What does a “thru-hiker” go “through,” actually?

I really don’t know if there is a written definition, anywhere, other than a loose one, maybe, that only points to a “thru-hike” being a journey on foot between two points a sizable distance apart.

Therefore, anyone can be called a “Thru-Hiker” who walks with a backpack on their back in a self-sustaining fashion along an established track from Point-A to Point-B, over a fair distance and time, right?

  • Appalachian Trail
  • Continental Divide Trail
  • Pacific Crest Trail
  • John Muir Trail
  • Tahoe Rim Trail

…are a few existing paths that spring to mind in the USA that could be followed “through” from beginning to end, but is that all there is to thru-hiking?

I’m beginning to realize there are four levels or different types of backcountry walkers, based on the factors of Time and Distance,

  • “Day-Hiker”
  • “Weekend-Warrior”
  • “Section-Hiker,” out for a few weeks, and
  • “Thru-Hiker,” out for as far and as long as it takes.

So, it kind-of sounds like anyone who has ever day-hiked, then graduated to backpacking longer distances over many days or weeks, has the savvy (knowledge, skills, and experience) to undertake a longer (time and distance) “thru-hike.”
Well, no…because you don’t just hike “through” time and distance, you, also, must go “through” every environmental condition imaginable!

So, what is a “Thru-Hiker?”

“Thru-hikers,” by definition, are supposed to be savvy and skilled enough to safely and wisely travel “through” most anything non-technical that the wild can throw at them, like

  • – negotiating trail-less forest, rock, and steep snow,
  • crossing threatening creeks,
  • carrying as much gear and food as necessary to span resupply distances,
  • weathering rain, hail, wind, and snow in stride,
  • hefting sufficient water to get through the deserts,
  • Passing through lava beds, old forest fires, and flooded valleys, and,
  • enduring a life on-trail with dirt, bugs, mice, and bears…for months… …while hiking great distances over huge spans of time.

A “Thru-hike” is a transformative adventure where everyone learns, grows, and changes from these “trials of the trail.” It traverses multiple environments, ecosystems, and weather, after all.

A “thru-hiker” has to walk through an ever-changing exterior landscape, from desert to alpine snow, while his or her interior landscape of talent and ability has to rise to meet each trial. They can not select an ideal date with ideal weather to accomplish their ordeal, like the preliminary three levels of backcountry walkers can. They have to face and deal (hopefully successfully) with everything out there!

Yes, it’s best if they are prepared for it all before setting foot to trail, but all aspirants don’t think this way.

– Some have a clue from previous multi-week backpacking trips while others have never done more than a weekend outing. These “backpackers” may not have what it takes to rise to the challenges of a thru-hike.

– Some will go the multi-month, multi-thousand-mile distances, but they will be those who acknowledged the existence of the challenges, ahead, prepared for them, identified and faced them out on the trail, gathered their strength and wisdom to overcome them, and, in the end, to find themselves changed in the process and re-molded by the lifestyle of the experience.

“Thru-hikers” are in a class of their own, therefore, because of the duration and variety of challenges they face. They have graduated from “Day-Hiker,” “Weekend-Warrior,” and “Summer-Backpacker,” to become the “Ironmen” and “Decathaletes” of the mountain environment!

If you are aspiring to “thru-hike” a long-distance trail sometime in the future, are you aware of this definition and the conditions to be faced, beyond the miles and time? Are you ready for this?