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Philosophy of Thru-hiking
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Bill Segraves
(sbill9000) - F - M
Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/14/2013 16:02:05 MDT Print View

I'm interested to hear other people's views on the essence of thru-hiking - what distinguishes a thru-hike and what's special about it.

Is it about distance? Is it about time? Is it about not coming back to the place you started? Is it about traveling a path that defines a shared experience? All of these things? With each essential? Others, too?

Could a 30 mile point-to-point be a thru-hike? 200 miles? Even if you don't resupply? Even if the start and end points (and thus the shuttle) are much closer to each other than the 200 miles hike, e.g. 10 or 20 miles?

If you did a 200 mile loop and came back to the same point, (how) would your experience be different than if you did a thru-hike? If you walked a 200 mile thru-hike route and then turned around and walked back to your starting point, would that still be a thru-hike? Two thru-hikes? ;) Just another out-and-back?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!


Bill S.

Ozzy McKinney
(PorcupinePhobia) - F

Locale: PNW
new on 04/14/2013 19:04:49 MDT Print View

I haven't completed any big through hikes, but what I think makes any "thru" (or point to point?) hike special is that I never have to hike through the same area twice. Every day is a different place, different view, different camp, etc.

What appeals to me about a long thru hike, like the PCT (hopefully in 2014!) is the sense that you are really "travelling" by foot. Town to town, state to state, border to border, and so on.

What makes a big loop different than a big thru? Parking? I don't know.

Jake D
(JakeDatc) - F

Locale: Bristol,RI
Re: new on 04/14/2013 21:19:19 MDT Print View

I think a combination of distance and resupply. plus you are generally going from one place to another in a nonstop fashion. Andrew did loops.. great western loop and Alaska-yukon loop so that's not really part of it. People yo-yo the AT S-N-S etc still counts

i think of the triple crowns and the "triple gems"

even JMT and Long trail are short-er but still generally 2-3 weeks at non "speed" pace and multiple resupplies.

Dirk R
Philosophy of Thru-Hiking on 04/14/2013 21:53:04 MDT Print View

Generally speaking, thru hikes are generally distinguished as long-distance hikes that are not normally achieved in what many people would consider a "normal" amount of time. (1-3 weeks).

I think the time/distance element is what distinguishes a thru hike. There is a decompression that occurs as a result of leaving the trappings of "normal" life behind for months at a time to relentlessly hike 20 miles a day toward your goal. There is a certain feeling of (and I can only speak for myself) coming to grips with the sheer magnitude of a hike that stretches greater than 2500 miles, a realization that generally begins six hours into the first day when your feet hurt, you are hot, tired and while generally excited to be out there, also wonder how if this is how you feel after a half of day of hiking, how the heck are you gong to make another 120 days which surely will be tougher?

And even then, there will be the moment you reach 100 miles, 300 miles, and 500 miles into your trip, and it will have felt like forever, even though it probably has been only weeks. You are not used to hiking that much and your body is still trying to cope with this new reality. And it's fantastic, don't get me wrong, but not every moment of every day is great, especially when you are climbing in the hot sun and you have only done eight miles and how can it be that you've only done eight miles when it's already getting hot and every time I step on a rock I can feel that blister on my left foot get a little bit bigger.

Thru-hikes are long enough to care about gear, care about schedules and then slowly stop caring about both, only to then find what makes the trip special (again, this is my opinion) is sharing the sights and sounds with other kindred souls. And so the feelings of exhilaration and defeat give way to a realization that either feeling is just temporary, that the miles come easy some days and others take every ounce of will. And sometimes, when you are feeling at rock bottom and the idea of quitting enter your head, something unexpected and wonderful happens and you know you can make it - you are certain you will make it. And then the goal doesn't matter anymore, you will make it but you aren't hiking for the end but for the experience.

You will steadfastly hike forward, tired and hungry and eventually you have done 1,500 miles and the thought of another 1,000 more feels like child's play. You make it to the border on a cold, snowy October day and when you get to the end, and you are not as excited as you had imagined, but a bit melancholy. You walk the final eight miles to a road, spend the night a lodge where you do a little laundry and eat dinner, and then take the bus back to civilization. And the hard times on the trail will recede from memory and you be left with only the sweetest of recollections. When thru hikers take the trail in future years, you will be happy for them but at the same time a bit sad that you aren't going out with them.

Thru-hiking is most of all, an experience unlike any other.


James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 07:25:44 MDT Print View

Hi Bill,
Well, that is a very GOOD question. I will attempt to give you *my* answer, but, it will be different from other thnough hikers' answers.

