Best Long Hiking Trails:
How To Choose One
Based On Your Personal Motivation
And Hiking Style

by Diane Spicer

Meet Hiking For Her's Diane

A list of the best long hiking trails could be as simple as the names of some of the most well known long distance hiking trail options in the United States:

Some of these trails are only well known regionally, like Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington State.

Or it could be an exhaustive (long trail hiking joke) list of U.S. long trails, like this one.

Note that "long trail" is defined on this list as any trail over 100 miles (~161 km).

That's not A Real Rule in the hiking world, just a guideline.

But why stop there?

Why not consider the best long hiking trails for thruhikers in the world!!

You can follow all of those links for choosing the best long hiking trails, but before you do, you might want to take a moment to consider why you want to hike a long distance hiking trail.

  • Because your motivation(s) will shape the type of long distance hike you will experience.
  • And influence your chance of accomplishing your goals.


Why commit to a long distance
hiking trail?

Hikers throw themselves into the adventure of long trail hiking for various reasons.

All of the reasons make good sense while sitting in the comfort of your favorite chair, looking at the squiggly lines on a map and dreaming of perfect weather.

But the reality is a lot tougher.

Not every hiker who begins a long trail hike will complete it.

To be a successful thruhiker takes mental as well as physical toughness.

After decades of observation, I've noticed that long trail hikers and thruhikers come in various "flavors".

  • The goal oriented achiever: Set a goal, meet the goal. Tick it off your list!
  • The record breaker: Do it faster, lighter, or some other "-er".
  • The bored hiker: You've done lots of hikes, but yearn for new vistas.
  • The "go along for the ride" hiker: Someone you know is doing the trail, and you just got invited to the party.
  • The dreamer: Wouldn't it be great if??
  • The midlife crisis hiker: Life is short, hiking trails are long. Make the most of it!
  • The "I'm in love" hiker: Your significant other wants to do a long trail? Of course you want to go along!
  • The thrill seeker: Hiking through a forest fire or a thunder storm? Sweet! Do double digit mileage through snowy mountain passes? Bring it!
  • The Zen hiker: Approach the trail as a walking meditation.
  • The escaper: A big problem or hurt is weighing you down, and you need to slip out of the confines of daily life to solve (or at least acknowledge) it. Hollywood loves this type of thruhiker, right?
  • The scientist: Keep track of what works, what works the best, and how to tweak your gear, food and mileage for optimal results.
  • The "gotta prove something" hiker: You say I can't do this, so I'm going to!
  • The Blow Up Your Life hiker: Quit your job, sublease your apartment, bring the dog or kids to your mom's house, and go for it.
  • The solo hiker: Three or four months of hiking alone sounds like heaven.
  • The lost but searching hiker: Maybe a long trail will show you what to do next in life.
  • The "my identity is a long trail hiker" hiker: The Triple Crown hikers are in this category, completing The Big 3 (AT, PCT, CDT) and yearning for more.
  • The adventurist: Nature is my big backyard. Let the adventure begin.
  • The budding writer: Hike, blog, turn it into a book! Then a movie!!
  • The explorer: Go to another country and see how things are done while seeing some outdoor sights.
  • The fund-raiser: Hiking is a mechanism to get attention, and cash, for a favorite cause.

So who did I miss?

Be sure to drop me a line and I'll add to my list.

Here's a better question for you.

Did you recognize yourself in any of these long trail hikers? If so, here's a follow up question.


What's your motivation at this moment?

Your motivation dictates the investment of time and money in planning your trip, as well as your well being while hiking.

The best long hiking trails are well documented in terms of mileage, terrain, access and egress points, and other important features. (see below)

Electronic access makes it easy to find and digest.

But regardless of your reason for this thruhike, you're faced with a mound of decisions which all hikers must surmount.

Who will be doing all of the planning?

  • If you leave it to others, be sure they are trustworthy with your daily calories, resupply plans, shelter and navigation.
  • If you do all of the planning yourself, don't skip any of the details in the spirit of kindness to your future self huddled under a wet tarp with a growling stomach.


A few thoughts
about mental focus

The motivation for doing the best long trail hiking isn't really discussed much, but I feel it should be because it plays right into your outcome.

If you are "other" focused, drawing your motivation from your trail buddy or trying to impress someone back home, it's going to be tough to keep going when things get dismal.

And they will get dismal, trust me.

It's inevitable that the long trail will demand its pound(s) of flesh from you, in one way or another as you face extreme weather, insects, malnutrition, injury, dicey water crossings, tough navigational decisions, animal encounters, heat, cold, and so many other ways the trail loves to mess with a hiker's body and mind.

  • Can you depend on your trail partners to survive all of this and still have fun with you?
  • What if they drop out due to injury, leaving you a solo thruhiker?
  • Do you trust yourself to get through it all, with or without others?
  • What is your personal style when it comes to resolving conflict and making tough decisions?

