Why Chunk Hiking is the Best

Why not Thru-hiking?

I’ve thru-hiked the ‘big three’ — Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.  I like thru-hiking.  I like it a lot!

But there are downsides to it too, not least of which is just making available a several month continuous span of time to do it in.  An issue for me personally is that I get an eye injection every month or two, which is a logistic and scheduling hassle, but I think that for almost anyone it’s just really tough to free up months of time in one go.   And of course, not everyone LIKES to be on the trail for months at a time.

How about Section Hiking?

For people who aspire to hike all of a particular long distance trail, the ‘normal’ way to do it is section hiking.  You break a long distance trail up into sections of, say, 50 to 150 miles each, typically starting and ending at places that facilitate transportation logistics to and from the trail. A common approach is that you hike one section this year, another section next year, etc.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  If you’re young or if fortune smiles upon you, you finish your target trail before you die.

I’ve section hiked some myself, mostly on the Pacific Crest Trail, and I have a sort of love/hate thing going with it.  It’s nice to be able to do a hike of a decent length at a time-cost of just a week or so.  But you have sometimes tough logistics to deal with each time, getting to the start of the trail and then getting back home at the end, all for a relatively small amount of time spent hiking.

Worse, you pay all of the pain cost of getting up to speed — getting your “trail legs”, i.e., getting your body into shape to be able to hike strong and well, plus just typically some time to get your head back into the game.  And then just as you’re starting to get all of this together, your trip is over.  On a longer distance hike, you pay these same sort of “startup costs” but then have a good amount of time to be able to reap the benefits.  I really really like being on trail after my body is toughened and strengthened back up into good hiking condition.

It’s true that you can exercise at home to ease the pain and to limit the “costs” of the first week or two on trail.  Sometimes I do a good job at this and other times not so much.  What I find is that — to some degree at least — there are always some “startup costs”.    And section hikers are typically still paying those when their trip ends.

Hike it in big Chunks

So for me, the best approach is “Chunk” hiking, where a chunk is substantially more than a section, but less than a long distance thru-hike.  A chunk might be up to half of a trail, and hiking long distance trails in that way just makes a ton of sense to me.

My sweet spot seems to be trips of perhaps 4 – 6 weeks.  Scheduling a regular medical procedure pushed me into this approach, but now I think it’s just best overall.  When compared to section hiking, your transportation issues are typically no more difficult, but you get a lot more time and distance hiked relative to the money, hassle, and time spent in getting to and from the trail.  And you get a nice amount of “post startup” time to cruise on the trail, feeling young and godlike with your trail strong legs and lungs.  Hiking longer distances is somewhat transformative, both in your overall hiking style, and in having a lot more time to clear your head and forget your normal life. Finally, Chunk hiking allows you to complete a long distance trail in just a few or even a couple of years.  As I write this, I’ve recently hiked half of the Florida Trail and about a third of the Pacific Northwest Trail as ‘chunks’, and hope to hike the rest in just one more chunk for each.

If you’ve never done long distance hiking before, it’s hard to really understand all of the benefits.  For example, long distance hikers tend to stress less about water sources and finding campsites.  When you’re dialed in to comfortably do longer mileage per day, going a bit further for water or a flat place to camp is no big deal.

Compared to thru-hiking, you have a much better chance of being able to schedule a chunk hike.  And a particularly nice advantage is that you have the possibility of scheduling your chunk hike for a time when the weather is conducive to hiking.


Author Hiking half the Florida Trail in January

Schedule to Avoid Weather Madness

Thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail in particular is especially difficult because of the amount of snow you have to deal with (either as a North Bound or as a South Bound hiker).   In fact, it’s somewhat of a challenge for almost any long distance trail.  For the Appalachian Trail, some folks like to avoid starting when the crowds of hikers are thickest, but that pushes people out to somewhat more extreme times of year to hike.  In my case, both times I’ve hiked through the Smokies there’s been so much snow that it’s been a real challenge.  It would be fun someday to see what the Smokies are like as just bare trail!

The Pacific Crest Trail is getting ever more popular, and in normal years it’s snow that drives the schedule for that trail very much too.  Combine those two factors and once again, you’re either hiking “with the herd” (and an ever-growing herd it is), or you’re getting into lots of snow in the Sierras early, or risking having new snow falling before you hit Canada.

The biggest danger I’ve been in on a trail was dealing with creeks that had swollen to rivers on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana in June.   My trail partner and I had quite an adventure bailing out partway through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, as soft snow slowed us to the point where we ran low on food.  Chunk hikers can avoid all of that madness.

