10 Reasons Thru-Hikers Are Secretly Jealous of Section Hikers

Thru-hikers are the rockstars of the backcountry. And trust me, I can say that because I am one. We’re strong, we’re fast, and we’re resilient in addition to being competent, funny, wild, and sexy. However, for all the praise heaped on us by ourselves and others (mostly ourselves), life at the top isn’t perfect.

While humbly admitting that thru-hiking isn’t the insta-highlight reel that it’s made out to be isn’t “on brand”, the truth is that we often envy those backpackers that are on shorter adventures. These others, or section hikers, are the cleaner cousins of thru-hikers, and as the old saying goes, “The grass is always greener…” uhhh, yada yada yada. As far as thru-hikers are concerned, the socks are always cleaner, the weather is always better, and the food is always more delicious.

Huddling in a pit toilet to escape the brutal November cold in New Mexico on the CDT. #RockstarLife

While thru-hiking might not be for everyone, it is hard for everyone, and thru-hikers are constantly learning to coexist with discomfort. Inevitably, this means looking across the fence and daydreaming about how nice it must be over there. Here are ten reasons that thru-hikers are secretly jealous of section hikers.

Listen: Backpacker Radio | Section Hiking vs. Thru-Hiking

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1. Choose the Conditions

Going NOBO on the PCT, thru-hikers start by roasting in the SoCal heat and finish in a Washington snowstorm. What a load of BS.

No matter how you plan it, if you’re attempting to thru-hike a loooong trail, then you’ll probably end up hiking through some crappy conditions. Thru-hikers on the PCT and CDT need to balance desert heat and autumn cold, not to mention potentially treacherous spring snow in the mountains. While there are ways to reduce the worst of each, a single-year thru of these trails will stretch the definition of three-season backpacking. And don’t get me started on the AT. Freezing cold, stifling humidity, and persistent rain — you’ll probably get all three and still consider yourself lucky that you dodged that hurricane.

Unless you’re a flip-flop extraordinaire, then you’ll likely follow that narrow tread forward no matter the conditions. In some ways, this is the beauty of a continuous thru-hike, and you wind up seeing places in all their ugly best. However, section hikers have an advantage in that they can pick and choose when they want to visit a particular spot.

Peak spring flowers or autumn foliage? Yes, please. Why sweat through New York during the muggy peak of summer when you can see it during the crisp shoulder seasons? Want to avoid the horrendous mosquitoes and black flies in Maine? I don’t blame you, and you can if you’re a section hiker. Heck, some might even choose to posthole in slushy spring snow, but that is their choice rather than necessary lunacy.

Weather, bugs, flowers, crowds, wildfires — these are all factors that can be optimized when planning a shorter backpacking trip. Thru-hikers take what they get, and grumble about it while pretending that feeling superior is worth the discomfort.

READ NEXT — 7 Reasons to Section Hike the PCT (Instead of Thru-Hiking)

2. Hiking With Friends or Alone Doesn’t Get Old

Hiking alone is cool and all, but it’s a lot easier to get photos of you in iconic places if you have a friend with you. Balancing a camera in the wind ain’t easy.

A lot of thru-hikers endure long stretches of intense loneliness during their hike, even if during others they can’t seem to find a quiet moment to themselves. While hiking alone can be an empowering and cathartic experience, it can also drive you bonkers. With the exception of Taylor Swift, all music will eventually sound stale, and every audiobook reader or podcast host will get on your nerves like an overbearing parent (take that Zach and Chaunce!). Even if you find yourself in a tight-knit trail family, the fear of losing them can keep you in their midst when all you want is to be alone.

Section hikers, on the other hand, have just as much company as they want. Old college buddies can bro out on their annual reunion trip. Old hippies or wannabee John Muir’s can drift with the wind, spending an entire day hanging out with a single pine cone if they want to. Unless you’re a teenager dragged along on another stupid family backpacking trip, then going on a section hike can be precisely the social experience that you desire. Bring your crew along or leave them to their ultimate frisbee and Lord of the Rings marathon.

READ NEXT — How Thru-Hiking Made Me Less Independent

3. Set Your Own Pace

Yep, I went for a swim in this lake along the PCT, but it would have been nice to stay longer than 10 minutes.

