Section Hikers Are Backpacking’s Unsung Heroes

​Every year, thousands of hikers start their journey down the Appalachian Trail, each hopeful to earn the title of “thru-hiker” in a few months’ time. While roughly 600 hikers will successfully complete the task each year, 80 percent of those who start a thru-hike will fall short of their goal.

But what happens to those hikers? Do they simply give up, forget the AT, and move on with their lives? For many, this is far from the case. A failed thru-hike doesn’t mean the loss of passion for completing the trail, and many of these former “thru-hike hopefuls” redirect their energy and love of the AT toward section hiking. While some end up completing the trail within a few years, it takes others a lifetime to finally earn that 2,000-miler badge.

Changing paths from a thru-hike isn’t always simple. While section hiking is often viewed as an easier (or inferior) way to complete the trail, it brings unique challenges that require section hikers to utilize different types of planning and determination than their thru-hiker counterparts. Many of us know the sacrifices and challenges that go into planning and successfully finishing a thru-hike, but what exactly goes into completing a long trail in the form of section hikes?

Section hiking requires years of pure dedication to reach your final goal. Utilizing every available day off or free weekend for years on end is certainly no easy task. The sacrifices are countless, but the reward is unbelievably sweet. This isn’t some momentary interest or weekend hobby; the trail becomes your life. You live and breathe it, and—similar to thru-hikers—it’s the only thing on your mind.

Whether it takes years or decades to successfully make their way down the trail, section hikers all overcome similar obstacles and challenges that make completing the trail this way a truly unique experience.

Say Hello to Year-Round Hiking

One of the best parts of section hiking is having the freedom to hike parts of the trail in any season you wish. Most thru-hikers don’t get the opportunity to see parts of the trail in the beauty of winter, but section hikers are able to relish the opportunity of experiencing the trail throughout all seasons and conditions. However, this freedom often translates into hiking a section when it’s available to you. If you’re going to be passing the AT while visiting family or going on vacation, it’s hard for a section hiker to pass up the opportunity to knock off a chunk of trail. This could mean hiking during the perfect season in each location, or could turn into hiking through snow with Microspikes and negative degree temperatures. Section hiking teaches hikers to be adaptable, and how to handle the trail in any elements Mother Nature throws their way.

Long Car Rides and Shuttle Drives

Catching a hitch a few miles into town might be easy, but catching a ride back to your car parked five trail days away is a significantly harder task. This means that AT shuttle drivers are much more popular among section hikers than the thru-hiking community. While these shuttle rides are a fantastic way to get to know the communities that span the trail and support local businesses / trail angels, they can quickly get expensive. This added cost, paired with funding plane tickets and long car rides to trailheads, make section hiking a more expensive way to hike the trail.

Planning Hikes Around Your 9-5

The planning involved for most section hikers to knock off pieces of trail is immense. Spending years utilizing every available weekend or day off, while finding time to balance family, work, and a social life, requires organization and perseverance. Those who live close to sections of their trail can take advantage of weekends and holidays to knock off a few miles, but for everyone else, planning a section-hiking trip can be an undertaking. Finding transportation to the trailhead, shipping your gear, and being able to hike enough miles to make the whole trip worth it requires hours of careful planning. Add in the fact that most section hikers squeeze these excursions into their two weeks of vacation, and it requires even more preparation. Section hikers become pros at managing their time so that they can pump out a maximum amount of miles each year and reach 2,000-miler status even sooner.

Keeping Up with Your Trail Legs

Checking off states, one section at a time.

For many section hikers, one of the most challenging things is keeping up with your trail legs for the length of time it takes you to complete the trail. After spending multiple months on the trail, many thru-hikers are able to work up to hiking 20+ miles in a day. However, since section hikers spend smaller chunks of time on the trail, it is significantly harder for them to acquire the muscles and strength needed for marathon days. Some hikers simply accept the shorter days and spend a longer overall time hiking the trail. Meanwhile, others may choose to stay on top of their fitness by spending multiple hours each week training at the gym, and then killing it on the trail during weekends. It is definitely possible for section hikers to get some big mile days in — they might just have to work a little bit harder to get there.

There is no easy way to hike a long trail. Whether you it takes you a few months or a few years, there are sacrifices to be made and planning that requires immense dedication. Choosing to complete a nontraditional or section hike doesn’t mean you put any less effort into completing the trail. Rather, it means signing up for years of perseverance and commitment to your final goal. The choice between day, section, or thru-hiking is a highly personal one, but the final goal is the same no matter how you choose to get your miles in. At the the end of the day we’re all just trying to climb that final summit, take in the mountain views, and earn the title of 2,000-miler.

