To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

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When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these.

First, we need to define each. For our purposes, section hiking is the dividing of a long distance trail into shorter portions that are then hiked separately over time. For example, hiking the Massachusetts or Vermont portions of the Appalachian Trail, or one or more passages of the Arizona Trail. Thruhiking is the hiking of an entire trail in one or, in some cases depending on context, possibly two shots. For example, hiking the entire Arizona Trail, Long Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.

When it comes to thruhiking, the primary challenge to me is mental. The initial commitment to undertake a thruhike is a significant mental challenge in and of itself. Confidence in one’s preparation in advance is important. In addition, particularly on less traveled trails, continuing motivation can be a challenge – obviously success in a thruhike depends on gettining up, packing up, and hiking a certain distance each day unless taking a zero (a day where no trail mileage is logged). There are additional logistical and physical challenges, particularly early in the hike. It takes time to acclimate to hiking extended miles over rugged terrain. Logistics depend on advance research of a trail – on something like the AT, it may be possible to resupply in local trail towns. On others, mail drops – sending advance supplies to oneself via the USPS’ General Delivery system or via establishments along a trail that accept hiker packages – may be required or more convenient. Further, distance between resupply points may present additional challenges. Between Pine and Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail is a roughly 2 week stretch with only one resupply option at Mormon Lake in the north, for example. There are two options that devolve – carry more food, have supplies cached, or gamble and carry less to move faster. Another major challenge can be securing the amount of time that thruhikes can take, particularly for longer or more rugged trails like the Arizona Trail; Pacific Crest Trail; Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Communication may be more limited for longer periods, too.

Saddle Mountain sunset
Saddle Mountain Wilderness
Arizona Trail, Passage 22 (Saddle Mountain)

But, there can be major advantages to thruhiking. Namely, once one acclimates to distance hiking and builds up endurance, it becomes easier to hike farther and maintain extended paces. In trail lingo, once you have your “trail legs,” terrain and distance challenges are a much more diminished challenge. Some logistical challenges, such as transport to and from the trail, and associated costs can be diminished or eliminated by thruhiking as well.

Section hiking, on the other hand, requires less consecutive time and may not require the same logistical preparation, although this depends on the situation and precise trail circumstances. it can also allow more targeted experiences of sections at the “best times” to see them. However, it may sometimes be more difficult to reliably get the blocks of time off for a section hike, or at the best time consistently. More importantly, it can be easy to get off trail just when one is getting into peak trail shape, or getting one’s “trail legs,” which can mean that section hikers, despite hiking shorter passages of a trail and in theory having fresher legs, take longer to hike the same distance than a thruhiker does. They may end up taking more time overall for the trail as well. Some trails are also not as conducive to section hiking.

If I had to summarize the biggest difference between the two in a sentence, it would be that thruhiking, especially solo, is a bigger mental challenge while section hiking involves a bigger physical challenge. Both offer the benefits of interactions with the incredible trail communities on and off trail.

For those who want to see each part of a trail at its peak, or who don’t want to deal with the logistics of an extended hike, section hiking likely appeals. For those who want immersive experience with extended periods of time disconnected in wilderness, or who are drawn by the romantic image of hiking something like the AT, thruhiking likely has a greater appeal. But ultimately, which is best for any one person is a personal decision. Both are significant accomplishments in their own way and should be recognized as such.

Four Peaks
Arizona Trail (Four Peaks passage)
Four Peaks Wilderness
Tonto National Forest, Arizona

Arizona Trail Approach, Day 8 (Part III) – Buckskin Gulch to AZT

Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

I make better time than I expect, and encounter the Dragoos from Oklahoma about 1.5 mi from Wire Pass. I’m surprised that I’m that close to the Pass, since I hadn’t expected to make it for several miles. We have breakfast together and hike out, and find another large petroglyph panel at the junction between Wire Pass and Buckskin. After a tight squeeze through the Wire Pass narrows – I had to take my pack off and pass it through separately – and a water fill up and interesting conversation with Pete from Brockton, Massachusetts, they give me a lift over to the AZT.

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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4042.jpgBuckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch slot canyon
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentBuckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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Buckskin Gulch petroglyphs, undisclosed location within Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Wire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4062.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4063.jpgWire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4064.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National MonumentThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4069.jpgWire Pass, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_4065.jpg
Wire Pass
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 47: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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