So, Are You a Real Hiker? Are You an Authentic Pilgrim?

Are you a Real Hiker?  Some version of these questions has been raised before, during, or after every longer hike we’ve done.   Sometimes it takes the form of jokes told strolling down the trail, or as a friendly, philosophical discussion around a campfire or the dinner table in an albergue.   Other times it morphs into a heated debate.   If you’ve found the courage to attempt anything life-changing or different, chances are you’ve encountered at least one detractor along the way.  Sometimes criticism comes from people who simply cannot imagine the value of questioning routine or stepping outside their comfort zone.  Other times it comes from those who seem threatened by the accomplishments of others, as if their own experiences are somehow diminished if they are shared.  Sometimes haters just hate.

Recently we published a blog entry on hiking for a cause during our trek across Canada, the result of which has been an extraordinarily large number of emails, Facebook postings, and messages stating that we are being disingenuous and that it is “heartbreaking” because hiking  for a cause takes away all of the “true essentials” of being a “real hiker.” Which naturally led us to ask the question—what is a real hiker, anyway?

Since we’re hoping to inspire people to embark on new adventures of their own, I think it is worth sharing some of our favorite jabs and  arbitrary standards sent to us detailing what “a real hiker” or “a real trail” is.

You’re not a Real Hiker Because…

That trail is too easy, it doesn’t go through wilderness, and you sleep inside every night or some nights.Sonya Camino de Santiago

You didn’t carry everything you need on your back.

Your hike didn’t require you to wear hiking boots.

You’re hiking for a cause, not for yourself or the experience.

You’re trekking with a camera and not living in the moment.

You’re section hiking rather than thru-hiking.

You’re blogging or vlogging your hike, so you’re missing the “real” experience.

If you’re trekking for personal or social reasons rather than to enjoy wilderness.

Are you not here for religious or spiritual reasons and so you are a touristimo, not a Pelegrino.

You’re Hike Doesn’t Count Because…

You took a break partway through the trail.East Coast Trail

You didn’t walk every square inch of the trail (even if part of it was closed).

Your trail is not long enough.

You’re skipping the hardest part.

You’re not trekking during the hard weather.

Your trail goes into a town.

Your trail follows a roadway for a period.

Your trail lets you hike on sidewalks.

Your trail follows a cut pathway rather than bushwhacking

If anyone can do it, it is not a real trail and your hike does not count.

Spoiler alert:  This post does not provide a definitive answer the questions “Are you a real hiker?”  or an “authentic pilgrim?”  In my opinion, only you can answer that question.  If you don’t meet the criteria of an official thru-hike, then don’t claim you’re an official thru-hiker for that trail.  If you’re not an official thru-hiker, it doesn’t mean you’re not a real hiker.  Any criteria you use to define a “real hiker” are subjective, and nobody’s opinion matters except your own.  What follows is my opinion, so feel free to stop reading.

Still there? Then read on and enjoy.

My Response

We all walk our own path.  We’re all looking for something along the way, even if we don’t know what it is.   If you set out on a hike to find your answer, or even your question, and you do your personal best, then in my opinion you are a real hiker.  Whether you have the most expensive pack on, trek in a city, down a sidewalk, and go 2km, 200 km, or 2,000km.  For some people, it might be important to walk every inch of trail.  For others, surviving the wilderness might provide what is needed.  Perhaps the necessary challenge is to overcome fear, loneliness, or hardship.  Alternatively, it could be to develop a deep relationship with other people.  Maybe the lesson is to let go of control, to gain independence, or to find inner peace.  There are as many ways to find these answers as there are people.  If you test your own limits, challenge yourself, and make an honest effort to find what you’re looking for, in my books you’re a real hiker.  People have different abilities and different expectations, and I would venture to suggest that many of the critiques placed on them are the results of others demands and judgments – and to me that is not what trekking is about.  If you get out there and do what you need to do, achieve what you set out to achieve then you are a hiker – at that point everything else is just critiques from arm chair warriors and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you “cheat,” at the end of the day, you will know, and only you will lose.  If you’re a real hiker, you will know it.  At the end of the day – or the hike – the voyage isn’t about a certificate, credential, patch on the bag, or the selfie at the end of the trail – it is about seeing yourself and the world from a different perspective.  As Dana Meise, the trailblazer of The Trans Canada Trail / Great Trail recently commented, “It is not the number of kilometers you hike but the quality of the steps taken.”   No one can take away the friendships, memories, experiences or wisdom you gain on the trail.

The Challenge

It can be very difficult not to judge others, especially when we think they are “cheating.”  One of the hardest things for me was reaching Sarria, Spain, after walking 700 km along the Camino de Santiago.  At this point the Camino becomes flooded with “new” pilgrims, because it is 100 km from Santiago de Compostela, and this represents the minimum distance that must be walked to receive a Compostela certificate.  Many of the “new” pilgrims had their luggage transported and had bus support if they got tired.  At first, it seemed to me they were missing the point.  It took an effort for me to realize that I don’t know those people, and I have no right to judge them or their experiences.  Maybe that 100 km represented a challenge to their comfort zones, physical abilities, time-frames, or financial circumstances.  They were out there, giving it a try, doing it for their own reasons, pushing their own limitations, and finding what they needed to find.  In retrospect I am ashamed of how I felt towards many pilgrims joining the trail in Sarria.  My reactions, at the time, show that I still had (and perhaps still have) further to walk to understand the trail and the world from other people’s situations and perspectives.

