A lot of hikers are feeling the loss of a thru hike this season as 2020 summer plans are falling through due to the pandemic. Even if we haven’t been planning and preparing for a long walk of our own, books about thru hiking can transport us to the trail anytime, from anywhere.
We’ll be honest in saying we wish there were more diverse authors on this list (publishers – there is so much opportunity here!), but we did our best to round up a variety of memoirs and nonfiction stories from authors of different ages and backgrounds, all focused on thru-hikes of the United States.
Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart is transportive. The pace of her words, which are at times poetic and bordering on stream of consciousness, mirror your mind on the trail. It’s an honest account that delves into the psychology of thru-hiking.
A young black comedian from Brooklyn suddenly had extra time on his hands after a job was cut short. He’d never been an outdoorsperson before, but he knew of the AT and wondered if he could complete it on a whim. Spoiler alert: he does. This account of his journey is infused with humor and a lot of heart as Lugo completes the trail.
Gail Francis spends five months on the PCT the summer before her 40th birthday. Although she sets out alone, her story includes many of the people she meets along the way.
In 1993 and fresh out of college, Suzanne Roberts hiked the John Muir Trail (Nüümü Poyo) with two girlfriends. This memoir combines her memory with a detailed journal she kept on the trip, and because she has companions, Almost Somewhere is a story of growth and adventure, and also of female bonding.
The youngest hiker and author on the list, Aspen Matis hiked the PCT at age 19 after leaving her campus life behind. An extension of her beautiful essay on the popular NYT column, Modern Love, Girl in the Woods is a story about healing after a rape and finding yourself on the trail.
A broader look at a trail in context of the route’s land and its history, Where the Waters Divide includes thorough historical references and anecdotes of the towns and regions this hiker couple visited along the way—through grazing lands and reservations, ghost towns and wilderness areas, through five states and across the Rocky Mountains up the Continental Divide.
In 1955 at age 67, Emma Gatewood told her family she was going out for a walk, and became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone. She walked it a second and third time, and became so well known and vocal about the footpath that her attention (and complaints) encouraged trail maintenance, and likely saved the trail from extinction. Montgomery wrote this biography with diaries, journals, interviews with family and fellow hikers, in celebration of Grandma Gatewood’s accomplishments.
In 36 days, Melanie Radzicki McManus hiked the entire Ice Age trail, covering 1,100 miles of Wisconsin’s forests, prairies, wetlands, and landscapes shaped by ancient glaciers.
With no experience and little preparation, Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail at age 22 after being driven to the thru hike by a dark past, including the death of her mother. This book was published two decades after her hike. Strayed’s honesty and wit guide readers through days of heartache and healing on her journey.
Lori Olliver-Tiernney was out of shape and overweight when, at fifty, she decided to start a thru-hike. With knee braces and an asthma inhaler, she ‘trudges’ the trail and sifts through her own memories along the way.
As an environmental historian, Mittlefehldt gives the Appalachian Trail context. Tangled Roots is an examination of the development and maintenance of the AT, from grassroots efforts to a federal trail project, and it’s a complicated story of cooperation between public and private efforts. Ultimately Mittlefehldt looks forward at how we can continue to steward environmentalism alongside all the development and commerce of the modern era.
Unlike all the other hiking stories in this list, Scraping Heaven includes hiking with children. Ross and her husband had already completed thru-hikes of their own when they decided to take their two children (one still in diapers) on the CDT. To make the journey safe and bearable with young children, they utilized pack llamas and completed the trail over the course of several summers rather than all in one go.
Heather Anderson had completed the backpacking “Triple Crown” (PCT, CDT, AT) and earned her trail name Anish by age 25, but a few years later, she turned away from the life she’d built to hike again. This memoir examines the more intense aspects of thru-hiking, like the athleticism required to set FKT (fastest-known-time) records and Anderson’s single-mindedness at accomplishing her goals.
After college and seeking direction in life, Jennifer Pharr Davis thru-hikes 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine. The 5-month journey is the most physically and mentally challenging time in her life, testing her spirituality and ultimately allowing some discovery of self as a student of the trail.
Sydney’s thru-hike of the Trans-Catalina Trail in California set her on a healing journey that changed her life, and inspired her to share that power with others. This book isn’t so much a collection of trail tales as a workbook and guide to help you make changes in your life.
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