The Nitty-Gritty of Thru-Hiking
I used to joke with people whenever I was asked the question “Aren't you worried about crazy people while you're out there in the woods for months at a time?” My response was always "Are you serious? I'm going to go hike a few thousand miles with nothing more than what I have on my back. I am the crazy person!" Now I wonder if my joke had a little bit more truth to it than I thought.
My last trip of 2,700 miles down the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico really broke me down and made me rethink my thru-hiking philosophies. Just so we are clear, I consider thru-hiking and hiking to be very, very, very different things with very different philosophies.
Hiking is casual and leisurely. You usually have a schedule, you have a destination, you know when you'll be home, when you will be warm and dry again, you know that you can go cook yourself a warm meal...on a stove...in a kitchen...under a roof, you know that in the near future you will be sleeping in a bed, and you know that (at least if you are smart about it) people know where you are. Since you have a destination and a schedule, you probably carry luxuries, maybe a coffee press, a frying pan, tasty food, warm clothes, dry clothes, extra clothes (PS these are all the things I miss if you hadn't guessed), extra food, and maybe a good beer or liquor. You also aren't hiking from sunup to sundown. You probably chose your campsites before you even started your hike so you have a set mileage per day and you know when you get there you can stop, take a load off, setup camp, and relax. Who knows, maybe you even have a campfire and cook s’mores!
As a thru-hiker you have a destination (but it's so far off that you try not to think about it), your schedule is almost nonexistent and based only upon the good graces of mother nature and the amount of food in your backpack, you don't necessarily know when you will be warm or dry again (or when you won't be sweating and concerned about water if it's the desert), you're not sure when you'll be done or even if you will make it, and unless you're carrying a personal locator beacon or have just recently checked with someone there is a good chance that only other hikers (if there happen to be any) know where you are at.
You don't carry much more than a shelter (maybe just a 5'x8' tarp with no bug netting), a backpack (smaller than you can imagine), a sleeping pad (some uncomfortable super ultralight aka UL foam thing), a sleeping bag (that's your warm layer), about two pounds of food for each day on your however many day stretch, and just enough (or maybe not enough) water to get you to the next water source. You probably have one extra pair of socks, but certainly not an extra pair of clothes. Depending on the terrain and location you may or may not have bothered with rain gear. If it isn't likely to rain more than a few days out of a 700 mile desert stretch in Southern California then why bother right?
Maybe you carry a UL alcohol or wood burning stove but if you do chances are you don't do more than boil water with it. If you're really into the UL scene you probably don't even bother with a stove. After all it's not food you're eating, just fuel for the fire.
The saying goes something like "the more I carry the more I like camping, the less I carry the more I like hiking" and we thru-hikers have really taken that to the extreme. You obviously don't wear boots and probably haven't in longer than you can remember. When it snows you put on your warmest socks and just accept the fact that your feet are going to be wet and probably cold. You probably just crossed a stream full of snow-melt runoff so what good would boots do anyways.
All of the above probably sounds a bit ridiculous to you right? It sounds absolutely ridiculous to me too right now, but that's just because I'm sitting here with the luxuries of a place I like to call Home.
You know when it didn't sound absolutely ridiculous? When I was climbing up and hiking along the Continental Divide Trail anywhere from 11,000 to 14,000 feet through Colorado. I felt every single ounce and every single little minuscule gram in my pack as I was gasping for air that just didn't hold enough oxygen for me to catch my breath.
Am I crazy? Maybe a little bit. Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat...