Thru-Hiking 101 [Tips, Planning, Gear, FAQs & More]

Thru hiker standing next to a wooden KATAHDIN sign
Thru-Hiking Tips, Planning, Advice, Gear & More

Maybe adventure and exploration movies are your thing. Perhaps you live near a long trail and have spent years daydreaming about hiking it. Or you’ve quit your day job and want to savor your new freedom. Whatever your reason, you’re fired up and ready to plan a thru-hike.

There’s just one problem — you have no idea where to start. That’s why we’re here to talk thru-hiking 101. I hiked the Appalachian Trail end-to-end (2,200 miles) two years ago, and I’ll be your guide today, sharing what you need to know to complete a successful thru-hike.

Contrary to popular belief, thru-hiking isn’t all about the joy of frolicking through the woods and sleeping under the stars. Well, okay, a lot of it is. But between finding the best gear for thru-hiking and deciding who to hike with, there’s a lot to consider before hitting the trail.

Read on to learn how to save yourself a few toenails and take a chance at finishing the thru-hike of your dreams. This guide provides tips for planning a thru-hike, plus a peek at what life will be like on the trail.

What is Thru-Hiking?

Backpacker with a yellow pack hiking along the AT, surrounded by ferns
Do you like walking all day long? If so, keep reading…

Let’s start at the very beginning. Thru-hiking is the act of hiking a long-distance trail continuously from end-to-end. Technically, there’s no minimum trail length to qualify as a thru-hike, so the total distance could be 30 miles, 3,000, or somewhere in between.

Hang on, how is this different from backpacking? Think of thru-hiking as extreme backpacking. Backpackers have the luxury of toting around extra toiletries and fresh food, but thru-hikers focus on covering ground at the expense of comfort.

You can thru-hike all over the world, but thru-hiking in the U.S. typically revolves around the Triple Crown hikes — the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT; 2,700+ miles), and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT; 2,650 miles). But we’ll get to some shorter, equally worthy thru-hikes later.

Different Ways to Thru-Hike

Wooden 'AT' sign and a white blaze on a tree with a stone trail in the background
Around 165,000 white blazes (rectangles of white paint) mark the Appalachian Trail

At its most basic, thru-hiking just requires putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes for hundreds or thousands of miles. But if traditional NOBO (northbound) or SOBO (southbound) thru-hikes aren’t for you, here are a few ways to spice things up:

Platinum Blaze

Platinum blazers are known for breaking out the big bucks. Think hotels or hostels every night, frequent slackpacking services, eating at restaurants wherever possible, etc. Make no mistake, the platinum blaze certainly has its allure — if you can afford it, that is.

Blue Blaze

Distinctive white blazes mark the route of the AT, while blue blazes designate an alternate trail. While some purists refuse to stray from the main footpath, blue blazing will often have better views or help you avoid nasty sections of trail.

Yellow Blaze

Yellow blazing most commonly refers to the act of hopping in a car to skip some trail miles. But the term also applies to hiking along roads, which can also save time and distance. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to book it to the nearest shelter before a storm.

LASH

Short for “Long-Ass Section Hike,” a LASH divides a long trail into smaller, more manageable bits. If you can’t spend six months on a thru-hike, you can complete different sections nonconsecutively until you piece together the whole thing.

Some argue that a true thru-hike has to be completed in one calendar year to count. But since LASHers hike just as many miles as the rest of us, they’ll always be thru-hikers in my book.

Flip-Flop

A flip-flop provides another alternative to the standard thru-hike. Countless permutations of the flip-flop exist, but usually, you start in the middle of the trail and hike one half in one direction. Weeks or months later, you then hike the other half in the other direction.

