Thru-hiking: The trend of walking (up to) thousands of kilometers non-stop


What is thru-hiking? Think The Appalachian Trail. Think 3 500km, all at once. Not covering a section of a long distance trail, but doing the entire way in one go. 

Thru-hiking is an end-to-end trail and is usually a longer distance (can be 700, can be 2 000km) that is hiked non-stop over a season. The thing that makes a thru-hike most unique is the subculture and lifestyle that comes with it. It quite literally has it owns language and social norms that differ from trail to trail, says thru-hiking-loving couple, Hannele and Folkers.

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We asked them some questions about their experiences about this trend that is not for the fainthearted: 

Is it a new trend or has it been around for a while?

The core essence of long distance walking and minimalist lifestyles has been around for thousands of years as humans wandered around earth searching for food, riches and a purpose. The Camino de Santiago, “The Camino”, is the most known long distance trail in the western world, and a pilgrimage for some and just a long distance hike for others. 

Even though the principles of thru-hiking has been with us for a long time it was only really defined in the 20th century as hikers started taking on the wilderness of the US. In 1948 Earl Shaffer became the first American to publicly complete the 3500km Appalachian Trail on the East Coast of the US. From here the concept has spread around the world with the most known in the US and Canada being the Pacific Crest Trail (4 279km), Appalachian Trail  Continental Divide Trail (5 000km), Te Araroa (3 000km) through New Zealand and the E-paths network (70 000km) through Europe. 

There has, however, been a massive growth of interest in long distance hiking over the past years with local associations and communities springing up all over the world. The more known trails now have waiting lists and permits to control the number of hikers on some sections with overnight huts and camps being full for the duration of the hiking seasons. The Camino de Santiago saw a staggering 300 000 hikers in 2017 with newer trails like the Te Araroa in New Zealand having less than 600 thru-hikers in the last season. These numbers are however expected to double in the next year or two.   

READ: A comprehensive guide to the Camino Portugues






(Te Araroa hike, PHOTOS by Hannele and Folkers Johannes Tulkki-Williams)

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The increased demand and popularity have sparked the development of new long distance trails from Estonia to Chile. Local volunteers are taking up the baton to help build trails and some governments seeing it as a way to attract tourism to their regions. Hiking gear manufacturers have shifted from heavy, military like, gear to new materials and technology that is lighter, functional yet durable. Who would want to live out of a backpack that was created for an infantry soldier that needs to carry more weapons than food? 

Conservation has also been central in the development of thru-hiking and the many new trails. You will rarely meet a thru-hiker that would not have an understanding of conservation and nature. In fact, you are forced by your new environment to adapt and understand. You start living with nature as you are dependent on its water sources, weather conditions and environment. 

Something that is stimulating the growing trend of thru-hiking is the negativities and pressures of modern society. People are experiencing fast lifestyles, where they are connected 24/7, increased stressor and for many unfulfilling work. Thru-hiking offers people a lifestyle that is slow with a focus on self. You are mostly disconnected and carry your “life” in a backpack. This makes you mindful and gives you a purpose as you set your own daily goals and you towards finishing hundreds of kilometres of hiking.  

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A trend in South Africa? 

We are not there yet. We have little exposure to long distance hiking mostly because of our well-developed trails that is mostly not longer than 5 days. The African continent doesn’t actually have any thru-hike trails at the moment with the Baker Trail in South Sudan and Uganda not being completed yet due to the on-going conflict in the region. The South African gear range is also limited with most backpacks or tents made for a night or two in the Drakensberg or Cederberg. 

We have all the potential to have one of the next great thru-hikes. Very few countries can offer a diverse environment like South Africa. An example of a unique long distance hike is the Rim of Africa that follows the Cap Fold Mountains. The trail starts in the Cederberg and ends at the foothills of the Outenique Mountains, some 650km. Unfortunately the trail is not well developed and inaccessible if you don't know the area or have little mountaineering experience. Of course there is the family established Tankwa Camino through the Karoo. A perfect offering for someone wanting to take on a unique environment and walk one of the longest gravel roads in South Africa. 

Unfortunately, both of these long-distance hikes have limited facilities, are guided and can at this stage only be completed in a fixed cohort of hikers.

READ: Is the Otter Trail really worth the year-long waiting list?

Which thru-hikes have you done?

Hannele completed the Camino de Santiago as her first long distance hike when she was 19. An 800km hike that took her and her 16-year-old sister a month to complete. 

We can say that we entered the long distance hiking world in 2017. As a honeymoon we decided to take an extended break and start this new phase of our lives on an adventurous note. This led us to the other side of the world to New Zealand. The Te Araroa is a 3 000km, well-developed trail, from Cape Reinga to Bluff that crosses farmland, muddy forests and mountain passes. It took us a total of 128 days and 5 pairs of shoes to complete the trail. Folkers has become the first South African to complete the full trail successfully. 

Folkers hiked in September his first solo long distance trail of 375 km through Estonia in Eastern Europe. The RMK trail starts close to the Gulf of Finland and heads south towards the Gulf of Riga and the border of Latvia. He managed to complete it in 12 days. He did not see a single hiker on the trail and managed to also become the first South African to complete a thru-hike of Estonia successfully. 

Can inexperienced hikers do this?

The first thing people think when they see a trail of a few thousand kilometres is that a person needs to be experienced and fit. This might be the case when you push yourself up the Platteklip Gorge for an afternoon view of Cape Town. In thru-hiking, experience and fitness can offer you a comfortable start, but is really not that necessary. No one can truly be prepared for a thru-hike.

Most trails have recommended distance per day and usually start with not more than 20km per day for the first few weeks. Before you know it your body is adapting and your average distance per days moves from 20km to 25km to 30km. You learn the trick of the trade on the way.

How do people afford these hikes?

The financial aspect is, of course, something to consider before quitting your job and jumping on a plane to complete a long distance trail. Most hikers would take on a long distance hike during a gap-year or retirement.

We met hikers who hike as a living and do contract work in between trails. Some hikers have sponsors hoping for some good publicity, others use savings and a few do odd jobs on the way. Costing of course depends on the comfort you want. We spent very little money during our four and a half month hike of New Zealand. We committed to cut out luxuries like staying in hotels when we reached towns or adding side trips. You will of course also not have the opportunity to spend money as you will mostly be out in the wilderness.  

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A thru-hike can, however, be a big disturbance for some as they leave the rat race for a taste of the nomadic life.

Biggest challenges during such a hike? Biggest rewards?

The biggest challenges we would say is a mental. You need to understand that you are walking thousands of kilometres and this takes some getting used to at the start of thru hiking. We live in an instant world that has made us impatient. Another challenge, which many hikers seem to struggle with is living in the present where you will not have reception or contact with Facebook friends or Instagram followers. Luckily, we adapt to this new disconnected lifestyle after a week or two.

Physically it can be tough, blisters, constant muscle pain and weight loss. It may take time to get comfortable with walking eight to ten hours per day whilst sleeping in a tent most nights. There are usually smaller aspects that might pose a challenge, getting use to new gear, food drops or resupplying and the daily planning around finding water sources. 

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The rewards outweigh the challenges with most hikers flocking to their next trail after completing their first. Life becomes slow and you as a person changes. You become present and mindful of yourself and the surrounding. Your priorities of what are important changes and what you really need to survive. Most hikers continue these principles beyond their life on the trail. The trail also lets you meet the most interesting people and cultures which let you reflect on your own context and values. Every long distance hike also offers a unique environment that you can only truly enjoy once you walk through it. 

What's next for you guys?

We are planning two big adventures in the mountains of Uganda and Russia for 2019.

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