In this post, we're gonna talk about a topic very near and dear to my heart and that is thru-hiking (aka long-distance backpacking). Specifically, the rise of thru-hiking and how in the heck did this seemingly crazy outdoor experience gain so much traction over the years.
What was once considered an undertaking for only the fringe of society—I mean who on earth would want to hike 20 miles a day being tired and dirty for months at a time—has actually started to become very popular. Let's talk about why.
Wikipedia says it is to "hike an established end-to-end hiking trail or long-distance trail with continuous footsteps in one direction". A less sexy way of describing thru-hiking is just a continuous long-distance hike.
What is thru-hiking vs backpacking?
The real difference between regular backpacking and thru-hiking is that a thru-hike covers a significant distance. Thru-hikers are not weekend trips.
How long is a thru-hike?
There is no defined measurement for what constitutes a real thru-hike. I've heard some say the minimum length a trip needs to be considered a thru-hike is about a hundred miles. Keep in mind that the most famous of these hikes are actually a couple thousand miles long though, span across entire countries and can take months or even years to complete.
When did thru-hiking become 'a thing'?
People have obviously walked since, well, humans were able to walk. Whether someone needed to travel somewhere very far away, migrate for survival, a pilgrimage (ie Camino de Santiago), you name it, humans have always walked.
However, the idea of hiking a long trail purely for recreation started with a trail you might have heard of called the Appalachian Trail or "AT".
There were other long trails before this like the Long Trail in Vermont or the John Muir Trail in California. However, none of them had the distance nor the national vision quite like the Appalachian Trail. In my opinion, the Appalachian Trail was the blueprint of the thru-hiking culture and experience we have come to know today.
Now, I'm not going to provide an entire history of the Appalachian Trail because that is just too long and not what this post is about. However, the idea behind its inception is important to understand how thru-hiking got to where it is today.
How did the idea for the Appalachian Trail come about?
A man named Benton MacKaye graduated from Harvard University's forestry department in 1905 and became a land conservationist. He had a philosophy he called "geotechnics" which more or less talked about a balance between human civilization and nature. In October 1921, he wrote an article called An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. In it he states: "We civilized ones are potentially helpless as canaries in a cage."
(hey, society kind of sucks...)
"Would the development of the outdoor community life as an offset and relief from the various shackles of commercial civilization be practicable and worthwhile?"
(hey, let's do something about it...)
"The building and protection of an Appalachian Trail with its various communities, interest and possibilities would form at least one outlet".
(hey, how about we make the Appalachian Trail?)
MacKaye builds off of the idea that we have an innate connection to the wilderness and went on to write a sort of prescription for an outlet to help deal with a rapidly developing society.
He outlines a vision of connecting a network of smaller existing trails on the east coast of the United States, as well as sprinkling in what he called shelter camps "located at convenient distances so as to allow a comfortable day's walk between each". A few months later, in April 1922, the New York Evening Post published A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia about McKaye's vision.
A bomb had been dropped. Over the coming decades, volunteers and governments started to forge this mega 2,000-mile-long trail.
Who was the first person to walk the Appalachian Trail?
In 1948, a man named Earl Shafer became the first to actually thru-hike from Georgia to Maine. It took him 124 days. In August 1949 National Geographic published a story on his hike. When asked about his shoes, Schaffer said "one pair of boots lasted the entire way but they were in tatters at the end". The article also noted "He slept when possible in lean-to's and ate cornbread he cooked in a pan".
National Geographic called the AT one of the seven wonders of the outdoorsman's world.
This new Appalachian Trail quite literally blazed the trail and spearheaded the movement for other thru-hikes to come. Not only did it show that these trails could be developed, but more importantly there is a serious demand for this extended outdoor experience.
Slowly more and more people seeking adventure started to take on the AT.
Notably, a 67-year old woman named Grandma Gatewood was one of them. The story goes that she had read the National Geographic article and decided to go for a walk carrying an army blanket and a shower curtain. News about this determined woman on a rugged adventure spread.
The Today Show, The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated all picked it up. Strangers began meeting her along the trail and giving her free things—food, water, shelter—which became the beginning of what we now know as "trail magic" which is still very much a part of the thru-hiking culture today. Yes! People give you free stuff on the trail.
Side note: there's a popular book on her called Grandma Gatewood's Walk which talks about her fascinating story. She had survived an extremely abusive husband and was basically as tough as nails.
These early thru-hiking characters set the tone for the trail. It was about getting outside and venturing into the unknown.
The rise of long-distance trails
Trails all over the country were popping up. The first thru-hike of the famous Pacific Crest Trail or PCT was in 1970. The PCT stretched from Mexico to Canada passing through California, Oregon and Washington. Also, notably the Continental Divide Trail or CDT which stretches from Mexico to Canada as well except through New Mexico Colorado Wyoming Idaho and Montana.
These three trails—the AT PCT and CDT— would collectively become known as the Triple Crown and have become arguably the most iconic thru-hikes across the globe. Other trails like the Florida Trail, the Ice Age Trail, the Arizona Trail and way too many others to list started to pop.
The National Trail System Act
Another very noteworthy event that occurred in this era was the passing of the National Trail System Act in 1968 which was "to promote the preservation of public access to travel within and enjoyment and appreciation of the open-air outdoor areas and historic resources of the nation". The federal government began to work with local governments, non-profit organizations and private landowners to acquire large amounts of land on behalf of these trails. To this day it is responsible for over 50,000 miles of trail.
