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Backpacking versus Thru-hiking

Thru-hiking is not simply a longer version of a backpacking trip. Considering thru-hiking a long trail? Make sure you know what you're getting into and set yourself up for success.

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by Francis Tapon | 2011-09-20 00:00:00-06

Backpacking versus Thru-hiking - 1


Imagine kissing your job and your friends goodbye to thru-hike a long trail over six months, then quitting the trail in just a couple of days. As loony as that sounds, it is what happens to hundreds of people every season as they are surprised by the reality of a thru-hike. About one in five prospective Appalachian Trail thru-hikers quit within the first week!

What's even more surprising is that most of those who quit don't do it because they suffer an injury. In fact, most who quit have no ailments and they adore backpacking. Their love for the outdoors is what motivated them to thru-hike a trail in the first place. They love backpacking and figure a thru-hike is a natural extension of that love.

Such reasoning is flawed, because backpacking and thru-hiking are different species.

People don't discover this pre-thru-hike because they simply rely on their limited backpacking experience, their gut instinct, or Uncle Harry who supposedly knows everything. This article is for people who are considering thru-hiking a long trail and want to make sure they know what they're getting into.

Gear Selection

Everyone who attempts to thru-hike a trail that's over 2,000 miles long learns that there is a big difference between backpacking and thru-hiking. For example, compared to a successful thru-hiker, the typical backpacker brings far more and far heavier items:

A Typical Backpacker Brings A Typical Thru-Hiker Brings
Multiple pots and pans to make gourmet meals One ultralight titanium pot
Fresh clothes for each day outside Extra pair of underwear - no extra clothes
Large, comfortable tent Tarp
Full-length deluxe inflatable mattress Thin foam pad
Heavy-duty sleeping bag Light sleeping bag (sleep with your clothes if it's cold)
Gigantic expedition backpack Small, lightweight backpack
Camp shoes and lightweight chair Neither
An MP3 player Ears to listen to nature

Bringing a sleeping bag that is one pound lighter than a typical sleeping bag may not seem like much, but the differences begin to add up. Even little items, such as a minuscule knife versus a full-size Swiss army knife, can have an impact if you do it across the board.

Indeed, if you consistently pack an item that weighs 25 to 50 percent less than the typical version of that item, your pack weight will decline 25 to 50 percent. As obvious as that sounds, most of those who plan a thru-hike don't think about this, nor do they heed the lesson of those who have hiked before them. Instead, hikers look at their heavy-duty compass and think, “What's the big deal? It's only an ounce or two heavier.”

On the other hand, a prepared thru-hiker will search for a lightweight, accurate compass. In my case, for example, my compass is integrated in my watch. In fact, the Appalachian Trail is so well marked that you could even leave your compass at home. I learned that carrying a compass does not guarantee that you will not get lost - I managed to get lost on the Appalachian Trail even with signs all around me.

The Backpacking Paradox

The paradox of backpacking is that the more distance you walk, the less you should carry. This is counter-intuitive, and the best way to learn the lesson is through the experiences of others, though statistics prove that many learn in a more expensive and frustrating way: through their own experience.

A smart thru-hiker carries the bare minimum to be safe and walks 10 to 30 miles a day so that he avoids backpacking in the winter (which requires far more gear and is more dangerous than hiking during the other three seasons). If a thru-hiker desires additional comfort, she can usually buy it or have it shipped to her next resupply point, which is rarely more than four days away. Such a lightweight strategy lets her minimize both body stress and calorie burn.

The weekend backpacker, on the other hand, is often in no rush, so he can afford to carry the kitchen sink because he's usually not walking very far. The casual backpacker loves having the pancake griddle and the comfy chair in the middle of nowhere. He walks five miles, sets up camp, and enjoys relaxing with his espresso. Although that is great fun, it can cloud your ability to understand the backpacking paradox that one should carry less the more one travels.

Learning from Trail Lore

Hundreds of people have completed the Appalachian Trail and several people have written books about what you should bring and how to minimize your pack's weight. Nevertheless, every season, over half of the hikers ignore trail lore and repeat the same errors of the previous year's hikers.

Visit either terminus on the Appalachian Trail and you'll find people starting their thru-hike with gigantic 50-pound packs. By the end of the journey, nearly everyone will have trimmed down their packs to half their starting size. To do this, thru-hikers frequently abandon hundreds of dollars of gear, buy hundreds of dollars of new gear, and get back on the trail again. The abandoned gear in hiker boxes testifies to the expensive lesson of what separates thru-hiking and backpacking.

