Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Golden Age of Thru-Hiking

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I’m certain we are entering a Golden Age of through hiking powered by social media, volunteer mapping efforts, GPS equipped smart phones and the trail organizations themselves. You can see it in the rapid rise in numbers of PCT through hiker permits given each year and anecdotally on the Continental Divide Trail which does not formally track through hikers.  Each year’s through hiker class has more hikers than the last and many maintain blogs or online journals every step of the way.  It’s easy to blame Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” for this surge but I believe she is part of a trend, not creating it.  Even before her book blew up, through hiker rates were rising. 

The cause is based in the information age that we live in, not one particular person or invention.  Previous barriers to entry to through hiking were largely information based.  For instance, if you wanted to through hike the PCT in the 1990’s or earlier you had to:

  •         Know that the PCT exists and can be hiked in one year – probably by word of mouth, by encountering it by accident or from a printed National Geographic Article
  •          Arrange for permits along the 2,600 mile trail corridor for dozens of wilderness area’s, national parks and USFS land by snail mail
  •          Acquire the maps along the trail, also by mail from a litany of agencies and sources and with little added information like tabulated mileage between points, reliable water or trail conditions.
  •          Determine where you can resupply, what’s available and whether a box is needed
  •         Determine reliable water sources (no water caches existed either) or just carry more water all the time
  •          Acquire the skills and gear of a long distance backpacker without Google

All of those are largely information based and are now available for free on the internet by a few google searches and mouse clicks.  The PCTA provides a permit for the entire route, Halfmile provides excellent maps for free download on his website and tabulated mileage the water report ( gives up to date information on water sources and town information can be found for free on the internet or through yogi’s guidebooks as well.  Not only that, you can download halfmile’s app for free on a GPS enabled smart phone and not even carry maps, a common practice.  Guthook also offers an app for sale with more detailed information like additional campsites and water sources not shown by halfmile.  Even that last bullet point - a huge amount of experience can be informally learned from the trip reports and blog posts by others and dozens of gear reviews are only a google or youtube search away.

Equally important is social media.  Thru-hiker blogs like Walking with Wired and Carrot Quinn have taken off and become incredibly popular among day hikers and people who might never have heard of the “big three”.  The most popular blogs are those who post entries daily or almost daily – something only possible by typing out entries on trail, in camp with a smartphone and uploading them when cell service or wifi is available.  These blogs are then shared, tweeted, liked, forwarded and reach potential hikers by the thousand.  Before the internet you would be lucky to get a post card! Popular bloggers are able to capture the sense of grandeur, community and freedom through hiking provides – a stark contrast to an office laden 9 to 5.  Combined with breath taking photo’s they grab those of us bored with everyday life by the heart strings, hook line and sinker. Gear lists are googled and cottage manufacturers eagerly provide lightweight gear catering towards specific needs of long distance hikers and those who dream of it. 

The trail associations themselves have grown to be incredible forces of both sharing the information about the trails and helping to construct and maintain them.  If the PCT had as much road walking as it did 30 years ago, I don’t think you would see the numbers we do today.  A quick look on the PCTA website shows listing for all the information you could want as a through hiker and a blog feed from the current years hikers.  Trail conditions such as fire closures and news are also posted and shared on facebook. 

The CDT is undergoing a similar transformation with the help of the new CDTA and their excellent website in addition to miles of new trail going in faster than they can be mapped.  Guthook is already working on an app for the entire trail and free maps from Jonathan Ley and Bear Creek have been available on the internet for years.   The uncertainties of navigation, terrain and resupply are largely taken care of with a smart phone and a large enough battery.  This does not make through hiking easy (I still plan on using map and paper) but it makes some of the logistics easier.

Each year more people through hike one of the big three blogging along the way.  Each year some of their friends are inspired to do the same and some will through hike other trails.  I did the PCT in 2013 and many of my friends will be joining me for the CDT in 2015.  In several more years  I wouldn’t be surprised to see more experienced thru’s on the PNT, GET, TA, AZT and other less known trails which will drive the same kind of information sharing that is making the PCT so popular.  The snowball is building and the Golden Age approaches!

What does a Golden Age mean? 

Many will decry a perceived loss of solitude or complain about the increased numbers.  Others will moan about how much harder it used to be, without all the information.  Both sentiments share hints of elitism and entitlement but the trails are public spaces, they are not private play grounds for fantasy adventures into unknown lands.  If that’s what you’re after, it never existed on a long distance backpacking trail constructed by people, mapped and described by other people and maintained by still more people.  A better response is to welcome and educate the newbies, something that actually does happen often in real life.   The community of long distance hikers is growing exponentially and there’s no stopping it!

If you like this post - check out my fundraiser to support the AZT, CDT and Te Araroa!