First off, through hikes are generally done solo. Even if you start with a partner, this doesn't seem to last. A gentleman friend and I did the NPT last year, for example. A shorter through hike of about two weeks. We met up at Blue Mountan Lake (Lake Durrant Campground where we spent a few nights, I changed back to my hiking boots, grabbed the saw - the wife dropped them off - took a shower, et al, as he waited for his resupply box from Vermont) and we sort of followed each other the rest of the trip.

Typically he would take off first every day. Sometimes by an hour or two while I went through and cleaned up the campsite, burned what trash I could find, packed bits of aluminum foil/plastic/tin from the area, cleaning up, generally. I really hate a dirty campsite. I seemed to hike faster than he did, so I would catch up 2-3 in the afternoon and continue on to the next camp site. Not that we avoided each other, we had different priorities. We covered the same ground at the same rate at the end, more or less. But, we didn't hike together, much. The trails were not that bad. Companionship, was more important to me...just knowing that someone was out there within a few miles made it easy. Solo hiking can be bad for the lack of it. This is one aspect of through hiking that is different from other types of hiking.

Supplies are another. I can pack enough for a couple or three weeks. Once things start to run out, I have to pick things up as I go. I hate schedules. As the above shows, waiting for a supply box over a weekend (Saturday/Sunday) or arriving too early and missing it, makes life rather difficult. I don't. I hike at the pace I hike. When I get to a convenient stop, I will resupply. Often, this means purchasing things I don't normally carry. Eggs for instance. I am always looking for protien. Eggs are heavy, and don't keep all that well. But in the middle of a through hike, I will often get a dozen. Hiking a few hours to camp is not a big deal, by then. I have a few, with spices, foraged greens of some sort, even green apple bits, makes a good supper. Mornings the same, with boiled eggs for lunch and the next supper. Guess what. I was sick of eggs at breakfast. That box of Bisquik is way too big to consider carrying. I fill a baggie or two, and dump the rest. Rice/pasta sides are a staple, but they might only have one or two types. Difficlt for the next week or two to eat the same food, left, right, left get sick of them. Fuel is usually sold by the quart. I carry 12oz...a waste, I don't have room for more. The little Murmur is a tiny pack. I hate to waste stuff, not good for the environment, nor *my* wallet. Difficult at best. But, interesting, none the less.

Walking on a mountain ledge can be dangerous. I don't really mind, but, I think my wife might not want me to fall. Maybe, I will take a safer route...Not about me, so much as others. But, keeping myself safe is often an important consideration.

Camping for a week or so in the back country will put you at ease with your surroundings. Ooops, forgot to hang the bloody bear bag as my eyes snap open at midnight. Ahh well, it will make a good pillow... Not safe but better than nothing.

Discipline goes...washing every evening is a chore. At least wiping down your body with a wet bandana. An easy thing to let go for a couple days...till you smell yourself after 6-7 days of letting it go.

Working like a dog up the hill...only to find you have to go DOWN the bloody thing on the Other Side...hey, ha. At least you found out what was there.

And the trail. Day after day of slogging, walking, climbing (up or down) sometimes crawling. You start wishing someone would pave the bloody place. Till you hear the peepers at night. Nice 2100, not so nice at 0100. Frogs too.

Then there is that immense sense of satisfation at the half way point. Yup, on the downside. Lots more work ahead, but a good feeling. The night before completion is restless. Despite knowing it is just another night. I will finish tomorrow. Rain, lightning, blizzard conditions...well, I've seen worse. You have hiked through stuff as bad. Come hell and high water, I will finish tomorrow. But, that is tomorrow, get some sleep you dummy! Hmm...leftover supper was great. "Hoarded stew" I think it's name is. All the little bits of dried beef, jerkey, salami, flour, 1/4 packets of this and that, and a dollop of "gotta eat that". . . a BIG meal and tasty too, nope it no longer matters what's in it as you found out last month when the store you had planed to resupply at was closed when you got there, forcing you to stretch 3 days of food for a week. At least the gas station was open and you got fuel and *some* chips.

Other than a few minor things, you are correct, just another hike, 'cept a little longer.

Jennifer Mitol
(Jenmitol) - M

Locale: In my dreams....
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 08:18:58 MDT Print View

Thanks for this thread...dirk, James, those were great comments!!! That's the information I've been looking for as I work on giving up my less-than-fulfilling lifestyle for a PCT thru next year. Everyone talks about what an amazing experience it is...but as most of us eventually learn, an "experience" isn't always fun and games. But that's part of what makes it amazing overall...