HYOH, but Consider the ‘Chunk’ approach

If you’re a happy Section Hiker, then keep on truckin’ — I have great respect for Section hikers.  It takes a lot of dedication and a great persistence of vision to pick off section after section, and I think that section hiking is in many ways the hardest approach.

If instead you know that nothing will satisfy you but a thru-hike, then certainly go for that!  It’s wonderful, and I still get tempted to set aside a several month stretch to do another one.  But I think that the more sane way, and the more readily available way to do long distance backpacking is as a chunk hiker.  If the trade-offs make sense to you, then give it a try.

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Comments 6

  • Lance Cash : Aug 9th

    Great article. A couple of friends and I are starting to plan an AT trip for next summer. Chunk hiking sounds like an excellent choice, but none of us are able to get more than 3 weeks off from our full-time desk jobs at a time. So I guess we’ll be in-betweeners (longer than a typical section hike but shorter than your chunk hike). Thanks for the info here. Any suggestions on where to start? Honestly, we aren’t sure yet if we want to approach this adventure as “the beginning of a journey on the AT” or more as “the beginning of a journey on the best of the US trails.” Any advice would be appreciated! 🙂 Thank you.

    • Brian Lewis : Aug 18th

      Where to start a 3-week chunk on the AT varies by time of year and various personal preferences. One theory is to knock off the “best” parts in case you can’t or don’t ultimately want to hike the whole thing. Do you want to hike all of it “in sequence”, or just pick off particular bits as you’re inclined?

      The part through the Shenendoah National Park is fairly easy hiking and pleasant, though also popular; could be a nice first-trip. The area around Mt. Rogers and the Greyson Highlands is good too. The White Mountains are challenging but beautiful. I really liked the AT through the state of Maine in general.

      Lots of choices really! http://www.whiteblaze.net has a whole lot of stuff about the AT; the forums there could be a good place to get a number of opinions.

  • Bob Rogers : Sep 18th

    I’ve not hiked even as a section hiker (yet), my longest is 2 or 3 days. Just long enough to be really sore when trying to finish a 30+ mile loop with a ~32 lb pack. I’m planning on doing a thru hike of the A.T. in ’16. I just hope the hype from Wild and A Walk in the Woods is being overplayed. Hiking with the herd won’t be too bad if everyone plays nice but the first time I step in toilet paper,I’m going to be upset.

    Without having done any serious hiking, I’m already thinking I’d like to make it a permanent thing in my life. I’ve never liked the rat race, I’m not a ladder climber, I really don’t need all of this. But, I do like to eat and that generally isn’t free. So, if a thru hike doesn’t kill off the romanticism I’m feeling about hiking, I might just take up this chunk hiking theory.

    Curiosity question for you tho… how do you find the time? Everyone’s situation is different of course but chunk hiking would be the WORST option from a career standpoint. Because of having to switch companies every few yrs, I’m not earning 6 weeks of vacation a year. If I do the thru hike, I may very well have to quit (doesn’t sound like I’ll get a leave of absence). If it comes to that, I may do just that; quit. The mortgage won’t go away tho. The house is upside down so I can’t even sell it for a few more years plus my daughter is planning on living there while going to college.

    You don’t look old enough to be retired. If you are 60+, great job on not looking it. If you aren’t in the rat race an more, the answer is simple(r). If you are still in it, (again) how do you manage 6 weeks off a year much less 2 or 3 chunks a year?

  • Brian Lewis : Dec 19th

    Sorry for the slow reply — didn’t notice the question until today!

    I recognize that getting the time is a big issue for many people. Still, life dynamics vary surprisingly. For example, I think (?) that teachers still get enough time off in the summer to contemplate a chunk hike (if not working a second job …). In today’s economy, a stereotypical 9-to-5 job where you work weekdays and have the weekend off — this is becoming less common. Contract workers might well have a contract end and then have a hiatus long enough to hike a decent chunk.

    And at least a chunk is easier to get time for than a 2000+ mile thru-hike! It’s also true that you can define your own chunk to be whatever you want it to be; so if a section hiker is out for, say, 10 days, maybe your ‘chunk’ is three weeks.

  • George (Old Growth) Turner : May 25th

    Love it! I could see doing the PCT in 3 chunks. Since I managed to tear my rotator cuff in the midst of my AT thru, I’ll end up doing it in 3 chunks too!

    • Brian Lewis : May 25th

      I think part of it can be a mental shift, unless a person is just driven to it as it sounds like you have been, George. If you hang with thru-hikers — or at least first-time thru-hikers — it can sometimes feel like it’s “thru-hike or nothing”. Long chunks can be so much more sane though, and if you want to hike “with the herd” for a while, you can certainly time things to do that, while at the same time picking more optimal times for some chunks in order to avoid snow, water, and perhaps fire issues. What’s not to like!


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