Are you in this long game for yourself?

If you're "self" focused, you are internally motivated to start a long distance hike, and to keep yourself focused, especially if you're going solo and won't have anyone else to consult on decisions.

You are also responsible for keeping yourself safe, happy and pointed in the right direction, day after day, no matter who you hike with.

Does this sound like a nightmare, or a worthy challenge?

  • It comes down to how much you've tested yourself already in the outdoors.

Example: Doing a solo hike of hundreds of miles as your first attempt going it alone is probably not the wisest move, but only you can make that call.

With planning and mental focus, it can be done! But it needs to be approached thoughtfully.

  • This website is teeming with tips on how to be a smart, savvy backpacker.


Love to be social on the trail?

If you're community focused, looking to build trail friendships and do good in the world, you will have lots of opportunity for this on the more popular long trails.

Stories abound of meeting a few trail buddies on Day One of a thruhike and becoming friends (or soul mates) for life.

Trail selection tip:

You might be frustrated on a less well known trail which sees less traffic, because the media seems to define (and drive interest in) the best long hiking trails as the AT and PCT (sometimes the CDT) in the United States. 

If company at campsites, lots of hiker drama and interaction, and the potential for multiple trail friendships appeal to you, take a close look at the most popular thruhikes.

If that sounds abhorrent, you know which direction to take!


Know thyself, thruhiker

Knowing your personal motivation to tackle a  thruhike will help you:

  • choose the right long trail for yourself 
  • accomplish the extensive planning phase of the trek 
  • survive and thrive during actual trail time
  • surmount challenges to your physical and mental health as the weeks roll on
  • re-adjust once you're off the trail and back to "normal" life (hint: it's not going to seem normal for a long time, if ever)

All of this may challenge the self portrait you've painted of yourself thus far in life. Interesting times for sure.

On the other hand, if you're going to thruhike because "everyone else is doing it" or your best buddy wants you to go along, your resilience and fortitude may be challenged.

But console yourself with the knowledge that you'll learn plenty about yourself.

Bottom line: thruhiking changes you. for. life.

Don't go if you want to remain who you are as you read these words.


So are you ready to tackle
a long trail?

To gain even more clarity around why you are interested in a long trail, take a moment to answer these questions.

Nobody is keeping score of your answer, so be honest with yourself.

Take your time.

Get to know yourself on a deeper level by allowing that small, quiet voice of your inner self to chime in here.

  • Have you put in hours and hours of extensive research on selecting a trail? And taken notes you can refer to again and again?
  • Have you been following weather reports for at least the past 2 years (snow levels, spring melt and runoff levels, seasonal highs and lows, etc.)?
  • What is your stamina and endurance right now?
  • Will it be higher, or lower, on the day you begin the trail?
  • Does your hiking gear locker hold everything you need, or will you have to add to it?
  • Can you afford the costs (time, money, stamina, mental commitment, separation from home and loves ones) it takes to hike for months without a break?
  • Can you commit to investing months of preparation time, and weeks to months of time on the trail, given your current relationships and work status?
  • Do you have intimate knowledge of backpacking gear, to the point of being able to use it safely on dark, stormy nights?
  • Can you afford to make, borrow, or buy lightweight and dependable trail gear?
  • How good are you at improvising when things break or plans get derailed?
  • Do you know how to provide simple first aid for yourself, such as doctoring a blister or removing splinters?
  • Can you navigate without electronic devices?
  • Do you have any interest in learning several methods of navigation?
  • Do you have any phobias related to the trail?
  • Is everyone in your life supportive of this idea? Do you care?
  • How much multiday backpacking experience have you racked up so far?
  • Are you using a magic wand for the parts of trail planning that you consider boring or hard? (As in: "I'll just follow other hikers when I get to that part of the trail.")
  • What is your tolerance for pain and discomfort?
  • Can your body and mind handle weeks and weeks of trail food, interspersed with huge food binges once you step off trail?
  • Do you have pre-existing medical conditions that have to be managed safely amidst dirt, possible water deprivation, temperature extremes, physical exhaustion and more?
  • Can you handle the inevitable let down of completing the endurance event of a long trail, going back to your normal "civilized" routine, and trying to fit in again?

OK, enough with the questions.

You get the idea!

Hiker, know thyself before choosing the best long hiking trails for your personality, skill level and motivation.


Good long trail hiking tip

One way to prepare for a long hike is to do a virtual hike beforehand.

That means finding information with a high level of detail, and photos along with honest commentary.

  • If all the photos show smiling hikers on dry, sunny days, look elsewhere.

A Guthook phone app paired with one of their trail guides for your intended trail might be just the tool you need. 

Long story short: A dedicated hiker (whose nickname was Guthook) pulled together maps, trail info like water sources and campsites and also allowed other hikers to post their own informative notes.

The result? The bible of thruhikers.

Take a look at Guthook here.

