What is Thru Hiking?

May 14, 2021

So, you hike all the time. You have hundreds of weekend backpacking trips under your belt and know a thing or two about surviving in the wilderness. Now, you’re itching for a new hiking challenge. You want to immerse yourself in the wilderness and take your backpacking skills up a notch.

For many weekend hikers, the next step is completing a thru-hike. Often described as being a deeply rewarding and enriching experience (and incredibly grueling, but we’ll get to that in a minute), thru-hiking could be the most incredible adventure you ever have. But what is thru-hiking and what do you need to know as a first-time thru-hiker? Pelican is here to explain.

What Is Thru-Hiking?

People like to bicker over the definition of thru-hiking, but in general, it refers to backpacking long-distance trails in a continuous fashion. The two most notable thru-hikes in North America include the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT), which are 2,650 miles and 2,200 miles long, respectively. Hiking either of these trails is a mammoth-sized undertaking that can take hikers anywhere from five to seven months.

Challenges of Thru-Hiking

Many avid hikers never end up completing a thru-hike, even when it’s at the top of their bucket list. Why? The answer mostly comes down to having responsibilities.

Here are a few obstacles that often get in the way of hikers living out their fantasy of completing a thru-hike.

  • Time and Money – Embarking on a thru-hike takes a significant amount of time and money. We mean, let’s face it—there are very few employers who are willing to let their employees take a 6-month sabbatical to backpack a long-distance trail. Oftentimes, going on a thru-hike means putting in your two weeks’ notice.
  • Family Obligations – You probably know from your weekend backpacking trips that hiking with kids takes a lot of planning and effort. Now, imagine going on a five- to seven-month backpacking trip with them. Although thru-hiking with kids is far from impossible, it requires a pretty dedicated family to make that long of a trek with kiddos.
  • Mental and Physical Hardship – Finally, there’s the hike itself, which takes no small amount of psychological and physical fortitude. You’re leaving the comforts of modern living behind to endure months of painful blisters, sore feet, bug bites and possibly profound loneliness if you’re going it solo. Of course, overcoming these challenges is also what makes the trip so rewarding in the first place.

What Do I Need for a Thru-Hike?

Thru hikes typically take up an entire hiking season and require a ton of preparation. In addition to working out the logistics (getting time off, paying bills in advance, planning your route, etc.), you also need to make sure that you have the right gear and necessities to complete the hike safely. Here’s a list of what you’ll need.

  • Necessary permits such as trail permits, camping permits, long-distance permits, etc.
  • Durable tent
  • Lightweight and compact hiker’s pack
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad
  • Suitable clothing and footwear
  • Stuff sacks
  • Reusable water bottle and water purification
  • Food (resupplied at various checkpoints)
  • Rechargeable flashlight and/or a LED headlamp with at least 70 lumens
  • Guidebook
  • Your phone and a heavy-duty charging case
  • Basic first aid supplies
  • Multitool
  • Cookware

Note: Although you probably have many of these items already, keep in mind that thru-hikes require ultra-lightweight gear that will stand up to multiple seasons and potentially thousands of miles. You may need to upgrade certain items to cut poundage and make the journey more bearable.

How to Prepare for a Thru-Hike

In case we haven’t hammered this point home enough, thru-hiking requires a lot of planning and hiking preparedness. Trust us; you don’t want to be that guy or girl who brags about their big plans to hike the PCT, only to give up after a few weeks on the trail. Here are a few tips for preparing for your thru-hike.

  • Do Your Research – Research the trail and know what to expect. Be sure to talk to other thru-hikers. They are a vast source of information and will give you some amazing thru-hike hacks.
  • Get in Shape – Do not assume that the trail will get you in shape. If you don’t train in advance, you’ll be more likely to quit (and waste a bunch of time and money in the process).
  • Start with a Shorter Trail – Even though the PCT and the AT get all the attention, there are plenty of shorter thru-hike trails in the United States. Consider starting with Vermont’s Long Trail (273 miles) or Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail (310 miles), both of which take considerably less time to complete.

Go at Your Own Pace

Try not to compare your thru-hike to anyone else’s. This is your hike and yours alone, so go at your own pace. Remember to follow the seven Leave No Trace Principles and be kind to your fellow thru-hikers. What are you waiting for? Get out there and hike on!

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