Thru Hiking: The Long Way Around

Hiking club
Written by Russell McCarty

Some journeys in life can really be classed as ‘epic’. This could be a trip you’ve always wanted to take, a sight you’ve always wanted to see, or it could be an expedition you’ve been planning for years. The bottom line is, experiences should be things that you remember for positive reasons, and that occasionally means really going out of your way to find them.

Hiking is a hobby that many people have, and they often enjoy it at weekends or in their spare time, heading off to pre-marked trails which are either near to their home, or not to far away.

Any kind of hike is a great thing, because you’re getting out in the fresh air, you’re enjoying Mother Nature, you’re getting exercise, and you’re seeing all these amazing natural wonders with your own two eyes. Having said that, there are some hiking trips which are longer than your average – have you heard of thru hiking?

What is a Thru Hike?

Thru hiking, or through hiking, is a long hiking trip, and it is a long distance trail which is completed in one go, rather than cutting it into sections and interrupting your journey. A thru hike can often take months, and covers hundreds of miles. The world has several famous thru hiking routes, which we’ll cover in a bit more detail shortly, but these expeditions are always epic, always jaw-dropping, and are designed to cover dramatic and amazing landscapes, whilst being marked for ease along the way.

On the other hand, you have section hiking, which is when you complete parts of a hike at one time, but you don’t complete the whole hike in one trip, e.g. you do half of it, and then you go home for a few months, and then perhaps you return and revisit it to finish the other half, or do another section. This would be referred to as ‘section hiking.

Thru hiking isn’t for everyone, and there is certainly a level of fitness that is required in order to complete the hike not only healthily, but also to ensure that you actually get to the end of it at all – finishing a hike early is one of the main reasons for disappointment, and for that reason, health and planning are vital parts of this type of journey.

Without further ado however, what exactly are the advantages and disadvantages of a thru hiking trip?

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Thru Hiking

Obviously, everything has its up and downs, and when you are embarking on a journey as long and involved as this, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Advantages of Thru Hiking

You get to have a true adventure

Thru hiking routes often pass across dramatic and amazing scenery, and several have history thrown in for good measure. You’re certainly not going to have a run of the mill experience here, and you will see some of the most breath-taking scenery that you’ll probably ever lay your eyes on in your entire life.

For that reason, planning a thru hiking trip properly needs to be done, because the epic nature of the journey demands attention.

Many people claim that thru hiking is quite spiritual

There are a few routes which are known to be spiritual experiences, i.e. the Camino de Santiago in Spain. This means that you are getting out of your journey much more than you put in, and there are people who venture on these types of trip as a retreat, in order to ‘find themselves’, and spend quality time alone, introspectively.

Thru hiking can be very sociable

You will certainly not be the only person trekking a particular route at one time, and that means you will meet many different, likeminded people who may even become life-long friends.

Obviously, you should always exercise caution when meeting someone new, but simply speaking and having a conversation about your journey could really strike up a new friendship. The Great Outdoors is a great bonding experience!

You get to complete an entire experience in one go, rather than having to take time away from work/home several times

A little like backpacking, when you embark on a thru hiking trip, you’re ticking many things off your bucket list in one go, and this can actually work out cheaper cost-wise, and certainly better time-wise.

Disadvantages of Thru Hiking

You might not have the time

If you are working full time or you have a family or responsibilities back home, taking a few months off just might not be feasible.

In this case, section hiking is probably a better bet, but it will mean several trips over a set amount of time.

Thru hiking takes a lot of planning

In the months leading up to leaving for your thru hiking trip, you’re going to have to put a lot of time an effort into planning it, and you’re also going to need to know a lot about the actual process itself. Many people end up giving up on their trip early, because they weren’t prepared, and that is where ground work comes in.

This is not a cheap experience

Yes, you can lower costs here and there if you know the tricks of the trade, but you are going to need to take time away from work and your general life for a few months, and that might take a big hit to your income or savings.

You need to be in good health

If you’re not in the best of health, or you have any issues, you need to really be sure that you’re fit enough to embark on a journey such as this. Speak to your doctor and take their advice.

Common Thru Hiking Routes

Now we know what is a thru hike, and we know about the pros and cons of this type of journey, as well as the difference between this and a section hike, let’s talk about the good stuff – where you can go! There are some trails which are famous as thru hiking destinations.

Appalachian Trail (USA)

Known also as the AT, this particular trail is marked out and begins in the east of the country, and ventures down to Georgia and Mount Katahdin, Maine, covering a huge 2200 miles.

Check out: How to Hike the Appalachian Trail: Your Guide to the World’s Longest Thru-Hike!

This is the longest hiking trail in the world, and it will take you several months to complete it. You certainly won’t be alone in your endeavours here, as around 2 million people hit the trail last year, spending at least one day checking it out.

The trail heads through a huge 14 states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Pacific Crest Trail (USA)

Again, known as PCT, this is a long distance trail which follows the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, heading through 25 national forests and 7 national parks. The trail itself covers a huge 2659 miles, and again, you’re looking at months to complete it, especially as most of the trail covers very high ground indeed.

Continental Divide Trail (USA)

The CDT takes you on an epic journey between Mexico and Canada, spanning over 3100 miles.

The trail traces the Continental Divide of the Americas, hence the name, and heads through the Rocky Mountains, as well as through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and into New Mexico. Again, the scenery on this trail is breath-taking.

Te Araroa Trail (New Zealand)

We know that New Zealand has some of the most jaw-dropping natural sites around, but this particular trail will show you most of them, heading from north to south along both islands, from cape Reinga to Bluff. The trail covers 1850 miles, and it is estimates that you should complete it within 6 months at the most, although some do manage it in 3 months.

