Have you ever dreamed of completing a thru-hike? One of epic proportions that create memories of abundant beauty and takes perseverance and patience to meticulously plan out? A hike that you’ve heard people talk about, and now you’re wondering if you could embark upon something so majestic?
While we have had the opportunity to do portions of some of the most famous trails and can say they are always an incredible experience. We’re here to get you started on turning that thru-hike dream into a reality with our beginner’s guide to thru-hiking.
What Is Thru-Hiking?
But what exactly is thru-hiking? Thru-hiking is almost always a point-to-point hike that completes an entire trail, meaning your end will be a completely different place than the beginning. For the uninitiated, it might sound like a daunting undertaking. After all, thru-hiking involves hiking an entire trail from start to finish, which can take weeks or even months to complete. But for those who love the outdoors, thru-hiking is an immensely rewarding experience.
There’s something special about spending extended periods of time in nature, disconnected from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Thru-hiking also allows you to see a trail in an entirely different way, often revealing hidden beauty that you would have missed if you only hiked a section at a time. So whether you’re looking for an adventure or simply want to appreciate trails in a new way, thru-hiking is definitely worth considering.
What Is Thru-Hiking vs. Backpacking?
Thru-hiking and backpacking are both activities that involve carrying all of your gear with you as you hike. The only real difference is the terminology. Thru-hiking generally refers to hikes you take in one continuous journey, often on long-distance trails like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail.
Backpacking, on the other hand, can refer to either multi-day or shorter day hikes where you carry everything you need. In addition, thru-hikers typically plan to complete their hike within a certain time frame, while backpacking trips can be more flexible. Whether you’re thru-hiking or backpacking, both activities are great ways to explore the outdoors and get some exercise.
Is Thru-Hiking Hard?
Thru-hiking is no walk in the park – figuratively and literally. You’re walking long distances, day in and day out, for weeks or even months. And it’s not just any kind of walking; it’s steep climbs, rocky descents, and everything in between. Your feet will take a beating, your muscles will be tired, and you will constantly push your limits.
That’s precisely why many see thru-hiking as a daunting task, and it’s not for everyone. But with the right preparation, it can be an enriching experience. The key is to start slowly and build up your mileage gradually. Don’t try to hike too far too fast. Depending upon your skill level, hiking between 15 to 20 miles per day is a good start.
But you also have to plan breaks or what are commonly called zero and nero days. Zero days are rest days with no hiking at all. Nero days are days with nearly no hiking at all. These are days generally spent in towns along the trail, resupplying, resting, and enjoying the amenities of it.
As a beginner, you may find yourself devouring all the books and online info about thru-hiking. And in the end, it all boils down to putting one foot in front of the other. But, of course, it’s not quite that simple. Thru-hiking is physically demanding, and there are days when you’ll question why you’re even out there. But that’s often part of the appeal. It’s a test of your endurance, both mental and physical. It pushes you to your limits and forces you to grow in ways you never thought possible.
Why Do People Do Thru-Hiking?
The challenges are why many people embark on a thru-hiking adventure. It’s a gratifying experience. You get to see some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, meet new and interesting people, and test your mettle in a way few other experiences can match.
It’s a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with nature. The experience can be transformative, and it’s something that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If you take your time and listen to your body, thru-hiking can be a great way to explore the outdoors and challenge yourself physically and mentally.
What Are the Most Popular Thru Hikes in the US?
You’re ready for the challenge, but what trail should you choose? Many factors are involved in answering that question, with the main ones addressing the time and length of a hike and your capabilities to conquer it. Listed below are five popular thru-hikes in the U.S. Some you may have heard of before, such as The Pacific Crest Trail. And others, such as The Long Trail, might have never been on your radar.
The Appalachian Trail, commonly called the AT, is a 2,193-mile-long hike that runs from Georgia to Maine. Thru-hiking takes anywhere from five to seven months to complete. The trail crosses 14 states, eight national forests, and six national park units and traverses some of the most scenic and remote areas of the eastern United States.
Along the way, hikers will experience a wide range of terrain, from lush forests and towering mountains to exposed rocky ridges and meandering streams. Despite its challenges, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a unique opportunity to connect with nature, self, and fellow hikers.
Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail, commonly called the PCT, is another popular thru-hike that extends for 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Coast. The trail runs through California, Oregon, and Washington. It also spans seven national parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades. It’s one of the premier thru-hiking trails in the world.
Because it heads deep into the high country, with its highest point hitting over 13,000 feet, planning, like any other thru-hike, is imperative. Most hikers take five months to complete the trail, with anything more being possibly detrimental due to possible heavy snow the later it gets in the year. However, the trail offers breathtaking views of some of the most beautiful scenery in the western United States, and it is a true challenge for even the most experienced hikers.
Pro Tip: Want to give the PCT a try? Learn all you need to know about Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail, also called the CDT, is one of the more difficult thru-hiking trails. Stretching for 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, the trail traverses some of North America’s most scenic and remote terrain. Hiking along the Continental Divide that separates the watersheds draining into the Pacific, Atlanta, and Arctic Oceans is a majestic feat. It’s not only because of the views of mountain peaks, alpine meadows, and rushing rivers. The CDT is the highest, the most challenging, and the most remote trail of all the thru-hikes in the U.S.
The trail is notoriously difficult, with long stretches of rough terrain and few opportunities for resupply. As a result, thru-hikers must prepare for extended periods of self-reliance. However, those willing to put in the hard work will get the reward of an unforgettable adventure.
John Muir Trail
The John Muir Trail is a long-distance hiking trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, running mostly in conjunction with the PCT. The trail runs for 211 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. Along the way, it passes through some of the most iconic and beautiful scenery in the state, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
The trail gets its name from John Muir, an early advocate for preserving wilderness areas in the United States. Today, the John Muir Trail is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the country, taking only a few weeks to complete. Whether you’re interested in summiting Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet or are just up for a not-so-daunting thru-hike (albeit still difficult), this may be the trail for you.
The Long Trail
Another thru-hike but with less mileage than some of the lengthier ones is the Long Trail. The Long Trail is in the Green Mountains of Vermont and stretches for 272 miles from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. Along the way, it passes through some of Vermont’s most scenic and popular hiking areas.
You can complete a popular trail with thru-hikers in 20 to 30 days. It‘s also a popular destination for section hikers, who hike sections of the trail over multiple years. The Long Trail is well-known for its challenging terrain and rugged conditions, with its highest point being Mount Mansfield, rising to a height of 4,393 feet. Despite its challenges, the Long Trail provides hikers with an unforgettable wilderness experience.
How Much Should You Budget for a Thru-Hike?
Budgeting, like choosing a hike, depends upon how long you will be gone and what you want and need to spend your money on while hiking. Taking on the task of a major thru-hike is quite the undertaking and can have significant costs.
On the other hand, you’ll spend money on food and entertainment in your everyday life, so why not spend it on the trail instead? Costs for a significant thru-hike of three to five months can range anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000. People spend money on different things, so if you’re up for fancy hotels on zero days, you’ll spend more than a fellow hiker who stays in a simple hostel.
Hiking the AT, for example, could cost around $1,000 a month, according to a recent article on REI.com, “According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), most hikers spend about $1,000 a month, and the majority take nearly six months to complete their hike.”
This price tag often doesn’t include the gear you’ll need to purchase before the hike. That could run you anywhere from $700 to $5,000 depending on what you already have, what you need, and what you can afford.
Budgeting all comes down to one simple fact: we all spend money to live, so why not spend it living on the trail for a few months?
What Gear Do You Need for Thru-Hiking?
If you choose to live on the trail for a few months, you’ll need some gear to get you through safely. And not just any gear will do. You need good, solid gear that won’t fall apart the first few days of using it. Some major gear you’ll need to invest in include shelter, sleeping materials, a backpack, and proper footwear and clothing. It also includes water purification tools and various other little items that are quite important.
Shelter is a very broad term and can mean anything from a tent to a hammock to even clothing. What it all comes down to is that you need to protect yourself from the elements while thru-hiking. And having the proper tools to do so, especially when sleeping, will create a warm and safe space for you to continue your thru-hiking endeavors the next day.
As with anything you are carrying with you for months on end, your shelter should be compact and lightweight yet functional. Leave the 10-person tent at home and opt for a one- to two-person backpacking tent instead. Your body will thank you for it.
