Thru-Hikers: Specialized outdoors knowledge

Thru-hikers have extensive experience in the outdoors. But it is a very specialized experience.


One sunny day in August, I summited Katahdin after five months of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Few moments in my life were as life-altering as that one.

Finishing the Appalachian Trail directly lead to me moving to Colorado, meeting the friends I have now and other significant people in my life.

Finishing the Appalachian Trail also lead to other adventures: My thru-hikes on the long trails, learning to ski, exploring the canyon country of Utah and many other places.  As I like to say: “Those white blazes did not just lead north to Katahdin but also to the life I lead now”.

A funny thing happened after my AT thru-hike though: I had more “trail-cred” than what was really warranted.

Sure. I knew how to manage layers, be warm and comfortable in various conditions and felt at home sleeping outdoors for many months.

But  I followed a path with white rectangles that had ample support, easy logistics, and well-written guide books.

If it wasn’t for an AMC course I took before my hike, and I would not even have known how to read a map and use a compass. And even that course gave me a rudimentary knowledge of it without real-life practice.  Following white rectangles for months at a time gave me a narrow outdoor knowledge base.

And I think thru-hiking in general does that.

Many people who have done thru-hiking as their only outdoor activity often-times have a narrow base of outdoor knowledge in my opinion.

Reading a guidebook, following a well-defined path and having a large trail infrastructure does not make for an outdoor “expert.”  It makes a person an outdoor specialist.

Even the Continental Divide Trail, with its increasingly better-maintained tread, defined route, specific maps, guidebooks, and smartphone apps, is becoming a very defined experience.

And that is not a  bad thing. Far from it.   Being able to be outside for weeks at a time and walk the country one step at a time is amazing. I certainly enjoyed my time out there. And it shaped my life in numerous ways. Frankly, I wish I could be out there again! 🙂

But if someone ’s backpacking experience is limited to the Triple Crown,  well, their backpacking experience is often narrowly focused, too.

Researching a place, planning a route, figuring out campsites based on a map rather than something defined in a databook, following a map along said route, off-trail travel, putting together your own logistics and so on is something not done typically on thru-hikes esp among “The Big Three.”

Not to say that having hiked the AT, PCT, and CDT does not give a person a good base of outdoor knowledge.

But it does not make them “experts.”  (Generally, be wary of anyone who is a self-proclaimed expert! 😉 )

Following known paths with specific and often specialized gear for three-season conditions on maintained and well-marked trails makes a person an outdoor specialist for a very specific goal.

When researching gear, techniques or anything backpacking related, indeed look at a person, who has thru-hiked one or even all of the major thru-hiking trails. The person invariably has something to share.

But be aware of what they have to share. It is often for a very specific task and may or may not apply to backpacking in general. Or yours.

UPDATE 2019 

A somewhat controversial article over the years. As you can see from the comments below. 😉

Cam Honan recently published the article via Instagram.


View this post on Instagram


Today on ‘The Hiking Life’ social media platforms, I thought I’d share an article by Paul “Mags” Magnanti (@pmagsco). The piece is titled: “Thru Hikers – Specialised Outdoors Knowledge.” Although it was written almost five years ago, I think in this age of ubiquitous hiking apps and Youtube channel backpacking “experts”, its message resonates even louder than before. Here’s an extract below. For the full article, see link in profile. : “A funny thing happened after my Appalachian Trail thru-hike: I had more “trail-cred” than what was really warranted. Sure, I knew how to manage layers, be warm and comfortable in various conditions and felt at home sleeping outdoors for many months. But I followed a path with white rectangles that had ample support, easy logistics and well written guide books.” : All photos by @pmagsco. : #pacificcresttrail #appalachiantrail #continentaldividetrail #thruhiking

A post shared by Cam Honan (@thehikinglife) on

And for those that question the assertion about people hiking the well-known trails vocally applying their limited experience to other trails or routes?

Well…  Here is a real-world example posted at the time of these revisions:

From A Great Divide Trail forum. 🙂

And, oddly enough, similar posts for another GDT question concerning footwear cropped.  The usual chorus singing about Altras as the perfect shoe came out loudly. Several other people brought up their AT or PCT experience for a route they have not stepped on at all. The GDT is improving, but it is not up to CDT trail standards at this time. Never mind the AT.

Keep in mind, my Altras lasted two-weeks on the GDT. And while I find Altras to work well for on-trail conditions. I question if they are the best shoe for all conditions and (most importantly) for all feet! My choice of shoes may not work for you and your use, for example.


17 Replies to “Thru-Hikers: Specialized outdoors knowledge”

  1. Good points. As I expand the types of trips I perform I think the shorter off trail trips can offer a significant learning experience for those of us that haven’t been able to do multi-week, multi-month through hikes. Through hikes have their own beauty in being able to fully emerse yourself in the outdoors to the point that it becomes your routine. However, your points emphasize that there is value in short trips to expand your knowledge into different areas (i.e., specialized weather, specialized terrain etc…).

  2. Great article, Paul. I’m always surprised when past thru- and section-hikers (e.g. JMT, AT) join me on a guided trip — while they are very comfortable outdoors, their skill set is really limited.

    1. Wait. You do guided hikes? Do you maybe go wander around Alaska for a few months by chance? I’ve enjoyed your stories.

  3. I love this article and the discussion that it should start. I winder if another layer to the issue isn’t what experience people think they have …but the attitude they bring along with it…great article Mags!

