Travel Insurance for International Thru-Hikers: 8 Essential Considerations

Choosing travel insurance: arguably one of the worst logistical headaches you’ll face when planning an international thru-hike. The process is laden with vague clauses, fine print that matters, and the pestering feeling that, “Chances are I won’t even need this.”

As an Australian hiking the PCT in 2023, I wanted to make sure I would be covered if anything went wrong during my time in the US. As a result, I spent an obscene amount of time reading through insurance policies, emailing companies, and untangling what was (and was not) covered. Because I wouldn’t wish that process upon anyone, I’ll highlight my findings here: eight things international thru-hikers should consider when choosing travel insurance.

Disclaimer: We’re hikers, not insurance experts. This information is not intended as a substitute for your own research or the advice of a qualified professional. Any examples provided are from the author’s personal experience (as an Australian) researching this in 2023. Always do your own research before purchasing insurance.

What actually is travel insurance?

Travel insurance provides financial protection if things go wrong during a trip. It can cover a range of possibilities — emergency medical expenses, trip cancellations, delays, illnesses, accidents, lost or stolen belongings, and more. If you don’t have travel insurance and these things happen, you may be left with a hefty debt (particularly if you’re traveling in a country like the US where healthcare is notoriously expensive).

But wait, do I really need travel insurance?

The polite answer is that it all depends on your risk tolerance.

The blunt answer is that I think you would be batshit insane not to get travel insurance for a thru-hike.

On a thru-hike, you’re living outside, exposed to the elements, interacting with nature, and putting your body under extreme stress — sometimes for months on end. And chances are, you’ll find yourself in some pretty sketchy, unexpected situations.

I’m a fairly cautious person. Even so, on the PCT I got caught in a blizzard, had my pack fall 600 feet down a mountain, got growled at by a mountain lion, and watched a wildfire break out a mile from me. None of these situations ended terribly for me, but they could have.

Anyone embarking on a thru-hike should consider what would happen, financially, if something went wrong. What would it mean if you got seriously injured? If your backpack got stolen? If you had to return home unexpectedly? Could travel insurance help alleviate some of that financial stress? Even domestic thru-hikers (i.e., those doing a thru-hike in their own country) can benefit from having travel insurance.

Travel insurance is something that you hope you never need. But if you do need it, you really need it. If something goes wrong on an international thru-hike and you aren’t insured, it could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’d say it’s worth trying to avoid that.

Nothing like some wildfire smoke to get you guessing your life (and travel insurance) choices.

It’s hard to choose the right policy.

Let’s say you’re on board with wanting to avoid any chance of crippling debt. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as googling “travel insurance” and purchasing the first cheap policy you see. Why? Because policies are very specific, with many clauses detailing what they include and exclude.

Just because you have a policy, does not mean you are covered in every situation.

If you’re violating that policy in any way, you are not covered — and as a thru-hiker traversing the backcountry, you’re more likely to run afoul of policy exclusions than the average traveler. Purchasing a policy can imbue a false sense of security — a sense that “I have purchased travel insurance and can point to my policy number, so I’m all good.” You are not necessarily all good.

Take some conversations I had last year just before entering the Sierra Nevada. Some international thru-hikers were talking about travel insurance. The conditions (e.g., insane snow) and the addition of some more serious gear (e.g., crampons, ice axes) had reminded us that something could always go wrong.

I spoke to more than one person whose policy was not valid for the upcoming section, and who only became aware of this after our conversation (being the nerd I am, I’d read the fine print on many policies). Heading into the Sierra Nevada in one of the highest snow years on record is not when you want to find out that you’re screwed if something goes wrong.

READ NEXT – Health Insurance for Thru-Hikers: A Look at the Options

Travel Insurance for Thru-Hikers: 8 Crucial Considerations

There are countless articles on what a good travel insurance policy looks like — coverage for medical treatment (extensive or unlimited), cancellations, stolen or lost possessions, etc. While I think that’s crucial to know, I’m not going to delve into travel insurance basics here. Thru-hiking is a little different from lying on a beach in Bali. Instead, I’m focusing on what thru-hikers, specifically, should look out for when purchasing travel insurance.

Let’s get into it.

1. Are you covered for search and rescue?

If you’re hanging out in the mountains or other remote places, you want to make sure you can get out of there if you’re lost, injured, or in danger. It can be surprisingly hard to find out whether an insurance policy covers this.

In part, this is because of the distinction between “search and rescue” and “medical evacuation.” From what I can gather (and I’m still very confused), search and rescue primarily involves locating and assisting individuals who are lost, in distress, or in danger. Medical evacuation focuses on transporting injured or ill individuals to medical facilities for treatment.