Camino de Santiago (Spain)

We briefly mentioned this trail when we were talking about spirituality, and this is probably the biggest nod to that. The Camino de Santiago travels the pilgrimage route, as a shrine to the apostle, St James the Great. Rather than scenery, this trail is 791 miles long, and covers a spiritual path for those who seek solace and time alone.

Of course, just because it doesn’t necessarily focus on nature doesn’t mean that there isn’t plentiful opportunities to see it!

Lycian Way (Turkey)

Covering the coastline of Ancient Lycia, The Lycian Way starts in Olu Deniz, near the coastal resort of Fethiye, and it spans east to Gayikbayiri, which is close to the city of Antalya. The trail is 540km long, and is marked by red and white stripes, to keep everyone on path. This is a very historical path to follow, and one which has some beautiful scenery, including Butterfly Valley.

Israel National Trail (Israel)

The chance to see one country in its entirety is a great opportunity to take, and the Israel National Trail takes you 636 miles across the whole country. The northern part of the trail is near to the Lebanon border, at Dan, and it heads south to Eilat, on the Red Sea.

The trail is marked with white, blue, and orange stripes, and it is estimated that it can be finished in around 60 days, so a two months’ stint all in all.

Great Divide Trail (Canada)

Heading into the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies is something which most people with a penchant for the Great Outdoors dream of doing, but this particular trail takes you into the heart of it. At 746 miles in length, spanning the Waterton Lakes National Park and into the Kakwa Provincial Park, this is a trip that will show you the wonder of nature, for sure.

These are just a few of the most famous thru hiking trails on offer, and there are many more besides. Do your research, find the one which calls out to you and your interests the most, and put all of your energy into making that trip a reality.

Tips/Things to Bear in Mind

A thru hiking trip has many pitfalls, and if you go into it unprepared, you’re at risk of falling foul of these, and probably ending your trip very prematurely. Of course, the main thing you need to bear in mind is that you are healthy enough to take this kind of trip, that you can finance it, and that you can take the time away from your work or daily activities, without it causing a problem when you return.

Once you tick these items off the list, the rest can be done with planning and careful attention!

Research is everything

We can’t stress enough how important it is to do your research well before you jet off. Find out every single detail you can on your chosen trail, head to forums and ask questions, find out what you’ll need, where you’ll be going, the type of terrain you’ll be crossing, what stop off points there are along the way, and where you can stock up on your supplies. Being prepared is the difference between a successful trip, and one which never sees the end.

Find out about your resupply options

Because you’re going to be crossing thousands of miles over several months, you simply can’t take everything you need when you first set off. You are going to need to stock up on supplies at some point, and again, this is all down to research.

Most people have friends and family send out supply boxes to them whilst on their journey, and this means knowing what towns and stop off points there are along the way, so these can be sent out to them by mail, for collection.

Research your equipment

You need to be lightweight, you need to be zippy, and you need to be safe. This all means that you need a backpack which allows you to carry it comfortably and safely, without causing pains and strains as you move along. Most top quality backpacks these days have lumbar support and hip belts, to distribute the weight of the pack evenly across the body. Shop around.

Travel lightly

Moving on from actually finding your back pack for your thru hiking trip, you need to travel efficiently, and that means lightly. You don’t need everything, you simply need the essentials.

Again, check out online forums for advice on this, and be as ruthless as possible.

Practice and get in shape first

We mentioned that you need to be healthy, but you also need to be in good health. Practice a little first, and this is best done by hitting the gym to boost your strength, but also heading out on regular day hikes, to boost your stamina.

Be realistic and know the possible pitfalls

Think about the trip very carefully before you go, and know where you may go wrong. For instance, too many people expect too much and then get disappointed when unforeseen circumstances crop up. Research the common pitfalls and have a plan B on what you will do if something happens. The biggest pitfall is running out of cash too early, so make sure you budget carefully.

Look after your muscles

It’s important to stretch regularly when you’re hiking, regardless of how long you’re travelling for.

Have regular breaks and make sure that you stretch your quads, calves, and your hamstrings. On top of this, stretch in the morning before you begin, and again when you finish.

Your feet are your friends!

You need your feet to be in the best condition possible, so think like a hiking pro and invest in a comfortable, breathable pair of shoes. Most experienced hikers wear lightweight shoes, as well as socks made of synthetic material. This means you can get air inside your shoes, your feet can breathe, you cut down on the chances of developing a blister, and you’re not dragging extra weight with you, that you really don’t need.

Ready For Your Thru Hiking Adventure?

You probably wondered “what is a thru hike?” before you began reading this, but now you know exactly what this type of adventure is, and hopefully you’re raring to go yourself!

The most important part of thru hiking is planning and research, because that gives you the most even foundation to begin on. As with any outdoor adventure into the wilderness, make sure you purchase the right kit for your trip, and that means a high quality backpack. See also some useful tips on backpacking to give you more information.

There is no point in scrimping here to save cash, because if you go too cheap, you’re probably going to see cheap results; that’s not to say you can’t shop around however, because there are deals out there on the best backpacks on the market. For more options, check out the top 12 most scenic routes in America for more insights.

Thru hiking isn’t for anyone who doesn’t want to dedicate themselves to a large amount of time outdoors, but it is certainly a fantastic alterative to backpacking, and is a great opportunity for anyone who really wants to immerse themselves in nature. Have you done a thru hike before? Share with us your epic adventure in the comments!

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Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.