And vow not to depend 100% on it for navigation! Sometimes common sense and dead reckoning will get you where you're headed without having to look at your phone.

Other ways to approach
the best long hiking trails

After considering all of the issues raised above, perhaps you need a Plan B.

Or maybe you now realize that you don't have the luxury of all of the time, money and support along the trail that is required to complete a long trail all in one go.

Lucky you!

  • Clarity is a wonderful thing.

And there are other enjoyable and challenging ways you can enjoy the wonders of long hiking trails.


Be a section hiker

You could section hike a trail in chunks, meaning less commitment of time each season.

You are going for the long view in order to keep your job, relationships and home while satisfying your thirst for a long trail.

Get out the trail map, carve it into those chunks, put dates and years on the chunks, and go for it!

  • One year at a time, the turtle wins the long hiking trail race.


Serial day hikes from multiple directions
on the best long hiking trails

If you live near a long trail, you can start with day hikes and graduate to overnight trips and short backpacking trips until you've conquered the entire trail.

  • This is a slower, saner approach to choosing the best long hiking trails, used by people with careers, mortgages, kids and other responsibilities that are a bit hard to ignore or blow up.
  • And it's how I "completed" the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington State, USA while holding down a full time job and raising kids.
Glaciers cascading down the flanks of Mt. Rainier


Issues with long trail hiking

There are some issues with long trail hiking that the thruhiker community might be reluctant to share with you.

The fact is, this type of hiking is not for everyone.

Here are 3 reasons I make this statement.

Mental calendar friction

I have stated many times that I am not, nor do I ever wish to be, a long distance hiking trail connoisseur.

I found out early in my hiking career, on Isle Royale, that I am not mentally configured to blast through gorgeous places just to get to the next campsite in order to satisfy the calendar.

In fact, leaving behind a photo op of a cavorting fox on a hillside of wild flowers, or the allure of a tumbling waterfall on a hot trail, makes me downright cranky.

And being boxed into "must do" mileage brings out my inner rebel. Who hangs out with my tantrum prone two year old self.

So one of the issues that you might find with committing to hiking a long trail is the relentless need to keep moving on, leaving behind great scenery and chances for exploration.

  • Or the guilt of taking a "zero day" if you're injured, sick, or just feel like putting your feet up.


Breaking the rhythm,
with a hidden hazard

Another problem with long trail hiking is that you need to come off the trail to resupply yourself every so often.

That needs to be planned in advance, and you need to have those supplies waiting for you in towns along the way.

Speaking only for myself, it would bug me no end to have to hitch hike into a town, hunt for a place to sleep and clean up, and hope that the post office had my next box of food, new socks, and favorite treats.

Then hitchhike or catch a ride from a trail angel back to the trail.

It breaks up the rhythm of hiking.

  • As an "immersion" hiker, it's exactly that trail rhythm that I seek.

For women hikers, there is a hazard lurking here: you are in close proximity to towns and roads, bringing you into contact with all sorts of people.

Not all of them have your best interest at heart.

Extra vigilance when hitchhiking, camping near roads, and interacting with strangers is required.

  • Caution, not fear.
  • Prudent decisions, not irrational choices.
  • Trust your gut.


Hundreds of your best friends
on the best long hiking trails!

And finally, and very sad to say, some of the best long hiking trails in the United States are becoming seriously overcrowded.

Seeking solitude?

  • Avoid the AT!

And now that the PCT is "trendy" (thanks for nothing, Hollywood), you'll have lots of company there, too.

The CDT is starting to pop up on Instagram and other social media venues as well.

So make your choice wisely, knowing how extroverted (or not) you like to be on the trail.

And be a good citizen! Leave No Trace.

  • Anything you can do to keep trash, feces and overuse damage to a minimum would be helpful to ensure our long trails are around for generations to come.

Okay, let's not be gloomy here.

The flip side (glass half full view) provides great news for hikers who love group hiking and populated camping situations.

  • Many interesting friendships and life long trail buddies are cultivated during long trail hiking.
  • And if you get into a tight spot, help will be sure to come along.
Mount Rainier hiking trail to Skyscraper Pass


Best long hiking trails:
the ones you actually hike!

In the end, the best long hiking trails are the ones you actually commit to, and complete, regardless of how many attempts or seasons it takes.

Massive amounts of planning, supplies, time, money, and emotional energy will be invested in your outcome.

And the sense of accomplishment will be palpable.

You'll have earned bragging rights within the long trail community, and no one can ever take that away from you.

YOU did it. Hurrah!

Best wishes for the best long hiking trails journey of your life.

I'll be cheering you on from my perch on a rocky outcrop, munching a handful of trail mix as you blast past me ;)

Or maybe after reading all of this, you'd like to start smaller, along the lines of an overnighter or weekend backpacking trip.


Home page > Best Hiking Tips >

Best Long Hiking Trails



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