What is Thru-Hiking? The Complete Guide for Beginners
RestlessBackpacker’s Team
November 16, 2019
Many backpackers dream to take their weekend hobby to the next level and travel across the country, but walking more than 2000 miles over the course of 5-6 months is a real resistance test, both physically and mentally for everyone on the trail.

The thru-hikers are more focused on covering high mileage every day on a clearly marked trail, so they can complete the trail before the winter comes, while regular backpackers don’t have the pressure to complete a hike in a specific time frame and can choose their own hiking trails and explore the nature in their own rhythm.

There are a few important things you will need to consider before going thru-hiking from the general concept to planning. We will have them all covered in this article.

Here is what you will find in our thru-hiking guide:

  1. What is thru-hiking?
  2. The history of thru-hiking
  3. What to expect from every major trail
  4. Essential Thru-Hiking Gears
  5. Thru-hiking Mistakes
  6. Thru-hiking tips and recommendations

What Is Thru-Hiking?
the basics

The term Thru-Hiking refers to a long-distance, end-to-end hiking or backpacking trip that crosses the country from one point to another. The most impressive thru-hiking trails are the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

Traveling on foot was a common way of transporting food long distances. The thru-hiking practice was born when necessity met personal enjoyment. There are many unrecorded stories of the thru-hiking pioneers around the country and unfortunately, they will remain untold.

Ever since the official opening of the hiking trails around the 1920s, the practice gained more and more popularity for outdoor enthusiasts.

One of the most famous thru-hikers of all time is Emma Rowena Gatewood, aka Grandma Gatewood, who was the first woman to solo hike the AT in one season at age 67 with completely unsuitable gear. What is more, Grandma Gatewood is not the only one, there are so many stories worth to be known about strong and determined thru-hikers.

On the main hiking trails, there are hundreds of hikers every year, the most popular starting points being crowded from March 1 to April 15.

Unfortunately, only 1 in 4 people manage to finish a given trail, as the physical and mental challenges can be too much for inexperienced hikers.

Thru-hiking is a real challenge for everyone who wants to set foot on the trails. To put it simply, it is not realistic for everybody to dedicate more than 6 months for completing a trail.

The majority of people starting their journey on one of the 3 main trails are solo hikers and the mental strength is the main part that can make or break your entire hiking experience.

Later in this article, we will cover how you can prepare for success if you plan on taking up thru-hiking.

The History of Thru-Hiking

And Where Did it Start

Born out of necessity, long-distance walking slowly started to make people feel liberated and made them feel accomplished when conquering the over 2000 miles trails.

Thru-hiking started to become a leisure/athletic activity around 1920 when the founders of the trails started to combine the small existent trails to allow long-distance walkers to have a more safe experience. Also, they made the trails wider to allow the horses that carried different types of equipment to pass.

After the initial quest of combining the trails and opening the three main trails, the real challenges began.

From monitoring and managing to protecting them from different smugglers to enter the trail to developing safe detours, new paths around the main obstacles and to creating new trails and paths, there was and still is something to do every year.

When they were first opened, only a handful of registered people managed to complete the trails every year.

There is the popular story of the young Russian immigrant living in New York City that decided to go back to her family in Russia. She decided to walk the 12,000 miles to Russia as she didn’t have money for other means of transportation. The unbelievable adventure that took place in 1926 became almost a legend among thru-hikers.

As the years passed and the interest in this type of backpacking grew substantially, a lot of tools and gadgets were developed to help everyone avoid injuries and to complete their adventure.

From dedicated, lighter equipment, to online communities and volunteers that can assist hikers on certain distances, it is a lot easier now than it was 50 years ago to go in this long-distance hiking.

What to Expect
from Every Major Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT)

The Appalachian Trail is the most popular choice for thru-hikers from all around the world. Usually, it is the first one to be chosen out of the 3 main trails. It has a length of 2180 miles and crosses the country from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

You will get to see a wide variety of terrain and landscapes as well as wildlife. Be ready to see rabbits, squirrels, lizards and a variety of birds. There are a lot of wild animals you will not want to get too close like black bears, moose and mountain lions.

The hikes for most of the people begin in March or April at springer Mountain in southern Georgia and the trail is completed in September. Of course, there are a lot of ways to hike the Appalachian Trail. Some people start from Maine in July and arrive in Georgia in November and December.

According to the hikers, the most difficult parts of the trail are in Maine and New Hampshire and this is one of the main reasons people prefer to start the trail from Georgia.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)

The Pacific Crest Trail or the PCT has a length of 2650 miles and it takes about 5 months to walk the whole distance. It starts in Mexico and it crosses the western part of the country to Canada.

The most popular period to start hiking on the PCT starts from mid-April to early-May, and most people choose to start from Mexico and work their way up to Canada.

The PCT is a fantastic trail where you will get to experience so much variety in topography from the desert to the frozen wonder of Sierra Nevada.

