What is Thru Hiking? The Complete Beginners’ Guide
RestlessBackpacker’s Team
August 7, 2020

Many backpackers dream of taking their weekend hobby to the next level. To travel across the country by foot is an incredible feat, but walking more than 2000 miles over the course of 5-6 months is a test of resistance. It is both physically and mentally demanding for everyone on the trail. If you want to know what is thru hiking and how to achieve such an incredible feat, check out our guide below!

Regular backpackers don’t have any pressure to complete a hike in a specific time frame, and can choose their own hiking trails and explore nature in their own rhythm. If you want to know what is thru hiking, the answer lies here: thru hikers focus on covering high mileage every day on a clearly marked trail, so they can complete the trail before the winter comes.

There are important things you will need to consider before going thru hiking, from the general concept to the actual planning of your trip. We will be covering all of them in this article.

Here’s 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

We are sure you already know the differences between trekking, hiking, and camping, but thru hiking is nothing and all of them at the same time. 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 notorious thru-hiking trails include the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

Traveling on foot used to be a common way of transporting food long distances. The thru-hiking practice was born when a necessary chore evolved into something of 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 creation of many hiking trails during the 1920s, the practice has 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. She was the first woman to solo hike the AT in one season at age 67 with completely unsuitable gear. Grandma Gatewood’s legacy is just one of so many stories about strong and determined thru-hikers.

Hundreds of hikers flock to the main hiking trails every year, crowding the most popular starting points from March 1 to April 15.

Unfortunately, only 1 in 4 people actually manage to finish a given trail. The physical and mental demands of this activity can be too much for inexperienced hikers.

Thru-hiking is a challenge for everyone who decides to set foot on these trails. To put it simply, it’s not realistic for everybody to dedicate 6 months or more to the completion of a trail.

The majority of people starting their journey on one of the 3 main trails are solo hikers. Mental strength is a main aspect 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 it started

Long-distance walking was born out of necessity. But over time people started to feel liberated and accomplished by conquering trails of over 2000 miles in length.

Thru hiking gained popularity as a leisure/athletic activity around 1920. It began when trail founders started combining the small preexisting trails to give long-distance walkers a safer experience. They also widened these trails to allow travelers to bring horses and carry different types of equipment.

After the initial quests of combining the smaller trails and opening the three main trails to the public, more complicated challenges began.

Trails not only had to be monitored and managed, they also needed protection from different smugglers trying to enter the trail. Safe detours need to be planned and executed, new paths around main obstacles need to be created. This maintenance is ongoing even today, and there is always something to do.

When the trails first opened, only a handful of registered people managed to complete them each year.

There is a popular story about a young Russian immigrant who lived in New York City that wanted to return to Russia to see her family. Without having any money for other means of transportation, she decided to walk the 12,000 miles back to Russia. The unbelievable adventure that took place in 1926 became a legend among thru-hikers.

As the years passed and interest in this type of backpacking grew substantially, many tools and gadgets were developed to help enthusiasts avoid injuries and safely complete their adventures.

With additions like innovative and lightweight equipment, online communities, and volunteers who can assist hikers during their journey, long-distance hiking is now easier and more approachable than it was 50 years ago.

What to Expect
from Every Major Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT)

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

Be ready for a wide variety of terrain and landscapes and get your camera ready for rabbits, squirrels, lizards and a variety of birds. Also be prepared for encounters with black bears, moose, and mountain lions.

The hikes usually begin in March or April at Springer Mountain in southern Georgia and end in September. The most difficult parts of the trail are in Maine and New Hampshire so many 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 passes through 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 hikers.

For the average hiker, it takes about 5 months to complete the trail, with the most popular starting period beginning in late April, and a usual ending time around late September.

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

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Upon completing all three trails, a hiker will receive the honorific title of Triple Crowner. For new adventures and challenges, experienced hikers will try to complete the trails in different ways, or even explore new trails in different countries around the world.

Essential Thru Hiking Gear you must have

Before embarking on the trail, there is a long and necessary research period when an enthusiast will start to plan everything. They’ll study the terrain and read other thru hikers experiences, trying to learn from their mistakes.

Some hikers start to refine the way they pack, moving to light backpacking (under 20 lbs) or even ultralight backpacking (under 10 lbs). These choices come with time and experience, as you must know exactly what the absolute minimum amount of gear and food you will need in order to survive a week-long stretch. If you already know how to pack for a day’s hike, things will be clearer for you.

All things considered, it is completely normal to spend the most time researching the hiking gear that’s necessary for a long trail. In this section, we will cover which essentials you need to successfully complete any of the trails.

It is crucial to know the 2 worst-case scenarios when it comes to packing and gear:

1. Overpacking your backpack. This increases the risk of injuries and slows you down with all the extra weight. You’ll be more likely to quit if you’re experiencing constant discomfort.

2. Underpacking your backpack. If you don’t pack enough equipment you run the risk of death. This is a serious matter you have to remember. When hiking, hypothermia is one of your biggest enemies.

We do not recommend you to fall into either one of these extremes, and 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 any multi-purpose items it will considerably reduce the weight of your backpack. Needless to say, you will have to look for the best waterproof backpack to carry all your gear and keep them safe at the same time.

Shelter and sleep

When thru-hiking most people carry a tent, but some will carry a hammock. We consider this a matter of preference.
No matter what you decide to bring, make sure to look for options that are waterproof and durable.