Another side note: a massive massive thanks to other non-profit organizations and thousands of volunteers like the ATC, PCTA and CDTC among many others for continuing to maintain our trails. Thank you!
By this point, most serious hikers were aware of these trails. However, it wasn't until the 90s that the masses started to become aware.
A Walk in the Woods
No doubt I think the book A Walk in the Woods was instrumental in bringing about this awareness. It is a humorous account of Bill Bryson's attempt at hiking the Appalachian Trail. Released in 1997, it became a New York Times bestseller. CNN called it the funniest travel book ever written. Later in 2015, Robert Redford made it into a major motion picture.
Thru-hiking attempts on Appalachian Trail doubled in the 90s.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
There was another extremely popular book written in 2012 called Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This one, about the Pacific Crest Trail, was a young woman's memoir about self-discovery. In 2014, it was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. I also think the same thing happened here as well—you can see the dramatic spike in numbers in PCT thru-hikers in 2014, presumably from awareness from the movie.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikes spiked in 2014
There's also been a huge rise in attempts to run these long trails in record-breaking time. These are called fastest known times, or FKT's. Essentially, someone runs the length of the entire trail, sometimes with the help of a van or a team called supported or, sometimes, completely self-supported where they carry all their gear, set up camp every night and do it just like a thru-hike.
These record attempts and the insane amount of endurance associated with them have gained huge popularity. Basically, these record holders run 50 miles a day or about two marathons up and down mountains for 45 to 50 days which is absolutely crazy. People like Heather Anderson, Jennifer Pharr Davis, Carl Meltzer and Scott Jurek have become somewhat ultra-running celebrities in their own right.
So you can see how much these events brought a massive amount of attention to the trails. And, today more than ever, people are hitting the trails for day hikes and thru-hiking attempts.
The numbers continue to rise, so much so that there are discussions around permitting regulations and limiting access to the trails. There have been problems with shelters overcrowding, trash on the trail and complaints about lack of solitude especially in peak season.
While I do agree with the criticism surrounding overcrowding—yes, people definitely need to be aware of their footprint—I do in general want to focus on the bigger picture. More people thru-hiking is a good thing. These are signs that there is a huge demand for trails and land conservation and the outdoors in general. And as that demand increases, so does the funding and so does the infrastructure.
There seems to be a new long trail announced every few months. Every state and every country seems to have one or be working on one—the Jordan Trail in Jordan, the Greater Patagonian Trail in South America, the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand and the list goes on and on.
I say awesome.
After all of this time, why did thru-hiking become and stay so popular? As we discussed earlier, spending months being tired and dirty for months at a time does not sound appealing to most people.
Well I think I have a pretty good idea why. Here are 4 reasons I came up with.
1. It marketed itself
There's a little bit of a shock factor that came with the idea for a six-month-long hiking trail. It's an interesting idea and a crazy concept that still makes ears perk up when they hear about it. The idea alone created tidal waves and media from the get-go that undoubtedly brought awareness. Awareness meant more hikers which meant more infrastructure and so on and so on.
2,000 mile long trail... Sounds kind of like the 1920's version of clickbait, doesn't it? This idea in media created a lot of buzz. But for something to really soar it has to have wings. Which brings me to reason number two.
2. Humans need the outdoors and continue to feel trapped by society
As more and more people started hiking, they realized how great it was. I think Benton MacKaye's idea really tapped into something primal in humans. People were becoming more and more disconnected with the outdoors
In many ways, as technology tightened its grip on civilization, I think thru-hiking happened as a rejection of these new developments as a sort of backlash. This still sounds true today. As technology accelerates at a seemingly exponential rate, thru-hiking offers a back door, an escape route. I personally felt like thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was a panic button for life, a way to just say no, no thanks, not now and take a break for a few months.
Some may hike for solitude in nature, some for a physical challenge, some to live simply, some might just want to see beautiful scenery and landscapes— you name it. As the early explorer William Bartram said: "All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge."
Whatever the reason, the lure of a thru-hike to submerge yourself into the wilderness still speaks to thousands of people from all walks of life from all over the globe.
3. Gear advancements
Thru-hiking exploded alongside what could be referred to as the gear revolution in the 90s. Gear started to significantly improve during this period, particularly the weight of it. Things like heavy external pack frames and leather hiking boots became pretty much obsolete.
The gear I used as a kid in Boy Scouts compared to the gear I use now is just night and day. Hikers went from carrying 50 pound packs to 25 pound packs. This made hiking dramatically easier on the body and subsequently more appealing to a larger audience.
4. The internet
Obviously, the Internet has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives and hiking is no exception. The ones niche in disconnected hiking community suddenly became connected and information became completely free.
I just cannot imagine trying to plan a thru-hike without having the ability to read about other hikers' experiences online—forums, blogs, videos to find out logistics of when and where to start, the ability to see another hikers gear list, the ability to easily research the terrain and the environment.
All of these new and free resources had to have significantly reduce the barrier to entry and removed a lot of those unknowns. Anyone willing to dig a little and take a chance is now able to.
So there you have it—the rise of thru-hiking as I see it.
It is still considered a pretty fringe experience that only serious outdoorsy people (whatever that means) want to do. But the numbers continue to rise. Hikers from all walks of life are still turning out. It is very much alive today and for that I'm super excited.
I'd be curious what you think the future of thru-hiking is going to look like in 10 or even 50 years from now. Will it last another century? Do the younger generations vote for the outdoors or technology or some sort of integration?
Let me know in the comments below what the future of thru-hiking looks like to you.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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