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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.