More people are hiking long trails end to end, particularly on some crown jewels in the U.S. Word of mouth and hard data bear that out.
The number of Americans day-hiking has risen 22 percent over the past three years, and backpacking is up 11 percent, said Wesley Trimble of the American Hiking Society, a Colorado-based advocacy group.
And, Trimble said, “I haven’t talked to a single (trail) organization that hasn’t seen an increase (in thru-hiking) over the last five years for sure.”
Two paths that touch the Midwest are seeing more thru- hikers, too — or at least more hikers out for longer stretches. The greatest interest on the North Country National Scenic Trail, the nation’s longest footpath, is thru-hiking by state.
The North Country’s association set down rules in 2012 for recognizing thru-hikes. Four hikers joined its 4,000-mile club in 2016. Executive Director Andrea Ketchmark said two people now are trying to hike all 4,600 miles end to end, but the extreme length has inherent barriers. The North Country trail spans from Lake Sakakawea, northwest of Bismarck, N.D., across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and finishes in Port Henry in northeast New York state.
“It’s a challenge to do 4,000 miles, but we are seeing people who want to do entire states. We are seeing people who want to go farther,” Ketchmark said.
The trail has positioned itself as an alternative to more popular and heavily traveled trails such as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian, which saw hiking numbers spike after popular books and movies circulated in recent years.
Numbers show thru-hiking 1,000 miles across Wisconsin is something people want to do on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The first person to walk the trail end to end was Jim Staudacher, a student then, in 1979. Fifty more followed over the next 30 years, said Eric Sherman, membership director for the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Then came a sizable jump in a shorter time. Since 2009, 120 more have completed thru- hikes. While not staggering numbers, they are a tangible sign of increased interest in a trail that even its home state residents still are discovering.
“I guess it is a steep learning curve,” Sherman said. “There is a lot to be learned still.”
Only half complete, with much of it connected by country roads, the Ice Age is still a trail in progress. Sherman said newcomers can’t imagine it being hiked in full if it is not complete. But once hiked, the trail wins over users.
“It’s like a triumph of low expectations,” Sherman said. “You are not expecting much once you get out of the woods and starting walking down the shoulder of the road, but that is where you have the nice interactions with people who live along those roads.”
What’s driving the uptick? Multiple things, said Trimble.
• Media. The Pacific Crest Trail Association saw a spike in thru-hikers after Cheryl Strayed wrote with suspense and humor of her PCT hike in her 2012 best-selling book, “Wild.”
The movie version with Reese Witherspoon in 2014 also boosted numbers, said Trimble, who walked the trail himself in 2014. What “Wild” did for the PCT, “Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson did for the Appalachian Trail.
• Cultural shifts. Millennials, the biggest population of U.S. workers, crave freedom from a traditional 9-to-5. Many are opting for freelance work, giving them freedom to take on a multiweek thru-hike unimpeded.
“Millennials value lifestyle and experience over wealth and stability,” Trimble said. “Those two things play really well in the thru-hiking culture.” During his own thru- hike of the PCT in 2014, he said, he ran into many others taking sabbaticals from their jobs or working for startups with flexible schedules.
• Off the grid. “A lot of people are looking to get away from the busyness and technology and connect with nature,” Trimble said. Long-distance hiking affords the time — and place — to recalibrate.