  4. Expert…what is that? If it’s an outdoor oriented person who keeps making new mistakes but learns from the past ones so not make those same mistakes again and is willing to keep expanding their current skill set with new outdoor’s activities I MIGHT qualify! Ouch! I stubbed my toe on another rock. What’s the wt of that pack raft? Is that mountain bike made from graphite composite? Damn, 300 miles to the French border. Want to float the Amazon? Want to hike the Andes? Let’s wander New Zealand for a yr. Where’s my passport? Let’s go!

  5. True to some extent, but what are you comparing them/us to? It seems you’ve just redefined the word expert to include off trail navigation, route finding and planning without a guide book. Even though the off trail navigation is done in the snow on the PCT and CDT, somehow that doesn’t count because it’s an established route?

    1. Your interpretation of what I wrote is a bit skewed.

      If you read carefully, I said be wary of any self-proclaimed “expert”.

      As I stated, there many be experienced people..but not true experts. Any personal truly comfortable with their experience and abilities will realize there are no experts as there is always more learn.

      If an outdoor person can’t do off-trail navigation, route finding or planning without a guide book then they are no expert for sure and most definitely have a very limited skill set. 😉

      As for the PCT/CDT, even with snow it is still a very narrow corridor with trail specific maps, guidebooks and now iPhone apps. Makes the off-trail travel a bit easier.

      Finally who is this “them/us” you speak of???? I’m just an outdoors person. As I assume we all are.

  6. Like most disagreements, I think we’re both talking about different things! I agree 100% about self proclaimed experts, the rest of it just strikes me as slightly elitist (a nice role reversal for thru’s). I think we’d both agree that if you’re seeking advice, ask someone with a lot of experience who’s done the same or similar, whether that’s off trail travel, through hiking or just weekened trips and you can’t really go wrong.

    1. Don’t think it is elitist to state that thru-hikers aren’t the outdoor “experts” that the general public, or even themselves (!), make make them out to be. 🙂 So it goes…

  7. It’s a straw-man argument, you’re claiming that through hikers or the public (which one anyway?) are calling themselves experts when it comes to something besides through hiking. I haven’t heard any through hikers call themselves experts at anything outside their experience but I don’t often ask the question. As far as the public goes, how often are they actually asking through hikers about any of the skills you’re talking about? I wouldn’t ask someone who’s only outdoors experience is through hiking about back country skiing either, and they would probably tell me all they’ve done is through hiking. Similarly, I doubt a through hiker would go on giving advice about planning without a guidebook, established route etc. if they hadn’t done it already.

    It seems to me your argument is be twofold; the public attributes expertise in area’s outside through hiking to through hikers and that you and others (including non-through hikers and other through hikers) have more experience in area’s not involved in through hiking than people who have only through hiked (no shit!). The elitist part to me is saying “they may have hiked 10,000 miles but they don’t have these skills!” . It’s not that far from saying “You may have through hiked 10,000 miles but you don’t know squat about avalanches!” You’re right! Through hiking makes you an “expert” at through hiking, not much else. Also I’m well aware you’ve done more through hiking, off trail travel and ski touring that I could dream of, which is awesome, I’m totally jealous and I aspire to do similar.

    Why I keep arguing about this, I have no idea. I think I’m just bored at work instead of out hiking, so I apologize for that and hopefully I don’t come off as a dick on the internet, which is easy to do.

  8. I 100% agree that a thru-hiker has limited skills. We all have “limited” skills. I also agree with Hiker Box that it is a bit of a straw man arguement. I cannot think of any of my fellow thrus that consider ourselves akin to Cody Lundin. We cannot help it if the public overestimates us. We are very good at finding blazes on trees and the next Diet Coke.

    If push comes to shove in the wild I am looking to someone like you, Mags, for leadership. I have no delusions of grandeur. I know my place and am comfortable with that.

    1. I had to google Cody Lundlin. Reality TV is generally not a good example. 🙂

      Just have to look at the number of websites from thru-hikers to see how many position themselves as some kind of guru, give talk/lectures in kind and the many people who drink the Kool Aid. Out of respect, I am not going to list them. A bit of cop-out perhaps, but that is honestly how I am feel.

      “We cannot help it if the public overestimates us”

      Isn’t that why I said? 😉 Thanks for agreeing with me!

      As for leadership..there are people far better than me to listen to. I mean, I work in an unfulfilling job that pays the bills and not much else. Hardly a guide to live by. 😉

      1. Like I said, I am in agreement with you in regards to the thru-only’s level of skill. I just am not aware of those thrus that think otherwise.

        Maybe I hang with the sane crowd.

  9. ‘reading a guide book, following a well defined path…’,,, i dont even think that qualifies as an ‘outdoor specialist’,,, more like a marked trail walking specialist. im not saying that these people dont, but to me, an outdoor specialist would have/has a good working knowledge of skills like shelter building and primitive fire making skills,,, more along the lines of bushcraft as opposed to hiking/backpacking where you usually carry your shelter and stove

  10. I have to agree with the premise as I’ve often thought that.

    I’ve seen some hikers complete a long trail like the PCT and wondered how they ever survived as they still seem lacking in some basic skills such as keeping their gear dry in bad weather. Its probably a good thing that the PCT is so benign most of the time. At the same time, I’ve seen some weekenders who seem to have their act together more despite having never done more than a few days out at a time.

    I like to think that I have a good skill set, but I’ll readily admit that there are a lot of situations and conditions I’ve never been in and mistakes still happen on occasion. Head knowledge is good, but a poor replacement to real experience.

    But in my experience, it’s not that most thru-hikers are trying to present themselves as the experts of the backpacking world, but other hikers just assuming that they must be and calling them that. Well perhaps a few are calling themselves that but I try not to cringe too much when I disagree with what they are saying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe without commenting