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Call of the Wild: Pushing the Limits With Thru-Hiking Adventure

Liz Merritt
February 22, 2017
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If you’re an avid hiker and have some time on your hands, then a thru-hiking adventure may be in your future.

Thru-hikers are backpacking’s most extreme breed. They specialize in tackling one very long-distance trail in one season, often in the wilderness for months at a time.

Thru-Hiking Adventure

A thru-hiking adventure requires skill and planning.

An alternative that’s appealing to many others is section hiking, or multi-day backpacking of shorter sections of these breathtaking trails.

Needless to say, the topic drew a full house recently to a local REI, where casual hikers, curiosity seekers and experienced backpackers gathered to contemplate the trek of a lifetime.

Know Where You’ll Go

The most iconic among U.S. thru-hiking destinations are the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and John Muir Trail. The lure of the 2014 film Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir chronicling her 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail brought thru-hiking into the spotlight. Let’s explore three of the most popular thru-hiking destinations.

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)

Stretching north/south from the border of Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) spans a distance of 2,650 miles. It is a symbol of rugged outdoor adventure that calls as many as 2,500 hikers a year. And only 20% of those complete the entire trek.

On average, it can take four to six months for a hiker to cover the expanse, although elite hikers complete the PCT in as little as two months, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Also, thousands of people enjoy day-hikes and multi-day backpacking treks of individual sections of the PCT every year. Expert information and resources can be found at the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Appalachian Trail (AT)

thru-hiking adventure

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail, or AT travails 2,190 miles in the eastern United States, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It crisscrosses 14 states in all. About 2,700 hikers completed the trek in 2014.

A typical AT thru-hike takes five to seven months to finish, with the average right about six months. In 1968, the AT was designated a National Scenic Trail and is federally protected under the National Trails System Act. A great resource for the AT is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

John Muir Trail (JMT)

thru-hiking adventure

John Muir Trail

The John Muir Trail, or JMT, spans about 210 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.

Landmarks include Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, with the trail ending at the summit of Mount Whitney. Training for the JMT requires adaptation to altitude, as almost the entire trail is at or above 8,000 feet.

About 1,500 hikers attempt to complete the JMT every year. For information, go to http://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/john-muir-trail.

“The physical demands on the body takes us to a whole new level with thru-hiking,” REI’s Bailey Leggo explains to the group. “Each of these trails is very different in terms of terrain, hiking, length and difficulty.”

Rules, Regs & Permits

If the call of the wild sounds intriguing and you are up for the physical demands of thru-hiking, the next step is to thoroughly research all rules, regulations and permitting requirements. “Trip planning is the key to any thru hike. Do your research, understand your pace and the length of time you will to be out on the trail,” says Leggo.

Navigating through the permitting process and wait lists can be time-consuming. “Waiting lists for these trails are very large, so you have to be committed and ready for it when the opportunity arises,” Leggo adds.

Do Your Homework

thru-hiking gear

Having the right gear is essential.

Beyond the obvious top physical conditioning and equipment required for months-long treks, thru-hikers must train for first aid, wilderness navigation and backcountry survival skills.

“When you’re on a trail for that long, you need to have that knowledge when you’re carrying your whole life on your back for a couple of months,” Leggo says, emphasizing lightweight and ultralight gear as optimal.

Even for a shorter trek, study route maps carefully, know where resupply stations are located to buy food supplies, or where you can have a “bounce box” of your own supplies shipped to you ahead of the trip.

The financial investment in a thru-hiking journey is considerable. The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates thru-hikers spend $4,000-$8,000+ on a trip, depending on travel style.

10 Essentials for Thru-Hiking Adventure

Essentials for any multi-day trek – and especially a thru-hiking adventure – include the following equipment.

  1. Navigation – map and compass
  2. Sun protection – sunglasses and sunscreen
  3. Insulation – extra clothing
  4. Illumination – headlamp/flashlight
  5. First aid supplies
  6. Fire – matches/lighter/starter
  7. Repair kit tools
  8. Nutrition – extra food
  9. Hydration – extra water
  10. Emergency shelter – tent/tarp/garbage bag

A thru-hiking trip can bring vast rewards for the outdoorsmen and women who yearn for the solitude of the trails.

“It’s pretty liberating, but it’s something you definitely want to prepare for mentally as well as physically,” says Leggo. “You have lots of alone time, few hot showers, and will be isolated from civilization for extended periods of time. Be prepared.”

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