top of page
  • Writer's pictureIan Adler

Thru-Hiking Through History (and Around the World)

What comes to mind when you think of a “thru-hiker?” For most folks, a bulky backpack, dirty hiking boots, and some trekking poles are poking out from a tent somewhere in the woods. No disrespect to the thru-hikers in the crowd, but walking for hundreds or thousands of miles with little on your back is really nothing original. To put it into perspective, America’s first long-distance trail, the Long Trail in Vermont, is only a touch over one hundred years old. The gear load-out from then to now has probably gotten considerably lighter and there are probably fewer horses, but the biggest distinction between then and now is the motivation.

Bear Rocks, a popular lookout along the Appalachian Trail in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Photo by Ian Adler.

With the rise of industrialization, manufacturing, and white-collar work, outdoor recreation and the outdoor industry was a born-necessity. The Appalachian Trail, for example, cut through the hills and mountaintops because of Benton Mackaye’s vision for a refuge from the toils of modern society and working life. Mackaye sought a place for hikers in Appalachia to escape and travel alongside like-minded outdoors-folk, which millions in America still do today. Across the world, pilgrims, traders, hunters, merchants, foragers, and others have been “hiking” the landscape and their own networks of routes and trails without taking a break from their working lives–it was their life. Some of these trails, such as the 1,200 year old Shikoku henro in Japan, still follow the original route. Others, however, may honor the former inhabitants of the land through name, stewardship principles, or otherwise, not following any one specific centuries-old route.

Jordan: The Jordan Trail

The Jordan Trail
Captured by Kasak Photo via Matador Network

A walk through Jordan’s countryside on the 1,080 mile Jordan Trail is a glimpse into the distant past. For thousands of years, the coastal Mediterranean has been a vital trade route and has hosted vibrant cultures and settlers. The Jordan Trail Association (JTA) boasts that modern-day hikers will get to

experience the best of both history and

culture along the JT, whether through fascinating and wicked-cool geology, ruins from past civilizations, or a stay with local Jordanians. The Jordan Trail is the newest established long-distance trail in this article, and as such, very few hikers have ever completed it in its entirety. The first complete traverse of the actual trail was made in 2016 by local Bedouins, nomads who have been traversing the land for many years for seasonal herding and farming.

Japan: The Shikoku Pilgrimage

The Shikoku Pilgrimage
Photo courtesy of Japan Starts Here

For over a thousand years, dedicated pilgrims have been traveling the 900 mile Shikoku henro. The footpath around the island of Shikoku follows in the 1,200 year old footsteps of legendary Kukai, or Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and an extremely important figure in Japanese history. Today, the trail hosts very few pilgrims traversing the whole route in one single shot–the bulk of travelers come out and do small sections on foot or in vehicles, visiting one or several of the 88 official temples along the path as day or weekend trips. Many travelers are dedicated and will make a point to visit each one of them, seeking to venerate Kukai, local spirits, or other religious figures, and thus gain salvation and benefits during this life. Since this path is more of a religious pilgrimage than a trail designed for “thru-hiking,” there are more courtesies than rules regarding its travel. You’ll recognize dedicated pilgrims by their white hakui (白衣), sugegasa hat (菅笠), and kongozue (金剛杖) or staff. All of these items emulate Kukai in his original travels around Shikoku and hold religious significance for pilgrims. If you’re curious about the experience of a new thru-hiker on the Shikoku henro, I recommend Episode #87 of the Backpacker Radio’s podcast with Paul Barach.

Europe: Via Francigena and the Camino de Santiago

At about 1,100 miles, the Via Francigena is comparable in length and origin to the Shikoku henro. In 990 C.E., Archbishop Sigeric set off for the holy land of Rome from the Canterbury Cathedral in England, making the trip entirely on foot. Writings from that era suggest that the path had been used by pilgrims for hundreds of years, but Sigeric’s journey is the first written evidence of a complete traverse of the Via Francigena. The pilgrimage route will take contemporary hikers through four countries, from the vineyard-laden French countryside, to the foothills of the Swiss and Italian Alps, to the cliffs of Dover in England.

Around the same time period, religious European pilgrims made the trek to Northwest Spain to the remains of Saint James. Known as the Camino de Santiago, the length of the trek and path itself varies depending on the hiker’s starting point. The veins of the Camino de Santiago grew from ancient Roman roads and pathways that early pilgrims trekked. At around 500 miles, the Camino Francés is the most popular route, more notorious on its own than the Via Francigena is as a whole. Many of today’s travelers are themselves religious pilgrims, much like the travelers of the Shikoku henro in Japan.

America: Coast to Coast

America’s “Triple Crown”–the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail–are all no more than one hundred years old. The Continental Divide Trail, the most recently developed of the three, runs from border to border, New Mexico to Montana, and is the longest of the three at over 3,000 miles. The Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) are each around 2 and a half thousand miles and see foot traffic in the millions, yet less than 500 people hike each trail in their entirety every year. These three trails are easily the most recognizable as far as “thru-hiking” goes, but travel on-foot in what is now the United States of America is as old as its first inhabitants. Legislation in the late 1960’s established protections and support for a system of nationally recognized trails, of which there are 19 National Historic Trails.

Coast to Coast Trail
Courtesy of Discovery Trails

Some of America’s long-distance trails, such as the Trail of Tears and Nez-Perce Trail, commemorate and honor Indigenous history. Often going unrecognized, thousands of footpaths all across the continent were once used by pre-colonial Natives. Today, these paths may be covered by asphalt as major highways or small town roads or walked by casual day-hikers like you and me. Seek out information from a local trail organization, nature center, or history book to find out about the land you choose to recreate on and live from.

Australia: Bibbulmun Track

The Bibbulmun Track was named by Len Talbot after a subgroup of the Noongar or Nyungar, some of Western Australia’s indigenous people. For thousands of years before white settlers arrived on the main island, the Noongar had been traversing the land for many reasons. As the settlers understood it, the Noongar would often travel great distances between groups or tribes for ceremonial gatherings, a sort of “pilgrimage” of their own. The Bibbulmun Track prides itself on a set of guidelines similar to the “Leave No Trace” principles common in America’s outdoor recreational spaces. Out of respect to the land and its current and former residents, the Bibbulmun included, hikers camping out must stay at established shelters along the way to reduce their impact.

While the 965 km, or 600 miles, of trail doesn’t exactly follow any known paths used by the Noongar, the name is meant to respect their history and connection to the land. Roughly 80,000 hikers step foot on the trail today, and those going the distance will cover ground between the Northern terminus just outside of Perth and the Southern terminus near Albany. The Bibbulmun Track’s conception in the late 1960’s grew from a recognized need for better long-distance hiking and casual recreational opportunities in the state of Western Australia (WA). It wasn’t until 1979, however, that the trail was officially opened and the first thru-hikers completed the full traverse. Since then, it has grown considerably in popularity and quality thanks to some much-needed revisions and additions in the mid- to late-nineties. As a result of volunteer power, considerable funding, and the labor of incarcerated individuals from nearby prisons, the Bibbulmun Track was rerouted and wooden shelters were erected along the way.

About the Author

I'm Ian (he/his), an educator by trade and cat-dad by nature. Catch me up in North-Central Vermont looking for birds, hiding from mogul runs, hanging with the cats, and staying hydrated! I'm writing for the Requipper blog as a way to share ideas & information and facilitate some dialogue about how we connect with the outdoors.

bottom of page