Some policies cover medical evacuation but not search and rescue. For example, World Nomads says they cover “evacuation if it’s urgent and medically necessary.” However, they do not cover “search and rescue if you’re lost up there in the mountains, or at any other time” or “Any search and/or rescue operations … connected with finding or rescuing you from a dangerous, life-threatening situation.” What does this mean? Your guess is as good as mine — maybe sometimes you’re covered, maybe sometimes you’re not.

On the PCT, I didn’t want to second guess whether I could get out if I needed to — in the end I got both normal travel insurance and a Garmin Search and Rescue plan (which was relatively cheap at around USD 40 for one year).

Also note that some jurisdictions may have free search and rescue (e.g., it’s charged to the state). Unless you’re absolutely certain that search and rescue is free in all cases (and that the benefit applies to you, as a foreigner), I suggest assuming it’s going to cost you something.

snowy mountain range at twilight travel insurance thru-hikers

It’s nice to know you’re covered for search and rescue when you’re in a place like this.

2. What’s the highest elevation you expect to go to?

This one’s pretty simple — some policies will only cover you up until a certain elevation. Figure out the highest elevation you expect to hike to (Mount Whitney off the PCT, for example), and check that you’re covered for that. Some policies offer upgrades for higher elevation. For example, Covermore covers “Hiking or trekking under 3,000 meters” (9843 feet), but you’ll have to purchase their adventure add-on to be covered for up to 4000 meters (13123 feet).

3. What gear are you using?

I’d guess this is one of most likely reasons you won’t be covered on a thru-hike, even when you think you are. You may classify what you’re doing as hiking — it is a thru-hike, after all. But, if you’re using (or should be using) certain gear, insurance companies may classify it as mountaineering.

I’m sorry to say, but if you’re using an ice axe, crampons, or microspikes, they’ll probably call it mountaineering.

The issue with this? Relatively few companies cover mountaineering. The specifics are not always spelled out in the policy — few policies will actually mention ice axes, crampons, or microspikes. Instead, they’ll refer broadly to mountaineering or use of specialist climbing equipment.

Take Covermore for example. They state that “mountaineering using guides, ropes, rock climbing equipment” is not covered. After eight emails back and forth, they confirmed that using “crampons and an ice axe (for safety / precautionary measures)” counts as rock climbing equipment. Similarly, World Nomads, a popular insurance option for international thru-hikers, confirmed to me via email that “We would not offer cover for any hiking activity where the use of an ice axe and crampons are involved, even if only as a safety precaution.”

Maybe you’re fine with not being covered during sections that require this gear, and maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s worth actually knowing when you are covered.

smiling hiker poses with ice axe in snowy mountains travel insurance thru-hikers

My poor ice axe — those travel insurance companies really do hate you.

4. Do you need different coverage for different sections?

Let’s say you need more extensive coverage in just one section (e.g., while carrying your “mountaineering” gear). Here are a couple of options for what you could do, and considerations for each. Note that by “base policy,” I mean the policy that could cover you for everything other than that specific section.

Option 1: Temporarily upgrade your base policy so you’ve got more coverage for the specific section. This sounds like the ideal option, but it’s actually pretty hard to make work. Many policies will not let you upgrade and then downgrade your policy once it’s already begun. Look into whether this is possible if it’s the option you’re relying on.

Option 2: Pause your base policy, get a different policy which covers you for the specific section, then resume your base policy after that section is complete. While this also sounds like a great option, many policies will not let you pause and then resume coverage.

Option 3: Go with a more extensive policy for the whole trip. That is, you only have one policy and that policy covers you for all sections. There are two major downsides to this.

First, a policy that covers you for more intense sections (e.g., while using mountaineering gear) may be significantly more expensive, given these activities are considered higher risk.

Second, policies which cover you for more intense sections may actually provide worse coverage in the less intense sections. For example, I found that Global Rescue (with their IMG signature travel insurance add-on) could cover me while using an ice axe, crampons, etc. However, during sections where I wasn’t using that gear, some of their offerings were significantly worse than competitors. For example, emergency medical expenses were capped at USD 100,000, rather than being unlimited.

Option 4: Have two policies for a limited period of time. This option sounds disgusting, but it may be the best choice if the other options can’t work out. Get your base policy and then, for the section that your base policy won’t cover — get another policy.

Assuming you can’t stop and start your base policy, there will be a period of time when you’re technically paying for two policies (even if the base one isn’t valid). This is annoying, but may be the only way to make sure you’ve got good coverage throughout the trip.

5. Are you required to have a guide with you?

Back to the simple stuff — some companies will say you must have a guide with you if you’re going for X amount of days or beyond Y elevation.

6. Is hiking an additional activity you need to select?

“Hiking” or “Trekking” may be an activity that you need to add on to your policy. Or, you may need to select something like an “Adventure package” which covers hiking.