Yo-Yo

Caution: this one may require at least 12 months of free time. A yo-yo consists of completing a full thru-hike in one direction, then turning around and doing the same thru-hike in the other direction. I’ve met a few dedicated yo-yo hikers, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Thru-Hiking FAQs

Rattlesnake and big spider on a tree in the dark of the night
No matter which long hike you choose, you’ll encounter plenty of creepy crawlies

As you dip your toes into the waters of thru-hiking, you’ll probably have quite a few questions and concerns. Don’t worry, you’re not alone — here are the answers to everything you might be afraid to ask about.

How do you stay safe from animals?

Depends on what you might encounter on your trail of choice, but most animals won’t go out of their way to bother you. Black bears, for example, usually won’t hurt anything but your food. Always research local wildlife ahead of time, stay alert, and use common sense.

And people?

Though bad things can and do happen in the woods, most people you meet don’t pose a threat. In fact, they’ll often be happy to help you, whether they’re other long-haulers or day hikers. For peace of mind, you can carry nonlethal self-defense weapons and a satellite phone.

What do you eat?

Many aspiring thru-hikers have dreams of eating healthy on the trail. But realistically, you’ll eat lots of processed foods like instant ramen, mashed potatoes, and canned tuna. You can also mix it up with freeze-dried meals and fresh foods, or even pre-made meals from home.

What do you wear?

First, slip into your hiking underwear, then lightweight tops and bottoms that will wick moisture and dry quickly. During warmer months, you’ll want to have sun protection and ample ventilation, and for cold temps, bundle up with heavy socks and a good jacket.

Wait — do you sleep outside every night?

Nope. Most thru-hikers will stay in hotels or hostels once a week or once every couple weeks. There are also shelters on the AT and a few on the PCT, which, while not exactly “indoors,” will give you a comfortable place to stay besides your tent.

How do you prepare for a thru-hike?

I find that planning is half the fun of a thru-hike. Instead of hitting the treadmill or dieting, test your gear on some day hikes and short backpacking trips (AKA ‘shakedowns’). Once you start your thru-hike, begin with low-mileage days to slowly build up your trail legs.

As for mental preparations, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Not every moment on trail will be all sunshine and rainbows. But no matter what the trail throws your way, trust that you can complete your thru-hike in whatever method you choose. Never quit on a bad day.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Thru-Hiking

Ultralight tent pitched in the mountains as the sun sets in the distance
Practice getting that perfect pitch on your tent before you hit the trail

It can be easy to assume that anything goes in the world of thru-hiking. But believe it or not, hikers do follow a few written and unwritten rules to make the trail a better place for everyone. Plus, sticking to these tenets will likely earn you friends along the way.

Do — Test your gear out beforehand

Get to know each piece of gear you’ll be packing well before you set out on a thru hike. Set up your tent, prime your water filter, sleep in your sleeping bag, and break in you hiking shoes in the weeks and months leading up to your departure date. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, as they say.

Do — Leave no trace (LNT)

Leave No Trace comprises seven principles that everyone should follow in the backcountry, so be sure to brush up before you head out on any hike. These rules will teach you how to handle everything from your snack wrappers (pack ’em out) to human waste (dig a cathole).

Do — Hike your own hike

The golden rule of thru-hiking — “hike your own hike” — means you should focus on your hike, not what everyone else is doing. It’s tempting to compare yourself to others, but hiking your own hike will vastly improve your experience (and everyone else’s) along the way.

Do — Be courteous in shelters or group campsites

As thru-hiking increases in popularity, expect to share the trail, overlooks, shelters, and group campsites. Be polite — don’t take up more room than you need, keep your headlamp on a red or low light at night, and quiet down when it’s time to sleep.

Do — Share the wealth

When you find trail magic or score the last hotel room in the area, try to share your good fortune as much as possible with other hikers. This may sound onerous if you’re used to flying solo while hiking, but you never know when you’ll need a little help yourself.

Do — Research

This should be an ongoing process before, during, and even after a thru-hike. No matter how many times you’ve backpacked before, know important details like the weather forecast and your resupply plans ahead of time. Don’t assume you can figure it out on the fly.

