What is the Definition of a Thru-Hike?
What is an Appalachian Trail thru-hike?
Seems like a fairly straight forward question, right?
If only. Pose this question to a group of 20 AT-fanatics and you’ll get 20 different “definitions”.
The ATC defines a thru-hike as “a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail in 12 months or less.”
Devil’s Advocate: “So then someone who yellow blazes (trail lingo for hitch-hike or drive) a 300 mile stretch of the trail isn’t a thru-hiker?”
Conventional Wisdom: “Obviously.”
DA: “Well, how about someone who hikes a 3-mile blue blaze (trail lingo for side trail or alternate route) into town where the AT would’ve been 6 miles?”
CW: “It’s a shortcut. That’s cheating. Not a thru-hiker.”
DA: “Okay, well how about a 6-mile blue blaze when the equivalent distance on the AT would’ve been 3 miles?”
CW: “Well, um. I suppose it’s not the Appalachian Trail. So, no, I would say that person is not a thru-hiker.”
DA: “Oh, so it’s not about distance. It’s about staying on one specific (albeit ever-changing) path for each step of its ~2,185 mile duration. So then- what if someone takes a blue blaze into a shelter and then a different blue blaze back onto the Trail? If someone misses a 30-foot stretch of the Trail is that person a thru-hiker?”
CW: “Well, that’s ridiculous. Of course that person would be a thru-hiker.”
In reading through our imaginary conversation above, perhaps your opinion veered from conventional wisdom at some point. Maybe someone who bypasses a 300-mile stretch to catch up with their Trail friends is a thru-hiker.
Or maybe that person isn’t, but the person who took the slightly shorter trail into town is a thru-hiker.
Or maybe you’re a purist. Even in the last scenario, the person who took two different trails into and out of the shelter (which exists on the AT) is not a thru-hiker. The definition is every step of the Appalachian Trail. No exceptions.
Or maybe you’re an ultra-purist. Not only must someone hike each step of the Appalachian Trail, but they also need to carry all of their possessions in the process. In other words, slack packing (hiking a section of the Trail without some or all of your possessions) disqualifies you from being a thru-hiker. In their eyes, Jennifer Pharr Davis‘s 2011 incredible feat isn’t a true thru-hike.
Here’s a shorthand way to figure it out:
If you find yourself debating about the legitimacy of anyone else’s thru-hike, stop what you’re doing, and get a life.
The Appalachian Trail isn’t an Olympic sport. It’s not a professional sport. It’s not even a sport.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is an experiential accomplishment, but beyond that, it’s a personal accomplishment. You don’t have to worry about what anyone else does between Georgia and Maine. The only questions that matters is “what do I consider a thru-hike,” and “did I do that“?
There might be people who sign in at Springer, Harper’s Ferry, and Baxter who hike less than five hundred miles and call themselves thru-hikers. Other, perhaps more “legitimate” thru-hikers, may have a negative, visceral reaction to this assertion- as if it takes away from their accomplishment. It doesn’t. If Steve reads every word of Atlas Shrugged yet Bob only skimmed the first few hundred pages but also claims to have read it, Bob’s statement doesn’t take away from the fact that Steve actually read it. If Bob believes completing 25% of a book classifies as reading a book, then Bob has problems. But Steve calling Bob out for this only makes Steve a douche.
In reality, “thru-hiker” is a nebulous term. Although there’s agreement on the broader scope (see: ATC’s definition), there’s no official definition regarding the finer details. Until there is, arguing about them is a waste of time.
Or is it?
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