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A hiker who has just completed the Appalachian Trail Northterm.jpg
A hiker who has just completed the Appalachian Trail

Thru-hiking, or through-hiking, is the act of hiking an established long-distance trail end-to-end continuously.


The term is most frequently used regarding trails in the United States, such as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Globally, some examples of thru-hikes include Te Araroa in New Zealand, the Camino de Santiago in Spain and France, the Via Francigena in France and Italy, the Grand Italian Trail in Italy, the Great Divide Trail (GDT) in Canada, and the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal, all of which are over 1,000 km (620 mi) in length.

The length for a trail to be considered a thru-hike is undefined. Trails most associated with thru-hiking often take several weeks or months to complete, but any completed end-to-end trail in a single hiking season is technically a thru-hike.

Section hiking refers to hiking a long-distance trail one section at a time. Generally, a trail completed as a collection of section hikes is not considered a thru-hike, as the trail was not completed continuously. However, hiking trail sections out of order, e.g., starting at the halfway point of the AT and hiking to the northern terminus, then flying back to the middle and hiking the southern half, still counts as a thru-hike, as long as the trail is completed in one trip.


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hiking as a means of exploring the world started becoming popular in the US. This led to the creation of dedicated long-distance hiking trails, including the 439 km (273 mi) Long Trail in Vermont and the 340 km (211 mi) John Muir Trail in California.

The first trail to be associated with thru-hiking was the 3,531 km (2,194 mi) Appalachian Trail (AT), which was first proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye and completed in 1937 after more than a decade of work. The first person to hike the full trail was Myron Avery, a trail promoter who hiked the trail by sections between 1927 and 1936 while trail blazing. In 1948, Earl Shaffer completed the first south-to-north thru-hike of the AT, followed by Chester Dziengielewski in 1951, who became the first to hike the trail from north-to-south. [1] [2]

A number of thru-hikers have achieved a measure of celebrity status in backpacking culture. Perhaps the most famous was Emma "Grandma" Gatewood, who first thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1955 at the age of 67. She completed the hike with what was considered extremely inadequate gear, even at the time, including sneakers rather than boots and a blanket rather than a sleeping bag, [3] and is recognized today as a pioneer of ultralight backpacking. [4]

In 2012, Cheryl Strayed published her memoir Wild documenting her self-discovery on the PCT, which was made into a film in 2014 starring Reese Witherspoon, leading to a spike in interest in the PCT and thruhiking.


Thru-hiking a trail is a long and difficult journey. A thru-hike of the PCT, AT, or CDT takes five months on average, and can involve months or years of planning. Thru-hikers often organize "supply boxes" containing food and other necessities prior to their hike, and have friends or family mail the packages to predetermined stops close to the trail, to be picked up by the hiker.

With the rise of backpacking in the United States, thru-hiking has become a minor niche in the industry. Thousands of hikers attempt to thru-hike the AT and other National Scenic Trails every year, although by some estimates fewer than 20% complete the trail. The most common reasons for a hike to be abandoned include injuries, finances, time constraints, and a lack of motivation. Some dedicated thru-hikers complete a trail more than once; about 30 have reported hiking the AT at least three times. Lee Barry became the oldest to thru-hike the AT when he completed a thru-hike (his second) in 2004 at age 81. [5]

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has reported completion rates around 25% in recent years, after several years under 20%. [6] They attribute this to slightly lower numbers of hikers, better gear, and, thanks to the internet, information about gear, causing fewer hikers to start with 60 to 80 pounds (27.2–36.3 kg) packs and drop out a few miles in. [6] Those long-distance hikers who have completed all three of the nation's longest National Scenic Trails: The Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail and The Continental Divide Trail are known as Triple Crowners. [7] Base pack weight in this group of hikers is in the range of 10 to 15 pounds (4.5–6.8 kg).[ citation needed ]

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Further reading

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Appalachian Trail</span> Hiking trail going through fourteen US states

The Appalachian Trail, is a hiking trail in the Eastern United States, extending almost 2,200 miles (3,540 km) between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, and passing through 14 states. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy claims the Appalachian Trail to be the longest hiking-only trail in the world. More than three million people hike segments of the trail each year.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hiking</span> Walking as a hobby, sport, or leisure activity

Hiking is a long, vigorous walk, usually on trails or footpaths in the countryside. Walking for pleasure developed in Europe during the eighteenth century. Religious pilgrimages have existed much longer but they involve walking long distances for a spiritual purpose associated with specific religions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pacific Crest Trail</span> Long-distance hiking and equestrian trail in the western US

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), officially designated as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, is a long-distance hiking and equestrian trail closely aligned with the highest portion of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, which lie 100 to 150 miles east of the U.S. Pacific coast. The trail's southern terminus is next to the Mexico–United States border, just south of Campo, California, and its northern terminus is on the Canada–US border, upon which it continues unofficially to the Windy Joe Trail within Manning Park in British Columbia; it passes through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Continental Divide Trail</span> Long-distance scenic trail in the western United States

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail is a United States National Scenic Trail with a length measured by the Continental Divide Trail Coalition of 3,028 miles (4,873 km) between the U.S. border with Chihuahua, Mexico and the border with Alberta, Canada. Frequent route changes and a large number of alternate routes result in an actual hiking distance of 2,700 miles (4,300 km) to 3,150 miles (5,070 km). The CDT follows the Continental Divide of the Americas along the Rocky Mountains and traverses five U.S. states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico. In Montana near the Canadian border the trail crosses Triple Divide Pass.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Muir Trail</span> Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. From the northern terminus at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and the southern terminus located on the summit of Mount Whitney, the trail's length is 213.7 miles (343.9 km), with a total elevation gain of approximately 47,000 feet (14,000 m). For almost all of its length, the trail is in the High Sierra backcountry and wilderness areas. For about 160 miles (260 km), the trail follows the same footpath as the longer Pacific Crest Trail. It is named after John Muir, a naturalist.

