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.
There are few moments in my life that 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 my a past partner.
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, 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 data book, 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.