If you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot a thru-hiker in the wild. From the dirty, worn backpack to the torn-up shoes held together with duct tape and dental floss.
The men look like they’re auditioning for the sequel to Castaway—with their scraggly, overgrown beards and half-starved bodies. The women; powerful, unshaved Amazons, with rippling muscles and bronzed (with dirt) skin.
We all start off as fully-functioning members of society, adhering to social norms and personal hygiene standards—we take showers, eat in line with use-by dates and usually don’t ask people to review the toilet they’ve just used. But after five months on a thru-hike, we re-enter society forever changed. We no longer know how to pick out an outfit (having worn the same clothes for 150 days straight) nor do we have (or desire) the ability to smell ourselves.
It’s not all bad odors and unkempt hair though. We also come back self-confident, with our comfort zones expanded and our hearts full of mountain-top sunrises and trail magic. At least this was the case on my first thru-hike, a 3000km journey along the Te Araroa trail in New Zealand.
Every trail is different, with varying amounts of mud and rain, but there are certain things that every thru-hiker around the world learns.
1. it's not a foodie experience
That slab of cheese that’s been sitting in the middle of your food bag for the last six days, hot and slightly melted… it’s still good. It might have remolded itself to the shape of the peanut butter jar it was pressed up against, but it’s fine. It says ‘keep refrigerated, consume within four days’. Well maybe you should take a sniff… It tumbles out into some mud. Just scrape the worst of it off and keep eating.
Food is precious and sometimes we only carry enough to last a week. After lugging a heavy bag around for too many days, simple food hygiene won’t prevent you from enjoying your lunch.
2. you can sleep anywhere
After a long day of hiking, you just need a spot to set up your inflatable mat and sleeping bag. On such a long hike, the sleeping situation varies a lot, from a luxurious mountain hut with a fire place and a five star view, to holing-up in a fertilizer bin during a heavy rainstorm—or perhaps a BBQ shelter in a public park when the wind is too strong for a tent. It’s not always a good sleep, but it’s sleep. You can’t be picky after an exhausting day on the trail.
3. SMALL LUXURIES BRING ON BIG EMOTIONS
Simple household items become such a privilege when you’re hiking a thru-hike. I never expected a rubbish bin to bring me so much happiness as I drop that smelly, dripping, bulky plastic bag of rubbish I’ve been lugging up and down mountains. Then there’s running taps, flushing toilets WITH toilet paper, hot showers… The list goes on and on. If you’re walking by a communal bathroom and you hear someone shrieking with joy, assume it’s a thru-hiker who’s just found a bottle of conditioner someone left behind.
4. YOU LEARN THE LANGUAGE PRETTY QUICKLY
Trail lingo. Our secret handshake. It may sound like gibberish to a non-walker but it helps us commune with our people.
‘So this trail angel let the tramily and I stay for our zero. Marco had to grab his bounce box before our resupply. I let him give me a shakedown because that last section killed my shoulders. Some NoBo’s passed through and warned us SoBo’s about a slip in the next section.’
Good luck putting that one through Google Translate.
5. THE BATTLE RAGES ON BETWEEN THE ULTRALIGHTS AND THE ULTRA-HEAVIES
Everybody has their own sweet spot in their gear setup. And even though we’ve all taken an oath to ‘hike our own hike,’ we still have healthy debates about the merits of our own particular gear setup.
The ultralight hiker, for instance, will happily walk long days, sailing past with their lightweight backpack. They’re secretly on the lookout for the slower, heavier-packed people to shake down. It’s not always easy to see a shakedown coming—they start by saying things like ‘I just like to be comfortable while I hike’ and, next thing you know, your pack is being disemboweled.
The heavier-packed hikers do their best to avoid unwanted shakedowns. ‘But are you well equipped for bad weather?’ they say as they inspect their foe’s small pack. Then they exchange their muddy clothes for dry camp clothes, putting on their camp shoes and sighing loudly with relief.
6. DRY SOCKS ALWAYS SPARK JOY
Putting on wet socks on a cold morning is one of my least favorite hiking moments. I don’t think even Marie Kondo could imagine the kind of joy I feel when even the filthiest, crustiest socks (that smell too bad to keep inside the tent) are dry. I’ll happily hold my breath as I pull them on in all their festery glory.
7. WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
You can weigh every item, mark down every gram and somehow still carry half a bag of cous-cous for 500km because one of these days you’ll eat it (I swear).
