Thru-Hike Misunderstandings from Non-Hikers

How does a Thru-hike actually work?

When you tell your friends, family, and coworkers about a long thru-hike, you should be prepared for countless questions.  Many of these come from a place of curiosity and fear.   Either way, be prepared for some off-the-wall questions.  

I have been through this process twice, and hope to answer many of these questions below.  So copy the link and share with your cubicle neighbor that is convinced you are off to find enlightenment.  (Enlightenment?  I’m just trying to eat 25 lbs of mixed berry & tropical Skittles!)

Thru-Hiking in Simple Terms

Thru-hiking is simply stringing together three to five days hikes.  Many of your acquaintances may assume you’re off to hunt and forage your way to the end of your 2,000+ mile journey.  I’m not that cool, wish I was, but in reality, I will still be buying my food at Walmart, Dollar General, and a multitude of small-town grocery stores.  

Every three to five days, I will walk, hitchhike, or shuttle into some town or city where I will restock my pack with food and any consumables I need (fuel for my tiny stove).  That food (and candy) will last me until the next town, hopefully.  


Water is pretty critical.  But our technology is rather amazing these days.  Most hikers carry a filter that attaches to a bag and cleans out all the nasty parasites and diseases in any streams or lake they cross.  These filters are smaller than a can of soda and can be used for thousands of gallons of water.  You usually scoop water from a creek, river, pond, or lake with a bag, attach your filter to the top, and then squeeze all the water through into a bottle.  Doesn’t sound sexy, it’s not, and actually the worst part of hiking (because it’s so damn slow).  

Three different water filters and a water bag. The faucet at my house is way faster


Most hikers can talk about gear until your ears bleed.  It is horrible!  So don’t ask your friendly next-door hiker unless you have a couple hours to kill.  The end goal is to carry as little weight as possible because you have to carry it.  Yeah, read that again.  If you want it, you gotta carry it for thousands of miles.  It sets your priorities straight.

Each night, you set up your tent, hammock, or hide in a shelter (if you’re on the AT) – sleep through the night, pack it all up, and get to hiking.  To stay warm through the night, you carry a little foam or inflatable pad, a sleeping bag, and maybe an inflatable pillow if you’re fancy (I’m a whiner, so I carry a pillow).  Most hikers also carry a tiny little stove that can boil water, usually using isobutane, but this isn’t a prerequisite.  

Outside of that, you carry an extra pair of socks, underwear, a rain jacket, a puffy jacket, and as little else as you can stand.  Remember what I said about weight?


I briefly covered how you get food – your tiny town convenience store – but what do hikers actually eat? Everything. Hikers need calories, so please don’t leave your cupboards open with hikers around.  

But on trail, hikers carry protein bars, peanut butter, a grain (tortillas, bagels, etc), tuna, salmon, instant mashed potatoes, Knorr pasta sides, candy, cereal, chips, candy, snickers, candy, cheese, ramen, candy, and gummy worms.  Those little packages on pasta sides, ramen, or mashed potatoes in the store are a thru-hiker dinner staple.  Add some tuna, salmon, or spices for excitement – just need to stick to shelf-stable or semi-shelf-stable food.  Honestly, after a month or so it all sucks, except the skittles and gummy worms.  But I think you get the point.  

A random resupply before hiker hunger hit! I usually add a lot more bars so I can snack every hour or two. Cheese for the win too!


I carry two guns, three bowie knives, and a stick of C4.  Just kidding, all that crap is heavy.  Honestly, the trail is pretty dang safe.  Black bears are oversized, scared raccoons as long as you do a good job with your food.  Guns are heavy and mostly useless.  

GPS devices have become a mainstay on trail over the past decade.  These devices can send messages to your family of “I’m safe and this is my location” each night.  They can also send the dreaded “SOS, send help” if shit hits the fan.  This triggers a response from local rescue groups and can often lead to helicopter rescues.  

Many hikers also carry a knife, because cheese doesn’t cut itself.  And in case your shorts have a loose string – dangerous stuff.  

A GPS device, a cool orange knife, and a handy lighter.


The difficulty of navigation depends on the trail.  The AT and PCT are basically trail highways.  Can you get lost?  Sure.  Does it take some work?   You betcha.  The CDT is much less established and more of a “choose your own adventure” type situation.  So how do people navigate?

On the AT, you follow the white blazes.  White blazes are vertical rectangles painted onto trees that mark the trail.   The PCT has fewer trees, but the trail can often be blazed or just easily followed due to the volume of foot traffic.  Additionally, many people use an app called Farout (formerly known as Guthook) that has a GPS line.

The AT also has a sweet book that describes each town.  Most logistics plans on trail depend on how many miles you need to hike until the next town – since that’s how much food you need.  The book or app help you make those decisions.  

White blaze on a post. Trail can be seen for miles.

Other Items

What else did I miss?  Well, you let me know.  I mostly just walk a lot and don’t think about all the random questions I will get upon my return.  But I do love answering them.  So leave a comment below if I missed something.  

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Comments 4

  • Eric : Feb 8th

    Thanks for a nice article. May prove useful someday.
    Best of luck on what sounds like an amazing adventure coming up. 7500 miles starts with a dream and the first step right?
    Do you suffer any depression when you finish a big walk and have to reintegrate in to homelife and society?

    • Isaac Nesbitt : Feb 9th

      You’re right on the mark – all journeys start with just a single step.
      I’ve only returned from one big hike, and I think each one will be different. I shockingly managed to avoid most of the initial “post-trail blues” as I was busy searching for a job and focused on other goals (reading, self-improvement, family). Reconnecting with my friends and family upon my return was a big help. But it was tough for a lot of my hiker trash friends. I expect the aftermath of this hike to be different – just not sure in what ways. We shall see when we get there

  • Shocktop : Feb 10th

    Thanks for making me laugh out loud at the ‘two guns’, you had me for a millisecond. If I had a dollar for every time THAT question gets asked….Happy trails!

    • Isaac Nesbitt : Feb 11th

      I’m glad you got a smile or laugh from it – it would definitely help pay for our hikes if we got a dollar each time we got asked.


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