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?

Share your thoughts by voting in the poll below.  If selected “Other”, please elaborate in the comments.

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Comments 15

  • Alpha_Geek_Mk2 : Feb 15th

    I’ve always considered a thru-hiker as someone hikes the entire trail without taking side trails (or alternative transportation) *for the sole purpose of skipping the main trail*. It’s the spirit of the thing- if you make the decision to skip part of the trail because you didn’t want to hike that part of the trail, you can’t really say you traveled the whole thing in good faith, can you? That said, since that’s my own definition, the only person I’d ever hold accountable to it is myself.

    • Charles Thomsen : Aug 7th

      You can’t in my opinion define a thru hike just in the amount of miles you hike. The ATC definition is very wrong. A thru hike is just that. It
      has a start and a finish, either North or South, and you must hike continuous end to end. If you change direction anytime during the hike and “flip flop”, you are changing the elevation gain and loss of the hike, which is just as important as the miles you put into the hike. That’s why flip floppers and section hikers are not real thru hikers.
      Do you think if they had a mountain race and then allowed some entrants to start at the top of the mountain and run down the mountain and then
      have them shuttled to the top and run down the other side would be the same as a runner who started at the bottom of the mountain and ran to
      the top and down the other side to the bottom?.

      • YOYO : Mar 1st

        There you go comparing it to a race! It’s not a race, and to overrule the ATC because you know better is arrogance.

  • Rick : May 15th

    I think you have to walk every foot and essentially unsupported, except for your boxes, etc.

    I was more interested in the 12 month period or “single hiking season” as it implies one could seasonal hike certain sections when the weather is more favourable and finish other sections with a like thought. As long as you got it all done between January 1 and Drcember 31, with lengthy periodic breaks, you’re okay as a thru-hiker.

    Or is that too liberal an interpretation?

  • Michael Klein : Dec 8th

    The text above is the best definition! Its not olympic, define it for yourself and so everyone could enjoy it most! Your adventure of YOUR life

  • Lucky : Dec 8th

    You freaking said it… if it’s something that consumes and bothers you… GET A LIFE!

  • Will Thorn : Apr 25th

    Yellow Blazing is not hiking.
    A flip-flop hike is not a thru-hike.
    A complete section hike is not a thru-hike.
    To call any of the above a thru-hike is stolen glory.

    A thru-hike is an end-to-end hike of a long distance trail completed in one calendar year.

    The ATC has made the title of Thru-Hiker a participation award.

    • Will Thorn : Apr 25th

      There is a lot of room for interpretation in the definition of a Thru-Hike but two things are clear, it is an End-to-End hike, and it is completed in one year.

    • YOYO : Mar 1st

      And now YOU decide what is THEIR glory? It not yours, so it’s not up to you. Get a life.

  • Fraggle : Apr 27th

    “But Steve calling Bob out for this only makes Steve a douche” –

    Using that “logic” you calling Steve out for calling Bob out makes you a douche…and my calling you out for calling Steve out for calling Bob out makes me a douche…

    At a certain point – the only douche is Bob – who claimed to do something he didn’t.

    • Walt D. : May 29th

      @Fraggle It’s wild how many people are cool with lying (and giving liars a pass) when it comes to being honest about completing a thru.

      @Zach you say “..Bob’s statement doesn’t take away from the fact that Steve actually read it.” I think it does, because erodes and eventually redefines the measure of success. Over time, claiming to have thru hiked the AT will mean nothing. I think that soon qualifiers like ‘complete thru hike’ will be needed to differentiate legitimate hikes from the wanna-bes.

  • Susan Alcorn : Oct 2nd

    Would you consider it a thru-hike if someone completed the entire trail within the year, but skipped over sections — because of snow or whatever — yet returned later the same year and did the skipped miles (in the same direction, i.e. always going in a northerly (or southerly) direction?) Of this what a flip-flop means?

  • Steve Shelton : Oct 3rd

    If my name were not Steve, I would re-post this comment in a lot of places. “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.” I still might but with a name change. We all have different goals, motivations, and circumstances. I have followed folks on their thru-hike that have been adamant about passing every white blaze without remembering sections of the trail that they actually skipped due to a thunderstorm. (Albert Mountain fire road) Different circumstances. A thunderstorm probably won’t make me take a short cut but the fact that the “all you can eat” place is closing soon might. Don’t sweat the other guy’s path, yours is difficult enough.

  • Aaron : Jun 23rd

    Rather than correcting someone for not doing it “right,” perhaps congratulate them on their accomplishment. No two people have had the same journey regardless of circumstance. The 4’ 11” person likely took many many more steps than the 6’ 1” person hiking the same path, yet we don’t typically celebrate one journey more than the other.

    The righteous upholding of terms and conditions of being a “thru-hiker” holds essentially no regard outside of us who participate (in any capacity) in this wonderful (yet still extremely small) community. Let’s celebrate one another at every opportunity and continuously hold ourselves no higher than anyone else.

    Congrats on wherever you are in life because you’ve made it this far and are still going. Congrats on whatever good you’ve accomplished or are seeking to accomplish, especially for the betterment of those around you. You’re a badass.

    • Just Rusty : Mar 26th

      I actually ran into some through-hikers in Maine (and regardless of the definition one uses, they qualified as “through-hikers” under any of them; they were traditional NOBOs, almost done) who insisted that the only “right” way to hike the trail was End-to-End, NOBO. SOBO didn’t count. Seriously, one of them suggested that SOBOs had no “right” to be out on the trail because they weren’t hiking it correctly. When I challenged them on this, giving an example of someone who went SOBO because maybe they had some job commitment that didn’t let them get to the trail until traditional SOBO start, one of them insisted that such a person “should quit their job and hike it right”. Section hiking shouldn’t be done (I was section hiking). Day hiking, or bagging 4000 footers, or circuits on side trails – nope – they were having none of that.

      Fortunately, the other 99.9% of all hikers I ran into, regardless of their itinerary, through-hiking or not, have always been very supportive of whatever hiking I was doing. “Let’s celebrate one another at every opportunity and continuously hold ourselves no higher than anyone else.” — I think you said it very well.


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