Do — Expect the Unexpected

Circumstances can and will change, regardless of preparation. Staying flexible is just as important as having a plan. As with all things in life (but especially on the trail), you can’t control everything.

Do Not — Eat in your tent or shelters

No matter how tempting this may be during bad weather, never eat in your tent or in trail shelters, unless you’d like to share your food with wild animals and mice. If you’re in a communal space, you’re also inviting critters to feast on the supplies of everyone around you.

Do Not — Push yourself too hard

You’ll need to hike long days to complete a thru-hike of any length, but you shouldn’t push yourself past your limits for the sake of covering ground. While it can be frustrating to slow down, remember that it would be much worse to call off the trek entirely.

Do Not — Blast music while hiking

This one has caused controversy since the advent of Bluetooth speakers. Some say they use music to scare off bears and keep up the pace, but you don’t need to share your playlist with the whole trail. Instead, listen with one earbud in and one ear on your surroundings.

Do Not — Act like you’re competing on “Alone”

In the era of reliable, lightweight gear, there’s no reason for thru-hikers to try bushcraft activities like building shelters or piling rocks into a fire pit. Not only does this violate LNT principles, but it can also create hazards for other hikers and animals.

Do Not — Be an ultralight mooch

I get it — it’s always better to hike with as light a pack as possible. But things like lighters and headlamps are more necessary than they are deadweight, so don’t make a habit of borrowing from other hikers just to save yourself a couple of ounces.

The A-Z Glossary of Thru-Hiking

White hiker box with water droplets that reads "AT #classof2021"
Hiker boxes are a great way to spread the wealth around on the trail

Like any pursuit, thru-hiking comes with its very own set of confusing, niche terms. Hiker midnight? Tramilies? Zero days? Here’s a glossary that will help demystify thru-hiker lingo, so you’ll sound like a seasoned pro from the moment you step on the trail.

Alternate

A secondary route that bypasses the official trail, typically to avoid trail closures, bad weather, or wildfires. Some purists feel the need to walk every inch of the official trail, but unless you fall into that crowd, don’t feel bad about taking a different way around.

Bounce Box

A box filled with extra gear and/or food that you “bounce” from post office to post office along the trail, mailing from one to the next as you go. This allows you to hang onto items that you might not want for certain sections, but will still need further down the line.

FKT

Short for Fastest Known Time, the record for the shortest time needed to complete a thru-hike. FKTs are often discussed with a hushed reverence. You probably won’t land an FKT on your first thru-hike, but you’re more than welcome to try.

Hiker Box

Often found in trail-friendly hostels and hotels, hiker boxes allow thru-hikers to drop unwanted gear or food without throwing things away. You can grab whatever goodies you need from a hiker box and leave anything you don’t want for the next hiker.

Hiker Midnight

While some refer to 9 pm as hiker midnight, I’ve most often heard the term used to describe dusk — the time when daylight is fading fast and most thru-hikers head to bed. Hiking all day takes its toll, and you’ll need much more rest than you’d think.

Slackpacking

Transferring your non-essentials to someone with a car so you can hike with a lighter pack and cover more miles. At the end of a slackpack, you reunite with your heavier belongings or head to whichever hostel or hotel has your gear.

Trail Magic

Beloved by all, trail magic is free help provided by trail angels (nearby folks who want to help out hikers). It can be as extravagant as a shuttle ride or hot meal, or as humble as a grocery bag of snacks left at the trailhead.

Trail Name

Beloved by all, trail magic is free help provided by trail angels (nearby folks who want to help out hikers). It can be as extravagant as a shuttle ride or hot meal, or as humble as a grocery bag of snacks left at the trailhead.

Tramily

A tramily, or “trail family,” is a group of thru-hikers who form close-knit bonds with one another. While not everyone needs a tramily to finish a thru-hike, having support from other hikers can help you overcome both mental and physical challenges.

