When the now iconic Appalachian Trail was conceived in 1921 by adventurer Benton MacKaye, it’s unlikely he had any concept of the impact it would have on the modern outdoor industry. Today, hundreds of thousands of adventure-enthusiasts hit the trails of America seeking respite, relaxation, and the opportunity to connect with the natural world.
Whether you’re a first-time hiker or a seasoned trail-finder, here’s our pick of the best long-distance thru hikes in the U.S.
Before you set out to conquer a long distance hiking trail it’s essential that you’re properly prepared and have packed the right equipment to get you safely from A to B. It’s a good idea to check the latest local travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
The Longest Hiking Trails In the U.S.
Stretching 6,800 miles and connecting the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the U.S. the American Discovery Trail is one of the two longest hiking trails in the country—the other being the Great Western Loop that wends its way across nine states.
The American Discovery Trail
The only continuous hiking route that leads from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, the American Discovery Trail starts in Delaware and crosses through 15 states, and the nation’s capital, to reach California. If you were to average 15 miles a day and have one rest day a week it would take 390 days (56 weeks) to complete the route. A record of 231 days (33 weeks) was set by Marcia and Ken Powers in 2005.
The Great Western Loop
Linking five of America’s most iconic long-distance trails—including the Pacific Crest Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail, Arizona Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, the Great Western Loop passes through some of the most wild and pristine landscapes in the Lower 48 and to date only one person is recorded as having completed the entire route. The route’s only trail-less segment traverses the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.
Choosing a Backpack For Long Distance Hikes
Carrying a durable hiking backpack that has a balanced fit and is comfortable to wear can make the difference between completing a trail and heading home early. Keep your pack organized with the help of gear cubes, and consider a waist pack for easy access to your compass, trail map, and most importantly, your snacks.
When choosing a backpack go for a capacity that you can easily manage, don’t overweight your pack as you’ll only struggle to carry it.
The Best Thru Hikes In the U.S.
An epic trekking experience, long-distance thru hikes are a backpacking odyssey and full to the brim with opportunities for adventure. Here are three that should feature on your hiking bucket list.
The Colorado Trail
This state-wide trail runs 486 miles south-west from Waterton Canyon just outside Denver to Durango near the New Mexico border. Elevations average 10,300 feet but range across the route and some sections require more mental resolve than others. While hiking the entire trail will take you between four and six weeks, it’s also possible to access one of 28 in-between segments for shorter day or multi-day hikes.
The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is one of the most popular long hikes in the U.S. and, like the Pacific Crest Trail, it features on the bucket list of many keen hikers. Spanning over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, hikers take on average five months to navigate the trail’s challenging elevations as it hits some of the east coast’s highest peaks.
Don’t lace up your boots in anticipation of the Appalachian without proper planning. Research local training hikes that are close to the Georgia end of the trail.
The Hayduke Trail
One of the most logistically challenging long distance hiking trails in the U.S., the Hayduke runs through the picturesque and remote landscapes of the south-west desert. Traversing a patchwork of public lands through Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks, this route is not for amateur hikers. The stunning but often unnervingly-alien landscape makes navigating near-impossible without competent route-finding skills, and to make life even more challenging, water is scarce along the way.
To date, fewer than 10 people have successfully hiked the entire trail, though certain sections are frequented by day hikers and weekend backpackers.
Regardless of whether you reach the end of the trail, tackling a long-distance hike can be a life-changing experience. Wherever you choose to roam, make sure you’re well prepared to weather whatever you encounter along the way.