The gutty few who hike a long distance trail in its entirety at one time are known as thru-hikers or end-to-enders. These individuals comprise a unique hiker culture, one that has done much to celebrate the wisdom of creating America’s great trail system.

Obviously, every hiker who’s trekked 2,172 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail or hoofed it 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail can be proud of what is undoubtedly an athletic accomplishment. And yet such a journey is much more, often a profound emotional, even spiritual, experience.

The thru-hiker must conquer seemingly infinite ups and downs, battle the elements, and struggle with whatever inner conflicts he or she brings to the trail. Every end-to-ender comes back from the trail a changed person.

Few of us in this modern age and economy can afford to essentially put one’s life on hold and take six months off. (I’d argue that our employers should grant ALL of us a six month mental health leave at some point during our working life.) The thru-hiker must be able to leave job and family commitments for half a year and be willing to spend an additional six months prior to hitting the trail in planning and training for the big hike. Would-be thru-hikers use trip calculators to determine the cost and timing of their hikes.

The typical thru-hiker might spend five to six thousand dollars for trail food and equipment worn or carried. To this sum must be added restaurant meals, grocery store indulgences, fast-food binges, motels and replacement boots, clothing and gear. Some hikers are quite frugal, and consider it a matter of pride to travel as cheaply as possible, while others figure it’s a once in a lifetime experience and indulge themselves (a quart of chocolate ice cream, a double cheeseburger, a cold beer) a bit in the outposts of civilization, such as it is, along the way.

Backpack weight is another matter of endless debate among thru-hikers. All hikers want to carry as little weight as possible and look at each item toted on an ounce by ounce basis. Some of the more weight-obsessive long distance hikers have actually reduced the weight of their loads to ten pounds (exclusive of food and water).

Although today’s thru-hikers need as much pluck and stamina as the previous generation of long-distance trekkers, the lighter weight and improved performance of backpacking gear greatly assist the hikers of today. Footwear in particular has greatly evolved: while you might suppose a serious trekker would opt for heavy leather boots, these days growing numbers of hikers wear lightweight hiking boots or running shoes. Staying in touch with home and family is lots easier these days, too, what with cell phones and pocket e-mail devices.

Success rates for completion of a long distance trail have risen rapidly over the years are higher than you might guess. On the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, some 300 hikers a year begin with end-to-end ambitions and more than 50 percent make it all the way through. This success rate is much better than the estimated 10 percent completion rate of thru-hikers of the 1970s.

Such is the personal transformation of a thru-hiker that many select “trail names” that are different from their real names. Maybe Wily Coyote, Sagebrush Philosopher and Chicago Kate get to be who they really are on a long, long hike—yet another reason to celebrate the joy of the trail and the call of the wild.