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT)

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail has a length of 3100 miles crossing the United States between Mexico and Canada. It crosses 5 states: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The CDT is considered to be 76% finished and is the most difficult trail according to the hikers.

For the average hiker, it takes around 5 months to complete the trail, with the most popular starting period being in late April completing it in late September.

The trail continues up north in Canada all the way to Alaska and in South America, the trail lies along the Andes.

When completing all three trails the hiker will receive the honorific title of Triple Crowner and for the next adventures, most of the experienced hikers will try other ways to complete the trails or will explore new trails in different countries around the world.

Essential Thru-Hiking Gear you must have

Before going on the trail there is a long research period when every enthusiast will start to plan everything, study the terrain, read other thru-hikers experiences and try to learn from their mistakes.

Some of the hikers started to refine the way they pack and moved to light backpacking (under 20 lbs) or even ultralight backpacking (under 10 lbs). These choices come with time and experience, knowing perfectly what is the absolute minimum amount of gear and food you need to have for a week’s stretch in order to survive.

Considering this, it is absolutely normal that one of the most researched parts is the hiking gear essential for a long trail. In this section, we will cover the essentials you need to successfully complete any of the trails. It is crucial to know that there are 2 worst-case scenarios when it comes to packing and gear:

  1. Overpacking your backpack increases the risk of injuries. You will also be slowed down by all the extra weight and more likely to quit because of the constant discomfort.
  2. If you don’t pack enough equipment you run the risk of death. This is a serious matter you have to consider. When hiking, hypothermia is one of your biggest enemies.

We do not recommend you to fall to either one of the extremes, that’s why we have a list of essential items you will need to have with you in order to complete your thru-hike. Every item you bring with you should serve a well-defined purpose.

If you can bring with you multi-purpose items it will considerably reduce the weight of your backpack.

Shelter and sleep

When thru-hiking most people carry a tent, some will carry a hammock but we consider it is a matter of preference.
No matter what you decide to bring look for waterproof, durable options.

Shelter and Sleep
Lightweight tentWaterproof Hammock
Sleeping bagSleeping pod
Sleeping pad lining

Clothing

This is the category where most of the long-distance hikers overdo it. As a thru-hiker you only need the essentials, anything more is considered a luxury item and you have to decide if you want to carry it for 2000 miles or not.

Clothing
2 pairs of underwearTwo pair of socks
One sports braLight puffy jacket/vest
RaincoatRain pants
Hiking bottomsGloves
Hat (lightweight)Mesh trail runner shoes
JoggersDown jacket

First Aid Kit

The trails are not a walk in the park. Some hikers may find themselves in an unfortunate situation when they are injured and need basic assistance right away. There are also a lot of stories where hikers bought with them a lot of medicines and medical equipment but they ended up sending it back. Here is the basic first aid kit that will help any hiker in times of need.

Thru-Hiking First Aid Kit
FirestarterDuct tape
Antibiotic creamIbuprofen
Sewing needleAntiseptic wipes
Hand sanitizerBandages
Scissor

Toiletries

Hygiene is as important on the trail as it is at home. Make sure you have all the necessary items for daily routines. Take travel size bottles and containers with you so you save up a lot of space and weight. You can always restock what you need.

Toiletries
ToothbrushToothpaste
FlossVaseline
SunscreenInsect repellant
Period productsAll-purpose soap bar

Food

You will have to eat a lot during the months you will be on the trail. There are several restocking stations along the way and some towns where you can rest and restock. You can also have your family send you small packages of food from home.

Here are some ideas of trail food you should have with you. We took into consideration the calorie ratio they bring at every meal and how lightweight they are.

Food
OatmealDried fruits
Nuts and seedsPowder meals
Dried meatTuna
TortillasInstant noodles
Instant potatoesGranola bars
Peanut butterDried fruits
TeaInstant coffee
Water filterWater bottle (lightweight)

Extra

Depending on your needs and on your pack weight, here are gear and luxury items that will make your hike easier.

Extra
Trekking polesHiking spikes
StoveBooks
JournalPersonal item

The Most Common Thru-hiking
Mistakes

Hiking and backpacking are perfect ways to explore the outdoors and get out of the usual routine. Usually, most outdoor enthusiasts will go on weekend trips or in shorter span hikes to allow them to incorporate their family friends and a job in their life.

A 6 months trip will require a huge commitment from the hiker and it will allow them to grow and to overcome their fears while becoming physically and mentally strong.

Of course, nobody was born to thru-hike the main trails in the USA so to make mistakes and to learn from them is perfectly normal. Talking with experienced thru-hikers we can tell for sure that out on the trails there are some mistakes that can make things a bit harder for you and slow you down and major mistakes that might even cost you your life.

Every experience will be different but it is important to know the common mistakes thru-hikers made so you can avoid them and have a safe experience.

