How To Spot A Thru Hiker

They day out of Donner Pass was a busy day. It is a popular spot for day hikers and we were basically celebrities on trail. Every person we passed would ask, “So, where are you guys headed?” Or they would say, “How far have you guys come?” And we would reply Canada or Mexico depending on what they had asked. Then people’s faces would brighten up, clearly they had expected us to be thru hikers and were delighted when their assumption turned out to be correct. Then they would begin the usual line of questioning: how far do you hike every day, how long have you been hiking for, how do you get food, how much longer will you be on trail, are you carrying a gun. There were a couple people though who must just be curious by nature because when we replied with Canada or Mexico they looked utterly shocked. They were not expecting that. Even once we give a brief overview of the trail people still seem confused. Their ears must be deceiving them… Then there are the people who don’t even need to ask, they just come straight out with it, “How much further to Canada!” Or, “Say hi to Canada for me!” These are people who are familiar with the trail, perhaps they hike this area often or perhaps they once thru hiked the PCT themselves. Regardless, if you know what to look for a thruhiker is not hard to spot. As Kyle and I move through bubbles of people that we have never seen before we love to play the “Thruhiker or Not a Thuhiker” game.

Here are the things to look for when you are determining whether someone is a thruhiker or not:

Right Time, Right Place:

First of all, make sure you are on the PCT. If you are on the PCT during thruhiker season (somewhere between April 15th to September 15th) then it is possible that the backpackers you are seeing are thruhikers. 

Dirt Factor:

Next, is the person walking towards you way dirtier than you are. Look at their skin, their legs, their face, their arms, are they caked in dirt? Also look at their gear and their clothing. If their backpack is covered in sweat stains and their clothes are permenantly blackened with dust it is likely that they are thruhikers. If their clothing is tattered and their backpack’s mesh pockets are sporting holes, also good signs of thruhiker-hood. 

Light and Fast: 

Most thru hikers, not all mind you, but most are traveling light and fast. You can start by looking at their feet. They are most likely wearing what will appear to be extremely old tennis shoes. They are also probably wearing gaiters, funny little fabric coverings that go over their ankles, and the gaiters are probably really brightly colored or embarrassingly patterned. After you check out their feet you can move on to their pack. Does it look slightly larger than a day hiking pack? Large mesh pockets stuffed with different odds and ends? Not a ton of things hanging off of the outside? No brain on the top? Smart water bottles poking out of the side pockets? If the answer was yes to a couple of the above questions you probably have a thru hiker on your hands. I don’t know a lot of thru hikers hiking with Nalgene bottles. 

Skin to Clothing Ratio:

Most thru hikers opt for less clothes. Even when there are bugs around they are probably wearing shorts and t-shirts. Bonus points if you spot a thru hiker in the morning who, even though it is chilly, is already stripped down to their shorts and tank tops. Start cold, I always say. The fact that most thru hikers wear so little clothing helps you also assess their tan. Remember, these people walked through the desert. It would be hard for them to get through that without some nicely bronzed limbs. 

Nice Legs: 

Look at their legs. Are they the legs of a sculpted Greek god, with thighs of steel and calves hewn from marble? Those might be the legs of someone who has walked more than a thousand miles. On the flip side you can also look at their arms, and if they look like piddily little sticks that can’t do more than lift a pair of trekking poles you probably have a thru hiker on your hands. 


If you begin talking to someone whom you suspect is a thruhiker keep a keen eye out for yogi-ing. This is where a thruhiker will cleverly manipulate you into giving them food or agreeing to drive them places. Often they will mention how hungry they are or ask pointed questions about how hitching seems on a certain road. Do not resent thruhikers for doing this, it is simply because they are starving and they either want your food or they want you to help them get into town so they can get more food. Maybe consider helping them out, you’ll be a trail angel if you do. 

Bonus! Tips for Spotting Thruhikers in Town: 

Look for the following things: 

  • Wearing strange ill fitting clothing that was potentially borrowed. 
  • Wearing rain pants and a rain coat despite it being extremely hot outside. 
  • Wearing see-through long johns and nothing else. 
  • Wearing any of the above things at a laundromat.  
  • Carrying around a stuff sack or a ziplock bag like it is a purse. 
  • Trying to hitch in town. 
  • Hobbling. 
  • Wearing crocs. 
  • Strange gaiter tan lines. 
  • Eating massive amounts of food at a restaurant. 
  • Carrying around filthy smart water bottles to stay hydrated. 
  • Backpacks propped outside of business. 

There you go, now you too can spot thruhikers, in town or on trail. 

Back to our day out of Donner Pass. Basically it was an easy eighteen mile day, with some small climbs and some great views. Lots of people said hello to us and one woman even gave us some starbursts. We went past the Peter Grubb Hut, which Kyle immediately declared he would never stay in because it was a spider haven. The highlight of the day was running into our friend Kristine who was workin with the PCTA! I mentioned her before, she was the ranger in the Desolation Wilderness area that we were so sad we had missed. But there we were, walking up the trail through a couple of PCTA worksites when suddenly I heard someone shouting out my name and it was her! We stood and chatted for as long as we could, but eventually we had to keep moving and she had to get back to work. Even though it was a brief meeting it was lovely and such a pleasant surprise. She did try to give us food, which we had to turn down because I got greedy at Safeway and bought about four days worth of food for our two days to Sierra City. Personally, I don’t mind carrying more food if it is going to get eaten quickly, I have so much more energy when we eat well. 

We spent the night at a campsite set back a little ways from the road. It wasn’t very memorable, it just took Kyle and I about five minutes to place it. We finally remembered it when I remembered that the day out of Donner Pass had been a three poop day for me and then I took a crazy poop at that campsite the next morning after freeze dried meals the night before. Thank goodness we have our poops to help us remember the days. 

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

3 thoughts on “How To Spot A Thru Hiker

  1. Cracks me up you left off the most obvious….smell. Thru hikers have not just the 3-5 day hiker B.O. smell but one you get from hiking 100’s of miles or in your case 1000’s. This pungent, sweat, dirt, B.O, ass smell combined with soggy Fritos and a hint of Monkey Butt powder is none other than a thru hiker passing by you. Wear it proud!

  2. Sure signs of a thru-hiker… the dirt, the tans from weeks in the sun, jerry-rigged equipment, a smile and friendly word/phrase as you meet/pass each other along the trail. Good stories around a shared campfire and maybe a shared treat!

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