Thru-hiking is to hike an established point-to-point, long distance hiking trail with continuous footsteps in one direction.
Section hiking is doing either a single section of a classic thru-hike trail or breaking up the full length of the trail into several hiking sessions over a course of time and seasons.
Life rarely affords an opportunity to take footsteps continuously in one direction so with an appealing definition like that, who wouldn’t find themselves adding a thru-hike to their bucket list! The strong and ever present pull towards our need for connection with nature is a shared motivator for any type of hiker. Thru-hiking is a commitment in all sorts of ways - a commitment to a physical and mental challenge, a commitment to planning and preparing, a commitment to time, a financial commitment and of course a commitment to, well, the sport of hiking! The Pacific Crest Trail, for instance, can take up to 5 months to complete. Section hiking is an alternative way to experience the allure of that long distance trail, often providing a less expensive and more approachable option for the hiker who cannot afford the time commitment of thru-hiking or a hiker who simply prefers to break it up for more flexibility. Section hiking can also lower the mental barrier of tackling a 2,000+ mile trek all at once and make completing more accessible than you think. It’s all ultimately in the magic of what motivates you and how you want to experience these trails.
I wanted to explore this motivation behind our hiking goals and the benefits of both thru-hiking or section hiking an end-to-end, high mileage trail system. I called on some of my fellow Wildland Trekking guides who are avid and accomplished thru-hikers to reflect on their motivation and what it is they love about thru-hiking and altered thru-hikes or section hiking.
Wildland Trekking hiking and backpacking guide and extremely accomplished thru-hiker Jillian Buckley shared that the motivation for thru-hiking for her is the simple purpose of getting up every day and walking. The hike keeps her healthy, physically and mentally. The drive to complete a thru-hike satisfied her desire to be thorough and she loved the community she gained in being a thru-hiker.
“You can step onto the trail solo and within 3 days, you have a strong community of fellow hikers. A lot of what makes a thru-hike like the AT so enjoyable for me, as well, is the small towns and communities you interface with. You will be walking into a town and there are locals there with coolers full of drinks and making you hot dogs while they cheer you on,” Jillian said.
Jillian has completed thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail (a 2,200 mile trail from Georgia to Maine), Pacific Crest Trail (a 2,650 mile trail from Mexico to Canada), Camino de Santiago, a thru-hike of the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail, hiked 450 miles of the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail.
I asked Jillian her thoughts on the benefits of section hiking these types of trails as well.
“Section hiking, first and foremost, allows you to go home and shower! You can also pack lighter and get stronger in a safer way without committing to certain gear or certain mileage; overall, it is less consequential” says Jillian.
Wildland Trekking guide Myriam Bishop reflected on her motivation to find her own path and that her happy place is not in the traditional sense of thru-hiking:
“I hiked across the Pyrenees last summer over 54 days and started to call it a thru-hike as we did detours, summits, etc. We were looking at how to catch the coolest line and the most beauty rather than sticking to a fixed itinerary. If there was a section of forest road, we’d try to find a more fun/adventurous alternative on ridge lines. When we started I found that I could easily get caught in just trying to go faster and faster, rather than being able to focus on the moment and enjoy where you are. Being creative about the itinerary and finding the ‘coolest way to go’ was healthier and more satisfying for me,” she said.
Whatever the choice, thru-hike or section hike, the experience only calls on us to decide what is our motivator to put one foot in front of the other.