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Thru-Hiking vs. Backpacking

Hikers in the distance walking along trail in rolling green hills under gray cloudy and foggy skies

Photo from Unsplash


Ever talked to an outdoorsy person and wondered what they meant when describing their latest “thru-hike”? What about someone describing their recent “backpacking trip”? In this article, we will explain the difference and clear up the confusion around these terms.

What is Thru-hiking?

The term thru-hiking is popular in the U.S and is commonly associated with the Appalachian Trail (A.T), Pacific Crest Trail (P.C.T), or the Continental Divide Trail(C.D.T). It is a long-distance, end-to-end hiking trail that is usually completed in one straight shot. To give you an idea of the distances we are talking about, the Appalachian Trail is more than 2100 miles long while the Pacific Crest Trail is over 2600 miles. This can take anywhere between 6-12 months and is commonly done solo. Shorter thru-hikes are also an option, but for the purposes of this article, we will discuss the extremely long-distance trails.

What is backpacking?

A backpacking trip is when you go on a multi-day hike. It is essentially an extended hike into an area that you would like to explore further. It can be end-to-end, a loop, or even out-and-back. Most backpacking trips are between 3-7 days long. To learn more about backpacking, read our article Is Backpacking For Me.

Backpacker traverses a trail through lush green brush under cloudy skies with tall, snowy mountain peaks in the distance

Photo by Shreya Swaika

What is the difference between Backpacking and Thru-Hiking?

1. Physical ability - Since you are walking for miles on end for weeks or months at a time, physical ability plays a big role in the decision to embark on a thru-hike. While backpacking also requires some level of physical fitness, it is less demanding than a thru-hike, purely due to its shorter and quicker nature. When planning a thru-hike, you need to train and prepare yourself (and your feet!) for the hundreds of miles you are about to walk. Since the terrain being covered on a thru-hike varies vastly, you are posed with other physical challenges such as altitude sickness, Lyme disease, or even reoccurring blisters.

2. Mental capability - Thru-hikes are usually done solo. Although you will meet people en route, most of the time spent hiking is by yourself. The biggest mental challenge on a thru-hike is pushing past your internal barriers, pushing your body past its limits, dealing with bouts of loneliness and self-doubt, and mentally preparing yourself to get through the entire journey. Solo backpacking is also popular, so the loneliness factor is still something to consider. However, due to the shorter nature of backpacking trips, the mental challenge is not as significant as it would be on a thru-hike.

3. Gear - This is a very important distinction between thru-hiking and backpacking gear. With thru-hiking, the weight of the gear becomes crucial due to the length of the trip. Thru-hikers focus on light-weight and efficient gear while backpackers can often afford to hike with bulkier and heavier gear.

4. Time commitment - 6 months to a year is a long time to be away from work and family, and a source of income. It is also a long time to potentially be solo on the trail. Making that kind of commitment is essential for a successful thru-hike. Backpacking trips can be as short as a weekend and can be planned around your own schedule.

Hopefully, this article has given you an idea of what thru-hiking is and how it differs from backpacking. If you are looking for a challenging, soul-searching, liberating journey, then consider thru-hiking! It might be your calling.

If you are interested in the outdoors and are looking for some more information on the different kinds of trips you can plan, check out the following:

Types of Camping

Why Camping Will Turn Your Summer Around

5 Essentials For a Day Hike

8 Essentials For Backpacking

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Pathloom is a Bay Area-based technology startup on a mission to get more people outdoors, more often by reimagining the way people discover the outdoors.

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