Sure, you can call yourself a hiker if you take a long walk on a nicely paved trail at the nearest national park.
But if you're doing 20 or so miles a day, for months and months on end while lugging a big ol' backpack, and you're hanging your food from trees at night so bears don't get it, and your toes feel like soggy sausages in your boots, you're something else entirely. You're a thru-hiker.
Thru-hiking, for all you tenderfoots, is no walk in the woods. It's serious stuff. Thru-hiking, corny as it may sound, is a way of life.
"That's what people think, that you're out there just bumming it up, just chilling," says Erin Saver, an accomplished thru-hiker who goes by Wired, her trail name. "When you're thru-hiking, it's not like a camping trip. You're either walking or sleeping. That's one of the biggest surprises for people, is how much work it takes to hike a trail."
Thru-hikers are a rare breed, all right; they are lovers of the outdoors who have an unquenchable desire to take on the longest, toughest trails and the time — a lot of time — to see it through. Or thru.
From one end to the other
Take Saver, a substitute teacher in Portland, Oregon. She uses her school-free summers to thru-hike trails all over.
In 2014, she completed the final leg of hiking's Triple Crown, finishing the storied Appalachian Trail, more than 2,168 miles from Georgia to Maine. In 2013, she knocked off the Continental Divide Trail, 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. She started the Triple Crown quest in 2011 with the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.
The Appalachian Trail took Saver 111 days, from April 17 to Aug. 5. The CDT took 134 days, from April 23 to Sept. 3. And she burned through the PCT in 148 days, from April 29 through Sept. 23. Here's her final day on the trail:
If you're counting, in those three years — 2011, 2013 and 2014 — Saver spent more than a year (about 13 months, in fact) on the Big Three. And that was nothing. She figures to spend five months of every year on trail. It's what she does. It's her way of life.
"You know that feeling of being in the right place at the right time?" Saver asks. "For me, when I'm out there, that happens the most frequently for the most extended period of time."
Even on "off" years, Saver is out doing her thing. It's difficult to top the Big Three, but she did four challenging trails last summer:
- The Great Divide Trail: 49 days, 750 miles, starting in Canada, just over the Montana border, and winding up to Kakwa Lake in British Columbia
- The Hayduke Trail: 62 days, 800-plus miles, that links six national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah; Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon and Zion
- The Tahoe Rim Trail: Nine days, 173 miles around Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada
- The Lost Coast Trail: Three days and a mere 55 miles or so along the Pacific Ocean in Northern California
A different type of hiking
Saver is one of thousands of thru-hikers in the U.S., many of whom attempt a leg of the Big Three every year. The statistics are sketchy, but most hikers who attempt one of the Big Three, for instance, don't come close to making it. Only about 25 percent of those who start the Appalachian Trail complete it.
The 36-year-old Saver also likes to solo hike, which separates her from the pack even more. And women solo-hikers are even less common.
Saver, a transplanted Midwesterner, wouldn't have it any other way. She's a former marathoner, and high-energy (that's where she got her Wired trail name), so she moves pretty quickly; not many can hang with her. Plus, she figures if you're going to enjoy the great outdoors, it's often best done in peace and quiet.
"It's just a whole other experience of heightened senses," she says. "You're really a part of it."
Saver was a little anxious on her first solo hike. But when she was dropped off at the start, 20 other hikers were starting, too. Which brings up a truism about solo hiking, and solo thru-hiking: "You're only alone if you want to be," Saver says.
Still, there are tricks to solo hiking. Saver offers a few:
- Find friendly help in your area on sites like meetup.com. Knowledgeable people can provide tips and inspiration.
- Start with a one-nighter by yourself. And if you wonder about that, go with someone else, but set up a separate camp several yards away.
- Make sure you have backups of your maps; bring a digital copy.
- Have a way to contact the outside world, and make sure it's charged.
- Figure out what helps you fall asleep. Sleeping alone at night in the wilderness is what freaks most people out. Saver likes to camp near a creek or someplace breezy where the white noise can drown out the sound of squirrels — or whatever — rooting about. And hike 'til you're tired.
- Don't skimp on packing. If you need extra gloves and you didn't bring them, nobody's going to bail you out.
- Bring a book to read to fight off the boredom, or, if you're like Saver, some videos preloaded into a smartphone or player. And, of course, a charger you can recharge in towns along the way.
Whether solo or not, enjoying unspoiled wilderness like few get to is meant to be an experience. "It's where I'm just like, ‘I'm supposed to be here,'" Saver says. "Right place, right time."