7. Does the policy have an upper time limit?

This one is pretty obvious — thru-hikes can be long, and some policies have an upper limit. For example, travelers from the US can only get a World Nomads policy for up to 180 days, which could be pushing it for some hikers on long trails.

Either a) get a policy that will cover you for the whole time or b) look into whether you can purchase another policy if your original one ends while you’re still hiking.

8. Read the PDS and pester the company for more details.

Each insurance company or policy should have a Product Disclosure Statement (PDS). This should tell you everything that is or is not covered, and to what extent. Unfortunately, it’s long, dense, and boring. Even more unfortunately — you should read it. Only then will you really know what you’ll be covered for on your thru-hike.

Sometimes things will still be blurry after you read the PDS (e.g., in the example of, “They say they exclude mountaineering but what does mountaineering even mean?”). In that case, I would contact the companies. Email your specific questions or speak to them on the phone. If you call, always request a follow-up email outlining what they told you — it’s not the strongest case if all you can say is, “Ahh I think someone called Janet at the call center told me I would be covered.”

Be prepared; it may take many emails back and forth to get a clear answer to your question.

patchy snow on mountains in alpine meadow travel insurance thru-hikers

A world away from reading insurance product disclosure statements.

The Travel Insurance I Purchased for My PCT Thru-Hike

So, given all these considerations, what did I do for my 2023 PCT thru-hike? I’m pretty risk averse when it comes to this stuff — I’d rather spend extra money than wonder whether I’m covered in high-risk situations. Given that, I purchased (wait for it) three policies:

  1. A policy that covered me for most of the trip. In my case, I went with the World Nomads Explorer plan with their Adventure Activities (Level 3: Hiking – up to 6,000 meters) add-on. This covered me for everything I wanted except 1) search and rescue and 2) when I was using an ice axe and crampons/microspikes. I had this policy for the full duration of my trip.
  2. A policy that covered me while using an ice axe and crampons/microspikes in the Sierra Nevada. In my case, I went with Global rescue and their IMG signature travel insurance add-on. I did not have this policy for the full duration of my trip — only in the Sierra.
  3. A policy that covered me for search and rescue. In my case, I went with Garmin’s SAR 100 Plan. I had this policy for the full duration of my trip.

Of course, these specific policies might not work for your situation — they’re just an example of what covering your bases might look like.

The Key Takeaways

Maybe this has been more than you ever wanted to read on travel insurance. And it’s probably more complicated than you wanted to believe.

The key takeaways? Look into whether you’re covered for search and rescue. Consider the specifics of your hike: elevation, gear, the requirements of different sections, whether you need a guide, if hiking is a specific add-on, and how long you’re going for. Then, find a policy (or policies) that aligns with that. Above all, don’t assume you’re covered just because you’ve purchased travel insurance.

Happy PDS reading!

Disclaimer (again): We’re hikers, not insurance experts. This information is not intended as a substitute for your own research or the advice of a qualified professional. Any examples provided are from the author’s personal experience (as an Australian) researching this in 2023. Always do your own research before purchasing insurance.

Featured image: Photo and graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 5

  • mechanic directory : Mar 20th

    I do believe all the ideas youve presented for your post They are really convincing and will certainly work Nonetheless the posts are too short for novices May just you please lengthen them a little from subsequent time Thanks for the post

  • Nelly Real : Mar 22nd

    Awesome Post! Good information, not only for PCT, CDT or AT, but one can apply that to Camino de Santiago, and other hikes around the world!
    Thank you

  • Jamie D. : Mar 22nd

    Okay point number 1: Search and Reacue; because public agencies facilitate SAR activites, tbose responses do not levy a fine/bill unless “Negligence” was the cause for the need for response (ie head into the Sierras on the biggest snow year in recent history w/o the requisite snow gear etc..). The other exception is if you do board, or are attended by an air ambulance helicopter that you called (not one responding on behalf of the SAR team facilitating rescue).
    In 10 years on a SAR team, (and more then 600 rescues) I only saw the negligence clause invoked once.
    As an American who does a lot of international hiking this was very handy write up. The one time I have used Travel Insurance I went with Global Rescue to do Kilimanjaro, I have been kinda winging it the rest of the time, so this was a very good read for me!
    Thanks for the write up

  • Nico : Mar 24th

    Such an important post!

    I’m from the EU and I’ll go hiking in the High Sierra this summer. Your post got me started on this task instead of procrastinating further 🙂

    Another important criteria is where you are from, for example World Nomads don’t work with people from the EU, while True Traveller only work with people from the EU.

    I’ve had a hard time finding more reviews online that were focused on hiking outside of search and rescue, but the digital nomad community had more content. For example, I found these posts to be useful:

    Have a safe hike!


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