“What is a Thru Hike?”
Looking back on it now, I think that it’s funny that I was in the act of thru hiking when I first heard the term “thru hike.” I didn’t know what it meant, and since I had just finished graduate school and was getting ready to become a university English teacher, if you’d shown me the word “thru” on the page, I would have been inclined to strike it out with red ink and write a note saying “Through.”
It was somewhere along the Arizona Trail when my hiking partner first brought it up. Mind you, I had heard about this legendary path called the “Appalachian Trail,” I had no idea that there was a special term for the people who walked it or a verb to describe it other than “long distance hiking.” My hiking partner on the Arizona Trail had walked the AT though, and as such, he was far more aware of this thing that we were undertaking than I could ever pretend to be. I look back on the 54 days that we spent together walking the Arizona Trail and I wonder how he ever could have had the patience to walk those miles alongside me and my absolute lack of understanding anything that had to do with hikes of that caliber. And I’ve told him this too. I’ve asked why he put up with my ignorance, and his answer is always the same. Whether it’s genuine or whether he’s saying it to gently appease my curiosity, I’ll probably never know. But his answer makes sense. He says it’s because he needed me as much as I needed him.
He had the long-distance hiking experience, and I had the desert hiking experience. I’d never hiked longer than 100 miles at a time when I undertook the Arizona Trail, and although he’d walked all 2,100 miles of the AT twenty years before we ever met, his experience in the desert was fairly minimal compared to the five years that I’d spent wandering around the rattlesnake infested wastelands that make up the Arizona that I’ve grown to love. And so we met in the middle. He knew long distance, I knew the desert, and together, we had just enough skillset and experience to make it the 800 miles from Mexico to Utah along the Arizona Trail.
I knew the desert, but I didn’t know “thru hiking.” I didn’t know that there was a system of long trails all over the country that were becoming more and more well-known with the passing of each year. I didn’t know that the Pacific Crest Trail even existed before my hiking partner told me about it. I didn’t know about the Continental Divide Trail, or even what the geographical feature called the Continental Divide actually was, or that it even existed. But my hiking partner knew these things, and he knew the term “thru hiking.” Thus, on account of our spending 54 days along the trail together, I walked away from the Arizona Trail knowing these things quite well.
Several years after our completing the Arizona Trail, my hiking partner embarked on the Pacific Crest Trail and completed the walk southbound (or “SOBO” as it’s known in the thru hiking community) from end to end. And when I went out to do the same in the following year, I remember calling him and asking for his advice and experience. Undoubtedly, I owe a lot of my success in completing the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015 to the advice of my Arizona Trail hiking partner. He gave me enough advice and help that a book could be written about just what I learned from him alone. But of all the advice he gave, the piece that I remember most, was on how he redefined a thru hike to me.
I remember being on the phone with him and having him ask, “Are you going to hike the whole thing?” to which my answer was of course I was. “Every mile of it? You’re not going to skip any?” I remember those questions word for word, and I remember them because it seemed like such a strange thing to ask. Of course I was going to walk every mile of it. After all, wasn’t that the point of a thru hike?
And that’s when I first learned that not everyone defines a thru hike in the same way.
Online definitions of thru hiking vary in their verbiage, but they all basically define it as hiking a long trail from end-to-end in a single season. Superficially that keeps things quite simple. But as soon as you delve into the thru hiking community, you’ll find that searching for a unanimous agreement on the definition of a thru hike is just about as easy as finding an agreement amongst a group of people on the meaning of “god.”
How long does a thru hike have to be?
Can I thru hike from one end of my neighborhood to the next? Or for that matter from one side of my bedroom to the other? Is that a thru hike?
What if the trail has a section that is closed? Can I skip that part and still have it count as a thru hike? What if there’s too much snow in the mountains? Too little water in the desert? Can I just skip over those parts and still call it a thru hike?
What if I get picked up for a ride into town for resupply of food and then hitch back to the trail? Does that still count as a thru hike, even though I left the trail? What if they drop me off on the opposite side of the road and I skip fifteen feet of the trail? Are we still going to count it as a thru hike?
What if I detour off of the thru hiking trail and take a different route around the mountains but walk the whole way from point-to-point? Is that still a thru hike?
What if my friends are 20 miles ahead of me and I hitch hike ahead to catch up with them? What if I skip ahead 100 miles, or 250 miles, or 500 miles? Is it still a thru hike then?
Are you tired of the questions yet? Because I could go on.
The fact is that there is no solid, agreed-upon definition of a thru hike. There is only this vague concept or idea that people work around as they try to make sense of this thing that we call “thru hiking.” And all that I know is that it has something to do with walking a very, very long ways.
My understanding of a thru hike was laid out by my Arizona Trail hiking partner though. He taught me what would come to be my foundation on the subject, and he was (I hope he’d agree in my saying this), what is commonly referred to in the hiking community as a “purist” and as a result of that, so too have I found myself being labeled as a thru hiking “purist.”
