Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

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Traveling hundreds of miles powered only by the human body takes a considerable amount of time. So much time in fact seasons will change, unfavorable weather or monsoons with come and go or pesky insects may be at their peak annoyance. Timing is an essential part of planning when it comes to thru-hiking (or biking) a route. Below is a breakdown of the biggest trails in the continental United States and the recommended travel windows that should help you avoid any foreseeable conditions that would potentially put an end to you long awaited journey.

If you are trying to reconnect with nature, nothing beats spending weeks on end traveling campsite to campsite. These trails all offer 4 weeks to 6 months of adventure. You should start planning your trip a year in advance to allow ample time to make travel arrangements to and from the trailheads as well as save up money. I would recommend either hiking or biking routes. As far as money goes, hiking trails take longer to complete but biking trails require a bike and extra gear yet take less time to complete. The result is a close cost comparison. I like to choose a route around my budget. If I have to quit a job to travel I need to know when my income source will be cut off or if I’ll have to wait until next season.

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Appalachian Trail

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 2,190 miles
Duration: 6 months
Average miles per day: 15

The Appalachian trail stretches from Maine to Georgia, navigating its way through 14 states across the oldest mountain range in the world. The trail has gained popularity with an estimated three thousand people attempting a thru-hike every year. Of this group only 25% complete the trail. Such a large amount of hikers on one trail means a good portion of them are going to be starting on the same day. Here are some start dates that are highly discouraged due to overcrowding: April 1st, March 1st & 15th and the first day of spring.

Northbound hikers start as early as February but the frigid temperatures accompanied by the potential for deep snow makes this an option mainly for the experienced hiker. When choosing an earlier start date you should also note the season for Black Flies in Maine ranges from late May to early June. Black flies are a major nuisance, biting and swarming around weary hikers. If you are beginning your northbound hike this early there is a chance you could land in Maine during this time. It is wise to plan accordingly to avoid this situation. However, a well equipped hike will manage.

A standard northbound start date is sometime in April. This should land you in finishing the trail before the harsh cold rolls into New Hampshire and Maine. Baxter State Park, containing Mount Katahdin the northern terminus, closes between October 15th and May 15th. This also means that the popular start dates for southbound hikers are in the end of May giving time for the colder weather to subside.

The trail passes through multiple state parks as well as national parks and permits may be required to enter or camp. You can find out more information on specific permits here. It is a good idea to register your trip in advance to help reduce overcrowding on the trail. You can do so through the Appalachian Trail Conservatory.

Continental Divide Trail

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 2700 miles
Duration: 4-5 months
Average miles per day: 20

This trail has far more isolated stretches than any of the other trails listed. The CDT (Continental Divide Trail) begins in Columbus New Mexico (or the more isolated Crazy Cook Monument) and proceeds along the spine of the Rocky Mountains until reaching the border in Glacier National Park. Due to the longer distances between supply points hikers are usually apt to cover longer distances on a daily basis. Most hikers average around 20 miles a day.

Northbound hikers on this trail may run into the problem of snow once reaching Colorado. A popular northbound start date would be sometime in April or possibly early May landing hikers in the lower San Juans sometime in June when the snow has thinned out. However, at higher elevations the chance for snow is still possible year round. The hike is then finished near late September before the snowfall and colder weather begins in northern Montana.

For Southbound hikers a start date at the end of June or early July puts them at the advantage of missing most of the chance for deeper snow along the trail in higher elevations. By the time hikers have reached the Southwest states the monsoon season has already passed as well.

Great Divide Mountain Bike Route


Length: 2,700 miles
Duration: 3 months
Average miles per day:  30

The GDMBR (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route) is the mountain bike version of the CDT. It does not follow the trail and in fact there are only a few chances along this route to run into thru-hikers on the CDT. Starting in Banff, the trail follows mostly backcountry roads and single track down through the rockies and ending in New Mexico at the Mexican border much like the CDT. The trail was established by the Adventure Cycling Association and has seen a huge growth of riders since the tour divide race. This race is how a lot of people have come to know this route but it also makes a fantastic leisurely tour route. Every year on the second Friday of June, cyclists converge in Banff, Alberta to start their quest southbound. If you plan on riding at a leisurely pace in solitude I would not recommend starting before this date, but if you do I would plan in a rest day or two during the beginning of the race to let the hordes of riders pass you by.

