A thru-hike is an end to end backpacking trip on a long distance trail. Although it can be fun, challenging, and eye-opening to get out on the trails for a long period of time, there are some things you should keep in mind in order to make the most of your trip. From strategies and challenges to planning, tips, and community, here’s everything you need to know about thru-hiking.
Thru-Hiking vs. Backpacking
While backpacking and thru-hiking are often considered to be the same, they are actually different. Thru-hiking is essentially a specialized form of backpacking that's more focused on long distance and completing a high amount of daily miles within a certain amount of time. Backpacking is typically done over a weekend trip, while a thru-hike takes weeks or even months to complete.
Generally, hikers with lightweight gear are more successful at completely thru-hikes. As a thru-hiker, it's easy to omit items you may otherwise need on a weekend backpacking trip. This is because thru-hikers are often hiking in a well-traveled and marked the route with frequent resupply stops, and water caches.
Backpackers who aren't hiking on popular trails typically need to learn a few more backcountry skills and carry more food and gear, depending on how long they're out there.
Types of Thru-Hikes
Popular thru-hike trails in America: the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is 2,100+ miles long and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 2,600+ long.
Because thru-hiking means you’re hiking long distances and racking up a couple dozen miles a day for months at a time, and many people can’t commit to more than five months, there are different ways you can go about it. While these aren't believed to be “true” thru-hikes, they will be challenging nonetheless.
Here's what you can do if you don't have the time to commit to a true thru-hike.
- Pick a shorter trail. Thru hikes can take up to 5+ months, if you don't have that kind of time, pick a shorter trail that will take you about a month to complete.
- Try section hiking. Believe it or not, some hikers just do a single section of a classic thru trail (for example, the John Muir is just a fraction (211 miles) of the PCT) to save time and still get their outdoor fix with a thru-hike feeling.
- Flip-flop. You can also flip-flop on the trails. This means you'll still hike the full trail, but in sections, starting in the middle. Hikers also do this to avoid severe weather. This strategy will also require you to plan more, as your transportation can get a bit complicated depending on the sections.
Challenges of Thru-Hikes
Ultimately, thru-hiking is about challenging yourself. It’s not only an incredible physical challenge, but it's also a mental challenge.
Because most thru-hikers are solo hikers, at some point your solitude can become loneliness along the way. Although a lot of solo thru-hikers (in fact most) meet and camp with other hikers along the trail, the mental challenges of thru-hikes are still often very prominent.
If you’re taking on the trail solo, make sure you go on a few solo trips beforehand so you know just what you’re getting into. You don’t want to be stuck out there, not able to face your fears.
Pro Tip: Make sure you embrace all opportunities, focus on your goals, and meet new people to make the most of your trip.
All hikes are physically challenging, and the more time you spend out on the trails means you need to be prepared. From training to altitude sickness and even treating blisters, make sure you're ready for whatever comes your way.
Check out How to Train for a Long Hike: 10-Week Training Program and Everything You Need To Know About Altitude Sickness.
Pro Tip #1: Make sure you also bring along a first aid kit and do your research to make sure you're knowledgeable about any possible diseases or dangers you might come across. We also suggest taking a few backpacking trips before you get into thru-hiking, so you can get a taste of what you’re in for.
Pro Tip #2: If you're taking a long thru-hike (one that lasts about 5 months or so), consider the financial challenges as well. After all, you'll be off work for nearly half a year.
If you’ve ever been thru-hiking, or know someone who has, you probably know about the community that comes with it.
Whether you’re a solo thru-hiker or hiking in a small group, you’ll notice that fellow thru-hikers will become your family and make you feel a little more at home.
There are also people referred to as “trail angels” along the way that will provide thru-hikers with rides, food, and places to stay (and they may even do a little of your laundry). All accept and encourage donations for their services, however, they do it out of the kindness of their heart, so it’s not required. Regardless, make sure you thank them!
Planning a Thru-Hike
Planning a thru-hike is much like planning a backpacking trip, however, there are a few more things to consider.
The most important step in planning, is, of course, the itinerary. Here’s what you need to consider:
- Time. You’ll need to figure out when and where to start and finish and how long it will take you.
- Weather Conditions. Be prepared for all weather conditions and have a backup plan just in case. Some trails will close due to severe weather.
- Permits. Make sure to double check to see if you’ll need any permits where you’re headed (trail permits, campfire permits, border permits, backcountry camping permits, and more). Although not all trails require them, some do. Better to be safe than sorry!
- Transportation. You’ll need to figure out rides and how you will get around trailheads.
- Mileage. It’s important to plan out how many miles per day you anticipate hiking so you can figure out when you’ll finish the thru-hike (this also correlates to transportation).
- Resupply stops. Make sure you know where the resupply stops are located along the trail.
Pro Tip: You’ll also need to consider things like severe weather, trail closures, injuries and more that may affect your initial plan. In other words, have some alternative routes in mind.
For more tips on planning, check out Backpacking: 5 Steps to Planning a Trip.
Gear and Essentials
As for gear and essentials, we suggest bringing as much lightweight gear as possible since you’ll be carrying your own pack for months (but also make sure you have enough gear to last you the duration of your thru-hike). Check out Lightening Your Load: Tips for Ultralight Backpacking.
Make sure you have a pair (or more) of durable hiking boots too, check out the Best Backpacking Boots and Hiking Shoes. You should also pack a lot of layers, and high-quality clothing made of moisture-wicking fabrics like Merino wool or other synthetic fibers to keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For further guidance, visit How to Choose Hiking Clothes.
You’ll also need to strategize an efficient way to pack your backpack.
Have fun, be safe, and remember to Leave No Trace!