What is a thru hike? Technically, it’s a long distance trail end-to-end. The preparation, itinerary, and experience, however, is completely up to each individual person.
When I first began hiking New Zealand’s 1,800 mile (3,000 kilometer) Te Araroa, I viewed it like a sport. Each day I would physically prepare myself for the journey ahead, calculating the number of kilometers and monitoring my productivity. But somewhere along the way, it hit me: thru-hiking is not measurable. There are no rules, guidelines, or how to’s. There’s not even a finish line or trophy. There is literally no one person you are supposed to compare yourself to out on the trail. The journey is your own. Once I was able to breathe the freedom of thru hiking, the uncertainty of the wild took hold of the reigns. Only then did Te Araroa (Maori translation: The Long Pathway) reveal its magic.
This revelation didn’t come instantaneously, it slowly marinated in my soul over 160 days of putting one foot in front of the other. These were my 10 phases of thru-hiking, step by step*:
1. A dream is born
It could be that one place you’ve always wanted to explore. Or as simple as closing your eyes, spinning a globe, and placing your finger on the unexpected.
For me, New Zealand was always a mysterious wonder – two tropical, yet alpine, islands in the middle of the ocean. When my routine life started to feel like autopilot, I had a crazy thought – what if I did the exact opposite? If my day job was the epitome of predictability, what would be the exact opposite? When I combined my curiosity for New Zealand with a completely unfamiliar challenge of a thru-hike, my Te Araroa dream was born.
2. And then you realize you have no experience
If there was a Facebook status for thru hiking it would be “It’s Complicated”. Even though you’re only concerned with the essentials – food, water, and shelter – it’s surprising how challenging those things can be when you resort to traveling by foot. When you wake up it’s imperative to scope out the day’s water sources, assess your food supply, check weather, and where you’ll stay that night. It’s absolutely overwhelming, especially when you’re a newbie and can’t believe you have five months of this madness.
But when you finally assemble your pack, tie your boots, and hit the trail, one deep inhale of nature reconnects you with the beautiful reality ahead: you never truly know what to expect out there.
3. So you dare yourself
What happens when you shed yourself of all forms of identity? The clothes you wear, job you have, car you own, house you rent – even your surrounding friends and family – these things all give you purpose and meaning. And that can become familiar, secure, comfortable. Now imagine stripping yourself of all of that, packing a bag full of only the necessities and depending on your own two feet to travel an entire country. There’s nothing to judge you on except your character. Completely vulnerable, this allows the purest version of you to come alive. Step by step you collect moments instead of things, and these experience push you further into the unknown.
4. And the dream starts to become a reality
Sun rises. Wake up. Drink coffee. Eat breakfast. Turn on podcast. Summit a mountain. Walk a ridge line. Eat lunch overlooking a lake. Make new friends. Hike and talk. Talk and hike. Scope camp spots. Set up tent. Filter water. Eat dinner. Sun sets. Read. Write. Sleep. Repeat.
5. But it’s a lot more unpredictable than that
Most days you get lost. It could have been the nature of Te Araroa, the way Kiwis in New Zealand intended it, or it could be long distance trails in general, making you guess at every turn. Getting lost is usually the first unpredictable thing that happens, and it’s not the greatest feeling.
6. Then you realize – sometimes you have to get lost to get found
Once you do find your way, it almost always ends up in something valuable – a new friend, better path, or even a detour worth seeing that you otherwise wouldn’t have.
7. Suddenly time starts to fly, but at the same time it stands still
There’s a saying amongst long distance hikers that goes “days feel like months, and months feel like days”. It seems irrational, but to us out on TA, it made complete sense. Time is warped on a thru hike. It seems as though each day lasts forever – surrounded by nothing but nature, left alone with your own thoughts and the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other. From the luxurious smell of coffee over sunrise, through miles of varying terrain, and setting up camp as the sun sets, time seems infinite. I can remember days where I had multiple highlights – some on top of mountains, others through river beds. But then, once you’ve finally gotten a hang of this elusive experience called a thru-hike, and you know your individual rhythm of the backcountry, it all seems like it’s coming to an end far too quick.
8. In the end, you realize it’s only the beginning.
Thru hikes take you out of your element and catapult you into uncertainty. How you choose to react decides more than how you approach the trail – it echoes down the road into other facets of life. Not having water for hours at a time, making a wrong turn that adds on unnecessary miles to your day, crossing a dangerously high flowing river, not having maps on you, unintentional night hiking – at the time I may have cursed those tough moments, but they’re just as much a part of my experience as summit dance celebrations, partying in towns for resupply, staying at a backcountry hut for an entire zero day (no hiking day), meeting Trail Angels who fed us and brought us into their homes as if we were family, and eventually walking my way to the most southern point of New Zealand.
9. Then you have to get back to the real world.
10. And you wish you were still out there, on the trail, living the simple life.
*As noted above, these phases were my personal experience and could be completely different for someone else. What is your journey?
This article was written by McKenzie Barney, Executive Producer at Comfort Theory. “Comfort Theory New Zealand” the latest short film, premiered on Outside Television October 2016. Head over to comforttheory.com to view the trailer! For more from McKenzie Barney and Comfort Theory, check them out on Facebook and Instagram!