8 Reasons to Section Hike a Long Trail

Being able to thru-hike a National Scenic Trail is a dream come true for many. Thru-hikers will spend up to six months hiking a long trail like the PCT, CDT, or AT, often as a transition period in their life. Getting ready for a thru-hike requires a large commitment of time, money, and energy. But not everyone has the resources to embark on such a large-scale adventure.

Instead of giving up on the dream, consider section hiking the trail bit by bit. By section hiking a long trail you can enjoy more flexibility, better weather, and easier budgeting. In some respects section hiking can be even more rewarding than muscling through a long trail in one go. Read on to find out why section hiking might be perfect for you.

1) Flexibility

Perhaps the most common reason hikers choose to section hike a long trail is the flexibility to choose their own time frame. A thru-hike can take up to six months to complete and not everyone can afford to leave their job or their family for such a long time. Plan your hiking around vacation time already earned. Take an extra week off here and there instead of having to take an extended leave from your job or career. Section hiking also means you don’t have to choose between pursuing your dream and being with your family. It can be easier to find a balance when you’re only gone for a week or two at a time.

2) Chase the Best Weather

Thunderstorms, snowstorms, hail, and heat are all natural meteorological hazards thru-hikers can expect to face. While no one can really predict what the weather will do, you can increase your chances of having good weather by choosing to section hike. Avoid the heat by hiking desert sections in late winter. Enjoy the alpine meadows during the peak of summer. Take on the rolling hills or plains in autumn. Maybe you even want to complete a part of the trail on snowshoes! Have a look at historic weather trends and hike the trail when the weather is likely to be best.

3) Spread the Budget Out

While estimates vary from person to person, a five-month thru-hike will likely cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. This estimate doesn’t include the price of new lightweight gear nor does it take into account the loss of income from having to take an extended leave from your job. By section hiking a long trail you can spread the cost of a thru-hike out over as many years as necessary. You can count on a more regular income and take advantage of paid vacation days. Instead of spending money in expensive trail towns, budget for travel to and from trailheads.

4) Shop Sales to Upgrade Gear on Your Own Time

Over the course of five or six months thru-hikers will often need to replace trail shoes, cooking gear, sleeping pads, clothing, and even backpacks. Purchasing these items while on a thru-hike can be challenging and expensive. Gear also needs to be swapped out as the seasons change, meaning shipping warmer sleeping bags, crampons, and extra layers to and from the trail. By section hiking you’ll be aware of current conditions and be able to pack everything you need as you head out. Plus new gear doesn’t have to be purchased all in one go. Pick an item or two to upgrade every season and take advantage of winter clearance sales.

5) Nutrition and Resupply

Proper nutrition is an ongoing concern for many thru-hikers. They require many more calories as the hike draws out over the months and yet have limited resources to acquire them. When hiking a section at a time you’ll have more opportunity to plan your food intake ahead of time and won’t end up with as large a calorie deficit. Plus spending two or three weeks without fresh fruit or vegetables is less damaging on the body than five or six months at a time. Resupply also becomes significantly easier when section hiking. You’ll either have everything you need with you or only have to work out logistics for one or two resupply stops.

6) Motivation to Stay Fit

We can all agree that staying fit is part of a healthy life. However, staying motivated to stay fit is a challenge many of us face. What if you knew you had to be ready to hike 15 miles a day, carrying 30 pounds of food and gear up and over high mountains every year? Having a yearly goal that you are passionate about and for which you need to stay in shape is a particularly good motivator. Needing to stay fit enough to hike a couple hundred miles will have you at the gym and out walking more regularly in the off-season. Many thru-hikers also have to manage significant pain and injury throughout their hike. By section hiking you’ll have fewer days through which you must endure any pain and you’ll have the time to recover from the challenges of the trail.

7) Familiarity

Repetition breeds familiarity. When choosing to section hike a long trail you’ll have the opportunity to return to the trail time and again. You’ll establish a routine of planning, preparation, and training. Instead of having to say goodbye to the trail at the end of a long thru-hike you’ll be able to complete each section knowing you’ll be back to continue along. You’ll become familiar with the routine of the trail and won’t have as much of a struggle reintegrating after hiking a section.

8) Hike Your Own Hike

Nowhere is this adage more true than choosing to section hike. Section hiking is no less of a feat than taking on a thru-hike. Your gear, motivations, and goals are similar but you have chosen to accomplish it in a way that suits you. By owning your choice and hiking your own hike, backpacking the length of a National Scenic Trail will become a part of your lifestyle, one that you’ll be able to enjoy for seasons to come.

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Comments 7

  • Warren Doyle : Feb 1st

    Nice article about an important subject.
    Check out SmartHikes at http://www.warrendoyle.com

  • Sridhar Saraf : Feb 7th

    You nailed it Lisa, all the reasons why I am planning to hike AT one section at a time. In 2018, I completed Maryland section of AT (41 miles) in two weekends. This year (2019), I will try to hike few more sections either in VA or PA. Thanks for writing the article.

    • LeoYermo : Feb 8th

      Lisa. Thank YOU. Just what I needed. So nice to read in one place the very reasons that section hiking is so very important to me.
      • And so succinctly stated.
      Not only did I enjoy this article I am going to file if for future reference.

  • Dami : Feb 8th

    At my age (72) section hiking is the motivator to stay in shape. I look forward to my yearly reboot! 1800 of the PCT done, a month of hiking coming up. Then I’ll be in shape to tackle the Himalayas this summer! You nailed all the advantages.

  • Preacher Man : Feb 8th

    I’m turning 64 in March and I’m retire from the Army/infantry/ ,the wife says I was gone for many tears and section hike at 4 days at a time is all she’s going for ,she’s not a hiker, Besides 4 days is about my limit now, I love section hiking and I reuse to hike someone else hike, it’s my pace or no pace. you go ahead or come behind whatever applies. Be Blessed and Hike on. P.W.D.

  • Sara : Feb 9th

    probably the only way I’ll be able to accomplish my dream of hiking the AT anytime soon .

  • Sassy Spider : Feb 1st

    Add to this list that the views never get old. Each time you come back, you come back fresh and excited to see new things. I decided on my first section hike in VT that I didn’t want to be a thru hiker as I was looking at a gorgeous view up from Clarendon Gorge that someone had hauled chairs up to. Offered them to to 4 sets of thru hikers who all said “Must make miles–seen one view, seen them all”. I love that each time I come to trail I get to marvel at a new beauty.


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