Thru-Hiking Through Climate Change

Photo: Robert Pavsic/Getty Images

“I remember thinking: So this is the nature I felt one with at the peak,” Connie, a long-term hiker, says describing her last hike, in May 2021, through northern Germany. “I hope I’m not as broken as she is.” She’d been hiking for three days when she made it down one side of the Harz Mountain in Oker, near Lower Saxony. Looking down, about 800 meters below her, the forest trees all lay dead. A massive storm had come through the area in 2018, which further damaged the trees that were already weakened because it had been too dry. All that, and the bark beetle became a pest that raged beyond the control of the forest rangers. Of course the storm, the dryness, and the beetles were all a direct result of the same thing: man-made climate change.

Long-distance hikers like Connie —“thru-hikers” who camp and hike on a trail for extended periods of time, ranging from one week to over a year — are determined to see as much of the planet as possible on foot. “I love being outside for that long,” says Kendra, 36, who’s hiked for hundreds of days at a time along the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. (She goes by “Skunkbear” on the trail.) “I love how simple life gets — wake up, move forward, eat, sleep, that’s it. I’ve never regretted time I’ve spent walking in nature. I love the pointlessness of it. It’s not productive, or useful, the only meaning it has is the meaning I and others give it. And yet, I feel like it’s an excellent use of time.” These hikers experience parts of the world inaccessible to anyone not willing to trudge for days on end, which means they have a front-row seat to just how much hotter and more treacherous the planet is becoming.

The trails themselves have grown undeniably more dangerous, no matter where they are. “In the California desert, heat and the drying up of springs would be the biggest risk,” explains Dr. Brad Marston, founder of the APS Topical Group on the Physics of Climate. “In the mountains, it’s forest fire. Along the Continental Divide Trail, there may be an increase in lightning. And along the Appalachian Trail, one can expect heavier rains and stronger storm winds, causing erosion and tree falls.”

The risks extend beyond the elements, though: Hikers told me of animals behaving more aggressively because of heat-related disruptions to their natural food sources. “Bears are already a little bit of an issue out West, and if they hibernate less and wake up hungrier because of climate change, they’ll be looking for us and our food,” says Michael. Nonetheless, the 33-year-old tells me, he finds dogs scarier than bears, at least for now. “I’ve had issues with wild dogs in New Mexico. They would chase me down and nip at my ankles. Had the dogs been polite or nice, I would’ve given them some beef jerky, but no. The only way to deal with them was just to outrun them. I wonder what will happen if coyotes and wild horses start looking for food from us too.”

Outrunning anything is easier said than done considering a thru-hiker already carries their housing, bedding, kitchen, medicine cabinet, and closet on their back for months at a time. Any added weight can limit who is able to complete the hikes at all, and these days, hikers have to plan around extreme heat, which makes packing trickier. “There’s much more reliance these days on water caches left by ‘trail angels’ than on natural sources, which are drying up earlier each year, or not even coming back,” says James, 34, who’s been hiking since he was a child. “There are water sources listed in maps/guides that you may not be able to count on if there wasn’t enough snow over the winter,” says Michael. “A packer would be wise to carry four to five liters of water, which unfortunately adds a lot to your weight.” Pack weight alone isn’t the only reason hiking may soon be limited to only the fittest travelers. Milder winters have led to tick explosions on the Appalachian Trail, which means an increased risk of Lyme disease. And trails are becoming harder to maintain as climate change alters the terrain more quickly, and an unmaintained trail requires more dexterity to navigate.

For long-distance thru-hikers, many of whom plan their trips for years, weather extremes also make trips harder to schedule. I spoke to James about his preparation for the Pacific Coast Trail, the West Coast trail from Mexico to Canada, popularized by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. “When I first started researching the PCT, choosing a start date was only mentioned as a matter of preference,” says James. “Now, it’s a balancing act of leaving late enough to avoid dangerous snowpack in the mountains, but not too late that you find yourself in Northern California in the middle of fire season.” Then there are the paths that have become inaccessible, no matter the time of year. “On the Pacific Crest Trail, the chances of finishing a thru-hike where you walk a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada is looking more impossible to complete every year, due to fires closing portions of the trail. Hikers are left having to skip and hitchhike around portions of trail,” says James. For thru-hikers, closed trails aren’t the same as closed highways; part of the appeal is doing the entire trail. Imagine you spend five years planning the biggest adventure of your life. Once you start it, you find you have to leave the trail every few days because of forest fires. “In some of these hikes, the water sources are pretty scarce in sections and it matters when in the season they dry up,” says Kendra. “Changing snow and rain patterns really affects that. Not to say I wouldn’t do the hike, but the water situation might change how and when I do the hike, and the fire situation might change my expectations — it becomes less and less sure you can hike some of these trails in one season because large areas might be unsafe due to fire. Despite your best efforts it might just not be possible that year to hike the whole trail.” Thru-hiking is hard enough: Hikers don’t need the unexpected climate to make the treks even harder to complete.

With climate change comes climate anxiety, and thru-hikers — with their up-close view of devastation most of us only read about — know the feeling all too well. “Feeling a heatwave build day after day, the dryness of the air and ground, feet of brush piled up in the forest, then waking up one day to smell nearby smoke is a much more visceral firsthand experience than just reading an abstract headline about how climate change is affecting us, or of a fire that erupts that you have no connection with,” says James.
However, most of the hikers I spoke to were concerned, but not fatalistic or angry. “Long hikes are always worth it in the end,” Connie told me. “It’s an adventure full of bad surprises and good surprises and amazing and not so amazing discoveries. To fully enjoy it, you need to keep an open mind.” In fact, many saw themselves as an important voice in heightening awareness. “Collectively, the community can identify trends,” says Michael. “Unless you’re doing the same stretch of trail repeatedly year after year you may not realize ‘this sure is a lot less snow than two years ago.’ But hiking groups can post about certain stretches and water sources online, and then it becomes easier to identify the long-term effects of reduced snowfall or wildfires on an area.”

I’ve always dreamed of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It seemed hard enough; I certainly wasn’t looking for climate change to offer an added challenge. But — as I heard from so many hikers — it’s still very doable. A strain of optimism courses through the community. Cautious optimism: Not one of the 20-plus hikers I spoke to wasn’t concerned about climate change. But not one of them intended to quit, either. As long as there’s a planet to explore, they intend to explore it.

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