The most critical part in timing the route is similar to the CDT. Snow at higher elevation and monsoon season are the two determining factors in planning out a ride. If you start too early heading northbound you are going to be in Colorado during the snowing times. If you start southbound and miscalculate when you travel through Colorado you will end up riding through monsoon season in the southwest. So to avoid the rain and lightning most Southbound riders begin in later June. Northbound riders tend to begin in early June or Late may to be out of Colorado just before the beginning of monsoon season in late July.

Flying into Calgary and acquiring transportation to Banff is not difficult, however, at the southern terminus transportation methods are quite tricky. Shuttle service options are available for New Mexico can be found here.

Colorado Trail

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 486 miles
Duration: 5 weeks
Average miles per day:  13

The CT (Colorado Trail) is a nonstop scenic thrill ride from Denver to Durango. You will find yourself hiking at high elevation for the majority of the trail which means you will be susceptible to deep snow and impassable sections in the snow season. Beginning in late July will greatly reduce the chance of hitting snow covered sections. The second biggest obstacle is monsoon season. Weather in Colorado can already be unpredictable but during late July and August waves of strong rain storms blow through the state. This can result in hail at higher elevations and a higher risk for lightning strikes.

In Colorado the hiking season for higher elevation trails typically starts around July 4th and some hikers decide to begin their journey around this time placing the tail end of their journey in monsoon season which spans late July through August.

August, however,  with rainy season coming to a close and snow levels at their lowest is a great time to start the hike. Travelers are typically off the trail before early October snowfall.

With this trail only traveling through one state there is not a huge benefit to hiking either northbound or southbound. So a July or August start date would apply to both. There are no permits required but transportation by bus is the cheapest method for returning to the trailhead you started out on.

Colorado Trail Bikepacking Route

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 486 miles
Duration: over 2 weeks
Average miles per day: 30

Biking the Colorado trail is a different feat in itself. There are many hike a bike sections leading up over the passes throughout the trail. The slow pace uphill is more than made up for on the fast paced descent. The same general guidelines apply to thru-bikers, however, starting towards the tail end of monsoon season is a wise idea. So a start date in the beginning of August will be the best decision. I rode the trail in the middle of July and found myself in hailstorms almost every day.

Making arrangements for your bike is crucial. I tried to plan a bus ride back from the trailhead and finding one I could transport the bike back on was a nightmare. I would recommend just setting up a bike shipment through a bike shop on either end of the trail to avoid the hassle of finding a bus that allows bikes. You can arrange a shipment with and make sure to call the bike shop and confirm your plans with them.

Pacific Crest Trail

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 2,650 miles
Duration: 5 months
Average miles per day: 20

Like the CDT the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs from the Canadian to Mexican Border. Popularity, extreme heat in southern California and heavy snow in higher elevation make for a tricky hiking season. If the bad weather wasn’t enough, acquiring a long-distance permit is an ordeal in and of itself. Make sure to check out the PCT association’s website to learn more about the process. Permits are limited to 50 people a day and you can apply for one starting on November 14 at 10:30 a.m. So, yes, you absolutely have to plan for this hike at least a year in advance.

Northbound hikers normally start in may when southern California is not quite as hot. Hiking north they reach the Sierra Nevada when the deep snow has cleared out and the rest of the journey is made in the summer months.

Southbound hikers need to wait a little longer for conditions in northwest to become favorable. A hike beginning in late June will allow time for snow and colder conditions to clear up. The rest of the summer months will lend to similar conditions and Southern California will have cooled off by the time hikers reach it.

Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route 

Travel Windows for 7 Popular Thru-Hiking and Thru-Biking Trails

Length: 517 miles
Duration: over 2 weeks
Average miles per day: 30

Wildfires in southwest Idaho is a guarantee every year. The smoke travels across the entire state and can possible irritate your lungs or eyes on bad days. I rode this trail during late August and visibility was cut in half on the sections closest to Boise, but much better on the rest of the trail. Being farther north, Idaho is known to have pretty harsh winters and at high elevations temperatures can be frigid. Snowfall can begin as early as late September.

So the best bet for this route is to try and squeeze in your trip before wildfire season begins.  Travel arrangements from Boise to Idaho Falls (the standard starting point for the trail) should be arranged in advance. Since you can fly in with your bike you will not have to worry about making shipment arrangements.

Jason Darrell

Jason Darrell is a large format photographer from Kansas City, MO. He has worked across the country as a barista to fuel his bikepacking, hiking and landscape photography adventures. Follow on Instagram @jasondarrellphoto

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