8. OUR NOSES BECOME EXTRA SENSITIVE TO EVERYTHING BUT OURSELVES
You can tell a day hiker by their smell. The sweet scent of shampoo and soap almost overpowers you as they pass by. It’s a relief when their fake, chemical scent follows them up the trail and you can get back to the beautiful smells of nature, your unwashed clothes and the odd dead animal.
9. THRU-HIKES ARE ALREADY LONG ENOUGH
There’s no way I’m walking 1km off trail to a viewpoint, unless I have been assured it’s more spectacular than the mountain I just climbed.
10. IT’S A WORLD OF PAIN
How can your body hurt just as much from a zero day as it did after climbing through tough, mountainous terrain?
11. OUR SMELL IS OUR STORY
A strange mix of pride and shame swells in your chest when the person in the reception of the holiday park opens all the windows and doors when you walk in—and points out where the showers and laundry are.
12. THE TEMPTATION OF A LIGHT PACK BECKONS YOU
Packs are wonderfully light at the end of a long section. They swing so easily up onto your shoulder as you happily skip into town (without all that pesky, lifesaving food weighing you down). Alas, the dream crumbles in on itself as you remember you need to restock.
13. TOILET TALK IS A HOT TOPIC
At home, people prefer you to keep toilet talk to a minimum, but on trail it’s an easy way to bond with fellow hikers—whether it’s a question about how the toilets are on certain sections or technique on the best way to potty squat with tight calf muscles (the ‘hold the tree’ technique seems to be the consensus).
14. A SHELTER IS A SHELTER
When it’s raining, the wind is blowing and all you want is to be dry for a moment, a drop toilet doesn’t smell so bad… I mean, it’s dry and if the door is open you can hardly smell the you-know-what.
If anyone is disgusted by this, you obviously haven’t been rained on for long enough.
15. GETTING PULLED INTO THE VORTEX
A town is a shining beacon of light that hikers dream of through long, dirty sections of the trail. It has pizza, flushing toilets, pizza, hot showers, pizza, and washing machines for those grimy socks. You can even spend a day NOT hiking.
All of these luxuries have a very strong pull, creating a vortex that gets harder to escape the longer you’re there. A day can turn into two, then three. The only way to escape is to painfully overindulge—then getting back on trail becomes the new shining beacon of light.
16. DISTANCE IS RELATIVE
When someone tells you there’s a café, supermarket or a store ‘just’ up the road where you can refill your liquid fuel container, and it turns out it’s 10km off trail…
17. RABBITS SOUND A LOT LIKE SERIAL KILLERS
As the sun disappears the guessing game begins—was that an animal outside your tent or a serial killer? Whether it’s shrieking possums or a deer crashing through the scrub, everything sounds more sinister at night. When you have to get up and pee in a dark forest, you really regret reading all those stories about people murdered on hiking trails.
18. TREKKING POLES ARE FRIEND AND FOE
On a tough downhill, trekking poles are knee-saving implements. But in the blink of an eye they can become deadly weapons—snagging on a tree root and ramming into your leg, hip, stomach or face. Just one more bruise to joins its family of 15. At least you have a weapon you can use if one night it turns out it’s NOT a cute animal making noise outside your tent.
19. THE CITY IS THE REAL WILDERNESS
After so long in nature, walking back into the city feels more dangerous, unpredictable and wild than the actual wilderness. The cars scream by trailing deadly exhaust fumes and everything is so fast and hurried. People stare at your ripped clothes and banged-up trekking poles like you’re some kind of wild animal. It’s a relief to disappear back to the trees and listen to the birds chirping, rather than the cars honking.
20. MAGIC ACTUALLY DOES EXIST
I stopped believing in magic by age 11 and a half when my letter for Hogwarts still hadn’t arrived. I just couldn’t blame it on my owl getting lost at sea any longer. But then I hiked a thru-hike in New Zealand and discovered ‘trail magic’—the best kind of magic that can turn the worst hiking day around. Trail magic is the unexpected moments of kindness from strangers. Whether it’s a cold glass of water, a patch of lawn to pitch a tent or sometimes even the offer of a real bed, a roast dinner, or a lift to town to resupply, it all feels pretty magical.
21. YOU TAKE THE HIGHS WITH THE LOWS
Thru-hiking is a wonderful and life changing experience. There are beautiful views, of course, along with storms and sleepless nights. There are bruises and gross smells, ravenous hunger and sore stomachs. Battling through these painful and annoying moments of the hike is what makes the other moments so darn magical.