Conquering a thru-hike is - without a doubt - one of the most rewarding experiences ever. Believe us when we say - very few things in life come close to this feeling of achievement and exhilaration.
Perhaps you've heard of thru-hiking before or you have a general idea of what it is; now you want to know all about these hikes and maybe even go on one.
If that is the case, we fully support you, because completing a thru-hike is an experience of a lifetime.
That being said, we want you to be prepared, both physically and mentally. These trails are not a joke; they require strength of character and serious physical power.
Already got those? Perfect!
Now it's time to learn about the other, less challenging necessities, such as:
- What equipment do I need for thru-hiking?
- How do I fully prepare?
- What options do I have?
- And a bunch of other technical stuff.
We're going to address all of this and more in our super thorough thru-hiking guide. So, if you're contemplating becoming a thru-hiker, this is your make-or-break type of guide.
Similar Read: Check out our hiking guide - it covers everything you'll ever need!
What Is Thru-Hiking?
In order to dive deeper into the abovementioned questions, first, we need to define thru-hiking.
In simple words, thru-hiking is hiking an extremely long-distance end-to-end trail.
In the United States, these hikes are most widely associated with three trails:
- the Appalachian Trail,
- Pacific Crest Trail (PCT),
- the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
These three will probably be the longest trips you’ll ever take as a hiker.
Don't worry - we are going to describe each of these trails in detail down below; just keep scrolling!
As you can probably assume, thru-hiking dates back to the times when long-distance foot travel was the only means of transportation.
However, back then, people walked immense distances for sheer necessity and not much for pleasure or a sense of accomplishment like we do now.
Plus, they didn't have remotely as much gear as we do today (be it clothes, gadgets, or technology).
Thru-hiking has changed a lot throughout the years, but the basics still remain the same.
Nowadays, the essence of thru-hiking lies in the search for that out-of-this-world feeling, the freedom of spirit, and the invaluable experience.
The Difference Between Thru-Hiking And Backpacking
The difference between thru-hiking and backpacking might be confusing to some people. While they appear to be similar, a few key aspects set them apart.
You could say that thru-hiking is a specialized form of backpacking.
When thru-hiking, the focus is on achieving a certain daily mileage (often in the range of double digits) in order to complete the trail within a certain timeframe. It sounds technical, but it's what best describes it.
Backpacking, on the other hand, is more casual.
If we're going to be nitpicky, here are some more differences between the two:
- physical ability - backpacking is way less demanding than a thru-hike.
- mental capability - thru-hikes can make you overcome your mental barriers a lot better than backpacking.
- weight of gear - thru-hikers travel with lighter equipment, while backpackers usually carry bulkier and heavier loads.
- time commitment - completing a thru-hike requires a serious time commitment (we’re talking months or even a year).
10 Essential Tips For First-Time Thru-Hikers
If you were to talk to thru-hikers, they'd probably say it was the most rewarding journey of their lives.
But if you were to ask them how many times they had wished they were dead because of how tough it was, there’s a good chance they might say “a lot”. As you can tell, a thru-hike is no walk in the park.
For those reasons, we can't stress this enough - it is vital that you prepare well for a thru-hike.
A thru-hike goes on for thousands of miles, and it takes a lot of time (sometimes, it's only one day per week), so there's plenty of room for something to go wrong. You just have to be ready to take on whatever challenge may come your way, anticipated or not.
However, if you follow these tips before you set out on your first thru-hiking endeavor, you'll have nothing to worry about.
1. Do your research
Since you're already reading our guide, you're on the right path!
It's essential to lay the groundwork and do a ton of research if you wish to go thru-hiking. Luckily, we live in the golden age of the Internet, and all the information thru-hikers could possibly need is one click away.
Get informed on potential issues and threats you might experience, find the right gear, figure out what to do before, during, and after thru-hiking.
You'd be shocked by how many first-time thru-hikers come unprepared. They underestimate the trail and overestimate their abilities.
This goes for every thru-hiker - never underestimate a thru-hiking trail!
If it were easy, any average Joe would do it.
2. Acknowledge the downsides
A challenging adventure like a thru-hike is not all roses.
Some things might get in your way and make you wish to turn back or regret you ever set out to do it in the first place. Sometimes people quit due to unpredictable events, like family emergencies.
Besides these, there are other things that might interfere with thru-hiking:
Why Thru-Hikers (Usually) Quit
- Mental fatigue
No matter how tough a thru-hike is on your body, it's tougher on your mind. We are talking about the things you've perhaps never felt before - extreme exhaustion, soreness, hunger; you'll be cold, wet, or freezing - to name a few. There will be times when you'll be homesick, lonely, or downright exhausted.
And this is inevitable.
A thru-hike requires mental fortitude. But if you ever feel like giving up, remember that there's only one way to eat an elephant - a bite at a time.
- Unrealistic expectations
It's super easy to romanticize a thru-hike from the comfort of your home. Actually experiencing it is an entirely different thing.
