So you want to plan a thru-hike, but you aren’t sure where to start. It’s a big undertaking that might seem overwhelming at first, but if you break it down into bite-size pieces and give yourself enough time and mental space to be thorough about each stage of the process, it won’t seem so intimidating.
The first thing we’ll look at is choosing the right trail. There are more trails out there to thru-hike than the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. Those trails are epic and mighty, but they also require up to a six-month commitment.
When it started looking like I wasn’t going to be able to commit to a Triple Crown Trail this year (or that Covid wasn’t going to be settled down enough to make me feel ok about it), I started looking at shorter options for thru-hikes—one for each season. Who knows if it will really happen, but it’s fun to plan.
I’ve taken the following questions into account when choosing trail options, and I’ve also linked to relevant trail profiles from the website I helped start this year. Here are the questions I’ve been asking myself to figure out what trail works best for my timeline, location, and season. Hope it’s helpful!
1) How much time do you have?
If you have a week off from work and life duties, pick a trail between 80-100 miles, and something you can easily access. For an 80-mile trail, including some travel time, you’d have to hike around 16-20 miles per day to complete it in a week-plus-weekend on the other end. This is a rough estimate, but includes travel. If you have a month to hike, know your own physical capabilities, but you can pretty easily commit to a 300-mile trail with some wiggle room on either end. A conservative estimate is about 80 miles a week, and don’t forget to build in travel days to and from the trail, and zero or nero days if your trail is longer.
2) What season do you want to hike?
This might require more travel, depending on where you’re based and what season you have free to hike. Say you have two weeks in January to hike, but you live in Minnesota. Start researching trails in the southeast and southwest, and do your research about the ideal season for that region and trail. You can definitely hike something out of season, but know what you’re getting into. For a winter trail, look for something at a lower elevation and in the southern states. Springtime hikers should aim for similar regions without a lot of mountain snowmelt. Fall can be somewhat more open, though the higher elevation hikes will start seeing snow as fall gets closer. New England is great for earlier fall hikes, and the mid-Atlantic states cool down as it gets later into fall, making them perfect for mid-to-late October hiking. Summer is where the northern states and high-elevation peaks and hikes are prime.
3) What is your fitness level and mileage goals?
This is where terrain comes in. If you’re doing a shorter thru-hike off the couch, look for a trail with moderate terrain at a lower elevation, like New Hampshire's Shoal Pond Loop. If you’re in impeccable shape and want to bust out big miles and see epic views, you can hit a more rugged, steeper trail with challenging elevation changes like the 70-mile Sawtooth Wilderness Loop in Idaho. Be realistic about your timing and fitness. Sometimes the more mellow trails are surprisingly rewarding experiences, with less traffic, dedicated trail maintainers, and terrain that makes you appreciate the low-key parts of trail life. Understanding your own mileage capabilities will also help determine how much time you need to dedicate to a thru-hike. A 300-mile hike of the Superior Trail might take one person two weeks and the next person a month.
4) How much planning do you want to do?
The logistical challenges vary wildly between trails. A 1,200-mile trail like the Pacific Northwest Trail is incredibly logistically challenging, with tough resupply planning, remote termini, and challenging weather to plan for. A loop trail like the 46-mile Three Sisters Loop takes just a few days to hike, has an easy-access trailhead, and requires no resupplies. You’ll need significant planning for a trail like the Pacific Northwest Trail, but can conceivably hit the Three Sisters Loop for a short thru-hike with very minimal logistical planning. When thinking about logistics, consider water frequency, trailhead parking and access, loops versus point-to-point, and resupply necessities.
5) What do you want to see?
Say you have no constraints at all—you can hike in any season, for any length of time, and in any region. This is the greatest situation to be in. Want to see big mountains and spend a month or more on the trail this summer? Hit the Colorado Trail. Looking to push yourself for a few months this spring and experience the entirety of a state’s ecosystems? The Arizona Trail might be for you. Want a trail you can hike in the middle of winter? The Ozark Highlands Trail is a great option.
The incredible array of thru-hiking options across the country means there’s something to fit every timeline, season, fitness level, or other criteria you can come up with. Do your research, know your own skill set, and have fun!
Maggie Slepian is a full-time freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com, and spends as much time outdoors as possible. You can follow her here, or find clips and contact info at Maggieslepian.com