Hiking pace is entirely up to the individual, but with the constant weather window squeeze of the longest thru-hikes, thru-hikers can often feel like they have little control over how far they must walk each day. Even relatively short (though still long and awesome) thru-hikes such as the Long Trail, Colorado Trail, or John Muir Trail are long enough that it’s foolish or impossible to develop a hard itinerary. In these instances, it’s not the weather that jabs the spurs, but the limited vacation time or a dentist appointment will still keep you grinding out big miles. “Big” is different for everyone, but the pain is the same.

While it’s easy to feel superior to literally everybody when hiking 20+ miles every day as many thru-hikers do, this feeling comes with a dirty little secret. Everyone hiking this fast wants to hike less-fast. Thru-hikers live for the lower mileage nero day, or even better, the glorious zero.

Section hikers can build an itinerary entirely comprised of 5-mile days if they want to. When your trip is a week long, it’s possible to plan each and every day to be exactly how you want it to be. And let me tell you, it’s nice to snooze until an hour past sunrise, hang out for two hours at that pretty lake, then stop to camp at the next one at 3pm. All thru-hikers can do is pretend that everyone else is as miserable as they are while making a mental list of all the places that they want to revist and actually enjoy when this foolishness is over. Fortunately, the sweat pouring down their face hides the tears.

4. Hurt Less… if you want to

Thru-hikers are good at conserving energy and not moving. Pro tip: It hurts to move, so keep that pack close.

With potentially lower mileage comes the benefit of less pain. While a heavy pack will always feel like a heavy pack, section hikers are mostly spared the slow-to-develop, long-to-last deep bone ache that dogs many thru-hikers by the end of their adventure.

During a weeklong backpacking trip, the section hiker will be bouncing around camp, collecting wood for a fire, or “stretching their legs” to walk off dinner before going to bed. The thru-hiker will stand up only when needed, shuffling like the undead to the nearest bush to relieve themselves. And sometimes they don’t even make it that far, choosing instead to pee in a bottle without leaving bed. Thru-hikers, for all their astonishing endurance, hurt a lot, and the section hikers’ lack of pain is enviable.

Alternatively, a section hiker can grind themselves to dust if they’re looking to test their limits. Still, at the end of their trip, they’ll bounce back with ample rest, whereas it can take months for thru-hikers to feel right again. And who knows if their liver will ever recover from the chronic overdosing of ibuprofen.

5. They Get to Go Home

When I started the PCT, I was literally walking away from home for good. I’d called San Diego home for seven years and hiked away with no intention of ever living there again.

Even the most stoked-on-life thru-hiker will have moments when all they want to do is go home. With potentially months before this is practicable, it is sometimes easy to grow envious of the section hiker who gets to see their loved ones in just a few days. For as good as it is living simply along a narrow line of tread, each thru-hiker has left their favorite people, pets, and couch behind. Some thru-hikers do go home mid-hike for a visit and never come back. 

Furthermore, others have no intention of returning home or have blown up their lives to make their thru-hike happen. When the going gets tough, the lack of a landing pad can be incredibly destabilizing.

6. Clearer Goals

It might seem like Katahdin is the obvious goal of a NOBO AT thru-hike. However, there’s a lot more to it than reaching the end — and it’s very confusing. Photo credit: SpiceRack

Why hike? The answer for thru-hikers is likely complex, ill-defined, and murky. However, it’s easy to imagine that section hikers have “fun” near the top of their list. Thru-hiking is a lot of things, but few who’ve done it would call it fun. Sure, there are fun aspects, but it is the other corners of the experience that pull hikers forward when feet ache, knees bark, and the sky pisses.

There is tremendous value to be found in a summer of hiking from Canada to Mexico, and most thru-hikers wouldn’t trade it away for a lifetime pass to Disney World despite the associated hardship. However, finding the motivation to keep going day after day for months can be very not-fun.

When the excitement is replaced by monotony and you realize that weekends don’t exist anymore, you might look fondly on the good ol’ days when you still had fun. You’ll remember that hiking used to be a good time, as it still is for these chipper section hikers who camped next to you last night. Then you finally finish your hike and get hit with post-trail depression, which will leave you reeling and searching for a profound reason that it was all worth it. Wham! Not fun.