1. Choosing the wrong gear

This is maybe one of the most common mistakes thru-hikers make, especially if they are beginners. It is important to test the gear before going on the trail to see how it works, what you need to change or improve to get the results you need.

2. Prioritize water and food

Thru-hikers can have food and water delivered to them at different checkpoints around the trail. Due to unexpected hardships on the trail, the date might not work for the hiker and the food dropout would be missed making them buy the necessities from the cities. Hikers need to be flexible and to work around the planned dates with the people sending them the supplies.

3. Poor planning

Planning is an essential part that ensures the completion of the 6 months challenge ahead. One common mistake is not taking the proper time to plan all the important details and missing crucial aspects that can make the hiking experience easier.

4. Poor physical shape

Walking for 6 months will change the hiker’s body and will have them in the best shape of their life, but to minimize the risk of injuries the hiker needs to be in good physical shape before going on the trail. Practice and an overall healthy lifestyle have to be the main priority on and off the trails.

5. Packing the wrong clothes

Clothing is a very subjective matter because different things work for different hikers. One common mistake is to pack too many or too little clothes. in the first scenario the weight will slow you down and from the experience of the thru-hikers, some clothes will never be worn.
Not having the essential clothes with you might result in hypothermia and this is a really severe issue all hikers need to take into consideration.

6. Not having enough money

One of the most common reasons people quit is running out of money too early. This is tied to planning and researching all the major spending one will need for the hiking experience. People tend to miss important aspects as zero-days, detours and the cost of staying in the city. From other hikers’ experience, the cost for one month is around $1000.

Thru-hiking
Tips and Recommendation

1. Research the trail

There are three main thru-hiking trails: Appalachian Trail 2180 miles, the Pacific Crest Trail 2650 miles and the Continental Divide Trail 3100 miles. Each one with different wonders and challenges along the way. When choosing your trail you need to be informed and to do your research thoroughly so you minimize the risk of injury or quitting.

2. Make a solid plan

Starting with the most suitable season to start your hike, where are the towns you can stop for a restock, what gear and food you will bring with you, the time frame you want to accomplish your hike, your budget and back-up plans. This are some of the most important aspects you need to include in your plan.

3. Define your own success

Every journey is different, and even though it might sound a bit cliche you will find this to be completely true.
To complete a 6 months journey across the country where most of the time you will feel tired and would want to quit, it is important to have a strong motivation that will keep you going day after day.
At the end of your journey, you will feel more accomplished knowing you stayed true to your motivation.

4. Practice before the big hike

There is no cheat code you can use to be ready for hiking one of the trails. You will need to practice. Go day hiking, try new routes, use different hiking gear to see how it works in the field. Maybe even hike on different sections of the trail so you know what to expect.

5. Budget your money

If you run out of the money you will more than sure quit early. You will need to rest and go to different towns along the trail so you can recover and boost your mental strength, but these expenses will be the ones that will consume your budget. Track your money along the way and limit your spending only on necessary items. Also, remember to save at least a month’s worth of living expenses for when you return home.

6. Stretch

Stretching is the best way to avoid a lot of common hiking injuries that can cause you major discomfort or even make you abandon the trek early. Take a few minutes before starting your hike and after you finish to stretch your body, even if you are tired. It will make all the difference in the world.

7. Prepare for the mental challenge

As most of the through-hikers are solo hikers it can become a lonely journey at one point. The majority of the time you will be tired, wet, sore and cold, and it can be particularly difficult to keep your spirit up during those times. We suggest you take with you something that can ease your burden. Try journaling, photography, videography and from time to time listen to some music or a podcast.

8. You are not alone

Most of the hikers go on the trail solo. If you are one of them be open to new friendships. On the trails, you will meet other people you can hike with for a while, help you and guide you. You will experience the trail magic if you allow others to be part of your journey. The trails can form long-lasting friendships or future hiking partners to become triple crowned with.

9. Keep in touch

Some of the hikers may experience homesickness and it is absolutely normal to miss the people you left at home. When you are in town to do laundry or to restock, don’t forget to give them a call to ease their minds and to catch up with the news from home. Another thing you can do is to send them postcards from every town you visit. We guarantee they will appreciate knowing you are doing well.

10. Know how much water you need

By volume, water is by far the heaviest item in your backpack but also the most important. Depending on the climate you are in and the terrain ahead you should know how much water you need to drink every day. A good rule of thumb would be to drink one liter every two hours to prevent dehydration. Another advice would be to carry ½ liter more than you think you will drink.

Final thoughts

Hikers go on the trail to test their limits, to explore the wonders of the world and to disconnect from the busy life we all live. Each experience is different, and the trails keep changing and evolving alongside the hikers. The most important thing is to be safe and to experience everything at your own pace.

What are your experiences with thru-hiking? Don’t forget to tell us in the comments.