Our ambassadors have thru-hiked and/or thru-biked over 80,000 miles. We surveyed some of them to help answer your questions and (hopefully!) provide you with some inspiration to plan your own thru-hike or thru-bike.
Meet the Ambassadors
- JL = Justin Lichter. Justin is the most prolific thru-hiker on this list with over 35,000 miles of thru-hiking miles under his belt.
- RB = Rebecca Barfoot. After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail she became enamored with the outdoors hiking, biking, and creating (art) her way through it.
- SF = Shawn Forry. Triple Crown hiker (AT, CDT, and PCT), Outward Bound instructor, and hiking partner with Justin Lichter.
- TG = Tom Gathman. This bearded warrior is one-half viking, one-half thrill-seeker, and two-thirds beard (his words). Also a Triple Crown hiker.
- BS = Brett Simpson. Photographer, and bikepacking expert having completed the 2,700+ Tour Divide race in 2013.
[Note: AT = Appalachian Trail, CDT = Continental Divide Trail, PCT = Pacific Crest Trail]
1. How did you get into thru-hiking/biking?
JL: I went on an outdoor education trip in college my last quarter in school. We went backpacking in southern Utah for 3 months and I received college credit. I enjoyed it so much and had always dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail, so the next spring I set off on the AT.
RB: Naively, I think. Like many people, it seemed like a dream to put a pack on my back and hike through the forest and mountains from Georgia to Maine. The AT was my first big thru-hike and while I went solo, I rarely traveled alone. I was hooked after this inaugural adventure!
SF: I grew up near the AT and would have family reunions in a state park that the trail passes through. I was always curious about where the trail went. I didn’t get into hiking and backpacking until after high school, but fell instantly in love with the curiosity and challenge that the trail presents.
TG: Working at VARGO! (Read Tom’s journey into thru-hiking via his job at Vargo.)
BS: I have been involved in outdoor activities for a long time. I was looking for a big challenge and really like biking so the Tour Divide route was a good fit. It was my first big ride like this.
2. Why should someone consider a thru-hike (or thru-bike) in their lifetime?
JL: There is nothing like traveling by human power for long distances and simplifying life by just carrying what you need and disconnecting from the rat race.
RB: To reconnect with the natural world and learn a whole new skill set; to re/vision your live and bring perspective to the frantic pace of contemporary culture. You won’t be the same after a thru-hike, but your life will change for the better!
SF: There is a lack of a formal rite of passage in American culture. Long distance trails provide an opportunity for extended self-reflection and personal discovery. They are also a venue for connecting with our natural world for an extended period of time as a means to experience the complete freedom that can be felt along the way.
TG: I think it helps give you a different perspective on life and a better appreciation for what you have in life. It allows you to understand that you don’t need much to be happy.
BS: You will learn a lot about yourself and have lifelong memories and friends (most likely) that will come out of it.
3. What is the best way to get started for a thru-hike/bike?
JL: Get out for some shorter trips and dial in your gear. Have fun and enjoy yourself; dream big and set goals.
RB: Bring less than you think you will need! I remember how much stuff I brought on my first AT thru-hike. I jettisoned most of it before I got to North Carolina
SF: Simple day hikes, overnights, and weekend trips are a good progression to gain skills and ultimately see if distance hiking is something you are passionate about. A thru-hike is nothing more than several weekend trips stacked on top of one another.
“Just start. Don’t get bogged down by all the reasons why you shouldn’t or be overwhelmed by all the planning. Just start…and you will create the questions you need to know. There’s so much information out there and people willing to help you answer those questions. You’ll find them.” – Brett Simpson
TG: Some people think you need to plan, plan, and plan. I like to think that you don’t have to plan much at all. Just make sure you have the right gear for the trail you are doing, have enough food to start out to make it to your next resupply town, and figure the rest out on the fly. The details will naturally sort themselves out out of necessity as you make your way up the trail.
BS: Just start. Don’t get bogged down by all the reasons why you shouldn’t or be overwhelmed by all the planning. Just start hiking/biking and training beforehand and you will create the questions you need to know. There’s so much information out there and people willing to help you answer those questions. You’ll find them.
4. What’s the best part of a thru-hike/bike in your opinion?
JL: It’s hard to say one part is the best part. It is an experience as a whole and without the highs and lows and each individual experience, you would not have that holistic experience.
RB: Creating new relationships – with the earth and with others and, of course, with yourself. If there’s something in your life that needs a change, do a thru-hike and know you will gain new perspective.
SF: I call it the thru-hiker zone. Its rare that you ever fully dedicate every waking moment of your day towards a singular goal. You’ll never experience the level of personal satisfaction that a thru-hike can achieve. Thru-hiking provides a perfect balance of personal challenge, reflection, and connection with community and the environment.
TG: It feels like the closest thing to pure freedom.
BS: The ability to get lost in each day and just enjoy the adventure.
“It [thru-hiking] feels like the closest thing to pure freedom.” – Tom Gathman
5. What’s the worst part of a thru-hike/bike in your opinion?
JL: Again, same answer as above. Without the low points the high points it would not be as enjoyable. They are necessary to bring challenges to the experience as a whole.
RB: Cold, wet clothes and muddy gear!
SF: Setting your life aside for multiple weeks to months can be draining time and time again. The excitement of the first thru-hike can be all-encompassing, but the routine of missed opportunities with family and loved one’s can feel self-centric at times.
TG: The end.
BS: Going into Tour Divide I was told to be prepared for the lowest lows you might ever experience. Luckily they are only brief. They were right and they were even lower then I thought.
6. What’s one of your best days on a thru-hike/bike? One of your worst?
JL: Best days are always as the storm is clearing. The lighting and views are amazing and reveal themselves in ways you wouldn’t otherwise see without braving the elements. The worst moments are cold, wet conditions that last days….but always lead to the best moments when the clouds break.
