The Definitive Guide to Long-Distance Hiking
Ready to become a thru-hiker?
You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- What is a thru-hike?
- The 3 big US thru-hikes to add to your collection
- The key challenges you face on a thru-hike
- The backcountry skills you’ll need
- How to plan for a thru-hike
Are you considering a thru-hike (“through hike”)? Feeling ready for a transformative, physical, mental, and emotional experience while spending an extended period of time in nature? Or just curious about what goes into the planning and executing of a big thru-hike.
Regardless of how or why you arrived here, rest assured that you have found the right resource for all things thru-hiking. In this post, we will give you first-hand insight into the planning, gear, and mindset necessary for completing a thru-hike.
We’ll also help identify popular routes for your first thru-hike, likely obstacles you may encounter along the way, and offer valuable insights into trail life gleaned straight from those who have been there before.
- Research your intended route and learn as much as you can from previous hikers
- Prepare yourself mentally and physically
- Budget for your hike
- Minimize the gear you pack so that your pack is ultralight
- Hike your own hike – know your goals
- Ignore your body on the trail
- Forget to anticipate weather/temperature changes over a multiple-moth trek
- Carry more than you need
- Check frequently for trail closures ahead of time and while en route
What Is Thru-Hiking?
In its simplest form, thru-hiking is a long-distance hike from one point to another, typically requiring numerous weeks or months on the trail in order to successfully complete.
These hikes can range anywhere from a couple hundred miles in total length to those that span over 2,000 miles from start to finish, as with the famed Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails. Section hiking is another, lesser form of thru-hiking that involves hiking sections of longer thru-hiking trails.
Typically, a thru-hiker will average between 8-20 miles per day. Due to the higher mileage and extended period of time away from civilization, thru-hikes require considerably more planning – something that we’ll help you with below.
The Triple Crown Of Hiking In The US (And Beyond)
Amongst the seasoned thru-hiking community, three long-distance trails have emerged as the ultimate objectives in the US.
They represent everything valued by a prospective thru-hiker: incredible terrain diversity, a unique culture to the trail, impressive overall mileage, and numerous challenges to overcome. Successfully completing any one of the three is a monumental accomplishment.
The ‘triple crown’, as it is affectionately known amongst the most accomplished thru-hikers, consists of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the Pacific Crest Trail (P.C.T.), and the Continental Divide Trail (C.D.T.).
While many a backpacker dreams of completing just one, some thru-hikers spend their lives chasing the ultimate triple crown goal of successfully completing all three hikes. As you can imagine, the commitment and resources necessary to make a goal so large obtainable keep those who have achieved it in very limited company.
The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world and it rightfully serves as the first and only objective for many thru-hikers. Spanning from Georgia to Maine, it covers over 2,100 miles through the entire Appalachian Mountain Range.
It is popular as a first thru-hike, partly because of its notorious history and culture, but also because the trail is well marked, seldom ventures far from civilization, and features less elevation and weather change compared to its western counterparts.
While popular, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a serious undertaking and not to be underestimated.
- 2,190 miles
- 464,500 ft. of elevation gain/loss
- 14 states
- 4-6 month commitment
Pacific Crest Trail
Connecting the United States’ Mexican and Canadian borders through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges is the Pacific Crest Trail.
While less popular than the A.T., the PCT is generally considered a harder hike. It features higher mileage, significant elevation changes, greater expanses of wilderness, and seldom crosses a road, limiting hitchhike options into nearby towns. Snow-covered terrain is often encountered at higher elevations and adds another challenge with which to contend.
- 2,650 miles
- 900,000+ ft. of elevation gain/loss
- Horseback and hiking permitted
- California, Oregon, and Washington
- 5-7 months average hike time
GoatManMike has an excellent guide on how to plan a PCT hike.
Continental Divide Trail
The granddaddy of thru-hikes, the C.D.T. will challenge even the hardiest of hikers. As with the other two, it is designated as a National Scenic Trail. It is, however, the only one to surpass 3,000 miles in length and features the highest elevations and most remote regions, while traversing through 5 states from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide.
- 3,100 miles
- Total elevation change: approx. 800,000 ft.
- 5 states (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho)
- 5-8 months expected for completion
Other Notable Trails
The Long Trail – Vermont, USA
Affectionately known by Vermonters as the footpath in the wilderness, this 272-mile footpath makes its way across the Green Mountains and Vermont’s highest peaks on its way to Canada.
John Muir Trail – California, USA
A wonderful adventure through the High Sierra backcountry featuring high elevations and a distinct alpine feel to much of the hike. At 210 miles, this trail can be completed in a couple of weeks by most hikers.
The West Highland Way – Scotland
The WHW is a great option for those wanting to experience the joy of an international thru-hike, without needing to quit their career and spend 6 months on the trail.
The trail follows ancient roads as it meanders for 96 miles from northern Glasgow all the way into the Scottish Highlands. Most complete the hike in 7-10 days, although ultra runners have been known to tackle the trail’s entirety in less than 24 hours.
