Thru-hiking is a very-specialized form of backpacking that’s more focused on long distance and high daily mileages in order to complete a trail within a given time frame than most backpackers who take weekend or weeklong trips. It’s kind of like the difference between a Greyhound who’s is bred for racing and a German Shepard which is a more general purpose working dog. This is particularly true on the the longer National Scenic Trails like the AT and the PCT, where thru-hikers have to reach the northern terminus before winter shuts down the trail.
This isn’t meant to be a put down of thru-hiking or general backpacking, just a reminder that the objectives of the two groups can differ and those differences have ramifications for the types of gear and skills required to hike their hikes.
For example, many triple crown thru-hikers are obsessed with gear weight and minimalism, perhaps overly so, since there’s anecdotal evidence that hikers with lightweight gear are more successful in completing a long distance thru-hike. They can shave away more “extras” than less-specialized backpackers carry because they’re often hiking a very well marked route with frequent resupply stops and water caches, and easy access to assistance because they’re on a trail that has so many other people on it. Backpackers who don’t hike on popular long distance trails don’t have access to any of these resources, so they have to learn a few more backcountry skills, carry more navigation equipment, food, and gear that gives them a larger safety margin if things go awry or they want to spend a little bit more time camping and observing nature.
While I’ve learned a lot about gear and backpacking from triple crown thru-hikers, I don’t have any desire to be one. I hike and backpack in a lot of different places with objectives and conditions that are very different from what a thru-hiker will experience.
Why draw this distinction? I think it’s important to “hike your own hike” when you go backpacking and make conscious reasoned decisions about the gear, fitness level, and skills you need to complete a hike. It goes back to my Gear List Philosophy, where you want to understand what you need for a trip, so you can prepare accordingly. While there are cases where adopting a thru-hiker’s mindset may work for a regular backpacking trip, there are a lot of times when they won’t. Do your homework and hike your own hike, the one you’ve research and trained for.