Navigating the Challenges of the Multi-Phase Thru-Hiking Experience


  • Taylor Cole Idaho State University
  • Jennifer M. Thomsen University of Montana



thru-hiking, nothwest, national scenic trail, challenges, long distance trail, hiking


Thru-hiking is an immersive recreational activity that involves hiking over long periods and often traversing thousands of miles of trail across multiple states. This unique recreation activity is growing rapidly, yet there are limited studies in the outdoor recreation field about the short- and long-term challenges and how individuals navigate challenges during the different phases of the thru-hike experience. To better understand the multiple phases of the thru-hiking experience, this study focused on the thru-hikers of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNNST). Multi-phase semi-structured interviews were conducted with PNNST thru-hikers before their hike (anticipation phase), directly after completion (on-site phase), and two months after completion (recollection phase). The research illuminated the importance of physical and psychological preparation, how thru-hikers navigated challenges while hiking, and how hikers transitioned to everyday life. These findings contribute to the outdoor recreation field’s understanding of the unique aspects of thru-hiking as a recreational activity and can inform management practices to support a positive, safe, and transformational experience across the different phases of recreation.

Subscribe to JOREL


Adler, N. J. (1981). Re-entry: Managing cross-cultural transitions. Group & Organization Management, 6(3), 341-356.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy [ATC]. (2020). 2,000 Milers. Retrieved August 10, 2020 from

Arnberger, A., & Brandenburg, C. (2007). Past on-site experience, crowding perceptions, and use displacement of visitor groups to a peri-urban national park. Environmental Management, 40(1), 34-45.

Berg, A . (2015). " To Conquer Myself": The New Strenuosity and the Emergence of" Thru-hiking" on the Appalachian Trail in the 1970s. Journal of Sport History, 42(1), 1-19.

Berg, B. L. (2004). Methods for the social sciences. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences. Boston: Pearson Education.

Bruce, D. (1995). The Thru-hiker's Handbook 1995. Center for Appalachian Trail Studies.

Christofi, V., & Thompson, C. L. (2007). You cannot go home again: A phenomenological investigation of returning to the Sojourn Country after studying abroad. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85(1), 53-63.

Clawson, M., & Knetsch, J.L. (1966). Economic of Outdoor Recreation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Coble, T. G., Selin, S. W., & Erickson, B. B. (2003). Hiking alone: Understanding fear, negotiation strategies and leisure experience. Journal of Leisure Research, 35(1), 1-22.

Coghlan, A., & Gooch, M. (2011). Applying a transformative learning framework to volunteer tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 19(6), 713-728.

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2016). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage publications.

Fondren, K. M., & Brinkman, R. (2019). A comparison of hiking communities on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. Leisure Sciences, 1-18.

Freidt, B., Hill, E., Gomez, E., & Goldenberg, M. (2010). A benefits-based study of Appalachian

Trail users: Validation and application of the benefits of hiking scale. Physical Health Education Nexus, 2(1), 1-22.

Harmon, J., & Dunlap, R. (2018). The temporal phases of leisure experience: Expectation, experience and reflection of leisure participation. Leisure Sciences, 40(5), 326-342.

Hitchner, S., Schelhas, J., Brosius, J. P., & Nibbelink, N. (2019). Thru-hiking the John Muir Trail as a modern pilgrimage: implications for natural resource management. Journal of Ecotourism, 18(1), 82-99.

Hitchner, S., Schelhas, J., Brosius, J. P., & Nibbelink, N. P. (2019). Zen and the art of the selfie stick: blogging the John Muir trail thru-hiking experience. Environmental Communication, 13(3), 353-365.

Iwasaki, Y., & Schneider, I. E. (2003). Leisure, stress, and coping: An evolving area of inquiry. Leisure Sciences, 25(2-3), 107-113.

Juan, P. J., & Chen, H. M. (2012). Taiwanese cruise tourist behavior during different phases of experience. International Journal of Tourism Research, 14(5), 485-494.

Ketterer, W. P. (2011). Psychological change among Appalachian trail thru-hikers: An interpretive phenomenological analysis. Antioch University, New England.