Camino De Santiago – Spain
Follow the footsteps of many before you on this route with rich, medieval European history. There are numerous routes from which to choose for your pilgrimage, all ending at Santiago de Compostela. This is a popular route and destination for many across the globe, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Many prospective thru-hikers focus, almost exclusively, on the many challenges of making plans for their thru-hike (how do I get time away from my job/career, how much will it cost, what gear do I need, etc) and not enough on the challenges that will be present once they are actually on the thing.
Recognizing and preparing for the physical, mental, and financial challenges you will endure is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure success.
Physical ailments and injuries are probably the leading cause of thru-hikers stopping short of their intended goal. Consider for a moment what you are asking of your body before beginning a long distance thru-hike.
You will be trekking 10+ miles every day through undulating, rocky, rooted, mountainous terrain, including stream crossing and scrambles. Your feet, ankles, calves, quads, and knees will be under constant stress and will likely require constant attention to keep healthy and capable of moving forward.
For most of your journey, you’ll also be carrying in excess of 25 pounds in your backpack, not eating as healthily as you would do at home, and exposed to a variety of trail conditions that can take a physical toll.
Are you a good conversationalist? That’s good because, as a thru-hiker, you’ll be talking to yourself a whole lot!
Seriously, the very nature of setting out on a hike like this will result in personal reflection and conflict like you have never experienced. Without many of the distractions that exist off the trail, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself analyzing every aspect of your character, relationships, and purpose while on this planet.
While this is also one of the greatest allures of long-distance hikes, making sure that you are ready for this journey of self-discovery will go a long way towards your emotional stability and happiness while on the trail.
There has never been a thru-hiker who has completed a significant hike without a certain degree of mental toughness. Find the source of yours and get ready to use it.One of our favourite books on the topic is Carol Quinn’s “Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart.”
Budgeting is an important aspect of thru-hiking. While there are some common guidelines for what it will cost ($2/mile) to complete a thru-hike, it varies for every individual and hiking style.
Your food choices on the trail, along with your comfort level in regards to lodging, are two of the biggest contributors to what your trip will cost. Here are the main areas where we find ourselves spending money on the trail:
- Expect to purchase groceries every 10-14 days
- Allow for multiple ‘splurge’ meals throughout your hike at restaurants in town
- Most hikers prefer a comfortable bed and a warm shower at a hotel/hostel every 2- 3 weeks. Know beforehand how important this is to you and how it affects your overall budget
- Expect to make some gear changes as your hike progresses – new shoes, replacement hiking poles, etc.
Planning A Long-Distance Hike
Selecting A Route
Research everything you can find (there’s a lot) on a given hike to determine whether it will be a good fit for you.
Also, make sure to match your intended route and expected pace to your personal goals and available time commitment. If you know that 5-7 months in nature is what you’re ultimately seeking, don’t select a thru-hike that takes 1-2 months to finish. This may leave you feeling unfulfilled.
Also, be realistic about your pace after you’ve selected a route. Look at the average miles/day of those that have completed that trail and be honest with your experience and fitness level.
When planning your hike, break it down into sections and get to know each section in detail before deciding if this is the hike for you.
Maps And Compass
While most long-distance trails in the US and elsewhere are waymarked, don’t be tempted to leave home without a map and compass and the smarts required to use them.
Your body will begin to condition itself to daily hiking within the first few weeks of your thru-hike. Jumpstart this process by completing several, smaller hikes, preferably with your full pack, in the 6 months leading up to your thru-hike objective. This can be a great way to condition your body while also identifying key gear changes that need to be made before you start.
A significant portion of your time planning a thru-hike will be addressing the ways you plan to resupply gear and/or food throughout your hike.
Carrying a few extra pounds of pack weight may not matter much on a trip lasting 2-4 days, but for someone hiking hundreds of miles over many weeks it could make the difference between success and failure. In addition to packing effectively, thru-hikers must coordinate their plan for replenishing food throughout their intended route.
It is not reasonable to carry a food supply that will last much more than 7-10 days. As a result, most thru and section hikers will need to identify several resupply stops near the trail (towns, grocery stores, post offices) where they might be able to refill their food inventory, before continuing along to the next destination.
This creates an entirely new level of planning and logistical coordination with which the majority of backpackers are unfamiliar.
Here are some common strategies:
Shipping a Pre-Packed Resupply Box to Yourself
Many hikers will schedule boxes filled with gear and/or their favorite food to arrive at post offices locations along the trail (usually towns nearby), who will then hold the box until they arrive.
This is the only way to guarantee that you’ll have exactly what you want and you’ll never have to experience the disappointment from hiking 75 miles to the next grocery store only to discover that they don’t carry your favorite energy bar or chocolate.
More experienced hikers tend to forego the cost and extra planning necessary for shipping multiple boxes in favor of just buying groceries along the way. This is a great way to keep costs down and adapt your menu to how you’re feeling in the moment.
