Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter

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.

Print Jump to Reader Comments

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.


Reader Comments

You must login to post comments.

New Visitors: Create a new account
Remember my login info.

Backpacking versus Thru-hiking
Display Avatars
Sort By:
Chuck McCalment
(Chuck32) - MLife
Us & Them on 09/21/2011 14:58:06 MDT Print View

While older in experience (years) I am new to the BPL ethos and technics. Observation (of others out and about) and football knees got me here. This fraternity needs to remember the range of people and interest that show up at BPL. There are the Paul Magnanti individuals who are deeply driven to express themselves every day by interacting with nature. There are those here who work 60 hour weeks, every week, in concrete canyons. The only common thread I’ve noticed in 18 months of reading Backpackinglight is we are all seeking a better way to solve the same problem; how to maximize our outdoor hours by minimizing the detritus we drag out there with us.

Jim Colten’s observation is correct; preaching to the choir is just as valid as preaching to the church deacons and other sinners, you never know what will inspire or resonate another… we are all different, each one of us.

Thank you BPL and Francis for the article.

Alfred Lemire
(atkeys91) - F
Re: Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 15:25:29 MDT Print View

Maybe not the BPL readership, but, as suggested, others can benefit. Print the article (it can be copied to a word processor, with a little work) and give it to anyone you know who might be considering an extended backpacking trip. I was on the AT for three months and noticed people shedding weight and gear, including me.

There's another reason to cut down on pack weight, regardless of trip length: it's kinder on the body. Less body strain cuts food need and lessens the tiredness that can lead to accidents and injuries. That's especially so on the AT in Maine, whose difficulty makes it the postgraduate school of backpacking. Someone who had done the PCT quit the trail in Monson, just before the "100-mile" wilderness and Katahdin, in a huff over the unexpected difficulty of clambering close to straight up and down steep mountains of less than 4,000 feet in height. She'd have been better off with less weight on her back, improving her balance and endurance, both desirable, perhaps essential, on the AT in Maine.

jennifer ross
(jenhifive) - F

Locale: Norcal
Addicting, right? on 09/21/2011 16:09:34 MDT Print View

Every long hike I've done I haven't wanted to come back and I try to think of ways I can change my life to backpack more. I go at least 4x a year and you can tell when it's been too long because I'm moody and stressed. I commend those that step out of their societal comfort zone and make careers out of it and prioritize it but for now I'll just continue to use every bit of time away from work to hit the trails.

Attitude and perserverance: I busted my right knee right before going up a pass on the jmt but the thought of getting up there and seeing that view was enough for me to climb up only using my left leg and keeping the busted leg completely straight. At first it was a matter of remembering "peg leg, peg leg, peg leg" but then another pass the next day and my left leg started cramping in three spots from the uphill and downhill. I may be slow and weak but I'm determined to see what there is to see.

I know I complained at the time and took a lot of sit breaks but all I remember are the views.

Nathan Ventura
(nathanrainer) - F

Locale: East Coast
thru-hiking ruined my life on 09/21/2011 17:00:13 MDT Print View

I say this with a touch of humor, but also with some sincere seriousness. Thru-hiking ruined my life...or at least in the eyes of some. Although unlikely, it may not be all that unreasonable to warn aspiring thru-hikers that it can be an extremely addictive thing. You are, for a period of 4-6 months, adopting a completely new lifestyle that is absolutely nothing like your other life, and afterwards it can very hard to find peace of mind in the old daily grind.

In 2010 I thru-hiked the AT with my girlfriend and we had the time of our lives. It was the most rewarding thing I'd ever done. Afterwards though adjusting back to the real world was difficult. It was unbelievably boring and full of stresses I found much more burdensome than waking up to rain. I managed to get my old job back and kept it for about two months before getting fed up, and quitting. I sort of ran away to New Mexico to work on a farm in the middle of the high desert along the Sawtooth Mountains. Doing this not only ended up costing me my relationship, but it was also a decision not to go back to school and finish up my degree. Being in New Mexico was rather exciting because it was all very new to me and I hiked about 3 days of the week, but after a while I knew what was going to happen...I was going to hike the PCT that spring.

I just finished on September 16th and I'm already missing it. It is safe to say that I'm a thru-hiking addict...or an epic adventure addict...I'm not 100 percent sure. I'm already planning next year's traverse across Iceland and the CDT the year after that. How I'm going to get myself to suck it up and make the money to afford these things I'm not quite sure, but I know I'll do it. But the chances of me keeping a job for a year or more, or finishing up school, that all seems rather jeopardized by my hiking. The parents aren't too pleased.

