I began thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail while running away from a white collar lifestyle. Dreams of freedom spit me out of the purchasing department of a plastics company into the wilderness, where I hoped to re-write my future. And it worked: After a few weeks of hiking, I no longer woke up in a sweat, having imagined a multi-million dollar purchase order gone wrong. I cried, ate, and walked my way through the AT, watching my slow progression on the 2,200-mile footpath. Eventually, I made it to Katahdin, knowing that my life had transformed forever.
It’s been a half-decade since I became a thru-hiker. The AT wasn’t the last of my long walks, but I’m also not the kind of person who ticks off a 2,000-mile trail every year. I can’t quit my life every time I get the urge to hike, and I don’t always want to. Thru-hiking is grueling, expensive, and really hard on your body. While books and social media often portray the experience as a spiritual pilgrimage that widens your view, it does so at a cost.
Section hiking—the practice of completing a trail in bite-sized chunks over multiple seasons—offers many of the same benefits as a traditional thru-hike without demanding the same commitment. It can be more logistically challenging, and it takes longer than a traditional thru-hike, but it opens the long trails to those who are unable to leave home for months at a time.
You Can Hike Out of Sequence
One of the best parts about section hiking is that you can customize your adventure each weekend. If you’d like to hit a particularly hard or long section of trail when you’re feeling strong, you can. You can also take a week off if you’re under the weather. Thru-hiking doesn’t give you the same liberty, and you often have to work your way through challenges when not feeling your best. Hiking out of sequence also allows you to optimize your weather opportunities, letting you hike the scenic ridgelines under sunny skies and spend the rainy days beneath forest boughs.
Section Hiking is Accessible to More People
There are tremendous costs associated with thru-hiking. Many seasoned hikers assume that you should budget $1,000 for each month that you’re spending on trail, but rookies are likely to spend double that amount. If you’re section hiking, it’s possible to choose a trail or region of a trail that won’t demand the same expenditure, and you won’t have to quit your job to do it. Additionally, section hikers have more liberty when it comes to gear choices, because failures are less likely to put you in immediate danger.
You Don’t Have to Fixate on Weather Windows and Wildfires
Western wildfires and weather windows are making it more difficult to complete some thru-hikes. By the time many Pacific Crest Trail hikers make it through the Sierra, it isn’t uncommon for them to hit a wall of smoke in Oregon or Washington. But section hikers can use the entire calendar year to hit the trail, which gives them an advantage when it comes to avoiding wildfires and early-season blizzards.
You Can Hostel Hop
If you’re someone who loves hiking but doesn’t necessarily want to sleep in a tent every night, section hiking may be a good fit for you. Section hiking can make it easier to hostel hop or to stay close to medical facilities and town resources. Depending on where you’re backpacking, you may even be able to hostel hop large sections of a trail.
You Can Take Your Time
When you’re thru-hiking, you have a time limit hanging over you: Thru-hikers generally aim to complete a long trail trail in 6 months or less, depending on the trail. These time frames exist because hiking outside of them may require 4-season gear or extra resources, or it may expose you to an unacceptably high level of danger. But section hikers can take any amount of time to complete the same objectives, which affords more liberty. Instead of pushing through miles, you can slow down to whatever pace is most comfortable, which is a great strategy for beginners or those who prefer a pressure-free hike.
It’s a More Shareable Experience
After I finished the Appalachian Trail, my sisters frequently told me that they’d like to join me for a section of my next hike. I was lucky enough to share 70 miles of the Colorado Trail with them, but it can be difficult to shift your pace or leave your trail family to pair up with non-trail friends. Section hiking gives you a way to share some of your favorite experiences with anyone who is brave enough to come along—no matter their pace or experience.