Pro Tip: There are lots of different types of shelter to choose from. Find out just How Many Types of Tents Are There & How to Choose.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
Having a proper sleeping bag – one geared towards the weather you will be in – and a pad on a thru-hike is essential for staying warm and comfortable at night. Without them, you may be unable to properly insulate yourself from the cold ground. You may experience uncomfortable or dangerous temperatures while sleeping.
In addition, a sleeping bag and pad will help protect against rocks and uneven ground, allowing for a more restful sleep. Overall, these items can greatly improve the quality of sleep on the trail, aiding your overall physical and mental well-being during your journey.
While a shelter and sleeping bag and backpack are essential, first and foremost, you’ll need a good backpack. This is probably the most important gear for a thru-hike, so it’s worth investing in a quality one. Look for something comfortable to wear that has enough capacity to hold all your gear.
Additionally, make sure to get a backpack with a built-in rain cover to protect your belongings from the elements. If you can afford a backpack that fits you, then do it. It will be worth it in the long run, or rather, a long hike.
When hiking through various terrain and for a few months, your clothing will need to change along with the changing ecosystems. You’ll need clothing that can keep you warm when it’s freezing or can keep you shaded from the heat of the sun.
And the best type of clothing are items that are multifunctional and breathable. Avoid cotton when it gets wet. It stays wet and cold. Merino wool is a great option for warmth, especially for socks. You’ll also need a lightweight jacket, full-on winter gear (if there’s a possibility of hiking in snow), and rain gear, including rain pants.
And don’t forget a hat or two. A visor-style hat will keep the sun off your face, while a beanie will keep you warm and cozy. A warm head combined with warm feet will do wonders for keeping the rest of your body temperature warm when the temperatures drop. And when the sun shines down upon you, socks and hats are easy to stow away.
A backpack and all of the above items are essential gear, but hiking boots might just be the king of gear on a thru-hike. It is, after all, your feet that will be doing all the work. Hiking boots provide support and stability for your feet and ankles. They also help protect your feet from the elements.
Because you’ll be wearing them for hours on end, they’ll also need to be comfortable. When choosing hiking boots, it’s important to find a pair that fits well and provides the level of support you need. You should also ensure they’re appropriate for the terrain you’ll be walking on.
The best advice when it comes to hiking boots is to not hike in a brand new pair of boots. Take the time to find ones that suit you. But also take the time to break them in before heading out on a thru-hike. Your feet and the rest of your body will thank you profusely.
Water Purification and Storage
Carrying all the water you’ll need with you for a thru-hike is not possible, so you’ll need ways to purify your water and storage. There are many options available for these tasks, and all will work just fine. It will simply matter what works best for you.
We recommend packing a few options so you are prepared no matter the water source. Those options include water purification tablets, water filtration pumps, straws that filter, UV water purifiers, and backpacking cook stoves for boiling water.
As for storing water, there are also many options. Whether you choose water bottles or water bags, be sure to have a couple on your person at all times, full of potable water. Being stranded without drinking water is one of the best ways to cut your hiking short.
Pro Tip: Always have safe drinking water on hand by utilizing these 5 Ways to Purify Water for Survival in the Wilderness.
If you think you’re almost done with your packing list, think again. Along with the items listed above, you’ll also need guidebooks, maps, and trail maps of the region. Also, be sure to pack items for your personal safety and hygiene. These include hiking poles, cooking gear, headlamps, bug spray, and sunscreen. And you can’t forget the food. That’s a list entirely on its own.
But the biggest thing to consider when packing is that the most important piece of gear isn’t gear at all. Instead, it’s more about planning and preparation. The more you do that, the better off you’ll be. Just remember, at some point, you’ll have to stop planning and start doing.
Is Thru-Hiking Worth It?
So, is thru-hiking worth it? In short, absolutely. It’s an advantageous experience that will test your limits while teaching you more about yourself than you ever thought possible. The long journey may seem daunting at first, but with the right preparation and mindset, it can be an adventure of a lifetime.
Are you inspired to embark upon one of the many wondrous trails now? If so, we encourage you to start planning your hike today. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can hike.
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