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The Difference Between Thru-Hiking and Backpacking

Is there a difference between thru-hiking and backpacking
Is there a difference between thru-hiking and backpacking?

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.

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  1. Glad that someone had the guts to write this post. I am sick of being told how great thru-hikers are. I’m a regular backpacker, I hike in our national parks, and I don’t need to hike at high speed to enjoy myself.

    Roll on.

  2. Thru-hiking has turned into the latest advertising carnival what with the Jurek FKT fiasco last summer. I have to shake my head when I hear that most thru-hikers never backpack again after they finish their trail. True backpacking is a long time vocation, not a six month vacation between college graduation and your first job.

    • Don’t compare thru hiking with FKT folks. That’s a whole different animal.
      But I think its all good. I probably wont do the PCT but Ive certainly learned some things from some of the top thru hikers.
      When you have point A and point B, there is always going to be individuals testing their limits to see how fast, how light etc. That’s fine, I think there is a lot of
      misunderstanding about thru hikers. Most are faster simply because they hike longer.
      if you like to fish it hard and swim at every waterfall, that’s great! Do it! If you like to
      see if you can get 25-30 miles in, that’s great too! do it! If you want to try and do the
      JMT in 3 days, hell go right ahead. Theres room for everyone out there. We all need
      to stick together no matter what the speed and protect the outdoors for all of us the best we can.. Hope you all have great adventures this year

  3. Terry "Dozer" Lovelette

    Great article and very insightful. There is room for all of us to hike-our-own-hike. I work, and I need to. So getting 5-6 months off for a through hike isn’t in the cards for me. However, hiking is and I do that frequently. Typically to the tune of over 1000 miles per year. I bring what I need (based on various factors) and don’t worry about how someone wants to classify me. In the end, getting out into the woods, experiencing the beauty of the area that I’m in, enjoying the moments that the hike presents, and learning more about myself is what it’s all about. I appreciate your work and read your post regularly. Keep up the great work and thank you!

    • You have a great attitude. I’m much the same way. I hike quite a bit and relish in the self-reflection and clarity it brings me.

      • Regarding your basic premise, I think its dependent on the trail and circumstances. The thru hikers that would probably disagree with you the
        most are the PCT hikers that have to navigate the sierras in June while
        there can be significant snowpack on the peaks and passes, for example
        Forrester at over 13k ft. Most prepared PCT ers have to know how to self
        arrest with Ice Axe, and have decent navigational skills as the trail is
        unavailable on the downward slopes and can lead to major problems if
        mistakes are made, so most experienced thru hikers definitely know
        how to navigate with compass/map and deal with more decisions than you would think. There are sections of trail that get closed and need to be navigated
        as well. I do understand why you come to your conclusion , especially after the book and movie Wild, as there are reports of many new Would be Thru Hikers, that are
        not really prepared, but some of the most experienced hikers out there started
        by just getting out there. Thankfully the hiker community is a wonderful group
        to be a part of as most I believe , whether thru hikers, fkt, types etc, feel similar to
        what Dozer wrote above.

  4. I think your first sentence is more accurate than the title or the photo caption. Thru hiking is simply a a type of backpacking not different from backpacking. Gear choices always depend on the type of trip planned. Mileage covered is a personal choice based on time and distance of the trip. My basic kit is tweaked to fit the location, weather, terrain, and distance traveled. When planning, I think of a thru hike as nothing more than a series of roughly week long backpacking trips. Whether I hike around home in Colorado, or the PCT or the Winds, all of them entail a backpacking trip, each special in its own way. And in April I will head to the AT for a really long backpacking trip. Hike on everybody!

  5. THE Michigan Wolverine

    Hiking and Thru Hiking are two different sports. They are incompatible and unrelated.

  6. I love this. It’s another dimension and extension of Andrew Skurka’s discussion about “hikers” and “campers”, as well as the learned discussions both he and you have had about the decision-making involved in gear choices- in which these differences are critical to the success of the planned trip. Thanks!

    • Yep, but I think Andrew goes a little over the top with the “camper” put-down. There’s nothing wrong with hanging out a little on a backpacking trip and smelling the roses. It just depends what your priorities and goals are. Andrew is himself a former thru-hiker and a track star to boot, so he has a bias towards doing fast hikes and high mileage days even though his motivations and routes differ from the heavily-trodden thru-hiker routes. I’m sure he’ll slow down a little when he gets to be my age.

      • I must say, you certainly like to get your digs in to the people you don’t quite agree with. I have read most of what Andrew Skurka has written and most of what you have written. I do not see where Andrew is putting down campers any more than you are putting down thru-hikers. He makes it quite clear that their is a time to do both, but most people reading his blog are more interested in how to go light and fast. You claim to be very open minded about everyone hiking their own hike, but there is a subtle tone of “my way or the highway.”

      • What way would that be? I section hike the AT in a manner that’s pretty indistinguishable from thru-hikers, I hike off trail, climb mountains, day hike, fish, cross-country ski, etc using a wide array of gear and skills. I’m quite shocked that you think I have any particular style since I go out of my way to keep trying new things to avoid getting bored with any particular style, since that’s how I work.

