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It’s Time to Face It: There’s Privilege in Thru-Hiking

Hiking a long trail is a challenge no matter who you are. But not everyone is equally able to make the compromises it requires.

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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.

I don’t know a single thru-hiker who takes their experiences for granted. If you’ve ever left “real life” behind for an extended trip through the backcountry, you’re aware of the sacrifices it takes to get there. All hikers come from different backgrounds, and no matter where you come from, a journey down a long trail still has its challenges. But the fact remains: Some people have more freedom to make those sacrifices than others do. 

As I was preparing to leave for the Arizona Trail this March, it struck me just how privileged I am to be able to spend my spring backpacking through the desert. This hike didn’t necessarily happen on a whim, but it also didn’t take a ton of effort and contingency planning. And if I were someone else, this trip might not have been possible, no matter how hard I was willing to work for it.

There are a few factors that make it so easy for me to pack up and leave. First, there are the choices I’ve made: I’ve centered my life around exploration and flexibility. My priorities have never been about the stability that comes with a full-time job and limited vacation time. I work a variety of remote jobs and contract gigs to balance this.

Second—and more important—the fact that I even have the freedom to make these lifestyle choices is a social and economic privilege. I might have created a lifestyle for myself with an emphasis on freedom and flexibility, but I also started from a place that made it possible. 

I grew up with constant access to the outdoors. My parents paid for my college, which allowed me to work outdoorsy jobs after graduating without worrying about how the industry’s notoriously low wages would affect my ability to pay my student loans. As a straight, white woman, I am less concerned than a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ hiker might be when traveling to different parts of the country. So while I might prioritize travel and exploration, these other contributing elements have made it possible, or at least more feasible, for me to make that decision in the first place.

Hikers often have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that backpacking is more open to some people than others; I’m counting down the seconds to the first “the trail doesn’t care” comment this essay gets. But those of us who have done it know that tackling a thru-hike is a massive commitment of time and money. An average thru-hiker will spend about $1,200 per month; surveys show that most Americans don’t have enough savings to pay for a $500 emergency out of pocket. 

“We all know that thru-hiking is not a vacation, but financially, it might as well be. Lost income, gear and town expenditures, and travel all create an experience that might be cheaper than flying to Paris, but certainly isn’t zero-cost.”

In 2017, Outside published an article analyzing the demographics of AT thru-hikers based on an industry survey. The results weren’t especially surprising: The majority of AT hikers who responded to the survey were young, white, and male. Halfway Anyhere’s annual PCT thru-hiker survey has similar results. The 2021 survey showed that year’s thru-hiker cohort was 56.8% male, 42.6% female, and .5% nonbinary, in a country where a majority of the population is non-male. A whopping 86.5% of survey respondents were white. 

The lack of diversity in the outdoor world is well-documented. In a 2020 article, the National Health Foundation stated that “racialized economic policies, employment discrimination, unequal access to quality education, and other fundamental tools that can build a person’s economic standing have historically been denied to BIPOC communities; which makes camping, hiking or any similar ventures inaccessible.”

In plain language: If a person doesn’t grow up becoming familiar with the outdoors and encouraged to explore, they are less likely to do so independently. This puts people from underserved communities at a disadvantage already, without even considering the financial freedom and flexibility afforded to people from privileged economic backgrounds. First they’re faced with a lack of outdoor experience and learning opportunities; next they have to contend with the challenges of financing their hiking habit. 

We all know that thru-hiking is not a vacation, but financially, it might as well be. Lost income, gear and town expenditures, and travel all create an experience that might be cheaper than flying to Paris, but certainly isn’t zero-cost.

Then, there’s your career. You need to have a job from which you can take a leave of absence, or, more likely, you need to be in a financial spot where you can leave your job and feel confident that you’ll be able to find work upon returning.

No matter how hard I’ve worked to create a lifestyle that allows me to do this, it’s impossible to ignore the inherent privilege in even having the option to create this lifestyle for myself. Without loans to pay back or younger siblings or parents to support, taking off for months at a time is a real, viable possibility. I don’t write this to guilt anyone; none of us can fully know the sacrifice other people have made in order to thru-hike. But some people have to sacrifice just to survive, and pretending not to know the difference only strengthens the socioeconomic disparities in the hiking community and the outdoors as a whole.

There is work being done to make long trails more accessible, and the past few years have seen an uptick in efforts to reduce barriers to entry. Contributing to organizations working on access to the outdoors, volunteering your time, and familiarizing yourself with the dialogue on outdoor inclusivity will help further this progress. In the meantime, it never hurts to remind yourself that an adventure on a long trail is a privilege worth acknowledging—and spreading around.

Want to help make hiking and long trails as accessible to as many people as possible? I’m a big fan of Outdoors Empowered Network, Big City Mountaineers, Diversify Outdoors, and the National Recreation Foundation.