Investigating the Thru-hiker Experience: A Study on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

The phenomena of thru-hiking has been on a dramatic rise, spurring hikers to venture onto increasingly remote and challenging trails over extended periods of time. Despite the recent popularity of thru-hiking, the field remains relatively unstudied. In recreation, the expectations held beforehand have been linked to perceptions after an activity, but this has not been explored in thru-hiking.

Phot by: Samantha Levang


This study addresses these gaps by investigating the thru-hiker experience of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNNST), a trail best known for its remoteness and rugged features. The study also examines what thru-hikers believe should be maintained or reconsidered in the face of the impending management plan. Multi-phase semistructured interviews were conducted with 42 of the 2017 PNNST thru-hikers before their hike, directly after completion, and two months after completion.

The research focused on how pre-hike expectations and previous experiences affect the experience of the thruhiker, how thru-hikers navigate adverse circumstances, how the social aspect impacts the thru-hiker experience, and how completion of a thru-hike affects the transition back to everyday life. The findings suggest that previous experience and expectations for the trail have an impact on how thru-hikers interpret their experience, with many describing how the PNNST met or did not meet their expectations going into the trail. Thru-hikers dealt with challenges utilizing both mental and physical strategies, which were unique depending upon their previous levels of experience.

Additionally, the research suggests that the thru-hiking experience will have an impact on the lives of the majority of thruhikers going forward. This study’s findings contribute to the theoretical understanding of thru-hiking and is useful to land managers, recreational planners, and community planners for extended trails and trail towns.

Published June 30, 2018

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