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Introduction to Thru-Hiking

April 14, 2020

Ever since my first backpacking trip five years ago, I knew that thru-hiking would inevitably be the new direction my life would take. To those looking for an introduction to thru-hiking, hopefully I can share some of my own knowledge. The freedoms that present themselves on trail are nothing like what you experience in your everyday working life. So to anyone who’s ever considered a thru-hike – either as a hobby, a lifestyle, or a vacation – I say go for it.

I’ll be starting a series covering the best thru-hikes by state, starting with California. Each state, with its own unique terrain and culture, provides an opportunity for an unparalleled outdoor experience. These hiking expiditions are only becoming more popular with the growth of technology mediums and films such as Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. But before getting into the specifics, lets cover some of the basics.

Introduction to Thru-Hiking: What is it?

Introduction to Thru-hiking: Pacific Crest Trail

A thru-hike is considered to be a long distance hiking trail completed end-to-end. Typically these kinds of hikes are multiple days in length with different starting and ending points. A few interesting examples are the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Great Western Loop. These two examples will ideally have the same start and end point, though they are still completed end-to-end.

The three most popular thru-hikes in the United States are the Appalachain Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. These trails, spanning across multiple states, are all greater than 2,000 miles in length. They combine to form the Triple Crown of hiking, an honor earned by those who complete all three.

Another phrase you may come across often is “Hike Your Own Hike”. This is critical in many ways. There are a ton of thru-hiking purists out there, and they’re willing to shame or discourage you for any variety of reasons. If you need to take a break from your hike due to personal or health reasons – then take it! The trail will be waiting when you’re ready to go back. Feel like skipping past the dangerous snowed-in section of the Sierra on the PCT? You won’t be alone! Don’t let anyone tell you that your hike wasn’t a thru-hike because you missed a few miles or put your safety first. Everyone’s situation is unique, so do what’s best for you when on trail.

Introduction to Thru-Hiking: Is it For Me?

Introduction to Thru-hiking: John Muir Trail

Thru-hiking requires both a sound body and a sound mind. The physical toll on your body seems obvious. There is rarely a time outside your first day when at least some part of your body isn’t in pain. Mentally, you must contend with mother nature at her angriest. If aching joints and muscles weren’t enough to weight you down, add walking through wind and hail storms for consecutive days. Or trudging through snow fields that have you postholing up to your knees. Or being soaked for days on end with no real chance to dry off during the day.

With that being said, the rewards are plentiful if you have an adoration for the outdoors. Surviving the piercing winds of thunderstorms builds incredible amounts of character and confidence moving forward. Summiting the snow-covered mountain passes grants you views that everyone else only can only see on postcards. And those rainstorms that keep you wet all day can transform into the most beautiful sunsets you’ll ever see.

What I’m getting at is this – if you’re mentally prepared to put up with mother nature’s absolute worst in order to appreciate her best, then thru-hiking may be for you.

Introduction to Thru-Hiking: How Do I Start?

Introduction to Thru-hiking: Pacific Crest Trail

Obviously people can get into thru-hiking in many different ways. Some may read passages covering a specific trail in books or magazines. Others may watch a movie or a YouTube documentary and be inspired to set new goals. I started off car camping and backpacking in the Eastern Sierra. After feeling comfortable on my first few solo backpacking trips, I decided to attempt my first thru-hike. My introduction to thru-hiking was nothing crazy. I spent a week hiking 70 miles on the John Muir Trail from June Lake to Yosemite Valley.

While it’s certainly possible to make your first backpacking experience a thru-hike, I personally wouldn’t recommend it. I think a big part of being prepared mentally is feeling comfortable with all your gear. Having at least a little bit of experience goes a long way in just what to expect while camping in the wilderness.

Another good starting place is fitness. Putting yourself in a position to succeed is a wise plan for any life endeavor, especially one as physically demanding as hiking a long distance trail. Being able to carry your backpack for long distances is tough on your shoulders, back, and legs. Although, as demonstrated by Second Chance Hiker on the 2019 PCT, fitness may be a goal and not a prerequisite. I highly encourage everyone to check out his inspiring story if you haven’t already.

Other Considerations

Introduction to Thru-hiking: Pacific Crest Trail

Timing for long distance trails can be tricky. I mean that in both the sense of when you start on a specific trail as well as the timing in your personal life. For many people it can be hard to drop everything for months just to hike. Jobs, family, health considerations, and other personal issues can be tough to overcome. But as the old idiom goes: where there’s a will, there’s a way. You may have to make sacrifices such as qutting your job or carrying extra weight to accommodate an ongoing health issue, but ultimately only you can decide if the experience is worth the risk.

Each trail will have its own unique obstacles to address. The Arizona Trail may require longer food and water carries, while the Colorado Trail may require crampons and an ice axe. Some of these challenges can be avoided by finding the optimal hiking season, but there’s almost always a trade off. For example, tackling the John Muir Trail later in the summer will help avoid some snow and dangerous river crossings. But instead of postholing through snow you will have to face the heat of the summer sun at over 10,000 feet of elevation almost daily.

The good thing is, though, that it is very unlikely that you’re the first person to come across such issues. A quick google serach should yield tons of very specific information and personal experiences. That, in combination with your own needs, desires, and experiences, should help you enjoy planning your own trip.

Thru-hiking is an ever-growing culture. It’s a collection of like-minded individuals and small groups working together to achieve a shared goal. The people I’ve met in the backcountry on thru-hikes are a generous group, especially when it comes to Leave No Trace principles and sharing their knowledge. In seemingly stark contrast from our engineered concrete landscapes and corporate societies, everyone looks out for everyone else on the trail.