Thru hiking is often considered to be the pinnacle of hiking and backpacking adventures. Those who fall in love with the back country and leaving the world behind, if only for a few days, can’t help but wistfully dream of spending months and thousands of miles on the trail.
But is thru hiking right for you? It requires a level of dedication, planning, and sacrifice that can be underestimated if you are not careful. And given the enormity of the thru hiking experience, any mistake or accident can have severe consequences. Thru hiking is a major commitment on many levels, and careful consideration should be given to that fact.
I’ve spent some time weighing the pros and cons of thru hiking and whether it is right for you. I am not a thru hiker myself, but have approached my research as someone who is considering thru hiking in the future and weighing the costs and benefits of taking on such a challenge.
I’ve come up with 5 reasons why you should consider taking up thru hiking, and 5 reasons why you might want to pass on becoming a thru hiker.
|Thru Hiking Is Right For Me||Thru Hiking Is NOT Right For Me|
|Your Body And Mind Could Change For the Better||Your Body And Mind Could Change For The Worse|
|The Sense Of Accomplishment Will Be Incredible||You Will Have To Suspend Much Of Your Life|
|You Will Experience Incredibly Beautiful Parts Of The Country||You Will Be Separated From Friends And Family For Long Periods Of Time|
|You Will Meet Amazing People||Thru Hiking Is Expensive|
|Do Something That Very Few Have Done||Thru Hiking Requires A Massive Amount of Planning|
Ultimately, the decision to start thru hiking depends a lot on your personal circumstances. Your family, work, and financial situation will dictate whether a thru hike is feasible. Whether you are physically and mentally prepared for thousands of miles on the trail obviously is a huge consideration. Hopefully, this article will help you weigh the pros and cons of thru hiking and help you make an informed decision.
What Is Thru Hiking?
Thru hiking is most commonly known as hiking an established, long-distance trail with continuous steps from one end to the other – start to finish. Many hiking groups acknowledge that a thru hike should be completed within 12 months.
The three most well-known long-distance trails are the Appalachian Trail (about 2,200 miles), the Pacific Crest Trail (2,653 miles), and the Continental Divide Trail (about 3,100 miles).
Thru hiking differs from section hiking, where hikers will hike through certain sections of a longer-distance trail. For example, many hikers travel on the John Muir Trail, in Yosemite National Park in California. Approximately 170 miles of the John Muir Trail are a part of the Pacific Crest Trail, making it a section hike.
Is Thru Hiking Right For Me?
YES: Your Body And Mind Could Change For The Better
Consider a thru hike, at more than 2,000 miles, as the ultimate workout program to change your body and improve your mental health. Thru hiking offers some amazing benefits to your health that could provide lasting changes to your body.
Hiking is a full-body activity that provides some incredible benefits:
- Increasing heart and cardiovascular health
- Burns fat
- Strengthens leg, core, and other muscle groups
- Promotes stronger bones
- Helps address respiratory problems
Hikers who have completed thru hikes have reported some really impressive changes to their bodies. As you would expect, hiking 15 to 30 miles a day over difficult terrain often leads to distinct weight loss and lower body fat. One study found that a hiker lost 70 pounds on the Appalachian Trail.
Along with weight loss, thru hikers report a lower resting heart rate after a long hike. Because the heart is a muscle, it is strengthened over the course of a thru hike – an aerobic exercise if there ever was one. Long-distance hiking can help strengthen the heart, which in turn can lead to a lower resting heart rate.
Other medical benefits of thru hiking to the body can include improved metabolic efficiency (meaning the body burns more fat) and lower blood sugar counts.
It should be noted that, like any exercise program, these results are not guaranteed, nor will they last indefinitely after your hike is complete. However, if you build a good foundation of physical readiness for a thru hike, you could very well see major benefits at the end of your hike that will benefit you in the future.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.John Muir
Being in nature can boost your mood and improve mental health. According to a study performed at Stanford University, spending time outdoors reduces stress, calms anxiety, and can lead to a lower risk of depression.
Doctors have even prescribed spending time in nature because of its benefits to mental health. Hiking can help you relieve your anxiety by quieting your mind and allowing you to spend more time in a meditative state. Sometimes, you can’t help but meditate as you walk along, letting your mind go blank and just concentrating on your breathing and next steps.
A long-distance thru hike is a way to completely remove yourself – physically, mentally, emotionally – from your everyday life and its different challenges. I’ve often found it difficult to focus on the details of my life at home when I am on the trail and that’s the point. If you are in need of fundamentally changing your outlook on life, a thru hike might be a great way to clear your mind and give yourself a break. Sometimes you need an escape, and hiking can provide that.
You may also use thru hiking as a way to unwind and just forget about your problems. Because you are relatively alone on the trail, you might take the time to really consider some problems you have and how to solve them. Thru hiking in the wilderness can provide clarity of thought that could prove invaluable as you work through different issues you face.
Finally, hiking can provide a boost to your mental health, self-image, and confidence. Being outside, in nature, and conquering a challenging hike can be a huge morale boost.
