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What Is Thru-Hiking? (Expectations, Tips, Top Trails & More)

thru hike

As a hiker, I always have my eyes set on the next region of the world to conquer. Thru-hiking is an adventure that I think a lot of us if we haven’t done it already, would like to experience in our lives at some point.

Most people are familiar with what it’s like to journey through hiking trails for a few days maximum, but when it comes to a thru-hike, trails such as the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and the Appalachians are a different set of beasts.

So, let’s talk a little about what thru-hiking actually is, some famous thru-hiking trails, and what you should know if you’re planning one any time soon.

Quick Summary

    • A thru-hike is typically a several-week or even a several-month-long venture on an established hiking trail with continuous steps.
    • There are five famous thru-hiking expeditions that can be attempted in North America.
    • When planning a thru-hike, there are several tips and recommendations you should know beforehand.

    What is Thru-Hiking? The Basics

    thru hiking Mt. Triglav, Slovenia

    Thru-hiking, unlike a casual hiking or backpacking trip, is a form of hiking where a person travels from end to end of a specific type of trail in a continuous direction.

    This type of hike traditionally takes weeks or months due to how long the established trails are, but the length of a thru-hiking trail can vary by region.

    There are some shorter trails on the lower end of the spectrum that can be completed without needing months worth of time, such as the Resurrection Pass Trail, Loyalsock Trail, and Toiyabe Crest Trail.

    However, due to their length, these are not considered true thru-hiking trails.

    When most thru-hikers talk about thru-hikes, they mean the likes of the Appalachian Trail (AT), which runs over 2100 miles long, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs over 2600 miles long, and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), which runs over 3100 miles long.

    These are common trails that thru-hikers attempt and are also some of the most popular.

    However, there’s a lot of planning that needs to be done before you fully commit, which is what we’ll be getting into next.

    What to Expect?

    I can’t stress this enough, but you need to expect that there will be physical, mental, and financial challenges on a thru-hike.

    Since you’ll be hiking for such a long period of time, there’s a good chance that you’ll experience aches, pains, and exhaustion during your journey.

    Unfortunately, these issues are inevitable. You will face them, but they don’t have to stop you. Staying up to date on your fitness, and health, and only pushing your body to reasonable limits will lessen the difficulty these challenges pose.

    Mentally, you need to expect that you’ll contemplate quitting or giving up and that there will be times when you’re completely alone.

    Fear and anxiety from taking on such a significant journey are normal, but you can’t let that stop you from completing your hike if that’s what you’ve set your mind on.

    On parts of your hike, you won’t have any contact with anyone, but try to use it as an opportunity to be alone and at peace with yourself.

    Lastly, there’s the financial aspect. On top of spending money for the appropriate hiking gear, you’re going to be away from a consistent source of cash for a long time, which is already unfeasible for most people.

    You need to expect that you’ll be spending money on food, resupply shops, and setting up payments for any mounting bills ahead of time.

    5 Most Famous Thru-Hikes in North America

    1. Appalachian Trail

    overview of Appalachian Trail
    Courtesy of John Hayes

    The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular thru-hiking spots in the world. With a hiking length of 2190-miles, which runs from the state of Georgia all the way to Maine, this trail takes average thru-hikers 5-7 months to complete.

    Ideally, this trail should be walked at the very beginning of spring to maximize the time you have to finish before the hiking season ends.

    2. Pacific Crest Trail

    Pacific Crest Trail
    Courtesy of Dana L. Brown

    The PCT has a length of 2650 miles and runs from the border of Mexico to Canada.

    Within the 4-6 months it would take a thru-hiker to complete this trail, you’ll be passing along the Pacific Coast, meaning you’ll travel through states such as California, Oregon, and Washington for some beautifully stunning scenery.

    3. Continental Divide Trail

    Continental Divide Trail
    Courtesy of Jane Nearing

    Of the two previously mentioned hiking trails, the CDT is the longest, extending up to 3100 miles and running from Mexico to Canada. This may sound similar to the Pacific Crest Trail, but the Continental Divide passes through states like New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana.

    Additionally, this path is said to be the most difficult of the previously mentioned trails. It’s important that you stock up and plan your routes accordingly.

    4. Vermont Long Trail

    Vermont Long Trail
    Courtesy of Jimmy Emerson, DVM

    The Vermont Long Trail is on the shorter end of a thru-hike, clocking in at only 272 miles in length. However, it’s still an established trail that leads through the state’s Green Mountains and ends at the Canadian border.

    Vermont’s Green Mountain ranges wind through densely forested areas and steep mountains. So, if you hike this trail you’ll be seeing a lot of beautiful green valleys, but be prepared for sudden areas of elevation as well.

    5. John Muir Trail

    Suspension Bridge on John Muir Trail
    Courtesy of Tom Fassbender

    The last most popular trail in North America is the John Muir Trail. What makes this path so appealing to most people is that not only is it 211 miles in length, but it only requires 2-4 weeks to fully hike.

    This trail begins in Yosemite National Park and leads into Mount Whitney. If you don’t think you can manage the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide trails, this trail can still give you the scenery and sense of accomplishment that a traditional thru-hike would.