As far as I can tell, most thru hikers use the word “purist” like it’s a four-letter word. It’s rarely spoken of with pride or dignity. Instead, it’s used in hushed tones, and almost never applied to one’s self. Example: “I’m not hiking with him; he’s a purist.” “I can’t stand purists.” “That’s why he always hikes solo; it’s because he’s a purist.”
Simply put, a purist thru hiker is someone who doesn’t make exceptions to skipping miles along the trail. Not for fire closures, not for detours, not for this, not for that, not for the other. I suppose that like any word, you can bend and twist and prod the true meaning of the word and find as much disagreement in that word as you can in “thru hike” or “god.” But my reason for bringing it up is not so that I can delve into those possible interpretations of the term so much as to accept the label as it applies to me personally. My hiking partner on the Arizona Trail was a purist at heart. Skipping miles wasn’t for him, so long as it could be reasonably avoided. If he was going to complete a thru hike, then it damn well was going to mean walking every available mile from one point to the next. And he passed that philosophy onto me. As such, I can say without any reservation that I thru hiked the Arizona trail and saw every mile possible. Those miles that were closed, we road walked around. We didn’t hitch, we didn’t skip, and we didn’t postpone them until later. We walked every step from the Mexican border to the Utah Border.
I have reservation regarding whether or not I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail though. I don’t think that any other thru hiker within reason would agree with my hesitance in calling my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail a pure thru hike, but my reservation is only that I never reached the Northern Terminus of the trail. It wasn’t because I wanted to skip, but because I had no choice. Almost the entire state of Washington was on fire when I reached the final leg of the Pacific Crest Trail, and so I did the only thing that I felt like I could do—I walked the roads to Canada from around 100 miles south of the border. I am comfortable saying that I walked every step from Mexico to Canada, but I’m also comfortable accepting that an argument could be made that I’m not a true thru hiker of the Pacific Crest Trail, because whether it was in my hands or not, I did not hike every step of the trail. I had to walk around that last stretch. And as such, I never actually got to stand next to the PCT Northern Terminus Monument. Instead, I crossed the US/Canada border at Sumas, Washington and took my victory photo next to the “Welcome to Beautiful British Columbia” sign.
In my heart of hearts, I do think that I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, but I bring up my story of the PCT only to illustrate how flimsy this idea of “thru hiking” can get once we look at it under magnification. I’ve heard of those who don’t even believe in leaving the trail for resupply. At least one person has successfully dropped his food on trail, buried it where no one can find it, and then set out on his hike and walked from border to border without ever stepping foot back into civilization.
Does that make him better than me? Does that make his hike more of a thru hike than my own? I have to believe that he would argue that it does, but just as fair an argument could be made to the other side.
The point is that no one can say what a thru hike actually is except for the person who is doing the walking themselves. We all set out on these journeys across the country for our own unique reasons, and we each set our own individual rules.
I was taught early on that a thru hike means hiking every step of the way, whether that’s along a trail or, when the conditions demand it, along the road to get around closed sections of trail. As such, those are the measurements by which I determine my own success in a thru hike. But even those “rules” aren’t set in stone, and I know there will come a day in my futre as a hiker where I’ll have to skip miles for reasons that are outside of my control, just like I had to road walk the final stretch of the PCT.
Was my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail a true thru hike? Yes; I think that it was. But what about the guy who skipped 10 steps along the way? And the gal who skipped 10 miles? What about her friend who skipped 100 miles, or her other friend who skipped 1,000 miles? Are they thru hikes too?
Only they get to answer those questions, but if you want my opinion, yes; I suppose that they are just as much as I am.
There’s a saying on the trail that I hold very close to my heart, and it’s as simple as any adage could be. “Hike your own hike.” It means to not define yourself or your rules of the hike based on the standards or measurements that others have set for themselves. Do your own thing. If you want to skip miles, then you damn well should. If you won’t feel satisfied unless you walk every measly inch along the way, then that’s your journey.
But “hike your own hike” means a lot more than that to me. It’s not a saying about the trail; it’s a saying about life. The trail teaches us so many things, but perhaps the most important lesson that I’ve taken away from the miles is that I don’t want to live a life that is based on the standards of others. We each get to choose our own path in life. We each get to decide if we want to go to college, if we want to work the corporate job, if we want to become married, if we want to have children, or if we want to spend our lives listening to the stepping of our feet against the trodden earth of a long trail that connects two arbitrary points on the ground. We each hike our own hike. Whether that hike is across the country, across the globe, or across the street. We’re all on a journey of our own.
So what is a thru hike? Well, as someone who thinks of himself as a thru hiker, I will tell you with absolute sincerity, I have no idea what a thru hike is. I only know what it is to me. A thru hike is a trail that brings me closer to myself, closer to an understanding of this thing that’s called “life,” and a thru hike is what keeps me finding meaning in this world.
Without thru hiking, I’m sure that I’d find something else. But for now, I’m glad that I don’t have to figure out what that thing might be. I’m glad that I have a meaning, I’m glad that I have a purpose, and I’m glad that I have a goal. And for now, that all boils down to waking up tomorrow and knowing that there will be a trail to walk. And until I find the end of that trail, that will be my draw.
That’s what a thru hike is to me.