How To Plan an International Thru-Hike: A Look at 3 Popular Trails

Living in the United States, we’re lucky enough to have world-class long trails right in our own backyard. The Triple Crown of thru-hiking—the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail—is globally known and draws international thru-hikers from across the world. On the AT last year, I hiked alongside people from Germany, Sweden, Australia, the UK, and more.

But while you could feasibly wander forever in the backcountry of the US between the Big Three and all the other thru-hikes that crisscross our country, you may start to wonder what the rest of the world’s long trails have to offer. That’s when it’s time to start thinking about an international thru-hike for your next adventure.

But where to begin? Between currency exchange, visa requirements, and navigating a country where you don’t speak the language, planning an international thru-hike quickly becomes a headache.

Whether you’re actively planning an international thru or just daydreaming about another long trail, this guide will help you plan your next hike. Today, we’re looking at three popular international trails as an example: the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Great Divide Trail in Canada, and the Te Araroa in New Zealand.

The Camino de Santiago

International thru-hike: Three tiled photos from the Camino in Spain.

Your guide to planning an international thru-hike: the Camino de Santiago. Left and center photos via Pong; right photo via Sarahmarie Specht-Bird.

The Camino is one of the oldest long-distance treks in the world and is one of the most (if not the most) famous. Nearly 350,000 trekkers, known as “pilgrims,” complete the Camino each year. 

The Camino dates back to 800 CE and is truly a choose-your-own-adventure thru. Technically, you can begin your Camino anywhere on the European continent, so long as you walk to the tomb of St. James (one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, and the first Christian martyr) in Santiago de Compostela, a city of nearly 100,000 residents on the northwest coast of Spain. 

While you can choose your own Camino, there are seven traditional routes that originate all over Spain and range from 71 to 621 miles. Each of these routes is well-marked for pilgrims, with either simple yellow blazes or golden scallop shells set into blue milestone markers that are blazed with yellow arrows.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll go over what it takes to get to and hike the Camino Francés: the most popular of these routes.

How To Get There

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims hike along the Camino Francés each year, making this 491-mile trek the most popular “way” of the Camino. It takes about a month to complete.

This makes traveling to the country a little easier than a longer thru-hike of 6+ months. US citizens, Australians, and Canadians may stay in Spain for up to 90 days (three months) without a visa. This allows you plenty of time to complete your pilgrimage. But first, you have to get there.

The Camino Francés begins on the border between Spain and France. The closest town to the start of this trek is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It can be accessed from either Biarritz on the coast of France or Pamplona in northern Spain. If you’re coming from the United States, it’s best to fly into Biarritz, which accepts international flights.

From Biarritz, simply catch a bus to nearby Bayonne, where you may travel by rail to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where you can begin your trek. 

What Does It Cost?

As I’m writing this article, one-way flights to Biarritz cost right around $2,000. Your airfare will vary, of course, depending on where you’re flying from, what time of year you’re flying, and how far in advance you book. Whatever you pay on the way out, you can expect a similar cost for your return flight out of Santiago de Compostela. 

In addition to all the typical expenses of a thru-hike, you’ll also need to factor in lodging costs. While it is possible to camp on the Camino, it’s much more difficult to do so than a typical thru-hike. Designated campsites are few and far between, and much of the route passes through private or state-owned property where camping is not allowed.

As a result, you’ll likely need to stay in hostels most nights. Occasionally, you can camp outside a hostel for a small fee. The Camino is at its busiest during the summer months, so you’ll want to pre-book your accommodation. Hostels generally cost 8-15 euros a night for a bunk space, which can quickly add up over the month you’ll spend on trail.

When to Hike It

While this version of the Camino is passable year-round, April through October is the most popular time to walk the trail. This means you’ll have no trouble finding other pilgrims to walk with, but it can make finding space in a hostel a little tricky. For more solitude and less competition, go in the off-season.

The Great Divide Trail

International thru-hike: Three tiled photos from the Great Divide Trail in Canada.

Your guide to planning an international thru-hike: the Great Divide Trail. Photos via Kelly McDonald.