        Andrew and I are pretty good friends and I think we see eye to eye on many things. He invented the term “ultimate hiker” and “ultimate camper” and contrasts them in this article.


        It’s an exaggerated difference. Hyperbole. But it has a bit of an edge to get your attention, which a lot of good writing does.

      • Looks like I hit a nerve. By the way, you don’t have to explain what good writing is and I, as well as most of your readers I’m sure, know what hyperbole means.

        I’m not trying to engage you in a war of words. I appreciate your blog and all the great information I have learned from it. And I know it is YOUR blog to write whatever you like. I am merely saying that sometimes, as in your reply to me, you have a little bit of a condescending attitude and I will leave it at that.

      • Cindy,

        As a triple crown thru-hiker, I completely agree with the point that Philip is trying to make in this post. When I hiked the AT, I had no idea what I was doing, and the only way I got through my hike was due to the fraternal camaraderie of other thru-hikers in my year, the section hikers and trail angels who helped me out along the way. Without that community and the trail towns along the way, I would never have made it to Maine.

        Backpacking on less crowded trails is a LOT different from thru-hiking and there are more skills to pick up because you’re on your own. Thankfully, there are a few great web sites like SectionHiker that teach these skills. Keep doing what you’re doing Philip! I send a lot of hikers preparing for their thru-hikes to your web site because you provide such in-depth and balanced information.

        I don’t feel that this post is condescending at all. You’ve just pointed out what a lot of thru-hikers already know.

      • If you actually comprehended what I wrote, I was referring to Philip’s reply to Jim about Andrew Skurka’s distinction between hikers and campers. I was not referring to the original post. And I will stick by my assertion that he CAN be a little condescending at times. If that is the tone he would like to convey, then it is certainly his prerogative to do so. I’m just pointing it out.

      • Now you’re being condescending.

        Philip used the word “hyperbole” because Skurka uses it in the post he linked to. Before you jump on Philip, you should reread Andrew’s post. Get your facts straight.

      • I don’t think I said he shouldn’t use the word hyperbole and I have reread the post. I was implying that he didn’t need to explain what hyperbole means because we are all, presumably, educated here.

      • Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever put down “campers.” If I have, it’s never been my intention. The approach is not for me, but it’s a perfectly valid way to experience the outdoors.

        My bigger beef is with the failure to identify differences in backpacking styles, because this determines the gear, supplies, and skills necessary to ensure “success,” which could be to finish a thru-hike or to take awesome photos with your large-format camera.

        For instance, for a trip that involves a lot of hiking, you should probably leave behind the Banks Fry-Bake. But if you’re planning on doing fewer miles and a lot of fishing, you’d probably be really disappointed if you left it behind.

    • I backpacked the Grand Canyon a few years ago with a friend who usually went Rim to Rim as a day hike. There’s no way I can maintain that kind of pace so we went to the bottom, camped out and hiked back to the top the next day. My friend told me he saw more on that hike than any other he’d done in the Grand Canyon, and he’d been on those very same trails many times. In the past, he obsessed with the destination, on our hike, the focus was the journey. I’m not claiming being old and slow is the best way to do things, however, there’s no shame in traveling at a pace that allows you to smell the roses, cactus flowers, or whatever. It has its benefits, especially if that’s all you can do physically. At least, you’re out there in the wild.

  7. Many thru-hikers have very specialized skill sets that allow them to complete a designated long trail (what I call an alphabet soup route) with its trail specific guidebooks, maps, apps, and logistic support services. Sometimes, thru-hikers do not have more general knowledge that is useful for something outside of these well defined parameters. Not anything to do with camping vs hiking IMO.

    I apologize for linking my own website, but it is something I said before in more detail if anyone is curious:

  8. Full agreement to your last paragraph. Being outdoors is not a sport for me, that means there’s no competition and no rules except laws and general common sense. People are different, places are different, seasons are different. Funny that a discussion about “right” or “wrong” hiking should even occur. Some people run along the trail, some people lie in the grass all day. Any problem?

    That being said, I like to have a light and small backpack!

  9. HYOH. If it weren’t for thru hiking, I probably wouldn’t be backpacking in my latter years. Thru hiking is hiking. Backpacking is hiking. Different flavors of the same activity, neither superior.


    Don’t sweat what anyone else is doing.

  10. There is not a lot of difference, in my book. I carry the same gear out for 6 weeks as I do for for 1 week. Anyway, a flashlight is always a flashlight. If it doesn’t hold at least 12 hours, then I go with one that will. I choose the smallest that will make this. I choose the smallest stove for the biggest bang. My SVEA gets about 2L to 3L/oz and weighs about 20oz (including cup and wind screen.) But WG at about 20,000BTU will take me further than an equivalent weight of cans and gas. Nope not the lightest, just the biggest bang for the size of the buck. Same for my sleeping pad. same for my guilt/bag.
    There is no difference in the gear I bring, except I bring spares for most of the battery operated stuff…..well, maybe with the addition of underpants and sometimes a change of pants for greater than 3 weeks. (It also means a stop in town as I resupply and clean up a bit-read as BEER HERE! I won’t say which is more important…ha, hey.)

