By: Korrin L. Bishop
When it comes to the long trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or Te Araroa, you’ve likely heard two terms flying around on how you can go about hiking these beasts. Will you thru hike the trail, or section hike it? A quick Google search will reveal plenty of debate in the hiking community over section hiking vs. thru hiking. Both come with their own pros and cons.
What is section hiking?
Section hiking involves hiking a long trail in different phases. This can be done in many ways. A section hiker might choose to do several weekend trips, tacking on a little more of a long trail each time. Other section hikers might plan to do half of a trail one year and the other half the next. Section hikers don’t necessarily hike the trail in order. The goal of section hiking can be to eventually complete the entire trail, but it doesn’t have to be; some section hikers may choose to simply do the sections they’re interested in as they go.
What is thru hiking?
Thru hiking is a commitment to the trail for a continuous, extended period of time. Thru hiking involves doing an end-to-end hike of a long distance trail, not taking off significant periods of time in between miles. Many groups further define thru hiking as completing one of the long distance trails within a 12-month timeframe.
Pros & Cons of Section Hiking
The main benefit of section hiking is the flexibility. This is the result of section hiking not being done all in one go; it is more of a “choose your own adventure” style. You can plan your section hiking around other life commitments, such as spending time with your family or friends. You can also choose to take each section more slowly and explore the details of the trail in a way you might not be able to if you feel pressured to meet daily mileage requirements. Since hiking can be done in weekend chunks or within those two weeks of paid vacation you get each year, you also don’t have to quit your day job to start your hike. This can help ease the financial constraints of completing a long trail.
When it comes to the cons of section hiking vs. thru hiking, one way to look at it is by comparing completing a 5k versus running a marathon. Sure, both have their benefits and can be fun and rewarding in their own ways, but one pushes you beyond expectations. Something magical happens when you work diligently toward a big goal and move yourself past your comfort zone.
Pros & Cons of Thru Hiking
The obvious benefit of completing a thru hike is exactly what you miss section hiking. Choosing to do a thru hike puts forward the opportunity to experience a huge sense of accomplishment. It’s a chance to really uncover the power of your own body. Thru hikers also become part of a community along the trail with other people who understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it—without having to ask. Choosing thru hiking also provides some extra encouragement to flex your lightweight, minimalist muscle and learn how to live simply.
While section hiking offers a lot of flexibility in how you plan your trip, thru hiking doesn’t have quite as much wiggle room. It’s likely that if you choose to embark on a thru hike, you’ll have to quit your job—or at least hope your boss is cool with you disappearing for several months! Some hikers have also commented on not being able to enjoy the beauty around them as much since they are focused on meeting daily mileage goals and chasing the seasons through the mountains. Thru hiking requires real endurance, and for some, this might not be as appealing as a casual walk in the woods.
Section Hiking vs. Thru Hiking: Which is right for you?
Opinions on section hiking vs. thru hiking a long distance trail are very personal, and it’s important that you think through what your own goals are for the trek before getting starting. Both approaches to the trail come with their own pros and cons. Both approaches also get you out there, and that’s what most important.
If you’re still having a hard time choosing whether you want to begin a section hike or embark on the great journey of a thru hike, you might want to consider a “Goldilocks” hike. There are many short thru hikes that can be completed in just a few weeks or a couple of months.
Whatever you choose, happy trails to you!
Korrin L. Bishop is a freelance writer with a focus on the environment, outdoor recreation, and social justice. She has publications in Misadventures, Adventure Journal, and Sierra Magazine. Learn more about her work on her website.