NO: Your Body and Mind Could Change For The Worse
It must be said, that for all the positive and mental changes that you might experience from finishing a thru hike, there is also the potential for negative changes that could effect your life just as dramatically. Hiking for up to 3,000 miles over 5 months is a very hard burden on the body, and shouldn’t be underestimated.
As mentioned above, almost all thru hikers will lose weight over the course of their hike. While this can be a good thing, the amount of stress you put on your body over several thousand miles that leads to such weight loss is substantial.
Some studies have shown that thru hikers can burn up to 2,000 calories more than what they eat every day. This will cause the body to find other sources of energy – including body fat. While we all want to burn body fat, burning too much can be detrimental to our health, especially once those fat reserves are depleted.
Low body fat reserves can lead to depleted energy, make you more prone to injury, contribute to bad mental health, and even put your heart health at risk.
Further, you will likely suffer some sort of injury while thru hiking. According to one study, more than 60% of hikers on the Appalachian Trail experience an injury of some kind. Sore knees, injured feet, and even broken bones can await even the most seasoned hikers over the course of a thru hike.
But even if you do avoid an injury on a thru hike, there will still be pain and discomfort. Blisters will rise and need to be popped and cleaned. Toenails will likely fall off. And the body will ache. Pain will become a companion with you on the trail, which is something you will have to learn to push through and deal with if you expect to finish your journey.
A perhaps underrated obstacle to a successful thru hike are the mental challenges that you will face over the course of more than 2,000 miles on the trail.
Sometimes, it will be the enormity of the challenge before you that causes you mental weakness. Imagine struggling (physically and mentally) to complete your first 250 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, only to realize that you still have to do that 9 more times in order to finish! You will need to show great mental strength to accept that reality and push forward.
Further, it will be a mental and emotional challenge to be separated from the life you know and family and friends for 4 to 6 months. Although you may be hiking with friends, or even if the trail is relatively full of people, you will experience periods of loneliness and longing for home. This itself has been enough for some people to call it quits and cut their hike short.
There is also the potential for mental and emotional hurt that comes from not being able to finish your thru hike. Whether it is because of injury, exhaustion, or other reasons, the failure to finish something that had been set out as a goal and challenge to accomplish can be devastating.
Finally, many hikers, even after finishing their thru hike, suffer from post-hike depression, or post-trail blues. There is a real struggle to leave the trail behind – just as there was initially to leave your normal life behind when you started your thru hike. This adjustment back to “normal life” can really play on the psyche of thru hikers, and cause depression.
NOTE: I think it is vital to stress here that failing to finish your thru hike is not the end of the world. In most cases, it is probably the right decision to leave the trail if you really believe you can’t finish. If you have an injury, for example, it is a good, healthy choice to decide that you need to stop. Likewise, if you just can’t cope mentally with the challenge, it’s ok to take care of yourself away from the trail.
Mental health is so important, and no one should ever feel diminished because they cannot finish their thru hike. No person should ever ignore the mental challenges of a thru hike.
YES: The Sense Of Accomplishment Will Be Incredible
For every hiker, regardless of experience level, the choice to commit to a thru hike is a serious one. A thru hike requires courage, physical stamina, mental fortitude, detailed planning, help from others, and even a little bit of luck. There are few other choices in life that will fundamentally interrupt your life for up to 6 months and change who you are as a person.
As such, there must be such a feeling of joy, relief, and pride to reach the finish of a thru hike. I have always appreciated the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal – and can only imagine the feeling of completing such a monumental goal.
Many thru hikers have reported that they took away valuable lessons from their thru hiking experience, ones that apply off the trail as well on it. Those include:
- Learning to accept the struggle and push through it
- Leaning to appreciate the small pleasures along your path
- Setting small goals to get you past your next challenge
- Being kind and helpful to others, and accepting help from others
- Learn from your weaknesses and work to make them better
NO: You Will Have To Suspend Much Of Your Life For A Thru Hike
Make no mistake, embarking on a thru hike is a major commitment of time, money, and energy. The average time to hike the Appalachian Trail is 5 to 7 months. The average time to hike the Pacific Crest Trail is about 5 months. And in order to complete the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll need – you guessed it – about 5 months.
Leaving the “real world” behind for 5 months is no small task. You will have to consider how this 5-month “detour” will affect your future. Yes, there are many good things that will come from taking on the challenge of a thru hike, but you’ll likely have to sacrifice some things to do it.
If you have a career that you care about and believe in, taking 5 months away from it can be an extremely difficult prospect. Will your decision to embark on a long thru hike hurt your career prospects? Will employers or partners decide to find others to work with if you leave?
Likewise, you will have to consider your personal relationships. Are your family affairs and relationships in order? Are you in a good place in a romantic relationship? How will your 5-month absence affect these relationships?
There may be other elements of your life that will be influenced by leaving on a thru hike for almost half a year. You should give careful consideration to how your thru hike would effect them.
YES: You Will See Incredibly Beautiful Parts Of The Country
Whether you thru hike the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail, you are guaranteed to hike through some of the most beautiful parts of our country.
