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Different Styles of Section Hiking

Styles of Section Hiking
Styles of Section Hiking

There are many different ways of section hiking a long trail, perhaps as many as there are section hikers. Some section hikers plan their hikes down to the last detail while others don’t do much planning at all. Here are some of the most common styles of section hiking, along with examples of the route and resupply plans that section hikers use to hike them.

Slackpacking

A lot of section hikers like to do a combination of day hiking and overnight backpacking when they hike a section. They’ll sleep at a B&B or trail hostel for a few days and get shuttled out each morning by their host to where they left off the previous day. They still carry a day pack with lunch and essentials, but it’s not as heavy because they’re not carrying any camping gear, cooking gear, or a heavy food bag.

Slackpacking Plan courtesy of 'Pilot'
Slackpacking Plan courtesy of ‘Pilot’ (zoom to view)

This is a very civilized way to hike a long trail because you can slackpack difficult sections of the trail and backpack easier ones, with a hot breakfast most mornings and a shower most nights.

Slackpacking takes a lot of planning if you intend to hike a one or two week section of trail because you need to switch hostels the farther you hike along the trail. Paying for your lodging and shuttles can be expensive and you’ll need to carefully plan out which meals you’ll be getting and which you need to supply yourself.

You also have to have to compile a list of water source locations and landmarks that you would expect to see on the trail, much like a backpacker would, or carry a guidebook or guidebook pages, that has this information.

But slackpacking is a lot easier than pure backpacking and puts you in contact with a lot of hikers, making it a very social and relaxed way to section hike a trail.

Backpacking

Many section hikers also enjoy backpacking on long trails, hiking, and camping every night, for a few days to a week at a time. Back in the old days, before the publication of trail guides or backpacking apps, (like The AT Guide or Guthook’s Hiker Apps) it took a lot of work to plan a long trail backpacking trip, even if it was just a few days long. You had to pour over topographic maps and find all of the water sources, shelters and campsites, and road crossings by yourself.

But most long distance trails are well documented now with guidebooks or data books that list all of that information. You still need to plan your daily mileage, bring the right gear, pack a food bag, and sequence your water stops and campsites, but it’s far easier to orchestrate a trip because the research has already been done for you.

AT Guide Trail Detail
AT Guide Trail Detail

Here’s an example from David Miller’s AT Guide which is available in paperback and pdf form for use on smartphones or The Kindle.

Car-Assisted Backpacking

Some Backpacking section hikers will sequence several multi-day sections together, resupplying from a car that they keep on the trail or nearby. The best way to do this to leave your car at your destination and take a hiker shuttle back to the beginning of the section, so you hike forward to your car.

Car-assisted sections are good because they take the uncertainty out of resupply stops so you can carry better quality food on your trip. Having a car near the trail also gives you the opportunity to take a few days off between sections, drive to a motel to get cleaned up, or replace broken gear if you have a mis-hap on the trail.

Planning a car-assisted trip is a little more complicated than a regular backpacking style trip because you need to arrange for hiker shuttles as you move your car up the trail, but it provides you with a lot more independence, especially in rural areas where it can be very difficult to get around without a vehicle.

Thru-Hiking Style

Another section hiking strategy is to hike a segment of a long trail like a thru-hiker. There’s very little advance planning required except traveling to and from your start and end point. All you really need to do is to figure out what gear you need for your trip, whether there are decent resupply options available every couple of days along your route, and how many days of food you need to pick up every time you need to resupply. If there aren’t enough good food sources, you might have to send yourself general delivery food boxes that you can pick up at a post office.

Thru-hiker Style Section Hiking and Food Plan that documents likely resupply points and how many days of food to buy at each one.
Thru-hiker Style Section Hiking and Food Plan that documents likely resupply points and how many days of food to buy at each one.

While you have a rough plan in place, you don’t have to stick with it if you want to modify it. As long as you can resupply when you need to, you can hike at whatever pace you want since you don’t have any pre-made hostel reservations or travel arrangements for when you have to finish your section. It still helps to have cell phone and trail guide for the section of trail you plan to hike, but you don’t need to make a lot of plans in advance.

While section hiking a long trail thru-hiker style gives you a lot of flexibility and freedom, the shuttle and transportation fees associated with getting to the trail and getting back home, if you need to abort a trip part-way, can be expensive if you’re hiking in a remote rural area.

You can day hike a long trail by hiking to the last place you stopped using feeder or blue blaze trails
You can day hike a long trail (blue line) by hiking to the last place you stopped using feeder or blue blaze trails, hike a few more miles, and hike back out.

Day Hiking

It’s also possible to section hike many long trails as day hikes, provided they have a lot of road crossings or trail junctions with local trail systems. The Appalachian Trail is a good example since it was routed through so many pre-existing trail systems maintained by many clubs up and down the east coast of the United State.

For example, if you set out to day-hike the Appalachian Trail, you’re going to spend a lot of time driving down back roads to remote road crossings or hiking back to the AT along blue-blazed feeder trails. Once you make your way back to the trail where you left off the last time, you can hike a small section, and then hike out again and go home. I’ve hiked hundreds of miles of the Appalachian Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail this way and it can be a great way to make progress when you don’t have the time for a multi-day backpacking trip or you want to hike your local trail system in addition to a long trail that runs through it. 