Kotut, L., Horning, M., Stelter, T. L., & McCrickard, D. S. (2020). Preparing for the Unexpected: Community Framework for Social Media Use and Social Support by Trail Thru-Hikers. Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1-13.

Kyle, G., Graefe, A., & Manning, R. (2004). Attached recreationists... Who are they. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 22(2), 65-84.

Lacanienta, A., & Duerden, M. D. (2019). Designing and staging high-quality park and recreation experiences using co-creation. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, 37(2), 118-131.

Lee, T. H., Jan, F. H., & Huang, G. W. (2015). The influence of recreation experiences on environmentally responsible behavior: The case of Liuqiu Island, Taiwan. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 23(6), 947-967.

Littlefield, J., & Siudzinski, R. A. (2012). ‘Hike your own hike’: Equipment and serious leisure along the Appalachian Trail. Leisure Studies, 31(4), 465-486.

Lugo, D. (2019). The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail journey. Appalachian Mountain Club Books.

Lum, C. S., Keith, S. J., & Scott, D. (2015). It may be ‘wild,’ but is it authentic? Contested activity and authenticity among Pacific Crest Trail hikers. Proceedings of the Southeastern Recreation Research Conference.

Lum, C. S., Keith, S. J., & Scott, D. (2020). The long-distance hiking social world along the Pacific Crest Trail. Journal of Leisure Research, 51(2), 165-182.

McKay, A. D., Brownlee, M. T., & Hallo, J. C. (2012). Changes in visitors' environmental focus during an appreciative recreation experience. Journal of Leisure Research, 44(2), 179-200.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Miller, T. A., & McCool, S. F. (2003). Coping with stress in outdoor recreational settings: An application of transactional stress theory. Leisure Sciences, 25(2-3), 257-275.

Mills, A. S., & Butler, T. S. (2005). Flow experience among Appalachian Trail thru hikers.

Proceedings of the 2005 Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, 366-370.

Moyle, B. D., & Croy, W. G. (2006). Media in the anticipation phase of a recreation experience: Port Campbell National Park. International Tourism and Media Conference Proceedings, 138-152.

Pacific Crest Trail Association [PCTA]. Retrieved August 10, 2020 from

Pacific Northwest Trail Association [PNTA]. Retrieved August 10, 2020 from

Palmer, C. (2004). Death, danger and the selling of risk in adventure sports. In B. Wheaton (ed.) Understanding Lifestyle Sport (pp. 67-81). New York: Routledge.

Ptasznik, A. (2015). Thru-hiking as Pilgrimage: Transformation, Nature, and Religion in Contemporary American Hiking Novels. (Master’s thesis). University of Colorado, Boulder.

Seidman, I. (2006). Interviewing as qualitative research: a guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Simpson, D., Post, P. G., Young, G., & Jensen, P. R. (2014). “It’s not about taking the easy road”: The experiences of ultramarathon runners. The Sport Psychologist, 28(2), 176-185.

Strayed, C. (2012). Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing.

Tarrant, M. A., Manfredo, M. J., & Driver, B. L. (1994). Recollections of outdoor recreation experiences: A psychophysiological perspective. Journal of Leisure Research, 26(4), 357-371.

Taylor, L. L., & Norman, W. C. (2019). The influence of mindfulness during the travel anticipation phase. Tourism Recreation Research, 44(1), 76-90.

Teherani, A., Martimianakis, T., Stenfors-Hayes, T., Wadhwa, A., & Varpio, L. (2015). Choosing a qualitative research approach. Journal of graduate medical education, 7(4), 669-670.

Tsaur, S. H., Yen, C. H., & Hsiao, S. L. (2013). Transcendent experience, flow and happiness for mountain climbers. International Journal of Tourism Research, 15(4), 360-374.

Turley, B., & Goldenberg, M. (2013). Assessment of readjusting to life after completing a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 5(1), 96-107.

Walker, G. J., Hull IV, R. B., & Roggenbuck, J. W. (1998). On-site optimal experiences and their relationship to off-site benefits. Journal of Leisure Research, 30(4), 453-471.

Zweier, D. (2016). Appalachian Trail on the Rise. Retrieved March 23, 2017 from






Regular Papers