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

Clothing

This is the category where many long-distance hikers overdo it. As a thru-hiker you only need the essentials, and anything more is considered a luxury item that you have to decide if you want to carry for 2000 miles. We recommend you to check out guide on the best hiking socks – tested and approved by pro hikers – to make your life easier on the trail. You might want to take a look at our guide on the best winter hiking boots as well. Your feet are the key to success in thru hiking, and trust when we say this, you want to treat them right.

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

Long-distance trails are not a walk in the park. Some hikers may find themselves full of blisters on their feet or even injured in an unfortunate situation and need basic assistance right away. There are lots of stories where hikers brought tons of medicines and medical equipment with them, but 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 that you will be on the trail. There are several restocking stations along the way, including some towns where you can also rest and restock. You can even have your family send you small packages of food from home. Since you have to travel light, we recommend you to leave your backpacking stove at home for this particular adventure. It is true that nothing compares with some hiking recipes prepped over a sparkly fire, but it is not the case with thru hiking.

Here are some ideas of trail food you should have with you. We took into consideration the calorie ratio they provide for each meal and how lightweight they are. You can also take a look over our guide on best backpacking food options, as you might need some extra inspiration in case you follow a particular diet.

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. Some consider trekking poles as a necessity, not a luxury, but they are not mandatory. In any case, you should check our guide on the best trekking poles available right now and decide if they are going to accompany you in your thru hiking journey.

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 your usual routine. Usually, most outdoor enthusiasts will go on weekend trips or shorter hikes to continue enjoying their hobby while still being able to incorporate their family, friends, and a job in their life.

A 6 month trip requires a huge amount of commitment from the hiker. It allows them to grow and to overcome their fears while also becoming physically and mentally strong.

Of course, nobody was born to thru hike the main trails in the USA, so to make mistakes and learn from them is perfectly normal. After talking with experienced thru-hikers, we can tell for sure that there are some mistakes out on the trails that can make things much harder for you, slowing you down. Major mistakes that are more serious could even cost you your life.

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

1. Choosing the wrong gear

This is maybe the most common mistake 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, and 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 along the trails. Due to unexpected hardships on the trail, the date might not work for the hiker and the food dropout could be missed, making them buy their necessities from cities. Hikers need to be flexible and to work with the planned dates from the people who are sending them the supplies.

3. Poor planning

Planning is an essential part of preparation that ensures the completion of your 6 month challenge ahead. One common mistake is not taking the proper time to plan out all the important details and accidentally missing crucial aspects that can make the hiking experience easier. Consider you plan a winter hike and take it from there when it comes to carrying heavy loads, having the right gear, staying safe, list all dangers and how to avoid them, etc.

4. Poor physical shape

Walking for 6 months will change a hiker’s body and have them in the best shape of their life. But in order to minimize the risk of injuries, the hiker still 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. Common mistakes are packing too many clothes or not packing enough. In the first scenario, the weight will slow you down and according to thru-hikers, some of those clothes will never be worn.
On the other hand, not having the essential clothes with you could result in hypothermia. This is a severe scenario all hikers need to take into consideration.

6. Not having enough money

Another reason people quit is because they run out of money too early. This is usually due to planning and researching all the major spending one will need only for the hiking experience. People tend to forget about important aspects like zero-days, detours and the cost of staying in the city. From other hikers’ experience, the average cost for one month is around $1000.

Thru-hiking
Tips and Recommendation

1. Research the trail

There are three main thru-hiking trails: the 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 can minimize the risk of injury or quitting.

2. Make a solid plan

Start with the most suitable season to start your hike. Find the towns you can stop in for a restock. Make a list of what gear and food you will bring with you. Set the time frame for accomplishing your hike. Organize your budget and some back-up plans. Learn how to stay safe during any hike and how to prevent and solve any hiking crisis situations, from animal encounters to accidents and injuries. These 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.
It’s important to have strong motivation that will keep you going day after day in order to complete a 6 month journey across the country. Most of the time you will feel tired and maybe feeling like you want to quit. But by the end of your journey, you will feel more accomplished knowing you stayed true to your goal.

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. Check out this guide on the best hiking trails in the U.S. wilderness, try a few of them, and prepare for the adventure of your life at least a year ahead!

5. Budget your money

If you run out of the money you will certainly quit early. You will need to rest and stop at different towns along the trail so you can recover and boost your mental strength, but these expenses will be the ones that will consume most of your budget. Track your money along the way and limit your spending to only 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 major discomfort or even make you abandon the trek early. Take a few minutes before starting your hike and again 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. For the majority of the time you will be tired, wet, sore and cold, and it can become particularly difficult to keep your spirits up. We suggest you take something with you that can ease your burden. Try journaling, photography, videography or from time to time listen to some music or a podcast.

8. You are not alone

Most of 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, they can help you and guide you. You will truly experience the trail magic if you allow others to be part of your journey. The trails can form long-lasting friendships and reveal future hiking partners to become triple crowned with.

9. Keep in touch

Some hikers may experience homesickness. 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 catch up with the news from home. You can also 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 is to drink one liter every two hours to prevent dehydration. Another great tip is to carry ½ liter more than you think you need.

Thru Hiking: 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 continue to change and evolve alongside 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 below! If you already tried the thru hiking experience on one of the three major trails, feel free to share yor experiences with us! We would love to hear about your adventures!