READ NEXT — Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

7. Easier Logistics

We stared at a lot of maps before hiking the CDT. I wouldn’t call it a wasted effort, but we still stared at a lot of maps when we were hiking too. Always planning. Photo credit: SpiceRack

Planning for a long thru-hike is a black hole of time and effort. No matter how much you put in, most will be rendered futile and useless when rosey fantasy is painted over by the harsh mud of reality. Whether you’ve mailed yourself a resupply box every 10 miles or not, you will spend the nights leading up to a town visit thinking about that town visit. Once in that town, focus shifts to the next town. You might be able to enjoy the simplicity of wilderness living for a day or two if you’re lucky, but then the cycle repeats. It’s a constant calculation of food quantities and miles per day. The planning never stops.

Section hikers make a plan and then can largely forget it once in motion. All the hard work was done ahead of time — picking out campsites, perfecting food quantities, charging electronics — so now it’s time to cash in and relax. Talk about the peace of nature. It’s hard to notice that peace on a thru-hike because of the eternal internal chatter that’s needed to keep it all from falling apart.


8. Clean Socks

These socks were made for walkin’, and that’s just what they’ll do…

There comes a time in every thru-hike when there isn’t a single comfortable sock around for miles. Even the best wear out, but before they’re finally fit for the dumpster there are weeks of threadbare grinding that exfoliate pruney feet raw. All the sink washing and laundromat tumbling can’t prevent this. Whether it’s the sandpaper grit of the SoCal desert or the sludgy muck in Maine, socks get abused during a thru-hike, and a fresh pair is as good as gold.

Guess what, section hikers get to wear plushy, new-ish socks 100% of the time. That’s just unfair.

9. Nice Gear

Heck no, Crunchberry isn’t throwing this rain jacket away! It’s still mostly intact. Good for two more thru-hikes at least.

Thru-hikers might carry super awesome, ultralight gear that all fits in a backpack the size of an infant, but it is probably in pretty rough shape. Meet a thru-hiker three months into their journey and you’ll notice that they’re wearing rags, they look and smell nasty, and there are several yards of duct tape holding everything together. And there is a zero percent chance that their sleeping pad stays inflated through the night.

In addition to soft socks, section hikers generally carry fully functioning gear. Their sleeping pad is sound. They probably have two unbroken trekking poles. Their down sleeping bag isn’t a clumpy glob of dried ramen juice and sunscreen. There probably aren’t any holes in their shoes.

Thru-hikers often push their gear to, and beyond the limit. Not only is it expensive and wasteful to replace worn items, but each garment stained with a patina of unidentifiable fluids is as heavy with sentimental value as a treasured childhood teddy bear. In-field repairs to essentials get the job done, and working with compromised gear is part of the game and a point of pride. Still, that crinkly-new DCF shelter out for its first night does look awfully waterproof…

READ NEXT — Broken on the AT: Gear That Breaks At 2,000 Miles

10. Food Still Tastes Good

Okay, okay, you got me. BBQ Lays never get old, even during a thru-hike. Photo credit: SpiceRack

If you look at a typical thru-hiker diet, you might be shocked to see how poor it is from a nutritional standpoint. By the end of a long hike, gone are concerns about micronutrients and vitamins. Nope, now it’s all about tolerance and calories. Healthy trail foods are long gone, replaced by palatable garbage that is all just different flavors and textures of sugar and palm oil. Oreos, ramen, and “peanut butter” are menu staples that pack cheap calories and go down easy. Still, despite being engineered for deliciousness, these “foods” inevitably lose their luster, and thru-hikers dream of their next town meal.

But section hikers eat it all, and love it all. Backpacker Pantry Pad Thai is as good as it gets, but is way too expensive to nom long-term. Homemade dehydrated chili with campfire-baked cornbread is pretty great too, but unless it is shelf-stable for a million years and comes wrapped in plastic, it doesn’t even register as trail food to thru-hikers. Even ramen is a yummy comfort for those who can still remember the taste of fresh strawberries.

Food is food for section hikers, and it enhances that backcountry experience. For thru-hikers, it’s a dull tool — imperfect, but necessary — and every mashed energy bar is a cruel reminder of this fact. Hazy are the memories of lively on-trail debates about whether Chocolate Cupcake or Blueberry Bliss is the best flavor of Luna Bar.


Wrapping Up: Everyone loves pizza

Let’s face it, we all backpack so that pizza tastes even better.