At least a few people benefit: one thru-hiker I met was able to hike from Georgia to New York on $20. He didn't start with any gear, but he picked up most of of what he used from the castoffs of hikers before him. He acquired almost all the gear he needed in just the first 30 miles! He also lived off the food that hikers didn't want because they learned that eating the same food every day gets a bit old after a while.

History not used is nothing… and if you don't use the stuff - well, it might as well be dead.  - Arnold Toynbee

It's important to learn from history. Before you thru-hike, talk to those who've gone before you. One guy told me about hiking 10 miles a day and carrying 70 pounds - this same guy would later tell me about his chronic back problems. Many outdoor shop salesmen (who often know little about thru-hiking) encourage beginning thru-hikers to get an “expedition” backpack, even though most thru-hikers would be better off with the “day packs.” Getting a small backpack is a great way to discipline yourself. With so little storage space, you have no other choice but to get rid of unnecessary items and to find lighter versions of the necessary ones.

When I talked with the thru-hikers, they all wished that they had minimized their pack weight from the start. In other words, they all wished that they had learned from trail lore. This lesson applies to life off the trail too. The goal is to learn from other people's experiences so that your experience is the best it can be.

Fortunately, most of the readers here already practice the concept of lightweight backpacking. Nevertheless, they undergo their own transformation during a thru-hike, and they should anticipate and prepare for it accordingly. What often happens is that they go from being lightweight backpackers to ultralight backpackers. Help avoid the transition in the middle of the thru-hike and make sure you have truly pared down your gear list.

Backpacking versus Thru-hiking - 2

Physical and Mental Preparation

Typical backpackers can be out of shape and don't need much mental fortitude. If it's pouring rain, a backpacker can just postpone the trip or stay in camp for the day. A thru-hiker has no such luxury and must press on. This ability to wake up early and break down a campsite during a rainstorm is uncommon in backpackers, but common with thru-hikers.

The related difference is the physical conditioning. Many thru-hikers start out of shape. That's OK, but to increase your odds of successfully finishing a thru-hike, get in shape. Doing so will result in a crucial side-benefit: you'll develop your mental toughness.

For instance, before doing my first thru-hike (the Appalachian Trail), I would take a vacation day on a three-day holiday to make a four-day weekend. Do the same and try to hike at least 15 miles each day. Get up the next day and do it again. And again.

If you can do that, then pick a weekend that has a weather forecast of challenging weather. Doing back-to-back 20 miles days under nonstop rain is different than doing it in ideal weather.

After a couple of long weekends of doing that, you'll have a good idea if you have the physical and mental fortitude required of finishing a thru-hike. More importantly, pay attention if you are truly enjoying the experience. Surviving isn't enough - the goal is to survive with a smile.

Food Selection

Another example of the difference between backpacking and thru-hiking is food selection. Backpackers often buy expensive packaged freeze-dried meals. Or, they tend to favor gourmet meals and attempt to reproduce Wolfgang Puck's cooking in the woods.

Thru-hikers have a far different diet. First, all but the wealthiest thru-hikers avoid expensive freeze-dried meals because they will break their budget over six months. Second, a thru-hiker's cooking habits are more about efficiency than about being a five-star chef. That means simple meals that can be made in one pot. Boiling water is about as complicated as it gets. Third, thru-hikers have paradoxical dietary requirements. On the one hand, they need healthy, nutritious food to power their body for months and help with recuperating after each hard-working day. Without such healthy nutrition, many bodies (especially older ones) will have trouble somewhere along the way. On the other hand, thru-hikers have a peculiar (and seemingly insatiable) need for junk food. Chocolate bars are a thru-hiker's currency.

Therefore, beginning thru-hikers often need to simplify their cooking gear and food preparation habits. They can't afford to ignore their long-term nutritious dietary needs. And yet, they need to consider the psychological benefits of tossing in a bone (or in this case, a sweet treat) into their supplies to keep morale and motivation up.


Every thru-hiker loves backpacking, but most backpackers wouldn't like thru-hiking. Thru-hiking is not simply “lots of backpacking.” It's a different sport altogether. Traditional backpacking has a pattern of hike-rest-hike-rest. Thru-hiking's pattern is hike-hike-hike-rest-hike-hike-hike.

For many, the monotony and rigor of thru-hiking can turn backpacking into a job and not just a simple walk in the woods. That explains why a whopping 50 percent quit within the first six weeks of a thru-hike that normally takes six months. Get prepared with your gear trimming, trail lore reading, physical and mental exercise, and food selection and bump yourself  up into the 50 percent of FINISHERS!

Photos courtesy Ryan Linn


"Backpacking versus Thru-hiking," by Francis Tapon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-09-20 00:00:00-06.