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 09:24:28 MDT Print View

I loved dirks answer above. There are three very important distinctions between what I view as a thru hike (for this discussion) and a long hike. First, the duration has to be long enough that the outside world stop invading my thoughts. Also, life starts to slow down and become much simplier. You worry less about gear, whether your resupply shows up, weather etc because you have delt with it all before and soon discover that you will make do. For me a couple weeks isn't long enough to reach this point, 3 months was. The second point is the "expedition" nature of the hike, there is a goal, reaching the other end. For me it wouldn't be the same to wander around aimlessly in the Sierra for three months. That would be very cool but there wouldn't be that drive that pushes you forward. For me this was a very important part of the trip though I suspect that isn't for others given the low completion rates on both the AT and PCT. finally, I think there is a piece around being part of a group that is all trying to accomplish a goal. You get this a bit with the JMT but the shear numbers of folks doing it makes it seem a bit less extraordinary.

Now having said all of this....... I spent a few days hiking a section of the AT with Swami on the last leg of his triple crown hike. It was amazing how quick I was able to get back into thru hiking mode, partial not complete. I think that is because I was with someone that in that mindset.

Edited by gg-man on 04/15/2013 09:28:02 MDT.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Great comments on 04/15/2013 10:35:18 MDT Print View

A lot of great comments so far, and I particularly liked Dirk's comment: "Thru-hikes are long enough to care about gear, care about schedules and then slowly stop caring about both". Definitely.

I think there's a certain aspect here of several sight-impaired people encountering a pachyderm from different vectors. All of their experiences and reports are correct, but they sometimes seem to be describing different animals altogether. What a thru-hike is depends on the particular trail, on who you are going in, the particular year that you hike, certainly on the people you meet and hang out with along the way (and I think that factor is underestimated by folks that haven't done long distance trips before).

One thing that happens on a long distance hike is that YOU change some, and not just physically. In ways that might not be predictable; heck they might not all be for the positive, though I think that ultimately most are.

Something that thru-hikers talk about and I suspect others might feel they're exaggerating about is how alien "normal" life feels afterwards and how challenging some will afterwards find it to get motivated to do things that seem so essential to others. That's likely not as big a factor on shorter point-to-point trips.

I don't think it's about not coming back to where you started; certainly a yo-yo thru-hike is an authentic long distance experience!! But I think the O.P.'s comment about it being a "shared experience" is true. For the PCT and the AT you know that folks are pretty much walking the very same trail that you are, albeit perhaps in very different conditions. Still, you know that after months of hiking that they've had to deal with stuff that you have. When I'm hiking and meet another thru-hiker I feel like we're part of the same 'tribe', and that I'm meeting for the first time a complete stranger that in some ways I already know pretty well.

"Could a 30-mile point-to-point be a thru-hike?" I suspect we do best by not trying to nail down in any universal way just what is and is not a "thru-hike", unless we do so for just our own personal goals. When I first ran into JMT hikers on the PCT they were using the word "thru-hike" for their experience, and I think that for PCT folks it just honestly didn't dawn on us at first that they were talking about the JMT as a "thru-hike". Yet the JMT can be a challenging endeavor over a fair distance. It's all too easy to take your different goal and compare it to someone elses. It's quite an unnecessary thing to do, but very much a human nature thing, I guess.

For me *personally* (when I use the term to apply to myself), a trip that takes 3 weeks is just sort of getting started as being "thru-hiking" when it's over. It takes me 2 - 4 weeks to lose most of my body fat and get really strong, and a while also to get fully "back" in terms of things like mental toughness and overall mindset. So in my OWN mind (not using this as a yardstick to judge others), a thru-hike is something that takes me well over a month to complete. Lot's of different experiences though; my wife and I plan to hike the standard ~500 mile Camino in northern Spain this year, and take over a month to do it. I reckon that's a thru-hike of a sort, but certainly different insofar as we'll be sleeping indoors every night.

I guess the other thing I personally think of on a thru-hike is that it has some hairy, challenging bits, where you're not 100% certain going in that you'll succeed. Each trail is unique in that regard, but typically it's about being on trail so long that the seasonal changes make for some tough going at some point(s) along the way. For *me*, a thru-hike absolutely requires some stretching, adjusting, flexibly adapting to deal with some unexpected challenges.

But technically speaking, it's just continuously hiking from one defined point to another, so I guess I could "thru-hike" a few blocks from my house to the store to buy a newspaper. In fact, it would be a yo-yo hike as I would then turn around and walk back!