There are many ways to experience the joys of the backcountry, and none is better than the others. For those privileged with the time and resources to jam out an entire thru-hike in a single go, they will inevitably reach new depths of appreciation and respect for their body, their community, and the environment. But any profound wisdom is hard-earned. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you that thru-hiking is easy.

But neither is this hardship necessary in order to benefit from the wisdom of nature. Trips of any length to the outdoors are worthy of excitement and esteem. There is no shame in hiking a mile a day and having fun. Nobody needs to earn anything, and all hikes lead to pizza, no matter the length. At the end of the day, thru-hikers might always be the rockstars of the backcountry, but even celebrities can wish for a normal life sometimes. At the very least, all thru-hikers want clean socks.

Featured image: An Owen Eigenbrot photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 7

  • thetentman : Oct 25th

    Still laughing at the sock picture. Thrus have the advantage with Logistics. Planning a Section hike gets harder every year.

    Great post.


    • Jingle bells : Oct 25th

      Great post as always Owen. I’m a sectioner and have had some fun encounters with thru-hikers that exemplify your article.

      Yup tentman, I’m an Atlantan. I’ve done the first 250 miles at the Southern end of the AT now. Doing any more requires 3+ hours of driving each way, and the driving number grows until it morphs into a flying number. All hard to accomplish when working 1-2 jobs, taking care of pets, loved ones, etc.

  • Russ Hobgood (Russ 1663) : Oct 25th

    Hi Owen. Yup, guilty of section hiking. Loved the comparisons. Keep after it, trek on. 😎

  • Drew Boswell : Oct 26th

    Wow, one more reason to believe that you, Owen, are the best columnist on The Trek. This one is funny and oh so true. Good job.

  • Sean : Oct 26th

    Just got off the AT on a section from Springer to Stecoah Gap. Saw multiple SOBO’s and it’s a whole different game they are playing. The depletion level of these people is way higher. Most were looking pretty baked and rightfully so. Big props to those moving forward and showing the resolve to keep going. Saw many other section hikers and the trail stoke was very high.

    • Gingerbreadman : Oct 26th

      Once u’ve 3 crowned & some other long trails; you start to realize how many short trails there are u’ll never get to. I tried to turn Australia into a long thru hike….the Bicentennial National Trail is designed for horses & wagons mostly on dirt roads (could be a good bicycle route…but multiple guidebooks are expensive). Most tourists take buses starting at Cairns or parts North in September/ October trying to beat the tropical summer monsoons by hitting towns & National Parks on the way south. After snorkeling the reef & touring Parks; I finally hit on a thru hike from Brisbane to Melbourne including the AAWT (Aussie Alps Walking Track). If I did it again; I would do like the famous “German Tourist” who has been adventuring for decades now….she hiked short trails in all the parks East West & around Ayers Rock….but I would still do the AAWT!
      Another good bunch of short trails would be a thru hike of the Caribbean. Several islands have long trails & it would be an adventure trying to piece together all the ferries & seaplanes etc…to get from island to island. Just like Australia it would be an October thru May adventure to avoid hurricanes!
      Europe presents different problems. I hiked from Bratislava to Nice along the O2A (Oosterreich or Austrian national trail #2 alternative or lower than the snow traverse requiring roped groups)….. would have helped to join the British Alpenverein to get the Mountain hut discount as Austria Alpenverein won’t let u join their club. Also the maps at shops in town were for the valley or ‘tal’ ending at the top where you need a map most! Next I did a connecting trail across Liechtenstein: no guide required. Switzerland was much easier on the Alpenpass trail or Walkers Haute Route. Camping at huts & in the valley campgrounds was cheap & food as well. The Gr-5 in France goes from Geneva (Geneve) to Nice or else Menton on the Riviera (Cote d’Azur). The entire thru hike goes thru towns every few days making resupply easy. You could even tack on the Pyrenees Haute Route if you haven’t had enough. Don’t miss the Volkslieder Acapella singers in Alps towns …or the Montagnard Acapella singers in Pyrenees towns….or the steel drum bands in the Caribbean towns for that matter. GO!

  • Maya : Nov 28th

    Section hikers often have real jobs and real commitments, too, that will help them in the future. All well and good to take 6 months off…until you come up empty handed and have to work longer and harder than those who played it smart in their younger years so they could enjoy the hell out of their 50s and 60s.


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