During my through-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (so long ago), some of my hiking buddies and I had a long discussion about what constitutes a through-hike. From one year to the next, very few people (maybe none at all) walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail as it’s laid out in the official PCT guide. Because of forest fires, hikers are forbidden from entering some areas, so the Pacific Crest Trail Association comes up with official detours as quickly as they can, usually involving long walks on dirt or paved roads. But when a hiker gets to a closed section of forest before those detours are published, what then? You don’t stop and wait for the PCTA to issue a detour– you keep walking, but somewhere other than the official route.
|We walked from Georgia to Maine!|
And what about alternate routes? Probably about 99% of PCT hikers finish Oregon by taking the Eagle Creek trail down into the town of Cascade Locks, because Eagle Creek has a reputation as one of the most gorgeous places in Oregon. But it’s not on the PCT. The official PCT route drops into Cascade Locks by following a path to the east of Eagle Creek. The same goes for the area around Crater Lake. The official PCT route loops around Crater Lake to the east with no views of the lake, rather than going along the rim, which is what almost all hikers do.
|Would you skip this just to say you walked the official PCT?|
Similar things happen on the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail, and almost every other long distance backpacking trail out there. One of my hiking buddies walked the road through Shenandoah National Park on the Appalachian Trail because the road had better views than the trail (he’d been on both before, so he knew what he was missing). Many hikers take alternate routes in the White Mountain National Forest because there are so many fine trails that make alternate routes. Just as many on the Long Trail take the old route of the Long Trail to Sherburne Pass at Route 4 so they can walk right to the Inn At The Long Trail, rather than cross the road a mile west of it. Is there anything wrong with this? I certainly don’t think so.
|Tunnel Falls, gorgeous scenery in Oregon, only a few miles away from the PCT.|
I had another discussion about this recently with a through-hiker purist. There are a lot of these folks out there– people who say that to through-hike a trail you have to walk every inch of it as it’s described in the guidebook. It makes sense, of course. Walking a road through Shenandoah instead of the trail obviously isn’t hiking the trail. So did that hiking buddy of mine not through-hike the Appalachian Trail?
Of course he hiked the Appalachian Trail!
Let’s remember that the idea of a long-distance hiking trail was originally not intended for through-hiking. The first Long Trail end-to-end hike was called a publicity stunt and disparaged by the trail’s creators. The first person to hike the Appalachian Trail was accused of lying because hiking the entire AT in one season wasn’t thought to be possible. This whole idea of a “pure” through hike is something created by some hikers, not by the trail or its creators.
If your through-hike satisfies your purist mentality, great. But I’m sick to death of hearing people say “you didn’t actually through hike [whatever trail]” just because their artificial qualifications weren’t met. If you need to feel good about your accomplishments, fine, but don’t try to put other people down in the process. The point of a through-hike is to have an adventure, and what is an adventure if you blindly follow a plan laid out by another person to the letter? An adventure is about following your own way.
With all that in mind, I have a pretty solid set of criteria that I believe is a through-hike, and I think they apply pretty universally to any long distance backpacking trail.
- The mileage hiked must be at least 95% of the measured mileage of the trail, with at least 90% along the official route of the trail in question (so official fire detours from the PCTA count). This accounts for scenic detours, as well as skipping for safety reasons, or whatever.
- If you take an alternate route or skip a section, have a good reason for it (this is open to interpretation).
- Do it all in one trip (this is open to interpretation, too).
- Don’t lie about how much or where you’ve hiked.
Does that sound like a broad interpretation of what constitutes a through-hike? It should. There are no referees on the Appalachian Trail to blow whistles when you say “I think I’ll take the Virginia Creeper Trail out of Damascus.” The PCTA won’t turn down your 2600-miler application if you chose to skip the 1.4 miles of cow pasture between the two crossings of Highway 79 at Warner Springs. Only a-holes go out of their way to knock down someone else’s accomplishments.
The only time I think anyone has the right to refute another person’s claim to a through-hike is when the through-hiker in question violates Guthook’s Rule #4. I’ve met plenty of hikers who claim to have hiked at a certain pace or through a certain section, only to be found later to have skipped a section and lied about it, and those people deserve whatever public flogging they get. But when I hike the Long Trail this summer (hopefully), if I decide to take the Sherburne Pass Trail so I can hit Pico Peak instead of the Long Trail by Churchill Scott Shelter, I’ll still say I hiked the Long Trail when I finish. If you don’t like it, go hike the trail and keep it to yourself.
Does anyone else hate to hear purists claim you haven’t hiked a trail because you took a detour? Or does anyone else hate to listen to me spout my idea of what constitutes a through hike? Comment on it below. I’m looking forward to hearing what people have to say.