I’ve thru-hiked and section-hiked the PCT. Which is better?

Liz Thomas is a 2023 FarOut Scout

Liz Thomas a Thru hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail
Photo provided by Liz Thomas

I’ve completed the PCT twice: once as a four-month thru-hike from Mexico to Canada and once as a nearly ten year section hike. People ask me which is better.

While I will always treasure the exhilaration of finishing my first end-to-end thru-hikes and the friendships formed over many months, ultimately, I found my section hike to be more satisfying. That’s why I often encourage folks who attempted a thru-hike but were thwarted by wildfire, snow, injury, or running out of money to come back the following summer and pick up where they got off. 

With climate change and more wildfires, more and more thru-hikers are finding themselves becoming section hikers whether they started with that intention or not. Here’s why that isn’t a bad thing.

Section hiking gave me something to look forward to in the off-season

When I finished my thru-hike, I was thrown into uncertainty and post-hike blues.

But each year as a section-hiker, I knew that I’d have the trail to come back to. The trail was a constant I could rely on, even as life threw so much at me. 

Some years, that meant 500 miles. Some years, I only mustered the time off to hike 30 miles. Piece by piece, each section went from being an abstract line on a map and a hazy memory from my thru-hike to a whole new memory that I could recreate myself.

PCT Hiker standing on the top of the steep hill with water running below
Photo provided by Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas thru-hiking the PCT
Photo provided by Liz Thomas

Being present and forming memories

As a section hiker, I saw section F, from Tehachapi to Walker Pass, as a magical winter wonderland with a dusting of snow. As a thru-hiker, all I remember from that section was being hot and thirsty.

On a thru-hike, it was easy to discount entire mountain ranges as a “connector trail” between iconic landmarks and national parks. As a section hiker, I found that I processed and remembered each mile a little more. I could appreciate each section on its own merits. I could be more present.

Liz Thomas a Thru hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail
Photo provided by Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas a Thru hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail
Photo provided by Liz Thomas

A long, long-term goal

I can’t think of a single other thing in my life that I’ve gone into knowing it would take so long to complete as a section-hike. The weird thing is I went into this knowing it could take this long and I CHOSE it, because it mattered. For me, that’s what being a section hiker is about. It wasn’t a 4 month commitment, like my thru-hike of the PCT. It was something I wanted to gnaw at me everyday for years. 

Now that I’ve finished my section hike, there’s relief in knowing there are no more dangling miles I have left to fill in. But as annoying as the challenge of shuttles to get to and from trailheads can be, I miss the puzzle. “Canada fever” is a real thing for thru-hikers. As a section-hiker, it’s chronic.

PCT Hiker collecting mail while on trail
Photo provided by Liz Thomas
PCT Hiker about to blow a dandelion
Photo provided by Liz Thomas

On judgment in the hiking community

Still, one of the challenges of section-hiking, especially as I encountered thru-hikers, was judgment. People who had no idea of my other thru-hikes were quick to give me advice, and sometimes came off condescending. 

The trail is a place where no matter how many miles you’ve hiked and how quickly you’ve covered them, you should be appreciated for you. Whether you’re thru-hiking or section hiking, long trails offer us fun, adventure, growth and friendship. There are so many different ways to experience a long trail. Now that I’ve hiked the PCT both ways, I love the trail even more.

A woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail standing with a lake and mountain in the background
Photo provided by Liz Thomas
Liz Thomas hiking and standing on a mountain with mountains and trees behind her
Photo provided by Liz Thomas

Liz Thomas is a FarOut ambassador and author of Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike, which won the National Book Award for Best Instructional Book. She’s co-founder of Treeline Review and co-wrote its PCT Gear List & Strategy guide, a free resource for planning a hike of the PCT.