At a little over 1100 kilometers, or 700 miles, the GDT will take you about 30-45 days to complete. It’s a just-across-the-border cousin of one of our iconic trails: the Continental Divide Trail. The GDT picks up where the CDT ends on the border in Waterton Lakes National Park. It travels north through the backbone of the Canadian Rockies, to the northern terminus at Kakwa Provincial Park. It crosses the continental divide about 30 times as it winds its way between Alberta and British Columbia. 

Along the way, you’ll pass through iconic national parks like Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper. The trail is still partially incomplete: more of a wilderness route than a well-marked long trail in many areas. The trail’s remoteness sets it apart, so you’ll enjoy the wildness of the Canadian Rockies along the way. 

How To Get There

This international thru-hike is one of the most convenient for US citizens. If you’re a US citizen, you can stay in Canada for up to 180 days without a visa. This is more than enough time for you to complete this thru-hike, so the only logistical concern you really need to worry about is, well, getting there.

Most people thru-hike the GDT northbound from Waterton Townsite to Kakwa Provincial Park. There are a couple ways to get to the southern terminus:

To get close enough to start the trail at the southern terminus, you have to get to Waterton Townsite. There are several shuttles that can get you there from Calgary, Pincher Creek, or Glacier National Park, and you can click here to get the most up-to-date information directly from The Great Divide Trail Association website. You can expect these shuttles to cost up to several hundred dollars.

From Waterton Townsite, there are two ways to reach the actual southern terminus on the International Boundary between Canada and the US. 

First, you can hike 6.3 km from the Lakeshore trailhead to the boundary, then simply turn around at the border and walk back to Waterton Townsite.

Alternatively, you can take a boat from the Waterton marina to Goat Haunt Ranger Station in Glacier National Park. From there, you’ll hike the 12.8 km back to Waterton Townsite via the Lakeshore Trail. From there, you hike north!

On average, it takes between 36 and 67 days to complete this trail. Why such specific timeframes? The GDT passes through provincial parks, national parks, and other protected areas. This means that there are several permit systems at play along the trail, and you’ll need to pre-book specific campsites many nights. For some permits, you can make your reservations on the national park website. For others, you’ll have to use your sparse cell signal to call backcountry offices.

To help prospective thru-hikers out, the GDT Association has put together three sample itineraries for this thru-hike: Relaxed (67 days), Average (50 days), and Fast (36 days). You can access the itineraries by clicking here.

What Does It Cost?

The GDT is very remote, so while you can make town stops to resupply at a store, it’s probably wise to send yourself resupply boxes—which will factor into the overall cost of your trek. The ever-helpful GDT Association website has information and addresses for resupply stops, which you can access by clicking here.

While remote, the GDT does pass through several highly trafficked tourist destinations. Accommodations in Banff and Jasper fill up quickly, leaving you with expensive hotel stays.

The GDT Association officially recommends $2 per km to cover the cost of your thru. This estimate should cover the cost of your resupplies and permits. While there are only six resupply points where you can spend money on town luxuries, they’re in expensive tourist areas. That means it is very easy to blow your budget. 

When To Hike It

Most people will begin their northbound hikes of the GDT in late June or early July and end in mid-September. Towards the end of September, you’ll likely encounter snowy conditions. 

You won’t need to worry about ending up in a thru-hiking bubble, though. Only about 150-200 people attempt to thru-hike the GDT each year.

Tramping Along The Te Araroa

Three tiled photos from the Te Araroa in New Zealand.

Your guide to planning an international thru-hike: The Te Araroa. Center photo via Alison Young; Right photo via Shaina Dudek.

Forget thru-hiking: if you hike this trail, you’re now a thru-tramper. “Tramping” is kiwi slang for hiking, and it’s one of the many small differences you’ll find between thru-hiking here and thru-hiking abroad.

The Te Araroa is a long-distance trail that winds 3,000 kilometers (or 1860 miles) along New Zealand’s two main islands. The trail travels from Cape Reinga on the North Island to the southern terminus, Bluff, on the South Island. Along the way, it passes through bustling cities, long beaches, sweeping landscapes, and around towering volcanoes. It roughly translates to “The Long Pathway” and is known by many simply as the TA.

