What on earth is thru hiking? As defined by our informants, thru hiking is a backpacking trip where hikers walk over 1,000 miles; a trail from start to finish; or simply longer than what a normal person would do on vacation. Typically, these hiking trips take multiple months to complete and require resupplying gear and food multiple times along the way. While no two thru hikers’ journeys are exactly the same, hikers will usually pick one extensive trail to hike, rather than hiking segments of multiple trails.
Due to the intense physical requirements of thru hiking and the large time commitment, the journey becomes an all-encompassing experience. As hikers completely immerse themselves in their journeys, the fellow hikers they meet along the way form a close community with its own language, references, and lore.
Interviews with hikers from the Appalachian (Georgia to Maine), Chilkoot (Alaska), Colorado, John Muir (California), Ozette (Washington), and El Camino de Santiago (France to Spain) Trails revealed a wide range of folklore genres and items. Some pieces of folklore were shared by all thru hikers while others were exclusive to certain regions and trails.
Ozette, Washington. Photo taken by Willem Weertman.
- Shared Folklore
- Appalachian Trail
- Chilkoot Trail
- Colorado Trail
- El Camino de Santiago
- John Muir
Legends and Trail Origins
The origin of the trails was an important factor in shaping the types of folklore. Trails created purely for recreational use (Appalachian, Colorado, and John Muir) had fewer tales and legends associated with them compared to trails with origins outside of hiking.
El Camino de Santiago follows a set of trails which lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northeast Spain. These routes were originally used by pilgrims from all over Europe, making their way to this holy site (Source). Hikers now carry scallop shells with them: the shape of the ridges on the shell imitate the many branches of the trail converging at one point. There are a number of traditions surrounding these shells, such as using them to drink wine along the trail.
In the 1890s, the Chilkoot trail was an important route for protectors and miners coming to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush (Source). There are many tales surrounding this period of time still told today, including stories about the treacherous journey of the gold rushers, and the origins of people who are still significant today.
Rites of Passage
Throughout our interviews, we noticed that thru hiking often served as a rite of passage for our informants. Most undertook their mentally and physically demanding thru hikes at points of transition in their lives. Multiple informants started hiking just after high school or college graduation, and one was experiencing a parental custody change. Other informants mentioned meeting people on their hikes who were mourning the loss of loved ones, dealing with suddenly being laid off, or undergoing a spiritual awakening.
Thru hiking facilitates a hiker’s passage to the next part of their life. The decision to go on a hike, and the extensive preparation for it, acted as a rite of separation from their old life. The actual hike was a literal and metaphorical journey between two points, leaving one place behind and transitioning to the next. Along the way, the hikers were able to grow emotionally and spiritually, forming a community with the people they met along the way. Trail names are an example of how fully immersed a hiker becomes along a trail, adopting a whole new identity. Finally, hikers would rejoin society after completing their hike, incorporating themselves back into day-to-day life, but with new experiences and a new outlook. Certificates of completion were one piece of material folklore to signify the right of incorporation. Folklore found to be shared across trails was related to these rites of passage.
Informants often spoke of the journey as mental rather than physical:
- “I had just gone through a fairly significant change in my life regarding a transfer of custody between my mother and my father. My father wanted to do this long backpacking trip, and I originally wasn’t going to do it. I was in a really bad place, and he pushed me—’it’ll give you a chance to collect your thoughts and heal a little bit.’ And it really did. It absolutely changed my life.” – Jimmy Coleman (John Muir Trail)
- “If you’re on the trail, you don’t have your distractions. I mean, the only responsibility you have is to wake up and walk. So you have a whole lot of time in your head. I felt like it reorganized my priorities. It gave me more determination or willpower to pursue whatever I was doing. I re-evaluated a bunch of relationships and how I would do things differently, a better approach for the future. This gave me so much confidence. It’s an accomplishment that never goes away.” – Sam Lincoln (Colorado Trail)
- “I was battling with my own mind. If you’re not careful it becomes just, ‘put your head down and walk.’ It’s about choosing to keep walking.” – Stacy Liedle (Colorado Trail)
Overall, the immersive and isolating experience of thru hiking unites external and internal journeys. The inherent risks and taxing mental, physical, and spiritual demands associated with such an extreme endeavor help hikers shed past eras of their lives as they move into new territory. These transformative hikes potently cultivate a rich folklore tradition which, though highly localized by geography, is shared by hikers on trails all around the world.
- Erica Busch
- Rachel Lincoln
- Soren Thompson