no trace behind. 


Person standing on a mountain wearing a backpack.

Thru-hikers should take care to leave no trace so other backpackers can experience the same natural beauty on their own hike through the backcountry.


Final Verdict:

Thru-hiking is one of the most grueling and challenging outdoor activities you can do. Many thru-hikers who try it for the first time find they haven’t planned their resupply points or daily mileage estimates correctly and so they have to call it quits much earlier than expected. If you can plan everything well in advance, though, thru-hiking one of these very long-distance trails can be a life-changing event that you’re sure not to forget. If you can handle the challenge of the three longest hiking trails in the United States then you will be awarded the Triple Crown Award and achieve lasting thru-hiking fame and fortune.

Thru-hiking is fraught with opportunities to suffer injuries like blisters or a sprained ankle that can decommission even thru-hikers with the absolute best of intentions. But if you take day hikes enough and build up enough strength and hiking know-how, you’re more likely to find out why thru-hiking has gained so much popularity among backpacking enthusiasts. Trail angels provide helpful and much-needed service. Trail magic, whether provided purposefully by trail angels or the result of coincidence, is always much appreciated by thru-hikers. As long as you remember to hike your own hike and leave no trace, your next thru-hiking attempt will be as good as your hiking skills allow it to be. Until then, you can begin to plan your next thru-hiking attempt know that you know what thru-hiking is.


Bonus tip: Check out these thru-hiking tips from Herman’s Gulch on the Continental Divide Trail!



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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.