How to Spot a Thru-Hiker (And Why the Media Gets It Wrong)

With a slew of new movies about hikers coming out, and several already under Hollywood’s rhinestone-studded belt, I continue to reinforce my secretly held opinion that most directors, actors, and costume designers have not actually gone on a long hike themselves.  As hiking and exploring becomes more popular, so does the romantic notion of it, and every Spring we are barraged with more and more clean, svelte youths wearing enormous backpacks, freshly shaved legs, and lots of stylish polyester flannels, usually with a backdrop of epic mountains and maybe a few jeeps.


Courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger, clearly.

This is not what hikers look like.

Don’t get me wrong; I wish I looked like that while hiking.  I would love to be free of blemishes and tan lines, striding through a jungle in off-the-shelf cotton shorts and perfect hiking boots as if I was about to happen upon a wild fro-yo stand.  And truth be told, if I was in charge of marketing a hiking lifestyle (which I clearly am not, based on the number of poop stories I tell), I would definitely not use a thru-hiker fresh off the trail as my model.


Although the ads have improved a little… (backpacker circa 1975)

But why is that? What do thru-hikers actually look like?  How can I tell the difference between a thru-hiker and a bright-eyed weekend warrior, assuming I lose the power of smell*?

*There is no other reason this question would be asked.

Here’s a handy checklist of what to look for during thru-hiker hunting season:

The Shorts:


The people I hiked with in my year mostly fell into two camps for shorts: stretchy soccer shorts or Walmart bathing suits.  By the time we hit Virginia, we didn’t meet too many people who actually wore the classic hiking pants or hiking shorts you see in most stores.  Instead, everyone was ridiculously clad in torn, brightly-colored swim trunks or tight spandex underwear that they failed to wear an outer layer over.  You will find what works for you, but there’s a good chance it won’t be the pants you begin in.  It will probably be much sillier looking than that.


At least these shorts are Ultra Light, I guess…

The Shoes:

The floppy soled, mud caked leather scraps you have on your feet are not meant for any glamor shots.  Don’t take them off though!  No one wants to see or smell what lies beneath those boots.


But even boots are becoming less and less common on trail.  Not only are trail runners gaining more and more popularity, but there are even hikers who are now doing their thru hikes in sandals and aqua socks.  The day of the heavy, underbrush-crushing hiking boot is dying out and being replaced by the era of lightweight neon atrocities that are quite simply more comfortable.  So much for those romantic boot pictures on MacCafe’s knob.

The Colors:


What is that man dressed as a highlighter doing with a backpack?  Is he bringing a bunch of drug paraphernalia to a rave?

Color options among outdoor gear are often limited.  Especially if your funds are limited.  And since most outdoor gear is designed to keep you from getting shot in the woods or hit by a car (actually very helpful on the AT), you won’t find a lot of stylish-looking wicking shirts.  You will, however, pick up single mismatched items of clothing over the course of several months from varying establishments so that, in the end, you appear to be performing some kind of rag-tag circus act in Maine with your posse of similarly gauche hiker friends.


Utterly terrifying.

Don’t go towards the light…

There is a notion that people who love the outdoors are tan.  This is somewhat true.  The hikers you find will be boldly sporting a rich bronze luster on their forearms, faces, and calves.  Then you will see them go swimming and be blinded by the horrible jellyfish paleness of their torsos.  When you wear a pack for ten hours a day, you get less sun on your back than an Alaskan in wintertime.

The Bod:


‘Oh hey girl, I’ll finish filtering our water as soon as I’ve read through this book of poems by Robert Frost.’

This is not a thru-hiker.

After multiple months of cardiovascular exercise and leg crunching, thru-hikers will be rebuilt better and stronger – on the lower half.  Don’t expect them to keep those arm muscles; they will become anemic little twigs that struggle feebly with bear bagging.  The true thru-hiker sympathizes with T-rex and strives to always keep their shirt on.

oatmeal running

Read the full comic from The Oatmeal here.

The Pack:


‘I was thinking I could carry the Jeep in my bag if you carry the ATV in yours.’

I’m not sure if the next wave of trendy hiking advertisements is going to feature people hiking with ULA packs or continue to opt for the more aesthetically pleasing ‘classic’ backpack with all the bells and whistles, but I know what the next wave of trendy hikers themselves will choose:


With Cuban Fiber and Cordura ruling the trail, many hikers are sporting modest, simple packs that look pretty sad next to a big external frame monster or a name brand designer bag bearing dozens of straps and pockets.  But this is what works.  Tiny bag = more miles.  Even if it isn’t quite film-worthy.


Just don’t tell that to someone after they watched ‘the Way’, because they’re going to have a lot of questions about where to stash their jeans.

The Trash:


Hiker trash is a term that need not apply only to people.  You will probably never see a hiking movie where the lead character pulls out a dirty Ziploc stuffed with ramen noodle dust, clif bar wrappers, and stolen mayo packets, but for most AT hikers that nasty bag is probably the most accessible item in their backpack.  They know that they might come upon a road at any moment with a single, beautiful trash can that is probably brimming with other disgusting Ziploc bags and be able to finally shed their trash weight.



Basically, if you’re an attractive person in normal life, you will be on the trail too (where standards are also lower…) but don’t expect to look better.  Companies like Patagonia and North Face don’t often use actual thru-hikers to model their stuff for a reason.  But you will be able to stop caring about your appearance pretty quickly.  In fact, you’ll probably make a lot of much harder personal sacrifices to finish the trail.  So go buy your Walmart bathing suit, decorate your dirty Gatorade bottle, and prepare yourself for a whole summer of being freed from ever having to ask ‘does this rip down the seam of my butt look bad?’


Of course it does, say the beautiful people.  Now enjoy your hike!


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