    First Time Thru-Hiker Tips

    a guy thru hiking on a rocky terrain

    Before embarking on a long trail, there’s a significant amount of preparation that needs to be done.

    As mentioned before, there are physical, mental, and financial challenges that a hiker is guaranteed to face while on their journey.

    Below, we’re going to get into some tips that first time thru-hikers need to know, as well as some ways you can prevent the previously mentioned challenges from slowing you down on your own hike:

    1. Research Your Thru-Hiking Trail

    Possibly the most important tip of them all. If you’re planning on going through with this kind of hike, you need to know everything you can about the hiking trail.

    This includes the wildlife, the type of weather it gets throughout the year, and the distance between the path and each supply stop along the way, among other things.

    2. Define Your Hiking Goals

    Do you intend on hiking the entire path? Is there a set amount of miles you want to travel? Or maybe a landmark you want to see? Clearly set an obtainable goal for yourself based on your hiking style.

    More than half of people who start a thru-hike never see it through to the end, because it ends up being more than they expected.

    3. Find a Trail Family

    It’s rare that you’ll travel a trail without coming across another hiker or hiking group along the way. If you happen to come across anybody with similar hiking goals to yourself, it’s possible you could tag along with them.

    While trail families usually form at the beginning of a thru hike, some happen in the middle. These groups can be a good source of food, supplies, directions, and companionship.

    4. Make Sure Your Body Is Prepared

    It’s important that you follow a dedicated fitness routine for a few months leading up to your hike. Your leg, back, and core muscles will be vital in supporting your weight and equipment over different environments.

    Working out will also reduce the strain you put on your body.

    5. Have the Proper Gear

    Think about the weight and bulk of the gear you’ll be hauling around for hundreds and possibly thousands of miles. It’s important that you have a pack that’s lightweight, but still durable and big enough to hold your essentials.

    This also extends to hiking boots. You save yourself a lot of blisters, aching, and swelling if your feet are protected. If you are looking for premium hiking boots in 2023, please check our recommendations:

    6. Stay On Top of Your Nutrition

    When you’re on the trail, you’re going to be burning a lot of energy and calories very quickly.

    Not only do you need to manage three proper meals a day, or at least 3000+ calories, but when you’re on the move you need to be able to consume calorie-dense snacks [1].

    These can include nuts, berries, jerky, dried meats, and vegetables.

    7. Invest in a First-Aid Kit

    Being safe can prevent hike-ending or even life-threatening injuries from occurring. A high-quality first aid kit will include items like bandages, antihistamines, sanitizer, painkillers, safety pins, and other tools that could help in a likely scenario.

    When it comes to administering first aid to yourself or someone else on a thru-hike, you need to expect a worst-case scenario, but realistically plan for the common mishaps that occur.

    First-Aid kits can be easily found in these online outdoor shops.

    8. Go on Practice Hikes

    Practice hikes can give you a glimpse of what to expect in the real deal. As mentioned before, there are several hiking trails that are on the shorter end and only top off at a few hundred miles.

    Don’t assume that you can take on a 1000-mile journey before you’re ready. Test out different gear, get a feel for different terrains, and gauge what your body can and can’t handle.

    Here are some tips on how to get in shape for hiking.

    Things You Should Leave at Home

    When on a long-distance hiking trip, you should never pack anything that you won’t use on the trail or things that will slow you down.

    Items such as jewelry, extra cookware, too many clothes, and heavy-duty weapons or equipment like guns and shovels aren’t necessary.

    Remember, these are hiking trails that are managed by professional conservancies.

    If you find yourself needing something that you didn’t stock up on before you started your trip, the trail towns are a great way to get what you need.

    Also, keep in mind that throughout your trip you may be loading and offloading certain gear depending on your location.

    Things Thru-Hikers Need

    osprey stratos 36 fit inside

    On a thru-hike, the essentials include a sleeping bag, proper clothing, a durable and lightweight pack, comfortable hiking boots, water bottles, a knife, and much more [2].

    It’s possible to over-pack, but it’s also possible to under-pack as well. Only carry the materials that you need to survive on the trail and items that can save your life in likely case scenarios. 

    If it weighs you down or doesn’t fit somewhere, there’s a good chance it’s not needed. Here is a hiking packing list for women you may want to check before going on a trip.

    If you ever seem unsure of what to carry, you can always ask around other hikers in the area. The thru-hiking community is very helpful and inclusive, and most people are always eager to help.


    What Is Considered Thru-Hiking?

    Any long-distance hiking trip that runs from one point to another, while taking a considerable amount of time to finish, is considered thru-hiking. There are shorter and longer hikes based on region.

    Why Is It Called a Thru-Hike?

    It’s called a thru-hike because you’re hiking straight through a trail in one continuous direction. Regardless of which end of the trail you start at, the path you travel is always the same.

    What’s the Difference Between Thru-Hiking and Backpacking?

    The difference between thru-hiking and backpacking is that a thru-hike is a long hiking trip, usually over 1000+ miles, while backpacking is usually a multi-day or overnight trek of only a few miles.

    How Long Is AT Thru-Hike?

    The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says that at a length of 2190-miles, it usually takes around 5-7 months for a hiker to travel the entire path. Although, some speed hikers have thru-hiked the trail in far less time.