We clearly don't all draw the line at the same place as to how far/tough/whatever a hike has to be before we're comfortable with the "thru-hike" term. Yet another instance of HYOH.

just Justin Whitson
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 12:02:13 MDT Print View

Yeah, count me in as another one who doesn't quite know or understand the definition of a thru hike. Here's the closest i've come so far. We did the Camino De Santiago De Compestella in Spain a few years back (well, like almost 6 yrs). Walked about 500 miles in a month (i was a bit slow, and my wife slower).

Couple of caveats: I didn't know it was "illegal" to camp while being a "pilgrim", and so i brought a tarp, a light fleece blanket, plus we had a sleeping bag liners. We camped a few times before we found out, "oh no, senior, no bueno." Actually, we were informed not by a Spaniard, but by an over serious Quebecian.

Plus, we were on a super budget. So rather different than compared to all the Euros, few Canadians, and rare fellow Americans, we rarely, rarely ate at restaurants and bought and carried a lot of food from Supermercados, etc. My backpack wasn't very large, but it wasn't particularly light or comfortable, and people everywhere found it humorous to no end that i was so often carrying groceries in grocery bags in my two hands to take some of the weight off my back. Some of my newfound friends took pics even to memorialize this. (this was way before i knew much at all about backpacking light, gear, etc)

So in a sense, we might as well been doing a more serious, backpacking thru hike, like a large portion of the A.T. Well, except that a good portion was fairly flat.

So, was this a thru hike, or not? To this day, i have not unraveled this perplexing mystery.

Edited by ArcturusBear on 04/15/2013 12:03:41 MDT.

Willie Evenstop
(redmonk) - F

Locale: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 12:47:29 MDT Print View

I think a thru hike involves such detachment from society, that it ends with the option to go back to where you came from, or continue on in a new direction.

just Justin Whitson
Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:29:03 MDT Print View

from the behind

just Justin Whitson
Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:30:45 MDT Print View

I'm on far right

Grocery bag man, on far right

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:31:41 MDT Print View

What's the brown thing? Looks like an animal leg hanging from your pack....

just Justin Whitson
Re: Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:35:00 MDT Print View

I'm not sure. Not sure what you are exactly referencing too.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:37:54 MDT Print View

In the top pic, to the right of the bottom half of your light-colored sleeping pad is something brown that first goes up, under a strap/string and then down. It 'melds' into your arm (which adds to the look of it being an animal leg!).

just Justin Whitson
Re: Re: Re: Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:42:42 MDT Print View

ah, i see what you mean. Well, still not sure what exactly that was or wasn't. It was awhile back, and some of the details are fuzzy now.

William Chilton
(WilliamC3) - MLife

Locale: Antakya
Re: Re: Grocery bag man, rare pics of the elusive creature on 04/15/2013 13:45:45 MDT Print View

Pair of boots?

Jake D
(JakeDatc) - F

Locale: Bristol,RI
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 15:42:21 MDT Print View

"I think a thru hike involves such detachment from society, that it ends with the option to go back to where you came from, or continue on in a new direction."

I don't think that is a necessity. The Long Trail through Vermont is one of the original "thru-hikes" that inspired the Appalachian trail. It is not long enough to "detached" in any real way but is very much a thru hike. It took me 2.5 weeks and 4 resupplies. I'm sure the JMT is similar.

LT is also interesting that it is combined with the AT for 100mi section so you mingle with people doing just the LT, northbound ATs that are almost done and southbound AT's who are still in the first half. many experiences shared with different goals.

I would consider the Camino a thru hike, if you treat it as such. As opposed to the traditional pilgrimage. It is certainly different than other thru hikes since you are going through towns and staying at hostels mostly. there is a family from NH doing it currently. they trained and planned it like a thru hike.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Thru-hikel length on 04/15/2013 18:34:06 MDT Print View

However long it takes me to grow a decent beard.

About two weeks in my case.


Being serious, two weeks IS about how long I start to feel immersed in the rhythms of the wilderness and I have left my urban life behind.

Maybe because I've not only done a fair amount of thru-hiking mileage, but because I am just an active outdoors person to begin with, making the transition form the "real word" to the wilderness world is a bit more seamless for me.

I've lucky, admittedly.

Edited by PaulMags on 04/15/2013 18:37:43 MDT.

Bill Segraves
(sbill9000) - F - M
Re: Philosophy of Thru-hiking on 04/15/2013 19:47:09 MDT Print View

Wonderful and interesting comments, all - thank you! I hope there will be more to come.



PS - I'm pretty sure those are footwear of some kind in the photo. The shape is right and it looks to me like you can see the contrast between the soles and the uppers.