Since my hike alone the Camino Frances, I’ve read and watched the documentary I’ll Push You, which tells the story of Justin Skeesuk and Patrick Gray.  Justin Skeesuk didn’t walk a single step of the Camino, and yet his 800 km journey along it is one of the most inspiring, humbling, and profound stories I’ve ever witnessed.   If you find yourself judging others, ask yourself why their achievements are so important to you.  If you find yourself being judged, look at your own experiences, and don’t let anyone else try to dismiss or diminish them.

Sometimes criticism is well founded and should be considered.  Other times haters just hate. Our next post will describe how these comments have changed our approach and preparations for our upcoming hike.

As as you head out on the AT, the PCT, the CDT, or any of the wonderful trails around the world this season remember we are pulling for you and want you to succeed.

See you on the trail.

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Comments 8

  • RB : Feb 26th

    Blah blah blah. Obviously written by someone who doesn’t finish trails and gets upset when people tell her she has to do more. Like so many millennials today, who want to be triple crown hikers but don’t want to do the work. Gets up set and just wants to “express herself”. Learn to hike before you post again instead of filling up this forum with your crap.

    • SCY : Feb 26th

      @ RB she walked 800km of the Camino all the way to Santiago (and maybe more if she went on to Finisterre). That’s a finished trail in my book.

      • RB : Feb 27th

        How can you actually try to defend this girl?!?! She is an idiot who has been duped by marketing and who thinks the Trans Canada Trail is an actual trail! She is not a real hiker and just wants a soap box to tell people that their kids need to get outdoors!

        If you actually think the Camino de Santiago is a trail then you are an idiot too! Footpaths like the Camino and the AT which go along roadways, let you go into towns, etc. do not count as hiking trails. Any fool can jump up and do them. They lack any type of real challenge or wilderness experience. Trails like Newfoundland’s East Coast trail that require you to actually carry your supplies and keep you in actual nature are the only trails that should be considered trail systems. If only to stop whining children claiming their little hikes like the Camino mean anything in the real world of hiking.

        Grow up and find a real trail learn the facts about hiking and actually challenge yourself before you presume to defend this dimwit or make claims about hiking.

        • SCY : Feb 27th

          @ RB if we use your parameters, all three of the Triple Crown trails would not be considered real trail systems, since they all to some degree involve walking along roadways and all have access to towns at some point. Trails are expensive and time-consuming to build, which is why a long-distance trail fully in the wilderness is so difficult to find; for example, the ATC acquired a tract of land in 1999 so they could move part of the trail away from roadways; it is slated to be completed later this year or in 2020, a full two decades after the land was acquired.
          I also never said the Camino was a wilderness experience, but it is by definition a trail. (Similarly, pathways in national and state parks are generally considered “trails”, even if they are completely flat, paved, and <2mi long. That is what they are called by park employees, visitors, and publications.) Completing 800km+ of a trail is not a small undertaking. And the Camino may have many children, and they may whine at times, but I think it's wonderful and admirable that families bring out their children to experience long walks. A family last year brought their children along on the AT – it might not be a "real challenge" or "wilderness experience" in your book, but I'm sure it had a life-changing effect on those children's lives.
          Like the author, I believe that we all hike our own hikes based on our own abilities and our own goals. I can see already that we'll never agree, but I respect your commitment to finding trails that are completely off the beaten path. Thanks for clueing me into the East Coast Trail; it looks beautiful and worth visiting.

        • Atsp : Mar 4th

          It’s a series of different types of trails linked together. There are many different types of trails. Would you say the trails that Algonquin hunters and voyageurs used to access settlements and trading posts trails? Quit guarding your bridge.

  • Lenora : Mar 1st

    I think you’ve made many good points here and I like what you said about it being hard not to judge others. It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap, right?

    In the end, I think your trek across Canada is very inspiring and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it!

  • Atsp : Mar 4th

    Hike for birds! Sounds like an awesome adventure! Should have a great list going through almost all of Canada’s habitats. You should post bird lists on Ebird! Have fun!

  • Rober L. Dudley : Mar 15th

    I enjoyed this article immensely. I am a big fan of hike your own hike. When I lived in PA is use to shuttle hikers around to trail heads, etc. I would haul packs so that people could slack pack, I would yellow blaze hikers and for an unfortunately few I took them to train or bus stations because they were no longer interested in hiking the AT. I have hiked a fair amount; ranging from a seven day trudge though the SNP to an hour hike with a lake at the end of it. It is all hiking. I would suggest that all the nay Sayers read A Philosophy of Walking. You might want to change your mind. Like everything else in the world your way of hike and somebody’s else way of hiking; be true to yourself.

    I am envious of you trans Canada hike and I wish that I was young enough to tackle it. I have fond memories of hiking the Bruce Trail when I was in graduate school.


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