  11. Both have their advantages.

    Backpacking is great to get to an area, set up camp, and day hike from there, and at night enjoy fires and prolonged meals experimentations, bushcraft, camping, etc.

    Thru-hiking would be great for those who went to test themselves physically, see sights of great variety, etc.

  12. Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  13. I really enjoyed this article and the commentary.

    My preferred backpacking trips are setting up a base camp in remote drainages in the Pemi & Wild River. Then spending a few days exploring the nearby area.

    I guess that makes me a camper ;).

    I wold have preferrred Mags linking to “Hike My Hike Dammit”. A true classic.

  14. One of the best things I learned as I got more into hiking is that each kind of trip has its place. Light, fast and minimal when I go out by myself for several weeks; slightly more comfortable and “luxurious” when I go for a weekend with friends; downright slow and indulgent when I take my husband out camping… it’s all good. I do have a favorite style, but as long as everyone is honest about the purpose and style of the trip, I think it’s all fine. Same with day hikes: I won’t plan for amazing feats of athleticism and endurance when the goal is just to be out with a group and wander through the woods. There is room for everyone and everything (except for that particular type of thru hiker that trashes shelters and such; I really have no patience for that).

  15. This is a great post! As much as it might slightly p*ss off a couple hard core UL readers, this idea really resonates with me. There is a certain level of UL’ness that we all find ourselves striving towards, but at the end of the day, it’s all about enjoying yourself.

    I still meticulously count every gram… but I also have come to truly appreciate a simple chair and a liter of whiskey and a good night’s rest in my hammock. The difference between a thru hiker and myself is… I don’t have to carry all that everyday for weeks at a time… Instead, I get to REALLY enjoy my 2-7 days out in solitude away from “civilization”.

    Thanks for your honesty and happy hiking.

  16. “Have you got some duct tape?”
    “Can I borrow your stove?”
    “Can I use your cell!”
    “That________sure smells good”!
    “Anybody got any extra blister pads?”
    “Oh, you’re going into town tomorrow? You’re coming back? Would you mind _______?”
    “Got a spare book of matches?”
    “Got a thread and needle?”
    “Can I take a ship of your petroleum jelly?”
    “I’d sure like one of them store bought smokes.”

    …….some of this must sound familiar to some backpackers as coming from some thru- hikers. All of it and more has been asked of me by thru-hikers. Please don’t misunderstand me. I bear no grudge and am happy to be slightly over provisioned to be able to provide some small or even a major assist to the thru-hiker. I enjoy the company and I almost always love the folks. When I backpack I’m out there to live out there. While I’m destination oriented by necessity the clock is slower, I tend to be solo and hence maybe a little more prepared for contingencies, exigencies. I’m older now so I couldn’t run a trail to the privy.

  17. I suppose I don’t think of backpacking vs.thru hiking. I just don’t know what I would call backpacking that’s not thru hiking. There’s back country hiking and bushwhacking and heavier backpacking for those who want a few more luxuries and aren’t going for high mileage. At least that’s what I’m learning as I read more and more.

    I am certainly quite inexperienced and haven’t been any kind of backpacking in a good while. I want to go by myself but know that’s not ideal especially on less traveled routes. I also have family I can’t leave for extended periods of time. So right now it’s learning, reading and short trips. Articles like this one help me quite a bit because I’m an information gatherer and looking to try many things to find my style.

    As for there being any air of condescension or prejudice for one type over another, I didn’t sense it. I am grateful for the information and want to say thank you.

    • It’s not “versus”, just a different flavor of backpacking. Glad you could visit.

      • Right! And then there is day hiking that can turn into an unexpected backpacking experience. There certainly are different flavors and this is an excellent topic that you have touched on. I just like to get out in nature via hiking, cross country skiing and snow shoeing. As someone in their seventh decade, I am grateful to have the health to do these things. I find your blog extremely thoughtful and helpful in creating “mindfulness” about appropriate gear and behavior, skills and training needed to enjoy the outdoors.

  18. I didn’t read anything Mr. Werner wrote that I thought condescending. But that would be fine if he did, and I hope he does, when those are his sincere thoughts. In a democracy, anyone who pays for the printing, publishing, or the microphone, has a right to be condescending, unpopular, or blasphemous. I’m condescending about things and people and at age 70, like hearing others who also are. I may disagree with their thinking or opinions, and they can rightfully say, “Double your money back, sir, if you don’t like it.”

  19. If you carry a backpack you’re a backpacker. Trying to say a thru-hiker is different from a backpacker is like saying a rooster is different from a chicken.

  20. Friar Rodney Burnap

    Then why not a external frame backpack . . .you can still carry 15 to 20 lbs . . .and once over the learning curve there is noing like a external frame backpack for comfort!

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