20 July 2015

An intro to long distance trails – the big ones…

An intro to long distance trails – the big ones…

Want to walk from sunrise to sunset without seeing roads/buildings/cars/shops or right angles? Maybe it’s time for a thru-hike.


We’ve been walking for three months now. Last time I washed was nine days ago. I can’t remember the last time I slept in a bed, or got through a night without waking up every half hour or so. My clothes, boots, sleeping bag, pack, me… all stink. I’ve been constantly hungry since we began and my whole body aches from the long hours of heaving my gigantic pack up tiny, slippery paths each day.

Our calculations suggest we’ve still got another two whole months to go until we finish.

But, despite all that, I’m loving it.


The great thing about walking is that you are literally spoilt for choice. Literally. You can walk from your front door to the post box. City roads generally come with things called ‘pavements’ built for putting one foot in front of the other. Depending where you live you might occasionally stumble across overgrown footpaths begging to be explored.

Or, if you’re in the mood for something larger, there are some truly jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, scalp-tingling monster trails out there. And that’s just the organised ones. A thru-hike, or thru-hiking, is walking a long distance trail from start to finish, and the below beauties are considered some of the most world-renowned examples. In my own travels I’ve come across people who’ve tackled one, more or all of them, and they’ve all absolutely raved about them.


Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – United States

4,264km / 2,650 miles (

Anyone seen Reece Witherspoon star in Wild? The true story of Cheryl Strayed’s journey along 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail has caught the imagination of people everywhere, with the PCT Association seeing a subsequent 300% rise in website traffic, and a huge influx of permit requests for this season. Starting just outside Campo, a small Californian town near the Mexican border, the trail weaves its way up the West coast of the states, taking in the rest of California, Oregon, Washington, and ending just across the Canadian border. Mountain ranges, canyons, the desert, and forests all jockey for position, but it’s the ranges that come out on top (pun intended…); the Californian Sierra Nevada and the mighty Cascade Range running from northern California all the way up into Canada provide incredible scenery and at their highest will see you climbing to just over 4,000m.


Appalachian Trail (AT) – United States

3,510km / 2,180 miles (

If you’re into your travel writing, then you may have come across Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a short tale of his flirtation with the Appalachian Trail; riding the wake of Wild, the screenplay of Bryson’s book will hit cinemas this autumn, starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Just a little fun fact for you there. One of the oldest long-distance trails around, the trail takes its name from the Appalachian mountain range running along the East coast of the States, through which it snakes up and down. While not hitting the same heights at the PCT (highest point on the AT is 2,025m), it’ll still get you puffing as you clamber around – the trail’s website claims the total altitude gain while on a thru-hike is the equivalent of ascending Mt Everest 16 times

From its southern tip by Springer Mountain in Georgia to the northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the AT traverses a total of 14 states, and will get you up close and personal with a wide variety of animals and wildlife, including bears, snakes, porcupines, moose… and a whole load of other walkers; one of the most popular long-distance trails, approximately 2,000 enthusiasts attempt the thru-hike each year. Compare that to the 150-200 people who attempt thru-hiking our next trail…


Te Araroa (TA) – New Zealand

3,000km / 1,864 miles (

On to the newbie. The Te Araroa (Maori for ‘The Long Pathway’) was officially opened around five years ago and is a patchwork of pre-existing trails stitched together with brand new routes, combining to take the walker from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South. Generally walked Southbound (SoBo), a scattering also walk it in reverse (NoBo). As it’s such a new trail you’ll find a huge variety in path quality and remoteness, and there’s presently a fair amount of road walking to do too, though the TA Trust aims to eventually remove these road sections once deals with private land owners have been made.

Overall though, the TA is an absolutely amazing trail. While it’s fair to say I may be biased in including this trail here – I thru-hiked the trail 2014/15 – the TA is getting brilliant reviews and really shows off the best of this incredible country, taking you from beach to shire-like rolling hills, tropical forests to volcanic peaks, winding alpine rivers to stunning lakes, and golden plains to alpine Southern Alps.


Continental Divide Trail (CDT) – Mexico to Canada

4,990km / 3,100 miles (

Now we’re really cranking. If the above haven’t sated your appetite, try this one on for size. The third amigo to the US Triple Crown of thru-hikes (joining the AT and PCT), the Continental Divide Trail is raw, stunning, and enormous, running from New Mexico’s boot heel (near the Mexican border), to the Glacial National Park in northern Montana. The trail leads you predominantly along the Rockies (the Americas natural ‘Divide’), also taking in Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho along the way. Think mountains, mountain, mountains… Unlike the AT or PCT though, the CDT is a lot less well established, with some sections poorly marked and little-used. Approximately 70% of the trail is actually complete, with thru-hikers at times needing to road walk around certain obstacles.

To complete a thru-hike you’re looking at about six months (assuming an average of 17 miles at day). Again unlike its Triple Crown sisters, the CDT sees an average of only 200 walkers a year who attempt a thru-hike, with the actual number who complete it being much lower. Dodging the weather is a real skill for this trail and so, combined with all of its considerable challenges like finding water, navigation issues up remote mountain ranges (it is the Rockies, remember), floods and bush fires, this is not a trail for beginners. However, if you’re keen, start with some of the others and then who knows… Maybe one day…