Thru-Hiking for Beginners: Planning Your Next Multi-Day Hike

If you’re a traveler who’s already held a funeral for their trusty backpack, closing it into the coffin of a dusty closet, there might be hope for its rebirth. While international travel may be put onto the back-burner for a while, domestic travel looks like it may be on the rise. Countries like New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and others in the South Pacific are starting to welcome socially-distant adventures like hiking in natural parks.

If you’re new to backpacking in the traditional sense but love to travel light and experience new destinations, consider planning a thru-hiking adventure as your trip.

thru-hiking for beginners open desert trail

Beautiful trails of Sedona, Arizona

What is a thru-hike?

A “thru-hike” or “through-hike” is the colloquial term for starting a hike at one point of a trail and finishing at another. Some of the most famous thru-hikes are the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail in the United States (made even more popular by Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, respectively) as well as the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Though there are thousands of trails worthy of treading along around the world.

Choosing your hike

Just about every major natural park will have multiple thru-hiking trails (or looped trails) that you can hike along over the course of a few days. Choosing your first multi-day hike should be more about your experience level rather than your interest. A thru-hike that’s ideal for beginners will be well-marked, have no rivers to ford, may have shelters to sleep in, somewhat popular among other hikers, many water sources, and will have multiple exit and entry points in case of an emergency.

Starting off on a trail that’s remote, unmarked, rarely hiked, and located in a place with extreme weather changes can be dangerous to beginner hikers–especially if you are hiking alone.

desolation wilderness signSet realistic mileage goals

One afternoon, my family went on a hike through the Desolation Wilderness in Northern California. My dad and I spotted an interesting peak that seemed to be just a few miles beyond where we were stopping for the day. My dad and I were sure that we could make it to the peak and back before dark. An hour later, we’d lost the trail and couldn’t find our way around a steep ledge that had a vertical slate on one side and a raging river on the other. At this pace, the trip we thought took two hours would’ve been around a five- or six-hour journey. Not wanting to risk spending the night without any gear, we turned back.

For beginner hikers, it’s better to shorten the distance of your hike than to hold yourself to ambitious mileage goals. The acts of setting up and taking down camp, cooking, navigating, and moving across challenging terrain means that it will often take you much longer from A to B than you might expect. Add in the weight of gear on your back, and your speed dwindles even more. Allowing yourself to slow down and complete only a few miles per day (rather than clocking in 20+) gives plenty of time to relax and actually enjoy the destination you’re in and fosters plenty friendship making and side trips. Plus, slowing down is one of the best ways to prevent injury.

It’s okay to go thru-hiking with a guide

Fear is one of the biggest reasons that would-be thru-hikers never go on their adventure. What if I don’t know what to do? What if something happens? What if I can’t find someone to go with me? Fortunately, there are plenty of guided treks that will help break in your hiking shoes and teach you the basics of backpacking. Like anything, it takes practice. Some hikers prefer to be led and don’t need to know the nuances of each task that the guide uses, but it’s worth asking a guide if you can help them out during a trip to learn many essential thru-hiking skills for yourself.

Don’t geek out too much on gear

In thru-hiking forums, debates about creature comforts versus pack weights are on a constant rotation. One hiker will do a product review of their must-have Italian espresso maker while another will proudly reveal that they shaved twelve grams off of their pack weight by cutting their toothbrush in half! It’s easy to get caught up in the mix and hiker obsession of having the lightest and greatest backpacking item from REI.

Thru-hiking has been around long before REI and the obsession with the lightest gear. Hikers from the 1960s donned metal frame backpacks with thick sleeping bags and metal pans strapped to its exterior. They had just as much fun as those carrying the latest and greatest! Of course, gear does matter to some extent–but see if you can pull together a decent kit made from items you already have. If you need to purchase something, it’s better to get the budget-friendly variation rather than foregoing backpacking completely. Your travel backpack with a rainproof cover will likely do just fine.




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