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 prior to 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 smart phone 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 makes a person an outdoor specialist for a very specific goal.
When researching gear, techniques or anything backpacking related, certainly 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.