The Day Hiking Style requires careful record keeping of the miles you’ve hiked, good trail maps, and backcountry road maps like Delorme Gazetteers. Google Maps is not up to snuff for finding remote trailheads or following many seasonal forest service roads.

How does your style of Section Hiking compare to these?

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17 comments

  1. I have been section hiking the AT, Damascus VA to NJ, by the Thru-hiker method. However,as I am now an “older gentleman” the B&B-Hostel hopping method appeals to me. Wish I could get my hands of a guide to do so. Do you know of such a guide, or can you recommend how I might cobble together such a section hike?

  2. Philip, I like your day/mileage chart above. Did you make that or is there some app?

  3. Lack of shuttle options are killing me right now as I plan to section hike the Oregon Desert Trail. The AT sounds luxurious!

  4. How do you find hiker shuttles ?
    What kind of distances will they usually drive ?
    Would they be a good method for doing 3-5 day section hikes (leaving the car at one end) ?
    Or are they usually only good for a 1-2 day type of thing ?
    (Assuming hikes cover roughly 20 miles of the AT per day).

    • I have found shuttle info in the trail guides as well as via the hostels I have stayed at and the trail guidebooks. The AT guidebooks usually have a lot of this information by section and the ATC also has a list of folks that provide shuttles. I have even used local taxi services in some areas like the Berkshires – you will likely find that they are used to providing those kind of services due to their locations. You can also check forum type sites like Whiteblaze as many hikers who frequent those kind of sites will be more than willing to share the info and provide perspective on how good or bad they were.

      There have been AT sections where I have had the shuttle service meet me at one location where I left my car and hiked back to it over as few as one and as long as seven days. I have also had shuttles provided at the end of a trip and driven me as far as 2.5 hours back to my car and the hostel. It usually comes down to money and most services will charge a rate based on the mileage driven. If they won’t drive as far as you need they may be able to provide you with the name of someone who will (have had this happen as well).

      Hope this helps

  5. The more I look at the logistics of all these options, even extending the hike over years or a lifetime in order to complete the whole trail (nothing wrong with this or simply not finishing it at all, just enjoying the experience), the more just going as light as absolutely possible, learning to suffer for a few months and just getting it done seems more attractive. The logistics of trying to piece it all together over the years seems a little overwhelming. I’m not saying i want to put myself through hell for 3 or 4 months just to finish, but it does have its attractions considering the time, costs and planning of piecing it all together through the years….also for the goal of just to finish it.

  6. My daughter and I are currently day-hiking the Connecticut part of the New England Trail. It has the required “road crossings or trail junctions with local trail systems”. The essential ingredient is two cars!

  7. My husband and I have day hiked all of the AT in our county, Nelson, Va. and an 8 mile section in Amherst. We’re working on the Shenandoah now….15 more miles to go in the southern section now that the fire is over, thank Goodness! Over the summer, we’ll tackle the Central and Northern sections. If I’m allowed to have a trail name, I think it should be Dot to Dot, because that’s how I’m hiking the trail!

  8. Two close friends and I section-hiked the entire AT. It took a total of twenty-seven consecutive years. While many will criticize and belittle our effort, I would not have done anything differently. The reasons why I feel this way are many, but the end-result was nothing short of outstanding. Dr Pepper is alive and well with enough memories to last several lifetimes.

    • I can’t understand why anyone would belittle your efforts! I think they’re outstanding. I started the AT in 2007 and I’m still plugging away at it. I’m not in any rush to finish it to be honest. I have plenty of other places I want to hike to. Variety is the spice of life and hiking

      • Their point was that twenty-seven years do not constitute a thru-hike, which I never said I did. In fact, I would argue that doing the trail my way is more difficult, but that’s another matter. Thanks for your response..M. -30-

  9. My two sons and I have day hiked the Appalachian Trail from Blackburn Trail Center in Virginia to Route 9 in Vermont. My youngest son is 11 and is severely Autistic. Physically he is awesome and loves hiking because I think trails make sense to him. He has no functional speech, but sings songs that vary from Jingle Bells to AC/DC. My wife has a side antique business and drops us off and picks us up down the trail using GPS coordinates. This summer vacation we stayed at a friends condo in Manchester Center Vermont and hiked about 50 miles of trail. My wife found treasures in Hanover, Rutland and Bennington amongst others so our mileage is not consecutive. We used this style to do the other states. The plan is to do some of Virginia and keep pecking away at Vermont as I would like to do the middle third of the AT and at least some trail in each state for now. We have also done a little in NH and Maine. I have always read your accounts of the trail and found your trips and advice helpful and I thank you for that. The 22 mile stretch from Route 9 north has me concerned as I cannot get him to camp out. The most miles we have ever done is 16 and those were relatively flat. I had planned on doing this this summer, but he developed a limp that concerned me. The limp seems to have disappeared so the shorter hiking was a success. I just want to thank you again. Sincerely, Richard Brahm AKA Flippertree ( my wife’s antique business)

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