Anyway, thats my two cents on the risks of thru-hiking. Its not for everyone, but fore some there's nothing better.


the terminus

Steven Paris
(saparisor) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: thru-hiking ruined my life on 09/21/2011 17:06:30 MDT Print View


Your parents just want you to get a haircut. :)

Congrats on finishing in what sounds like a difficult year!

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 19:28:54 MDT Print View

I have noticed that folks that have thru hiked, continue to thru hike. I've ran into several on various trails along the CDT, most have done the PCT prior, many the AT AND most already were making plans for the next big one :)

I'm fortunate that I live in a hiking rich state and doubly fortunate that my employment allows me to hike on the job, so I get a fair amount of hiking in. Having said that, there is definitely a STRONG desire to do a thru hike. It's going to have to wait until retirement, but that's not that far out there anymore.

Thanks for the article.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: thru-hiking ruined my life on 09/21/2011 19:52:01 MDT Print View

I don't know how you can go back to town life after spending that many months in the woods. I've had some sort of shock just coming back from three weeks in Europe-- one day you are walking the same stones that Julius Caesar walked two thousand years before, and the next day you are back in the office with all the trivial stuff going on. EWWWWW!

Bert Nemcik
(bnemcik) - F
The Actual Difference is Time on 09/21/2011 20:30:23 MDT Print View

My notion is that backpacking isn't the same as thru-hiking based upon one element: time. The longer you go backpacking, the more you become one with the elements. Once the transition takes place, coming back out of the elements seems strange and surreal. I agree that not everyone who backpacks can thru-hike and a number of you have expressed the reasons rather eloquently. Perhaps the principle "hike your own hike" applies here. Some backpack for a day or two and that keeps their spirits charged. Others need a more concentrated dose of the joys of the trail and do a thru-hike. What makes our chosen sport, passion and journey so special is that the continuum extends from camping out in your own back yard with your teddy bear to hitting the trail and never coming home again.

Shadow AT02

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
These Paul Magnanti guys... on 09/21/2011 22:09:11 MDT Print View

>>There are the Paul Magnanti individuals

Short, bald, Mediterranean looking guys????


>>AND most already were making plans for the next big one :)

We are all making plans for the next big one. It is a burn that never goes away. At least for me.

After the trail...

I really need to update this document, though.

Three years later, I've had even more adventures, deepened my friendships, fell in love with and marrying someone next year....and still wonder when I can get out again. :)

Edited by PaulMags on 09/21/2011 22:24:24 MDT.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Backpacking vs Thru-hiking on 09/21/2011 22:35:47 MDT Print View

I have never done a thru-hike and I would like to do that some day. Once you have children it becomes more difficult to get away for long periods of time; just making sure they have health insurance means working a full time job, at least for me.
The way I live makes it that I don't really need to get away from much; I just miss the mountains every so often......

Edited by Kat_P on 09/23/2011 22:25:46 MDT.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Article on 09/21/2011 22:36:23 MDT Print View

Oh, and I did enjoy the article.

Dirk Rabdau
(dirk9827) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Thru-hiking vs. the world on 09/21/2011 23:20:02 MDT Print View

I have to agree with Rainier, re-entry into regular society is the toughest aspect about thru-hiking. The fact is that thru-hiking is rather stress free compared to everyday living. There are fewer choices on the trail and the goal is always clear - move forward. "Regular" life the choices are seldom as clear-cut or result in as much satisfaction as a long hike to a beautiful vista.

I thru-hiked at age 38. Had I done one at 24, my life might be very different now, perhaps I would have become a part-time worker and thru-hiking junkie. I'd love to go again, but at this point in my life, there are other considerations including career, relationships, mortgage.

I often wonder if I could magically change my life and become mostly a thru-hiker and say, a part-time seasonal worker who saves enough money to go on a thru-hike every couple of years. Would that be enough? Would I hike down the trail with a light heart or a mind full of doubts and reservations? Everything is a choice, even the great thru-hiker Scott Williamson has addressed the trade-offs involved (retirement, medical coverage, some semblance of financial security.) Would it be still as meaningful if I knew I could go whenever I could scare up enough money to cover the trip? I recall how desire was a strong part of my PCT trip - I had this once chance, knew a lot of people sacrificed so I may have had this opportunity, and I wasn't going to quit unless it was due to a pretty serious injury.)