RB: My best/worst day was when my Vargo stove lit up even in my shaky freezing hands and I was able to warm water that kept me alive through the night when I got trapped in a fall whiteout while bikepacking the Colorado trail!
SF: The final hour before dark is always my favorite time to be out on the trail. By that point in the day you can look back on the miles covered and the terrain discovered. The lighting is always subdued and calming, which compliments an amazing background perfectly. There is a sense of triumph and achievement that comes over you before settling into bed for the evening.
TG: One of my best days was hiking in Glacier National Park towards the end of my CDT hike and I was hiking through a valley at dawn and heard the elk bugling all around me. Then, I heard a massive bull next to me bugle and looked over as the steam poured out of his snout in the crisp morning air as his bugle echoed off the valley walls. It was surreal, he was about 50 feet from me and his rack was MASSIVE. My worst day on trail was probably running out of water in New Mexico and getting heat exhaustion and ultimately near heat stroke.
BS: One of my favorite days was leaving Banff as the scenery was just stunning and it was day 1 so you couldn’t help but be excited and full of energy. I didn’t really have bad days but bad moments, they were brief.
7. What was the hardest thing to do or skill you had to learn on your thru-hike(s)/bike(s)?
JL: Patience is always critical.
RB: How to pack LIGHT and strike a balance between having just enough gear/food to keep myself thriving without carrying too much, especially since I usually travel solo.
SF: In all honesty I think it is the mental edge that is required to complete a thru-hike. This usually entails suffering through a lot of mistakes in technique and skill. These mistakes always make you stronger in the end and now having completed several long hikes, I find myself less frustrated in the ‘frontcountry’, referencing ‘well, at least this isn’t as bad at that time on the trail when….’.
TG: Time management has been crucial for me and I have honed that over the years. I think its definitely an important factor in long distance backpacking.
BS: The most challenging thing was really listening to my body and trying to figure out if an injury or pain was actually a threat or just a minor inconvenience. You tend to crash a bit more on a bike. Add in the speed and it’s a recipe for quick chaos.
8. What’s your favorite food while thru-hiking/biking?
JL: In town it’s pizza. On the trail it’s chocolate.
RB: Fancy medjool date/coconut rolls and tamari roasted almonds. Um… and about a hundred other food fantasies that circle around in my mind non-stop when I am really hungry!
SF: Hands down unlimited access to the foods I can eat in my everyday life. The caloric demand is so high that food just becomes a source of pleasurable fuel.
TG: I love salty, crunchy chips.
BS: Everything. I rode for 20 hours a day for 20 days so my calorie consumption was insane. The thing I most craved were milkshakes and got one every chance I got.
9. What did you gain the most from your thru-hiking/biking experience(s)?
JL: Great friendships and amazing experiences.
RB: A whole new way of being in the world and living life creatively and openly. I have to admit since my first thu-hike on the AT – and since then – it’s been exploring some of the farthest reaches of the planet by foot, bike, and kayak. I’ve never lived a status quo life and am the envy of my friends. I’ve also gained a huge respect for this awesome planet.
SF: Tenacity, problem-solving, sense of place, community, and a sense of self-achievement
TG: A life worth LIVING!
BS: An awareness of just how far I can push my body and what I am capable of. Other challenges seem much more manageable.
10. What was life like after you finished? What was different? What should other thru-hikers/bikers expect after they finish a thru-hike/bike?
JL: There is always a little spell of reimmersion that is difficult, but that’s only because you’ve enjoyed and valued the experience so much. It gives you reason to strive to do it all over again.
RB: Ha! Like I said, you won’t be the same! Expect to crave more adventure, freedom, and open night skies knowing that your life will ask you to reconfigure many things – and it will all be worth it!
SF: Re-entry can be tough. You’re essentially living in a parallel universe while on trail. The routine of progress is no longer present and this transition can be the toughest. Its easy to feel a sense of loss and disappointment with the modern world. The best part is the comparative perspective that thru-hiking can offer. No longer will petty frustrations feel significant. You’re endured much worse and your sense of resilience is left expanded.
TG: Life wasn’t the same. I had changed. And going back didn’t seem feasible. So I didn’t. I’ve been hiking ever since my first thru-hike. Other hikers should expect some post hike blues. It’s hard to go from the best time of your life back to a job.
BS: It took a while to readjust but it was fun to tell the story to people of the adventures I had.
11. How have Vargo products helped you with your thru-hiking/biking?
JL: Vargo products are super light, durable, and can be used for multiple purposes. They’ve helped pare down the equipment that I need for each trip. You can always rely on them.
RB: See #6 above! Plus, the Ti-Fusion™ clothing dries fast, packs light, and lasts well while doing its job.
SF: Vargo’s lightweight, yet durable approach to gear enables hikers to lighten their load and provide one less thing to think about breaking down. These two variables inevitably result in a deeper connection with your surroundings.
TG: Having lightweight, durable titanium products that I use everyday has been an integral part of all of my hikes. I’ve carried Vargo products for over 10,000 miles now and they have never let me down.
BS: I appreciated using such well-made and lightweight materials. I wasn’t carrying a lot of equipment with me so every piece counted and couldn’t fail. Vargo products lived up to the test every time.
“They’ve helped pare down the equipment that I need for each trip. You can always rely on them.” – Justin Lichter
“Vargo’s lightweight, yet durable approach to gear enables hikers to lighten their load and provide one less thing to think about breaking down. These two variables inevitably result in a deeper connection with your surroundings.” – Shawn Forry
“they have never let me down.” – Tom Gathman
“Vargo products lived up to the test every time.” – Brett Simpson