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.
A somewhat controversial article over the years. As you can see from the comments below. 😉
Cam Honan recently published the article via Instagram.
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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
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:
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.