I'd encourage everyone to try a thru-hike, but would temper expectations. I am not a huge optimist, nor am I one of those people who see the good in everything. So consider my words with that in my mind. Thru-hiking is like life itself in one important regard: you have good days, great days, some ho-hum days and a few bad days. You hike for the long haul, relish in those sublime moments and when things aren't going your way, try to find solace in your trail friends, food bag and that tomorrow will be a new day. If you expect the trail to be completely captivating with every step, you are bound to be disappointed There are likely going to be stretches where you are bored, exhausted, frustrated, injured and dejected. The weather alone can make epic stretches of trail seem pedestrian and the most pedestrian of views seem epic.

But after it's all done, you will find yourself looking at old photos and trail journals and reveling in very sweet memories. You will share a strong bond with those you shared the trail, and you will wax nostalgic about the finest days and laugh at ridiculous tales from the trail. I miss it every day. I think about it every day. I would like to try it again, only to do it differently, with a lighter heart and pack, with greater confidence and with the knowledge that it really isn't the destination, but the journey that matters.

Edited by dirk9827 on 09/22/2011 01:56:55 MDT.

Matthew Zion
(mzion) - F

Locale: Boulder, CO
Re: Thru Hiking on 09/22/2011 10:45:08 MDT Print View

Love everyones comments. I agree with just about everything said. Thru hiking is a drug and anyone considering it should beware and go ahead and mark 4 or 5 years off your calendar.

Like Mags I try to take advantage of the outdoors here in CO but I find weekend hikes lackluster and prefer a trail run or bike ride. Without hitch hiking, getting lost, kindness of strangers, new friendships, and an end goal weekend trips typically leave me wanting for more. More often than not my weekend trips are more motivated by keeping my 'skills' honed, testing new equipment and making sure my legs are use to the up and downs. To each their own but I think the complete thru hiking experience is what keeps people coming back and I hope anyone on these forums that is interested in doing one quits their job and goes for it.

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Wake up call on 09/25/2011 21:35:57 MDT Print View

That's a good way to look at this article. Many members here know most of this stuff. But, maybe they've not put it all together in the context of a thru-hike.

For me, thru's have always sounded romantic, but long day after long day, not so much. I like to hike a day or two in, then set up camp and day hike from there. Adventuring is what I really like.

In the end, it is best to know thy self. Then you can save yourself from some serious mistakes that look romantic but would be the worst job ever if you really attempted it.

BTW - Read some thru-hike blogs and you'll get some real perspective if that is the life for you, at least for six months or so.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Bringing in new readers on 09/27/2011 13:54:27 MDT Print View

I found this article from a link on Whiteblaze. So articles that don't preach to the choir are a great way to get more readers here.

Thru-hiking is a lot different from backpacking. It has been a harder lesson to learn AFTER my long distance hiking than before.

Not everyone you hike with after thru-hiking is going to want to push on for 20 mile days. Not everyone is going to want to eat a one-pot meal, fall asleep and get up really early itching for more. Adjusting to lower miles and less ambitious goals can be difficult. Plus nobody wants to hike with you anyway, thinking you're some kind of hiking god who they have to apologize to all the time for "holding you back."

I've had to get used to stopping for the day at 2 or 3pm again. I've had to get used to hiking trips where we didn't cover very much ground and possibly didn't cover much ground simply because we were there to cut brush or the trail was in such bad shape we couldn't just put our heads down and walk fast and far. It hasn't been a bad adjustment, but it has been one.

I've done a few section hikes on the PCT during thru-hiking season and been surprised how free I felt that I could take a detour and spend a few hours soaking in Deep Creek while the thru-hikers thought it was too much extra mileage out of their way (there was a detour this year). Or that I could look at a growing storm cloud and a snowy mountain ahead and feel really happy I got to go home and be warm and dry and not proceed into that mess.

I've even felt surprised how nice it is to toss in a few luxuries into my pack that I wouldn't have dreamed of carrying on my long distance hikes. The first luxury I brought was an insulated mug and some coffee. For crying out loud, that's not even a luxury to most people!