Now, we're not saying completing a thru-hike isn't an intoxicating feeling, but it's not going to be an easy stroll. It's better to realize this from the beginning and set your expectations accordingly to avoid disappointments.
- No more time/money
This is one that you absolutely have to prepare for.
Keep careful track of your time & money to make sure neither is running out. These kinds of things can bring your thru-hike to an untimely end like nothing else.
- Physical injuries
While you'll do everything in your power to avoid getting injured on a thru-hike, accidents do happen. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do about it.
Thru-hiking puts an incredible amount of stress on your entire body - your bones, muscles, and joints.
It's not unheard of to get sick mid-hike, either.
These are all potential reasons for quitting, even if you don't want to. However, hiking while injured or sick will only make matters worse.
Knowing when to quit is just as important as knowing how to endure a thru-hike till the end.
3. Set a goal
Setting a clear goal and focusing on it makes the mental aspect a bit easier. When you have something to look forward to, it will motivate you during tough times.
How do you wish to feel at the end? What does accomplishment mean to YOU?
These are the things you should think about before starting a thru-hike. Believe us; it'll make you want to get up and keep going even when you feel like you can’t.
4. Don't overpack
A thru-hike is tough as it is without you carrying unnecessary weight to make it even more challenging.
Bring the essentials, but don't overpack! You'll be the one that regrets it.
This experience is more about being efficient than showing brute strength.
The lighter the load, the more miles you'll be able to cover without putting too much stress on your body.
Limit your resources (the base pack weight is usually within the range of 10 to 15 pounds), but know which of those are essential: food, water, a tent, blanket, first aid kit - anything that will help you get through the day.
If you're going on a hike, you have to make it your number one priority - that is, if you want a successful thru-hike.
At the end of the day, you'll have to fully commit to the hike and make sacrifices in order to complete it. What these sacrifices are can vary for everyone, but rest assured - you'll have to make some.
6. Never enough practice
A wise man once said that practice makes perfect, and it's true.
The only way to endure a hike is to physically prepare for it. Whatever type of training feels the best for you, be it swimming, weight lifting, cardio, jogging, go for it.
Just make sure to do it every day to build up your mettle before the hikes, so you can enjoy them without thinking it's the worst decision you've ever made.
7. Plan your budget
Planning your budget and tracking it along the way is what will keep you going. You don't want the additional weight of money issues on your shoulder.
Running out of money is one of the main reasons thru-hikers give up, so it's critical to plan ahead and be prepared.
The average thru-hiker spends around $1,000 a month on the trail, but that's not true for everybody. It really depends on your hiking style.
You have to ensure that you have money for resupplying food, laundry, gear replacement/repair, and so on.
That being said, unless you're a Rockefeller, go easy on resupplies. Cover the essential spending and always stick to your planned budget.
This brings us to one of the most asked questions - What does a thru-hiker do for a living? How are you expected to make money when you're on a year-long hike?
Well, some hikers have some money saved up and want to experience the hike before a career change. Others find a profession that is similar to the nature of the hike, like an outdoor guide, camp counselor, ridge runner, park ranger, and so on. Even part-time freelancing is a solution!
8. Stick to what feels good
There's a saying in the hiking community that we love - Hike your own hike.
Focus on what feels right for your body. There is no single correct way to hike; the "rules" are not set in stone.
So, don't rush or slow yourself down to keep with someone else's standards. Do what feels natural for you.
9. Choose your company carefully
Many thru-hikers choose to go on the hike by themselves. For many, their own company is enough. They realize that being on the road for months on end can take a toll on any relationship.
If you're particularly keen on traveling with somebody, choose close friends, a family member, or your partner - anyone you get along with and think your relationship won't falter under the stress of the hike.
10. Listen to your body
Our bodies have a way of telling us when we need to slow down.
When on a thru-hike, always listen to what your body is telling you. Choose your pace accordingly and build up the mileage gradually as your body gets stronger and more resistant.
You'll undoubtedly have to push past your limits on a thru-hike, BUT you also have to know when to stop pushing.
Oh, and one more thing - pay special attention to your feet.
They are your special companion on this trip. How you treat them will have a huge effect on the whole experience.
Consider this - you'll have to take around 25 million steps. No need to adjust your set; you read that right.
Now, can you imagine doing this in uncomfortable shoes or when your feet are hurting? Sounds like every thru-hiker's worst nightmare, doesn't it?
What To Bring On A Thru-Hike?
Here's a list of helpful things to bring with you. Go through it carefully before you decide to embark on a thru-hike adventure!
You simply have to plan your journey and write it down point by point. These hikes take months to complete, and you need to know where you're going and when you plan to get there.
Include things such as mileage, transportation, resupply stops, contingencies, permits, and so on.
What kind of permits, you might ask? Well, think about it - perhaps you'll need campfire permits, trail permits or border permits.
As for contingencies, they include everything, from unpredicted weather changes to trail closures, injuries, just to name a few. It's a clever strategy to plan an alternative route, just in case something unforeseen happens.