The Appalachian Trail, laid out between Maine and Georgia and running through 14 states, offers incredible hiking through the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the hardest mile of the entire Trail.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, you will hike from the US/Mexico border in California to the US/Canada border in Washington State. You will travel through scorching desserts and snowy mountain peaks, as well as lush green forests and colorful mountain meadows. You will climb the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, including the tallest mountain in the continental United States – Mount Whitney.
The Continental Divide Trail is the longest of the three “crown jewel” thru hikes in the United States and crosses through 5 states from Canada to Mexico. This trail offers trails through iconic sections, such as the San Juan Mountain Range in Colorado, Yellowstone National Park, the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and Glacier National Park in Montana.
NO: You Will Be Separated From Family And Friends For Long Periods
A definite drawback to thru hiking for 5 months at a time is the separation from family and friends. Although you may plan to meet with your loved ones at certain points along the trail, you will have to prepare for those long periods of separation from those most important to you.
When considering a thru hike, you will have to think about how 5 months of separation from family and friends will effect you emotionally. For some, the thought of leaving family behind for such a long period of time is too much and a deciding factor not to thru hike.
However, if you have a strong support system at home, and feel comfortable leaving it behind to tackle a challenge like a thru hike, you might just find that you can say goodbye, embrace your challenge, and enhance those relationships. Indeed, you may be able to draw strength from the support of loved ones at home.
YES: You Will Meet Incredible People
A good way to assuage the loneliness you will feel on the trail is to find and embrace a “trail family” during your thru hike. Whether you come across them on the trail, at a shelter, on during a zero day away from the trail, you will come across some pretty cool people who are tackling the same challenge you are.
Having this common goal is a great way to get to know and befriend fellow thru hikers. Although you may only hike with someone for a couple of days, you can draw strength from these chance meetings, and gain the courage to reach out and meet other along the way. Your fellow thru hikers can very well be your lifeline to finishing your journey, and some may even grow to be life-long friends.
You will have become part of a community that will always be a part of who you are.
NO: Thru Hiking Is Expensive
Because circumstances change over the course of a thru hike, and different contingencies might come into play, it is difficult to say exactly how much a thru hike costs. However, on average, a thru hike will cost between $6,000 and $10,000. This includes the day to day costs along the trail as well as the cost of gear.
When creating your budget for a thru hike, you will have to consider the following:
- Bills at home: This includes rent/mortgage, insurance, loans or credit cards, etc.
- Trail Gear: This would include the gear you own before you embark on your thru hike, but also replacement gear you might need to buy on the trail, or upgrades you may decide upon before or during your trip
- Food on the trail: Whether you choose to prepare your own meals and mail them to resupply points along the trail, or simply buy food at these points, you will have to spend a good amount of money on your food and the cost of shipping
- Time off the trail: Spending a day off the trail in town, or even part of a day picking up resupply packages and getting “real food” is an expense that must be considered. Besides food, you’ll also pay for lodging at a hotel or hostel.
- Emergencies: You may suffer an injury that takes you off the trail for several days; you’ll have to pay for possible medical treatment, a place to sleep while you recuperate, and food. Having an emergency fund is a must for thru hikers.
YES: Do Something That Very Few Have Ever Done
If you do complete a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail, you will join an small group of people who have conquered this same challenge.
According to estimates, about 20,000 people have completed the Appalachian Trail, while approximately 7,600 people have completed the Pacific Crest Trail. And while there is no real estimate of how many have completed the Continental Divide Trail, only 150 to 300 even attempt that trail each year.
As such, the “club” of thru hikers to complete any one of the three “crown jewels” of thru hiking in the United States is a small one. What an accomplishment it would be to become a part of that club!
NO: Thru Hiking Requires A Massive Amount Of Planning
Make no mistake, embarking on a thru hike is a major commitment of time, money, and energy. As you can imagine, leaving the “real world” behind for 5 months requires a lot of planning and work.
In the first place, you’ll need to make arrangements for your home. If you rent, you’ll need to arrange for rent payments to be made, or possibly find someone to sublet, if your landlord allows it. If you own your own home, you’ll still need to arrange mortgage payments and find someone to stay at your place to keep it up and keep it safe and secure.
There may be other reoccurring bills or payments that you make which will need to be planned out and paid while you are gone, such as car payments, insurance payments, loans, credit cards, and so forth.
You may have to make arrangements at work – can you take a 5-month leave of absence? Do you quit your job? Do you have 5 months of vacation saved up?
And once you have figured out how to leave the “real world” behind, you’ll then need to start planning how to tackle your thru hike. You’ll need to plan out food for the next five months. You will need to plan on changing out gear or clothing for different times of the year and in different parts of the trail.
You will need to plan out places where you might take a “zero day” – a day of rest with no hiking. You’ll need to budget for hotel or hostel stays when you leave the trail for a day or two, as well as for meals off the trail and any other contingencies that could arise.
There are many good reasons to take on the challenge of a thru hike, and also good reasons to stick to shorter, less intense challenges. Ultimately, with much of hiking and backpacking, it comes down to the circumstances of your life and your preferences.
There is not right or wrong answer to whether you should attempt a thru hike. Hopefully, some of the issues I raised here will help you make an informed decision about thru hiking and whether it is right for you.