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Comments 8

  • John aka "Grunt" : Jun 27th

    Great article and perspective. I can vouch for and second all your comments on section-hiking. I’ve been humping the AT for the past 10+ years and have sectioned it from GA to inside PA. The sheer tenacity and commitment are beyond any simple explanation. Your dead on about expense too…. every trip I’ve made has been a 1,000 mile round trip excursion. Planning to squeeze the most miles out of each section and still enjoy the hump is always an issue. I might get my trail legs about the time my section is over. One very cool experience is having been on the trail for over a decade I have met hundreds of thru-hikers, but NOBO and SOBO and many more day/section hikers. I’ve witnessed the increase in popularity; increase in women, and the improvement in gear. I have many years of really neat and wonderful memories…. it all didn’t happen in 5 or 6 months…. it’s still happening yearly and it what makes sectioning special for me. I have the utmost respect for Thru-hikers… most are good people… some are jerks; mostly because of a superior than you attitude. This happens frequently when you tell people that you are hiking the AT…. they might say what year and I’ll respond since 2008… and they say, Oh I know a friend of a friend or someone that did a Thru-hike… all in one year! I don’t think there should be a “pecking order” but there is… therefor the mantra HYOH is my best friend. Thanks for your article and I’ll be in PA in the middle of Oct. completing PA. Happy Trails

  • Josh Johnson : Jul 2nd

    It’s true; section hiking is a beast of its own. One I’m starting to know well! And yes, it’s addicting and the draw is there even though I don’t have the schedule available to thru-hike.

  • Paul Wayne Dominy (Preacher-man) : Jul 7th

    Yep that’s me, it’s time and family + Ministry that makes me a section hiker, But I do love it ,I usually hit it for 3-5 days @ a time. Retired Army Grunt whose wife says you have already be gone to long, and yes I Solo.

  • Gordon Warnica : Jul 9th

    We met a few section hikers when we did the AT in ’03
    They are amazing in that by only doing a couple of weeks at a time , they are just getting in hiking shape and they take 50 weeks off.
    In Maine, we kept seeing chalk marks on a tree or a rock.
    We met a woman who set out every day to hike a section, and then marked her turn around point with chalk, and walking back to her car car
    The next day, she drove to the next road crossing and hiked back to her chalk mark.
    She was in effect hiking the trail twice each day, but doing it unsupported and over a huge amount of time. Very, very dedicated
    Heck we were only going north.
    I am sure we met her three or four times in the 100 mile wilderness.
    Gimp AT Ga-Me ’03

  • Kerosene : Jun 23rd

    It only took me 42 years to complete the AT over a series of section hikes; about 700 miles in the 70’s with most of the rest from 200-2014, finishing atop Katahdin on 10/4/2014. I can identify with everything that Colleen notes in her article, although I will provide one caution. No matter how much time you spend in the gym or how good shape you’re in, you won’t have the trail legs of someone who’s been backpacking for 3 solid months. I played competitive soccer through my 40’s, and while I was able to walk a lot further and faster than most section hikers, I would generally try to avoid 20-milers for a few days until my legs (and knees!) were a bit more used to the pounding and dynamic movement under weight.

    Also, section hikers are usually time-bound and have fewer options for changing plans. That said, identify potential bail-out points along your planned section in case of dangerous weather or injury, and try to give yourself some wiggle-room as to where you plan to stay each night so that you can walk when you feel like it and stop a bit earlier when you don’t. I got caught in a late-October snowstorm that buried Roan Mountain with 6″+ of snow. Fortunately I was able to take a short day and overnight at Mountain Harbour Hostel and slackpack from Carver’s Gap back to the hostel the next day when it was 15-degrees with sustained 40 mph winds over the balds. In July of ’79 I was caught in the dregs of a hurricane in southern Vermont that dumped 14″ of rain in one day. When I inadvertently stepped into a puddle I strained my Achilles tendon trying to pull my foot out of the muck. That made for a slow, painful 6-mile walk to the road, where a passing motorist took pity on my soaked form and drove me down into Manchester Center where I rested for three days before catching the bus back home. Note that if I hadn’t been wearing rain gear I would have likely been hypothermic given how cold that rain was falling from 70,000 feet.

  • Amy : Jun 24th

    Thanks for adding us sectioners in! Spot on article. I will say with good training, you can do 16-20 mile days that are LONG ones because you can burn out your body for 5 days and go home and rest. One thing I absolutely LOVE about section hiking not mentioned is the continued marvel and wonder at the trail. When I was in VT, thru hikers had been hiking for 4 months and were no longer in awe of an amazing view or river. Going out for 5-7 days, resting 4-5 months, makes me crave the trail. It’s my sanctuary and where I learn how to be me when I’m out in the world. Only 400 miles in, but I’ve met amazing things, learned life changing lessons, and can’t wait to get ‘on trail’ again this fall.

    • Kerosene Karaman : Jun 27th

      I concur, Amy. I was at the Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to in the middle of the Hundred Mile Wilderness on a drippy afternoon in September 2014. The Falls there are quite beautiful and a bit different from many of the other falls along the AT. I encountered two groups of thru-hikers who couldn’t be bothered with moving 100-feet off the trail, as they were flush with Katahdin Fever and pushing for 25-30 mile days.

  • Carl : Jun 26th

    Loved this article. I am going to be a section hiker. It is nice to finally read an article about it. A lot of us cant just quite our jobs but want to do long hikes. I think from a section hiker stand point you can mix and match as well. What I mean is you can hike other things in between the time on the AT. In a way you get a better variety of trails and terrain. Though it may not be the most popular its reality for a lot of us.


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