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Backpacking versus Thru-hiking
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/20/2011 15:57:51 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Backpacking versus Thru-hiking

Sean Staplin
(mtnrat) - MLife

Locale: Southern Cdn Rockies
Not having done a thru hike...yet on 09/20/2011 17:36:14 MDT Print View

Not having done a thru hike...yet, I have over the years backpacked with a minimalist attitude. The last two years have me at a 5-7lb base weight for all of my trips. Luckily I see food as simply something that fills what is empty and can eat darn near anything. THis article gives me some confidence in what I am doing, so I can complete a thru hike. There are always those nagging doubts. Even though i have done 100 milers in four days etc, the biggest for me is if I have the mental toughness to go day after day. Will I get homesick or will I grow to see the trail as my home. These for me are much bigger than the gear and technique issues. Listening to trail lore is a good tip. I have read many journals and try to imagine myself in their shoes. One day soon we will see.

Edited by mtnrat on 09/20/2011 17:52:13 MDT.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: Not having done a thru hike...yet on 09/20/2011 19:25:54 MDT Print View

Weekend backpacking can be a tough when a weekend warrior must return to work in time to close the Figby account but there's the mental aspect of 'the deadline', so UL has relevance for those who need to be back for glorious Monday morning (ugh). Maybe load the same pack/gear with gourmet food for weekends then UL rations for weeklong trips? My idea though the most I've been out backpacking is a week. Maybe 2 weeks is next before tackling 1 month or more.

My issue that it doesn't sit well is paying mortgage/rent while out for a month or 2, ... unless it's too hot at home.

Edited by hknewman on 09/21/2011 16:21:14 MDT.

Michael Ttrafton
(mtrafton) - MLife

Locale: North Carolina
Not a Thru-hiker yet, some day though. on 09/20/2011 21:35:32 MDT Print View

Great articel. It took me several years to learn what he said. I still do the weekend trip, but I find I would rather do a three week trip. I do not start to have fun until about day 10. I hope thease longer trips have given me that knowalage I need to do the Thru-Hike in 2014 when I retire.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/20/2011 21:54:47 MDT Print View

Was this article written for the BPL audience? I ask because so much of the methodology described seems to be what we ULrs have been doing as standard operating procedures.

Edited by kthompson on 09/20/2011 22:15:57 MDT.

James Schipper
(monospot) - MLife
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/20/2011 22:08:10 MDT Print View

Yeah, what Ken said.

Adam Kilpatrick
(oysters) - MLife

Locale: South Australia
Re: Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/20/2011 22:32:41 MDT Print View

+1 on the audience aspect, but I think these kind of articles are excellent, and should be "put out there" for those who need to read and hear it.

jennifer ross
(jenhifive) - F

Locale: Norcal
Noobs on 09/20/2011 22:39:27 MDT Print View

Some people that are new to backpacking and are non-ULers do bring a change of clothes for everyday since they're only out for 2-3 days. I saw people at trail camp near mount whitney with CHAIRS. I thought everyone used their bear can as a seat/dinnertable. Almost everyone we passed had brand new gear and kept the packaging the stuff came in (i.e. rei pad in the rei information sack).

I cringe to even admit this but when I was a dayhiker I kind of just hid my tp from my number ones in leaves. HORRID I know. Now that I "leave no trace behind" and I see all the tp from dayhikers and noob backpackers I get livid. I didn't start backpacking in places where the wilderness permit hander-outer gave you a 15 minute how to camp in the wilderness lecture so when I get the lecture and know everyone else got that same lecture and they choose not to abide is when I get mad.

Anywaay I think there is a huge difference from people who backpack a couple days in a row once a year and people who do it all the time and get into so much they read and post in forums. Articles like this show people different and better ways to hike.

Bradley Danyluk
(dasbin) - MLife
Attitude on 09/21/2011 03:22:57 MDT Print View

Are you sure the opinions expressed in this article are really always valid?

Why can't thru-hikers take a different pace if their style is not necessarily go-go-go!?

It's not like a thru-hike must be 6 months long or a certain number of miles to be considered so. We're not all in such a rush to log miles or finish a huge trail.

I'd strongly argue that one can thru-hike at the pace that one sets for oneself. If you want a day in camp during a rainstorm, just set a schedule beforehand which allows it.

I understand the whole "do the entirety of the Appalachian Trail before winter" mentality, but that does not a thru-hike make.

Edited by dasbin on 09/21/2011 03:24:31 MDT.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Audience/Attitude on 09/21/2011 05:23:26 MDT Print View

I like this kind of article. Did it tell me anything new? ... no, other than the tale of the $20 AT thru-hike. But I'm glad to see articles like this as part of the BPL publishing mix.