Divide your trips into weeks, and schedule these weeks with day-by-day plans and share them with your group (if you're not traveling alone). Search for alternative options, and check-in with a hiking community - they can be your light at the end of the tunnel during intense times.
2. Food and water
This is probably one of the trickiest parts, thus it's most crucial to plan ahead.
Let's say you go on the Pacific Crest Trail - PCT; in the desert, some parts of trails lack uncontaminated water, some lack water altogether. That’s why knowing where to find water along the way can literally save your life.
Figuring out what gear to bring for carrying food and water plays an important role as well.
While preparing for thru-hiking, you'll probably think of millions of things you want to bring with you, but a person can only carry so much.
Even if you believe you'll be able to carry a heavier load, you’ll be convinced otherwise in about two months.
So, don't overpack and don't bring things you don't absolutely need.
Lightweight gear is a true lifesaver on thru-hikes.
Don't forget to include both warmer and lighter clothes, in case you need to warm up or cool down.
Don't overlook the fact that you might have limited resources, so pack only the basics and essentials. A camping tent, food, water-carrying gear, and reliable shoes should be at the top of your list.
Pay attention now, cause what we're about to say is one of the best pieces of advice on thru-hiking:
Wear comfortable, robust, waterproof footwear.
Oh, and bring a few extra pairs.
Also, consider other items you might need - maps, a compass, a first aid kit, medicine supply, etc.
Choosing A Trail
Now that you know what to expect on a trail and how to prepare for one, it's time to select the route.
The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail are what's known as the Triple Crown of Hiking in the United States.
Appalachian Trail - AT
This hiking trail expands between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, passing through 14 states in total.
When we say this is a long-distance hike, we're not kidding. This trail is - hold onto your seat - around 2,200 miles long. And it's not even the longest one.
There's also an extension of the trail known as the International Appalachian Trail. It continues northeast through Canada to Newfoundland.
The idea behind the AT began to form a century ago, in 1921.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website shares some interesting facts about the trail and the hikers. They feature a list of the so-called 2000-milers, so if you want to learn about the famous first-time long-distance hikers, you can read all about it on the site.
They call the AT a "mammoth undertaking," and we couldn't agree more.
Each thru-hiking trail comes with certain hazards, and this one is no exception. While you'll rarely experience bear sightings, be ready to meet venomous snakes and the most persistent pests - ticks, black flies, and mosquitos. After all, the hiking season is early spring to autumn.
Ever wondered how many people actually completed the trail? Thousands of hikers attempt each year; only one in four make it all the way.
Pacific Crest Trail - PCT
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2,653-mile-long hiking trail that passes through 25 national forests and 7 national parks. The PCT varies in elevation, with the lowest point being just above sea level at the Oregon-Washington border and the highest point being 13,153 feet at Forester Pass (Sierra Nevada).
The PCT is also called the National Scenic trail due to the breathtaking landscapes you'll witness throughout the hike.
While infinitely beautiful and exhilarating, this trail comes with countless hazards which you're exposed to the entire time (severe weather, dehydration, avalanches, landslides, forest fires, hypothermia).
You could also be visited by special wild guests on the PCT, including venomous snakes, black and grizzly bears, as well as mountain lions.
Get ready for intense walking sessions for weeks on end, just you and nature. Your feet better be ready for this massive undertaking!
The hiking season for PCT is from late April to late September.
Continental Divide Trail - CDT
Undoubtedly one of the longest and most demanding thru-hikes in the world is the Continental Divide Trail.
This long trail goes on for 3,028 miles between the US border with Mexico (Chihuahua) and the border with Canada (Alberta), and it traverses five US states. The highest point is located in Grey Peak, Colorado (14,278 feet).
The best words to describe this incredible trail are wild, raw, remote, and unfinished.
Walking this trail is where your backpacking experience will give you an advantage over first-time hikers, as it surely takes extraordinary skills and strength to complete the entire trail.
Hikers should be ready for all kinds of natural hazards, like wild animals (bears, mountain lions, etc.) and severe weather, lightning, landslides, hypothermia, and much more.
There are a few more long-distance hiking trails besides those in the US.
The Te Araroa in New Zealand is 1,900 miles long, and the Great Divide Trail in Canada that stretches for 700 miles is the most popular.
The Bottom Line
Are you looking to experience the thrill of a thru-hike? Test your physical abilities and find out what it's like to be truly free and one with nature.
Be mindful though, traveling such a great length and completing a thru-hike, can also be exhausting and incredibly difficult.
In order to get ready for the adventure of a lifetime, it's crucial that you do exhaustive research.
We're happy to say that your search for a comprehensive thru-hiking guide has finally come to an end!
Hopefully, now you know what you’ll need for a successful trip. What to pack, where to resupply the food and water, and how to put your backpacking experience to good use.
Our tips will make your trip an unforgettable one - just ask any of the thru-hikers that have completed this incredible journey. We guarantee every single thru-hiker will give you similar advice.
Are you ready for the longest walk in the world? We wish you the best of luck and hope you make it all the way!