This international thru-hike is one of the world’s youngest long trails: it was officially opened December 3, 2011 after decades of effort. It really got its start in 1994 when a journalist, Geoff Chapple, began advocating for the creation of a trail in his newspapers—leading to the creation of the Te Araroa Trust. 

How To Get There

If you aren’t from New Zealand, you’ll need a visitor visa to have enough time to walk the entire TA. 

There are two options available for this. First, you can use the NZ ETA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority) app to apply for a visa, which can take up to 72 hours. This visa will allow you to stay in the country for three months or less, so while it’s not ideal for your thru-hike, it is a good visa to fall back on—because you can exit, then re-enter the country if you have to. 

To have time for a full thru, you’ll need to apply for the tourist visa, which will guarantee you 6 months of uninterrupted time in NZ. This visa can take longer to be approved, so it’s a good idea to apply for it early, and also apply for the ETA visa as a backup. You can apply for the longer visa here on the New Zealand government’s website.

Click here to read Sam Francart’s blog about entering New Zealand as a northbound TA tramper. There are other things you’ll need to keep in mind when traveling to NZ. One of these includes a biosecurity check on your camping gear. This will make sure you aren’t bringing anything invasive into the country.

When starting the trail, most TA hikers hitchhike from Keri Keri, the closest town to Cape Reinga. This can be a 5-6 hour ride, so be prepared to piece together a route from NZ’s public transportation or find multiple hitches. 

What Does It Cost?

In addition to the steadily rising cost of a thru-hiking budget (gone are the days of dollar-a-mile treks,) you’ll need to factor international travel into your budget as well. As I’m writing this article, I’m seeing that one-way flights to Aukland cost around $1700 (again, your mileage will vary here), a price point you can expect to rise as you get closer to NZ’s tourist season. You’ll likely need to already have your departing flight booked for your visa to get approved. This can put your thru-tramp on a time crunch.

The Te Araroa Trust does request a donation per person tramping the trail–ranging from NZ$400 for those hiking one island up to NZ$750 for an entire thru-hike. If you want to stay in any of New Zealand’s network of backcountry huts, you’ll pay a one-time $118 fee. You will also need to factor in the cost of a ferry between the two islands. The Cook Strait Ferry costs just under $100.

There is a short section of the Queen Charlotte Track section at the top of the South Island that requires a permit. You can find more information about this permit by clicking here. 

Currently, every US dollar equals 1.65 NZ dollars, so the exchange rate is favorable! New Zealand being an island country, however, you can expect your resupply to cost a pretty good amount.

When To Hike It

Since the TA is in a different hemisphere, it’s important to keep in mind the differences in seasons. There are other departures from our thru-hiking “traditions” here in the States. For example, the typical way to thru-hike the TA is a SOBO thru-hike. You’d start at Cape Reinga in the north, then hike southbound to the southern terminus Bluff. 

In New Zealand, springtime, and the best time to start this trek, is in the months of October and November. If you want to go northbound instead, you can start anytime in mid-summer–and in New Zealand, mid-summer begins in January. 

Each island will take 2-3 months to hike, so you can expect a pretty standard thru-hike of 4-6 months. That being said, you probably won’t want to rush this trail. Along the way, you’ll tramp through the gorgeous Herekino and Raetaea forests, farmland, rugged alpine peaks, and steep volcanoes.

Where  Next?

This is far from an exhaustive list of international trails, of course. Hopefully, this introduction to planning for three popular trails is a good starting point for anyone looking to learn the ins and outs of international thru-hiking. What international thru-hike is at the top of your bucket list? Tell us in the comments below.

This article was updated on 06/30/23. Corrections: Te Reo Maori is not another name for the Te Araroa (it is the name of the Maori language itself); the estimated flight cost for the TA is to Aukland, not Cape Reinga, as there are no direct flights to Cape Reinga. Clarification: The TAT’s suggested donation amounts are in NZD, not USD.

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Comments 1

  • Brad : Jun 30th

    For international thru-hikes, you should also check out the South West Coast Path, a 630 mile trail along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall in England. Challenging with 115,000 feet of elevation, historical sites and fishing villages, fantastic coastal views, and pubs.


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