Thru-Hiking: A Beginner’s Appraisal

Having only covered a mere 600kms of New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail, it’s fair to say that I am a rank amateur in the world of Thru-hiking. That said, it’s a virulent contagion that has me in the grips of Thru-hiking Fever, which in all probability is a life-long and possibly fatal affliction. I’m partial to writing about my outdoor experiences, so I’ll briefly outline my perception of the endeavour, as limited as it may be.

Wikipedia defines Thru-Hiking as “hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end.” The length of such a trail is ill-defined, though could probably be classified in legal terms as anything longer than a “reasonable person” could be expected to undertake, having full possession of the faculties of logic and self-preservation. The most archetypal example of a thru-hike is the Appalachian Trail, running through 17 states along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It holds the honour of being the world’s first thru-hike, having first been completed in 1948. Thru-hikes range widely in terrain and difficulty, from the infamous Continental Divide Trail to the amenable Camino De Santiago, running various routes through Spain, France and Portugal. These trips typically take up to 6 months to complete, sometimes longer depending on factors such as walking speed, pack weight, weather, rest days and the hiker’s tendency toward insanity.

A Thru-Hiker is defined as someone who walks the trail from end to end, while a Section Hiker walks the trail, as the name suggests, in sections which do not necessarily encompass the entirety of the trail or proceed in logical sequence. It could be argued that our first foray on the Te Araroa Trail (or TA for short) was an exercise in section hiking, though the intent is to pick up where we left off at some point in the hazy future and continue toward the finish line. Adam and I had a limited timeframe with which to work, so it was always a “let’s see how far we get in the time we’ve got” kind of affair. We had naively assumed that we’d make it further than we did, but that’s neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. We’re both keen to get stuck in again when time and funds allow another joint venture.

Many of my outdoor brethren would turn their nose up at a multi-month trip dedicated solely to walking. To some, it lacks the technical difficulty and quota of awesome that could be filled by a rock climbing or mountaineering trip of much shorter duration. Perhaps they’d also be worried about the dearth of experience gained by such an endeavour and its impacts upon possible entries on a resume within the same time frame. I feel that this is a fairly simplistic approach and one that discounts the more subtle benefits of such a trek. Despite the seemingly single-faceted skill set of Thru-Hiking, a successful expedition requires much more than simply the ability to walk. It’s not a trip for the inexperienced and those lacking in gumption. A successful traverse of any long trail requires ample reserves of fortitude, dedication, physical stamina, mental toughness, organisational ability, flexibility, navigational prowess, outdoor familiarity and just a dash of luck. These virtues speak volumes for any would-be employer or climbing partner. To some, it may seem to lack in adventure. To me, nothing is more adventurous than the unknown. On a Thru-Hike, you never quite know what is around the next bend or where you’ll be spending the night. That’s the epitome of adventure, in my opinion.

Just as I’ve never climbed at high altitude, previously to this trek I’d never engaged in Thru-Hiking. It’s hard to tell whether you’ll like something before you try it. For example, I was originally enamoured by the idea of back-country skiing and have since found it to be an intolerable waste of my time and energy. So it was to my relief and gratification that I found the experience of Thru-Hiking to be utterly intoxicating.

Life on the trail is an engrossing affair. It’s the ultimate expression of the simplicity and purity of the wilderness experience. Your entire sphere of existence becomes centralised upon the acts of walking, eating and looking forward to your next beer. Beds and showers become true joys, rather than occupying a portion of the mundane routine of city life. Each view and every sunset is more vibrant than any you’ve seen, owing to the fact that you earned it with each and every footstep that brought you to it.

What’s more, in Thru-Hiking you form an indelible kinship with the land and its people. There is simply no better way to experience a country in its entirety. In contrast to driving or cycling, the slow pace of foot travel creates an inevitable intimacy with the landscape and its nuances. Every rock, tree, bird and beast can be appreciated on a more personal level. Your familiarity with each town, forest and beach well exceeds the level of the average tourist. You meet a host of colourful characters along the trail and have deep conversations, wild nights and experience genuine hospitality. I’d read many articles stressing the apparent superiority of the South Island portion of the TA over the North Island. Whilst the South Island is undoubtedly better endowed in a scenic sense, what most failed to account for was that the North Island is significantly more populated and that interactions with the locals form an important, indeed indispensable aspect of the Thru-Hiking experience.

On learning the purpose of our trip, people were alternately impressed, inspired or incredulous. The most common question we were asked was “Why?” My answer was a typical, Mallory-esque response… “Why not?”

There are quite a few reasons why you might not do a Thru-Hike; Blisters. Mosquitoes. Walking. Heat. Cold. Body Odour.

But there are a million more for which you can and should do one; Freedom. Adventure. Fitness. Achievement. Beauty. People. Nature. Challenge. Triumph. Fuck it, why not? Life is short.

Thru-Hiking isn’t a 9 to 5 and it’s not for the faint of heart. Any trail that runs upwards of 3000kms is a monumental undertaking and a game of patience, grit and determination. You soon learn, however, that distances and times are just arbitrary numbers and the sooner you come to that realisation, the more enjoyable the journey will be. If you’ve ever dreamed of crossing a country on foot (excluding Vatican City), maybe it’s time to disperse with excuses and start making plans before you’re too far over the hill. Even if you are a little long in the tooth, there are many short options on the Camino that may satiate your wanderlust at a more congenial pace. Either way, hopefully within the first 100kms, you’ll hear the Call of the Wild just as keenly as I did.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in March 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?