*WARNING: buying groceries immediately after hiking 100’s of miles is a dangerous endeavor. Stick to your budget and remember that you will have to carry everything you buy.
Friends/Family Care Packages
Some hikers will coordinate for family members to meet them at critical resupply points. Others will leave post office addresses and their planned itineraries with friends who can then surprise them with food and other personal effects. The anticipation of what might be waiting at the next post office is enough to get thru-hikers through many difficult miles.
Food And Water
Some serious thru-hikers will calculate daily caloric intake when planning menus for their time on the trail. At the very least, you should have a solid understanding of what makes for a good backpacking meal plan.
You will also want to bring a way to filter and/or treat water that you collect during your hike. While some hikers choose not to bring one filters, purification tablets, or sterilizing pens, we wouldn’t recommend it. Our favorites are purifications tablets by brands like Aquatabs, which are lightweight, effective, and low-cost.
If hiking in arid terrain (on the Arizona Trail or Hayduke Trail, for example), be sure to identify every wild water source along the route before setting off and mark them on your map.
Minimize. Minimize. Minimize. The importance of keeping gear weight to a minimum on a thru-hike cannot be stressed enough. Lightweight backpacking has numerous benefits, even for shorter trips. However, long-distance journeys are where the minimalist mindset really pays off.
Critique every piece of gear you plan to bring and only keep it in your pack if it’s absolutely necessary.
There are two schools of thought regarding the best backpacking pack to bring for a long-distance hike. Comfort-oriented packs, like popular versions from Osprey, include multiple straps, attachment points, integrated frames and thick padding where it’s needed. These packs maximize organizational potential and strap comfort, however, they usually weigh 3-5 lbs.
Dedicated minimalists, on the other hand, will look for streamlined packs such as the ULA Circuit that forego the ‘bells and whistles’ seen in the above packs and instead feature a simple, ultralight design. On the downside, these packs require precise packing to provide the necessary rigidity that would normally be provided by internal frame packs.
There are numerous shelter options available to thru-hikers. Generally, tarps or hammocks will be the lightest, with tents providing the most privacy and protection from the elements.
Ultralight tents are a great way to reduce weight on the trail but often lack the durability needed for long-term travel in the backcountry. Whichever type of shelter you bring, use a footprint for greater protection and carry repair patches for potential tears.
These are definitely not an item to skimp on when accumulating gear for a thru-hike. A quality set of hiking poles, and the skills on how to use them properly, will increase your chances of a successful hike.
Thru-Hiker Culture, Community & Trail Speak
Culture And Community
Once you set out on your first thru-hike, you will be earning acceptance into one of the most unique and eclectic communities found within the outdoor world.
Thru-hikers forever share an unspoken bond of understanding and appreciation for time spent in the wild. This bond is enough to transcend cultural and socioeconomic differences and it’s capable of making people you didn’t even know weeks earlier feel like lifelong friends.
This community’s reach, however, extends far beyond the bond shared amongst hikers out on the trail. In fact, there are towns along every major long-distance trail that have become so infatuated with the stories and the people that hike through them, that their very identity is woven into the trail’s existence.
“Trail angels” from these towns commonly seek out ways to help hikers. Some even cater businesses towards them, only expecting an honest story or a chance to relive their own hiking memories in exchange for goods or services. Most thru-hikers would agree that once this community takes a hold of you, there’s really no letting it go.
You may have noticed by now that several thru-hikers choose to forego their given birth name while on the trail, in favor of something a bit more creative.
Whether it’s a commitment to shedding a previous persona or just a fun way to remember everyone you meet, this decision is entirely yours. Some choose their trail name before they start hiking, while others let it develop as their hike progresses.
If you’re planning to join this community as a new thru-hiker, you better learn to speak the language, right? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a trail dictionary of sorts, featuring the latest lingo to help you fit right in. Now, were you going SOBO or NOBO?
- Trail magic: a surprise item, often food or a cold drink, that appears on the trail
- Trail angel: Someone who helps a thru-hiker in an impactful way – feeding them a meal, housing them for a night, or giving them a ride into town
- Cowboy camping: no tent, just throw out your pad and sleeping bag under the stars
- NOBO: A hiker heading northbound on the trail
- SOBO: One heading in a southbound direction
- Flip-Flop: A strategy where a hiker completes half of the trail, gets a ride to the other end, and then starts hiking back to where they stopped in order to complete the full thru-hike
- LNT: used when referring to Leave No Trace Principles
- Grey water: dishwater
- Zero day: A rest day, where no mileage is covered
- Slackpacking: Hiking without a pack, commonly seen when a motorist offers to transport a hiker’s pack to a trail intersection farther along so that they can enjoy a day hiking with no pack
- Yo-Yoing: Completing one full thru-hike of the entire trail, turning around and heading in the opposite direction for another. Craziness level = high!
- The Green Tunnel: A way used to describe the A.T. because of its long stretches through eastern forests