Earl V. Shaffer, was an American outdoorsman and author known from 1948 as The Crazy One for attempting what became the first publicized claimed hiking trip in a single season over the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT). He also worked as a carpenter, a soldier specializing in radar and radio installation, and an antique dealer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grandma Gatewood</span> American hiker (1887–1973)

Emma Rowena (Caldwell) Gatewood, known as Grandma Gatewood,, was an American ultra-light hiking pioneer. After a difficult life as a farm wife, mother of eleven children, and survivor of domestic violence, she became famous as the first solo female thru-hiker of the 2,168-mile (3,489 km) Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in 1955 at the age of 67. She subsequently became the first person to hike the A.T. three times, after completing a second thru-hike two years later, followed by a section-hike in 1964. In the meantime, she hiked 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of the Oregon Trail in 1959. In her later years, she continued to travel and hike, and worked on a section of what would become the Buckeye Trail. The media coverage surrounding her feats was credited for generating interest in maintaining the A.T. and in hiking generally. Among many other honors, she was posthumously inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame in 2012.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ultralight backpacking</span> Style of hiking

Ultralight backpacking is a subset of lightweight backpacking, a style of backpacking which emphasizes carrying the lightest and least amount of gear. While no technical standards exist, some hikers consider "ultralight" to mean an initial base weight of less than 4.5 kg (9.9 lb). Base weight is the weight of a fully loaded backpack at the start of a trip, excluding worn weight and consumables such as food, water, and fuel. Base weight can be lowered by reducing the weight of individual items of gear, or by choosing not to carry that gear. Ultralight backpacking is most popular among thru-hikers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brian Robinson (hiker)</span> American hiker

Brian Robinson is a competitive distance hiker and long-distance runner, holding multiple world-firsts and ultramarathon world records. Robinson was the first person to hike the Triple Crown of Hiking in one year, a total distance of over 7,000 miles.

Scott Williamson is an American thru-hiker, most noted for being the first person to complete a continuous one-season round trip of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). He is also noted for his speed records for hiking the PCT.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Triple Crown of Hiking</span> Three major U.S. long-distance hiking trails

The Triple Crown of Hiking informally refers to the three major U.S. long-distance hiking trails:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Appalachian Trail Museum</span> Museum in the United States

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Francis Tapon</span> American writer

Francis Tapon is an author, global nomad, and public speaker. He has walked across the United States four times via its three major mountain ranges. He also walked across Spain twice. He was the first person to do a round-trip backpacking the Continental Divide Trail. In addition, he thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail southbound. He has traveled to over 100 countries of the world. Lastly, he is the author of the self-help travelogue Hike Your Own Hike and the travel narrative The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. He traveled to all 54 African countries from 2013 to 2018 and climbed to the highest point of 50 of those countries. In 2019, he was inducted into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame.

The Great Western Loop is a 6,875 miles (11,064 km) long hiking route that passes through several states of the western United States.

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Elizabeth Thomas is a thru-hiking champion and former women's unassisted speed record holder for the 2,181-mile (3,510 km) Appalachian Trail. She holds the hiking "Triple Crown," having completed the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. She is the pioneer of the Chinook Trail in Washington and the Wasatch Range in Utah. She is Vice President of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West, an ambassador for the American Hiking Society, and an outdoors writer for Wirecutter, a New York Times publication. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Treeline Review, a hiking gear publication. As of 2018, she completed 20 long-distance wilderness hikes.

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Bart Smith is an outdoor photographer who concentrates on documenting America's National Trails System. Over the course of more than 25 years, he became the first person to hike and photograph all of the 11 national scenic trails and to traverse all of the 19 national historic trails. The 30 national trails go through all 50 states, with a total mileage of more than 50,000 miles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Continental Divide Trail Coalition</span> Non-profit organization in the US

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) is a Colorado-based organization that works to complete, promote, and protect the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The CDT is used by hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers, and runs approximately 3,000-miles along the Continental Divide from Mexico to Canada. The trail crosses five states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and is considered one of the three Triple Crown of Hiking trails in the United States.


  1. Shaffer, Earl V. (1995). Walking with spring : the first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Harpers Ferry, W. Va.: Appalachian Trail Conference. ISBN   0-917953-84-3. OCLC   37561784.
  2. Hammack 981-3239, By Laurence. "Did the man heralded as the first to walk the entire Appalachian Trail take a shortcut into history?". Roanoke Times. Retrieved 2023-01-24.
  3. Freeling, Elisa (November–December 2002), "When Grandma Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail", Sierra
  4. Montgomery, Ben (2014). Grandma Gatewood's walk : the inspiring story of the woman who saved the Appalachian Trail (First ed.). Chicago, Illinois. ISBN   978-1-61374-718-6. OCLC   858940255.
  5. About the Trail – Noteworthy 2,000-Milers, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 3 January 2020
  6. 1 2 About the Trail – 2,000-Milers in Recent Years, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 3 January 2020
  7. "Triple Crown | ALDHA-West".