by Diane Spicer
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.
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".
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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!
Knowing your personal motivation to tackle a thruhike will help you:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After considering all of the issues raised above, perhaps you need a Plan B.
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.
And there are other enjoyable and challenging ways you can enjoy the wonders of long hiking trails.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And finally, and very sad to say, some of the best long hiking trails in the United States are becoming seriously overcrowded.
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.
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.
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.
Best Long Hiking Trails
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Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer.
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