Footprints of hiking’s popularity are everywhere
More people are hiking long trails from end to end, particularly on some of the crown jewels in the United States. Word of mouth and hard data bear that out.
There are no specific overall numbers regarding thru-hiking nationally, but there are markers of hiking's popularity, said Wesley Trimble, outreach and communications manager at the American Hiking Society, an advocacy group based in Colorado. The number of Americans day-hiking has risen 22 percent over the last three years, and there has been an 11 percent increase in backpacking.
Trail associations back up the idea, too, Trimble said. "I haven't talked to a single 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 for recognizing thru-hikes beginning in 2012. Four hikers joined its 4,000-mile club in 2016, including James Lunning of Minneapolis. Andrea Ketchmark, the nonprofit's executive director, said she knows of two hikers currently attempting 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 like 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 at the time, in 1979. Fifty more people followed his lead over the next 30 years, said Eric Sherman, membership director for the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Then, came a sizable jump in a shorter amount of time. Since 2009, 120 more people 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 and much of it connected by country roads, the Ice Age is still a trail in progress. Sherman said there is a misunderstanding among newcomers to the trail, who 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."
The interest is expected to continue as the alliance adds trail miles through land acquisitions or easements, and people dig into resources like the trail guide or Mammoth Tracks app.
"If you are interested in taking on some big adventure like this, the amount of information you have is night and day compared to 20 years ago," Sherman said. "That explains a lot. "
Motivations are many
What's driving the uptick? Multiple things, said Trimble of the American Hiking Society.
• Media. The Pacific Crest Trail Association showed a spike in thru-hikers after author Cheryl Strayed (formerly of Minnesota) wrote with suspense and humor of her PCT hike in her 2012 bestselling 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. This is two-pronged. Millennials, who have become the biggest population of U.S. workers, crave freedom from a traditional 9-to-5. Many are opting for freelance work, and that freedom is manifesting in what they do in their spare time, Trimble said. Some millennials are seeking jobs that allow the free time to, say, 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." Trimble recalled his own thru-hike of the PCT in 2014. He ran into many others of his ilk who were taking sabbaticals from their jobs or who worked for startups with flexible job 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.