By Jeff Garmire
In the last decade, thru-hiking has seen tremendous growth. People are recreating outdoors more than ever, but why? Did it start with the release of Wild? Or maybe the rise of social media and outdoor influencers inspiring people to get outside? A whole new population has been introduced to thru-hiking. There is certainly some combination of factors that led to the increase in trail usage, but I think it all starts with awareness.
I met my first thru-hiker when I was in high school. I grew up backpacking with my family, but we carried 70-pound external frame packs with a rubber raft strapped to the bottom and a spare pair of shoes dangling off the back. It was certainly a different type of backpacking than the hardy thru-hikers we met filtering water out of an Oregon lake. My dad is a professional conversationalist and immediately sparked up a conversation. He had friends hike the PCT in the 70s, and it all came full circle. After the interaction, we picked up two of the thru-hikers the next day, fed them, gave them a shower, and took them back to the trail. I just remember being amazed at the amount they could eat.
“I grew up backpacking with my family, but we carried 70-pound external frame packs with a rubber raft strapped to the bottom and a spare pair of shoes dangling off the back.”
My first introduction to thru-hiking and the interaction with Pacific Crest Trail hikers was in person. But I went on to read blogs from past thru-hikers and a number of books on trekking. At 16 years old, I still wasn’t sure I even liked backpacking, but the ridiculousness of carrying everything on your back across 2,650 miles stuck with me. Four years later, I left on my first thru-hike of the PCT. In 2011, less than 300 of us finished. There was no major fire reroute, only a record amount of snow in the Sierra. It was a tight-knit community that moved north together, but when I went back as part of the Calendar Year Triple Crown, everything was different.
The permits were no longer self-issued, and start dates were assigned and heavily coveted. It was a new experience, but not a bad one. YouTubers had risen to the highest level of “Trail Celebrity.” Instagram was starting to take off, and cell service was all over the place. I had always been of the blogger style and still write a post about every day I am on a long-distance trail, but this new type of content (photo and video) was helpful for seeing the conditions ahead. I entered the Sierra with a much better understanding of what I was getting into than five years prior.
Connectivity and Popularity isn’t all bad
In five years, there seemed to be a massive increase in trail crews, content, and even GPS tracks and devices for the trail. The community around the trail was a lot larger than a few trail angels and a handful of hikers. Some of the adversity that had made my stomach drop in 2011 was simply eliminated. A handful of hikers could text out for weather forecasts and information. I was able to order micro spikes straight to Kennedy Meadows. The Pacific Crest Trail had grown up. But what sparked it?
Why did the popularity increase?
Above the YouTuber, influencers, and Wild, I think that the biggest thing that firmly cemented a thru-hike as an aspirational life goal is technology. A hiker could take clean video from an iPhone or a small camera and then edit and upload it all from the trail. Compared to my grainy 2011 videos, these were fun to watch. The story of a thru-hike could become more than just chatter around a campfire. Real storytellers were thru-hiking and getting their adventures in front of the masses.
“The story of a thru-hike could become more than just chatter around a campfire. Real storytellers were thru-hiking and getting their adventures in front of the masses."
Not to be dismissed is the rise of FKTs. Do they contribute to the popularity of a thru-hike? I think they do. Seeing someone push 40-plus mile days for two straight months is another type of adventure that intrigued so many of us. It cemented the “Hike Your Own Hike” mantra and showed that so many different types of adventures can be had on the same 18-inch-wide footpath. It was another way of inspiring, especially as the niche started to creep into the mainstream.
Where are we today?
The long-distance trails are continuing to change and evolve. Many of the long-time trail angels have retired and are slowly being replaced with businesses that cater specifically to thru-hikers. The numbers simply got too big for a generously contributed backyard to handle every backpacker. Section hiking has become more accepted and a great way to cherry-pick the best parts of the long-distance trails, and content continues to be produced at an incredible rate.
There are so many hiking and backpacking podcasts, fantastic YouTube videos are everywhere, and now we have the rise of Tik Tok and a new generation entering into the prime thru-hiking age. Boomers are retiring and finding a thru-hike as a great way to live out a lifelong dream. The trails are slowly getting more diverse, and the ease in finding information to get out on a thru-hike has certainly become more accessible.
Thru-hiking is about tranquility, adventure, and accomplishing something amazing. But it is also about reconnecting to the natural pace of life. Being so connected and the implied pressure to post about every step of the adventure can be a hindrance. Popularity is certainly a goal of some thru-hikers, and it is often to their detriment. A long-distance trail can still be one of the last places to be fully present and a part of nature. But now, there are escapes even in the most remote environments.
“Popularity is certainly a goal of some thru-hikers, and it is often to their detriment. A long-distance trail can still be one of the last places to be fully present and a part of nature.”
Finding the balance of sharing, but also experiencing is going to be a problem for years to come. The goal of “going viral” or simply being admired permeates so many aspects of our life that it is only natural that it continues to weave its way into the thru-hiking community. There is so much new, so much good, and so much to be wary of that I am not one of the thru-hikers to say it was better back when I first thru-hiked, only to say that it is very different. So many resources exist today that can help us build a strong community, and that should be our goal. A thru-hike is a blank slate to be experienced in any way, not a simple opportunity to find fleeting admiration and popularity.