Difference Between Thru-Hiking vs. Section Hiking

I am writing a story for The Outdoor Life about the difference between Thru-Hiking vs. Section Hiking. I want to start with; What is a Thru-Hike/Thru-Hiker? I have noticed this topic come up a couple of times and it can be somewhat confusing to some, especially people new to the hiking/backpacking scene. My focus for this article is US-based hiking/backpacking and how the US sees and understands what constitutes a “Thru-Hiker”. On the map below, there are 44 trails that are considered Long Distance Trails in the US and these range from 93 miles to 6,800 miles.

US long distance Hikes
Long Distance Hiking Trails in the United States

As defined online: In the United States, the term, Thru-Hiking is most commonly associated with the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, but also refers to other end-to-end trail hikes. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a through hike as one completed within a twelve month period; this definition is also used by many other trail advocacy groups.

Now that’s a pretty loose interpretation of what a Thru-Hike is and this is where things start to get fuzzy. For example, if someone wanted to take 12 months to complete the AT by hiking for 30 days, go home/work for 30 days and back to the AT for 30 days and so on – as long as they completed it in one 12 month period, they would be considered to have thru-hiked the AT. But I know a HUGE amount of you would take issue with that statement!

If you can only complete one (1) trail in the proverbial 12 month period, in order to be considered a “Thru-Hiker”…

  1. What is the minimum millage the trail should be?
    Some say must be over 500, some say it does not matter.
  2. What is the maximum acceptable off-trail duration between sections? Some say only 2 nights, some say it does not matter.
  3. Must you complete each section in consecutive order?
    Some say yes, some say it does not matter.
  4. Must you carry your own gear the majority of the time on the trail?
    Some say yes, some say it does not matter. I have seen people post they have used lamas for a part and another post stated had friends meet up on sections and carry their pack or part of their pack part of the way.
  5. Must you sleep “outside” (tent, hammock, etc) the majority of the time?
    I ask this because I read a couple of posts where family members would follow them via an RV and meet where they could for the hiker to use for eating and sleeping the bulk majority of the nights.

Again, it’s all about perspective and I am looking for the responses of the “masses”. As if today 2019 what’s your opinions of these questions that define what a “Thru-Hiker” really is.

FYI: Please keep this peaceful! I know everyone is passionate about hiking/backpacking, but there is no need to bash someone for their opinions. Everyone has a right to their opinion, right or wrong!

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