Was this article written for the BPL audience? I ask because so much of the methodology described seems to be what we ULrs have been doing as standard operating procedures.

True ... but preaching only to the choir does not grow the choir. Consider Doug Prosser's ultralight at Philmont articles ... I've shown them to countless scouters, didn't help some, few became ultralighters but many made very significant pack weight reductions (40%-50%).

It's not like a thru-hike must be 6 months long or a certain number of miles to be considered so.

Also true. But note that Francis opens with the info "About one in five prospective Appalachian Trail thru-hikers quit within the first week!" ... that would apply to any trail long enough to qualify as a "thru-hike" and closes with "a whopping 50 percent quit within the first six weeks of a thru-hike". ... not all of those are quitting in week 5 or 6, again could be applied to shorter long hikes.

Edited by jcolten on 09/21/2011 05:24:02 MDT.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 05:26:48 MDT Print View

While I also agree that much of the article simply describes a standard BPL'ers normal operating procedure, it would find a good home on a page dedicated to people who are very new to BPL and the concepts that make up our general philosophy toward backpacking. Sort of a free run-down of the BPL philosophy/FAQ page complete with articles such as this.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 07:26:06 MDT Print View

What I find interesting is that many thru-hikers do not backpack if they are NOT thru-hiking (or participate in the outdoors at all).

Part of the reason I live where I do is that I need the outdoors part of my daily life, not just a trip every couple of years or so.

I loved my long trips (and I can't wait to get back out there again in about 2 yrs, but that's another story) but need the after work climbs, the long day hike, the hut trip or the long weekend backpack as well.

To only do something outdoors once every couple of years or so is not something I can wrap my brain around.

So, oddly enough, many thru-hikers do not backpack all that much comparatively speaking in the grand scheme of things. :)

FWIW, I've take the UL philosophy and applied it to my weekend trips. I might take some creature comforts depending on the trip (wine comes to mind. ;) ), but overall my gear does not change all that much, if at all in the case of solo trips, from the thru-hikes I've done.

Hamish McHamish
(El_Canyon) - M

Locale: USA
Re: Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 09:19:55 MDT Print View

>Part of the reason I live where I do is that I need the outdoors part of my daily life, not just a trip every couple of years or so.

Same here bro. Not everyone can constantly take 1, 2, 3 weeks away from work and family. Sometimes I think the "career outdoorspeople" start to forget that.

>I've take the UL philosophy and applied it to my weekend trips. I might take some creature comforts depending on the trip

Again, same here. I did a quick little overnighter last weekend in which I only hiked in 6 miles (gasp!). I enjoyed the misty sunset, sleeping under a 5.5'x8' tarp, a glorious sunrise, and a leisurely stroll back out. My sin: carrying a SnowPeak canister stove instead of a 0.00438 ounce alcohol stove.

I hope everyone can forgive me.

Melissa Spencer
(melissaspencer) - F

Locale: PNW
Agree with Jennifer, Mags, James on 09/21/2011 10:39:50 MDT Print View

Jennifer, you bring up a good point. This is another difference I noticed while thru-hiking. At least the year I hiked the PCT, I noticed very strict LNT principles such as carrying out TP, drinking the water used to clean a pot (and of course never draining food water on the ground), and never building a fire.

Paul, you are also right about thru-hikers not backpacking. I admit, I do much less backpacking now that I have completed long trails. It isn't the same. And I only day hike for exercise. I think thru-hiking ruined backpacking for me.

And James, you are right too. No one can take that kind of time off consistently. I had to quit a high-paying career to become a career backpacker. And now I work in retail during the months I am not thru-hiking. It isn't something that people can just do. They have to create it, and that takes way more sacrifice than most people are willing to make.

Edited by melissaspencer on 09/21/2011 10:44:30 MDT.

Michael Davis
(mad777) - F

Locale: South Florida
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 11:02:25 MDT Print View

Friends that know my passion for hiking often ask if I want to thru hike some day. I say "No" without any hesitation. Yet, I could live in the woods.

The unappealing part of a thru hike is having to follow a course and a time table. Must get to Katahdin before winter sets in.

That sounds just like my everyday work life - phooey!

I want to just wander aimlessly in nature with no particular place to go and no particular time to get there. Well, since I'm older now, I probably will get my wish soon enough as Alzheimer's set in. :-(

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Depends on each one's backpacking on 09/21/2011 11:04:59 MDT Print View

I was intrigued by the potential difference between thru-hiking and backpacking according to the article until I realised that for me it's the same thing :)

If anything, a thru-hike demands the mental strengh that usually comes with a determination to make it. Most of the hikers that left their thru-hikes that I saw were doing technically fine but couldn't handle it anymore.

