A group of thru-hikers starting at the southern PCT terminus.
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What is thru-hiking?

The definition of "thru-hiking" cannot be found in a dictionary. That's why I asked these thru-hikers to share what thru-hiking means to them.

Natalie McMillan       11/9/2018
Natalie McMillan

I’m going to be honest… before I started working here at Atlas Guides, I had no idea what thru-hiking was. I love to hike, but for some reason (probably having to do with me being in a college bubble in this small town of Flagstaff for the past five years), I had never heard of thru-hiking. So I googled it… and this is what I found:

Good ol’ Wikipedia: Thru-hiking, or through-hiking, is hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end within one hiking season. In the United States, the term is most commonly associated with the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), but also refers to other end-to-end hikes.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines a thru-hike as: “a hike of the entire A.T. in 12 months or less.”

Working at Atlas Guides for almost a year and a half now, I have been completely immersed in the thru-hiking culture and the community that surrounds it. Yet, I still can’t explain what thru-hiking means to me because I have never done one. Yes, it’s possible that I may do one sometime in the future, but right now I’ve just developed my ideas off of the countless articles I’ve read and all of the stories I’ve followed from hikers on Instagram.

I wanted to capture the perspective of people who have actually been out on the trail and experienced thru-hiking themselves. So that’s what I did and this is what they had to say:

“What does thru-hiking mean to you?”

A thru hiker stands on top of a mountain.
Trail name: Portabella, PCT 2017
Photo by Isabel Reeb

“Thru hiking means the home and a family I never knew I was missing. It means the experiences I never knew I needed. It means the confidence I never knew I had. It means the pain I never knew I could handle. It means the love I will never forget. It means all the emotions I cannot put into words. Thru hiking means everything to me.” – Portabella, PCT 2017

“Solace.” – Nikki Hughes

Trail name: BarefootHiker, AT 2017
Photo by BarefootHiker

“Intoxicating. Fresh air, nice and uplifting people, more of the best people Earth has to offer, all for one crazy destination. You’re left filled and emptied all at once. You’re left craving more. It’s such a powerful feeling.” – BarefootHiker, AT 2017

A thru hiker standing with a mountain in the background.

“Start to finish.” – @bfdtcb

A thru hiker stands on top of a mountain with her arms up.
Trail name: Freeball, AT 2015, CT 2016
Photo by Zoë

“Thru hiking means so many things. I’m Freeball and my first thru was the AT in 2015. I consequently caught the trail-bug and hiked the CT in 2016 and did 1000 miles on the PCT this past summer. For me, thru hiking means finding yourself one trail at a time when stripping your life to the minimal. It means being free and being in motion.” – Freeball, AT 2015, CT 2016

“#endlesssummer” – Grouchy, CDT 2018

Trail name: Relish, PCT 2018
Photo by Relish

“I wanted to live simply, to find space, and to see upon reflection, what it taught about how to live. I wanted to live far away, unfettered by the clutter modern life. I wanted to find rest in the quiet ways of nature, to be present there from sunrise to sunset to star filled night. I wanted to find healing for an over busied life, and relish in the soothing touch of a life outdoors. I wanted to see for myself if life couldn’t be improved by reducing it to only the most fundamental of things. I wanted to learn the lands of the American West, not by way of academia but by my feet. I wanted to witness the full display of grandeur nature had to offer, from the smallest spec of sand to the most majestic mountain pass. I wanted to experience hardship, hunger, pain and loneliness and discover what lessons these had to offer. I hoped to live boldly. To test the human spirit and attempt a truly awesome feat. I wanted to be a model, to myself my friends, family and strangers alike, to live a life daring enough to attempt a great dream.”- Relish, PCT 2018

A thru hiker poses by the southern PCT terminus.

“Fueled by gummy candy. Lots of it.” – Flip, AT 2017

A thru hiker hiking on top of mountains.
Trail name: Earthcake, PCT 2016
Photo by Earthcake

“Being part of a community.” – Earthcake, PCT 2016

Trail name: Thumbs, PNT 2017
Photo by Thumbs

“It means everything… freedom, peace, strength, resilience, overcoming all obstacles. It means so much to my mental health, physical health, and is always at the forefront of my mind. It’s the place you can just be and only have to worry about walking from resupply to resupply.” -Thumbs, PNT 2017

A thru-hiker smiling with a trail in the background.
A beautiful view of a trail and a mountain.
Trail name: DeadPoet87
Photo by DeadPoet87

“Utopia!” – DeadPoet87

Trail name: White Cheddar, AT 2017
Photo by Ginger

“Freedom.” – White Cheddar

A hiker next to an Appalachian Trail sign in the snow.
A hiker kneeling on a trail.
Trail name: Sprout, AT 2018
Photo by Sprout

“Hmmm… FRITOS!!” – Sprout, AT 2018

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About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.