Zero and Nero Days

Zero (mile) days are a treasured part of trail life, typically spent in town resting, catching up on errands, and eating as much food as possible. Nero days, meanwhile, are low mileage days that allow you some time to recharge while still covering at least a few miles.

Thru-Hiking Checklist

40+ pieces of backpacking gear, including a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, and more laid on a wooden floor
Dialing in your packing list is an essential step for prepping your next thru-hike

Okay, now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to cover the most essential decisions in planning your thru-hike. Focus on these different factors to determine what kind of thru-hike experience you want and what you’ll be able to achieve.

When

Since thru-hiking requires a time commitment of up to six months, ask yourself when you’ll have the most free time. Your answer will help determine your thru-hiking strategy, as well as the trail you’ll be able to tackle, and in what direction.

If you want to attempt one of the Triple Crown trails, most NOBO hikers start in spring, and SOBO hikers start in early summer. You can also hike in the off-season to avoid crowds, but beware dicey winter weather.

Where

The Triple Crown trails offer different experiences, scenery, and conditions, so you’ll want to weigh them against one another as you consider where to hike. The Appalachian Trail is by far the most popular, followed by the Pacific Coast Trail, then the rugged Continental Divide Trail. All run more than 2,000 miles.

If you can’t commit to such a long trail, consider shorter hikes — the Florida Trail, the Ice Age Trail, and the John Muir Trail, for example. These, and other notable thru-hikes, are listed at the end of this post. You have plenty of options in the U.S. as well as abroad.

Who

While simply starting a thru-hike is a huge decision, who you hike with will define your experience, for better or for worse. You can hike alone, with a partner, or with a like-minded close friend. (If it’s the latter, your thru-hike together may forge a lifelong bond.)

Solo hiking may sound scary, especially for women, but it becomes easier when you meet other hikers and form a tramily. Meanwhile, hiking with a partner or friend can be fun, but factor in any differences in physical abilities along with how well you tolerate each other.

How

There are a myriad of ways to thru-hike based on your personal preferences and skill levels. But you should also think about your expenses, a consideration as important as your own two feet for getting the job done.

Obviously, the longer the trail, the more money it will cost to complete. Some hikers stick to a strict dollar-per-mile plan, while others are happy to spend a little more to hike in comfort. Whatever budget you have in mind, factor in some extra dough for emergencies.

What (Gear)

You can afford to bring non-essentials and a few heavy items on a backpacking trip, but on a thru-hike? Not so much. Thru-hiking gear should always weigh as little as possible so you can protect your joints and conserve energy to complete all those miles.

Focus on the big three: your backpack, sleeping system, and shelter. Consider investing in robust, ultralight gear that will go easy on your back. We even have a handy ultralight backpacking checklist to help.

Prepare for Thru-Hiking Success

Wooden platform trail leading through the dense forest
Which thru hike do you have your eye on?

Congratulations — you’ve officially completed Thru-Hiking 101. Now, all that’s left is to pick your trail, your start date, and complete the thru-hike itself. Simple, eh?

Humor aside, yes, thru-hiking is a serious commitment. But almost anyone with the right gear and know-how can complete a thru-hike. Blind hikers, people with missing limbs, elderly hikers, and those with young children can and do tackle these trails all the time.

Remember: The most important thing to bring is an open mind and a flexible plan. There are no universal methods for planning a thru-hike, but these tips will at least get you pointed in the right direction, boost your confidence, and provide inspiration for your trek.

Unleash your daydreams — use this guide and our checklists, break out your trekking poles, schedule some shakedown hikes, and hit that long trail for the adventure of a lifetime.

More Hiking & Backpacking Resources

Last Updated on February 3, 2024

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Cu Fleshman

Cu Fleshman is a writer, editor, and hiker originally from the backwoods of South Carolina. She now resides in Southern California where she hikes, backpacks, and always has an eye out for her next adventure.

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