And I know this is probably a very personal thing but for me backpacking and thru-hiking recall esentially the same feelings. Once I have to spend one night outside, it takes me to a certain level of consciousness that's way beyond the day-hike experience. Some of my most memorable thru-hikes were two day hikes :) Anyway, the mind adapts. If I'm out for a week my mind adapts to that and will feel like done when the week expires. It's worked the same for me when I've been out for several months in a row.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 11:42:18 MDT Print View

I think thru-hikes are a very different beastie than a shorter multi-day trip. It would be interesting to do thorough interviews of thru-hikers to see what their motivation was. I wonder how many start out because they are at some transition point in their life. Spending some time out alone may find some answers to what they are really about (or really need), with some 40 days and 40 nights biblical leanings and no guarantee that you will like the person you find out there. I imagine that some of the early drop-outs have never spent a light alone in the woods or found that backpacking is a lot of work. To paraphrase the old quip about combat, backpacking can be hours of drudgery punctuated by moments of awesomeness. My real take is that it is punctuated by many small delights walking through a forest garden spiced with an occasional mind-blowing view--- but not without the work. It is easy to buy a load of gear and put your feet on the trail with no experience whatsoever. 2500 feet of switchbacks is a very sobering reality! Losing hard-won elevation gains over and over again makes the legend of Sisyphus real.

I could see the adventure losing it's gloss after a few weeks of endless footsteps, roller coaster elevations, sweat, sore muscles, blisters, bugs, dirt, monotonous meals, heat, cold, wet, hard ground, stormy nights, varmints stealing your food and just plain exhaustion. And I can imagine that it can also be empowering and teach volumes on self-reliance and attaining goals. That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger--- indeed!

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
"Just not the same" on 09/21/2011 12:12:26 MDT Print View

I was an outdoors person before I was a thru-hiker. Just love being out there.

My thru-hikes tended to reflect that feel as I spent a lot of time by myself, enjoyed the social interaction but did not necessarily seek it out, same thing with the ongoing linear community, etc.

I love looking at maps, making my own route and having my own experience.

When I do a long hike again, I just may make my own route off the beaten path or no path at all. I, of course, reserve the right to go back on my own words. ;)

An example of hiking my own hike:
Seven Days Solo in the San Juans

The long trails (even the CDT) are too linear at times. Nature of the beast.

So, guess my weekend (or more) backpacks are about being outside much like my thru-hikes. I do love the journey and being out for weeks or months at a time admittedly.

Don't get me wrong I LOVED my thru-hikes. The AT was responsible for me moving out to Colorado and everything else that followed in my outdoor 'career'.

But, if all I did was hike the long trails, I'd miss out on the canyons of Utah off the Hayduke, never explore the Sangres, not see the sun set over the distant Rockies while at the Pawnee Buttes, being immersed in winter while gliding along on skis deep in the backcountry, feel what it is like to rope up and attain the summit of the mountain or climb the glacier.

I treasure those experiences too much. And doing just thru-hikes would not me experience all that.

Everything involves a sacrifice. Darn if I know the balance!

Anyway, works for me. If there was a best way for everyone, it would be a freakin' boring world! :)

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
not all who wander are lost on 09/21/2011 13:27:32 MDT Print View

Paul, great post. :)

Edited by spelt on 09/21/2011 13:28:14 MDT.

Graeme Finley
(gfinley001) - F

Locale: SF Bay Area
Attitude on 09/21/2011 13:29:33 MDT Print View

One aspect that was touched on that I found to be most critical was attitude, and specifically whether people enjoyed the lifestyle of thruhiking. For people who bought into the lifestyle everything else was secondary. When I did the PCT two people stood out - one hiker with a 60lb+ pack (solar charger, Marine Corps knife etc) who just trucked along without a complaint and ground out the miles, and another who graduated from college in FL with a bunch of mail-order REI equipment and who had never spent the night in a tent before that first night at Lake Morena. Neither finished, but both made it to OR and were just stopped by early winter snow.

What kept them (and me) going was that they loved doing it. I did view thru-hiking as a job - I worked 6 days a week, and each work day I'd get up at 6am, have breakfast, pack up 'the house' and go to work for 10-12 hours. On the seventh day I'd do chores (laundry, grocery shopping etc) and then start the work week again. The key thing is that I liked my 'job' and looked forward to going back to it each week. Thru-hiking is a profession in a way and thru-hikers become professional hikers for 5 months or so. If you like the job you'll probably finish and if you don't like the job you'll quit and find another one.