A Beginner's Guide to Thru-Hiking
Thru-hiking is for marathon-level explorers
A view of Bean Lake along the Superior Hiking Trail
photo by Alyssa Hei
Distance, just like currency, becomes incomprehensible when it reaches large quantities.
So, when outdoors enthusiast and Midwest Mountaineering employee Elizabeth John says she only hiked the nearly 500 miles of the Colorado Trail over a period of six weeks, don’t let her fool you. That’s like walking from St. Paul to St. Louis—give or take a few dozen miles—plus thousands upon thousands of feet of elevation.
“I’m a gardener, I’m a busy-hands person, but busy feet are just as good,” she explains. “I don’t meditate, but maybe that’s the way I think about it—walking as a meditation.”
John took childhood trips to the Boundary Waters and caught her case of busy feet while hiking in Alaska as a teenager. With a background in paddling, mountaineering, and backpacking, she found long-distance hiking rewarding, albeit exhausting.
Since then, thru-hiking—hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end in one hiking season—has gotten friendlier to newbies. John has jettisoned 60-pound packs in favor of a lighter modern backpacking rig. For her 50th birthday, she decided to fly to Spain and walk close to 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago. The Colorado jaunt, her first solo long-distance hike, followed a few years later in 2017.
“Going on a big walk is unreasonable and includes being uncomfortable, wet, hungry, sore, tired, lonely...it’s challenging,” she says. “It’s a leap of faith. But I found the rewards surprising and unexpected, some even waiting for me at home after the trip. There is a rhythm to walking, a physicality and simplicity...a discovery.”
Logging some 4,000 feet of elevation daily, John met many “trail angels” who provided shade, snacks, and sometimes beer at remote points in the wilderness, purely out of the goodness of their hearts.
“You’re so elated, because you’re someplace so incredible, and it wasn’t easy to get there,” she says. “There was this moment where you kinda love humanity, and you’re so proud of people for doing it.”
Vasque Trailbender II trail-running shoes ($129.99, vasque.com)
photo by Matt Trappe
At the end of the day, it’s just a long, long walk. John consults maps, the internet, and her coworkers at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis. To train, she walked the six-mile round trip to work every day and climbed whatever hill she could find nearby.
Tips and Techniques
A reasonable pace is important. John considers herself on the slower side. About 17 miles (Lake Bde Maka Ska to Valleyfair) per day was appropriate for her. Starting at around 5:30 in the morning, she’d aim to make camp in the late afternoon to avoid missing a sunset.
Gear Up for Thru-Hiking
While some still prefer the tall, sturdy backpacking boots of yore, many thru-hikers are switching to lighter-weight, mesh-topped trail running shoes for breathability. Minnesota-based Vasque’s Trailbender II series should work perfectly.
ULA Equipment Circuit Pack ($235, ula-equipment.com)
photo by ULA Equipment
Thru-hiking’s mileage demands a much lighter pack than you might use for a weekend trip. Avoid a pack that exceeds 20 percent of your body weight. Elizabeth uses a smaller pack from a company called ULA Equipment.
The 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail stretches from Duluth to the U.S.-Canada border along Lake Superior’s spine. Not up for 300 miles? John recommends the toothsome-but-reasonable Oberg Mountain section. “My parents are in their eighties, and we go up there with them every fall,” she says.
Digital Extra: Take a Hike
Find the best hiking trails around the Twin Cities, then read about how to get started thru-hiking.