Distance hiking ruined me for almost 4 years. Now that I've gotten back into the swing of ordinary life, I sometimes feel bad that I would have to get used to sleeping on the ground without a pillow and being dirty again. At the same time, I'm grateful every single day that I look at my feet and see clean toenails. It took a long time to get used to just dayhiking again but I'm back to enjoying it like I used to. It took a long time to get used the the dry climate where I normally hike but I've started to see the beauty of it again. It was really hard getting back into work again but I did it and I can't believe it but I'm actually happy going to work each day. I don't know when I'll ever do another long distance trail. I would love to do another one but I don't know if I can do the whole reentry thing again. It was really hard.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 09/27/2011 23:36:06 MDT Print View

I am not a thru-hiker and never will be! 5-7 mile days are about all I can do, even with a light pack (with the packs I used to carry, I now couldn't backpack at all!). My hiking style has been and will continue to be "admire the views, smell the flowers, sit under a tree or wander around a meadow and take in my surroundings." I have no desire to set a record getting from (to quote the late Harvey Manning) "Bug Bog to Blister Pass." Or to go from Mexico to Canada (at 5 miles per day, it would take me longer than I probably have to live).

On the other hand, I greatly admire thru-hikers for what they accomplish. In fact, I admire them so much that I'm going to be at Cascade Locks tomorrow at 8 am. to ferry "Balls" and "Sunshine" up to Wahtum Lake to hike the 14 miles they had to miss due to the Dollar Lake Fire's blowing up while they were at PCTA Trail Days.

Talk about will--that 11-year old girl has overcome so much! The horrendous snow conditions, blisters, loneliness when the rest of the pack got ahead or behind... She developed an infected blister in Oregon and had to leave the trail for a few days. The doctor insisted she quit, and she cried! Contrary to what the doctor predicted, she was back on the trail, her foot doing fine, a few days later! They reached Canada Saturday night and I'm really looking forward to meeting them tomorrow when they finally complete the entire trail!

And as for preaching to the choir: Considering how specialized this forum is, there are a surprising of newbies with 20-30 lb. base weights who come and post here asking for help! We definitely do need articles for beginners!

Edited by hikinggranny on 09/27/2011 23:38:24 MDT.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
re-entry on 09/28/2011 07:47:44 MDT Print View

Piper- thanks for that insight, it sounds like a very real possibility after a thru-hike. With that said, I think I'm still ready to give it a go :)

Mary- you and my wife would get along dreamily :) she has the exact same attitude, ours is a bit of a ying/yang relationship with hiking (probably beyond hiking too! :) ), but we make it work- she goes a little further than she probably would on her own, I go less- she feels proud of her accomplishments on the trail, I see a heck of a lot more than I would at my own pace

Darren Bagnall

Locale: El Portal, CA
mental fortitude on 01/15/2012 12:00:47 MST Print View

I have thought about this topic much since my PCT thru attempt in 2010 and I never once considered gear. New thru's - don't get side tracked by the gear discussion. The real insight is that walking 20 miles per day (almost) every day is a completely different sport than backpacking. You simply have no idea how your body will react to you asking it preform in this way. Like-wise you have no idea how much mental fortitude it takes to ask your body to do this day in and day out no matter what the weather and no matter how tired, hungry, or injured you are.

In my opinion, the major difference is the mental fortitude. Before your thru, spend time contemplating why are embarking
on this journey. Make sure you are highly committed, motived, and excited! Visualize your desired outcome. You will need every ounce of motivation.

Get in the best shape you can before the trail and spend the first two - three weeks hiking at YOUR pace (the pace your body wants to go). Then and only then start pushing.

The rest of the stuff you can figured out on the trail.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 01/15/2012 14:46:11 MST Print View

The author states that there is a difference in the opening, and I agree.

I have never done a 'thru-hike' but have done two 6-month backpacking trips, and many shorter ones over the years. I have been tinkering with the idea of doing the PCT when I retire, but I am not sure I will be happy living away from the wife for that long.

Thinking back to my first lengthy trip in 1971, here are some of the differences in my mind:

The goal - for me was to hike for a period of time, which was not defined. I figured that when it was time to go home, I would know it. There was one limitation, I was not prepared or interested in staying the the Sierras in winter. So the trip would probably end in September or October. I started in April. For a thru-hiker, the goal is point A to point B. So you set yourself up for failure or success from day one. On my trip there was no destination.

Time - a thru hike requires a detailed plan on how to get from A to B. It must include logistics for food and weather (snow in the Sierras, as this year) that can be obstacles. For me, I needed food every couple hundred miles, sometimes longer because I had the luxury to fish for trout almost everyday. Also, time includes stress to get back to a job, school, or other commitments. For me, I had just gotten out of the military, had zero obligations and had a couple thousand dollars in the bank, which is probably over $10K in today's money.

Planning - a thru hike requires a lot of logistics to meet the time and food issue. For me, I just needed a map to show how close the next town was when food got low, and I had no idea where I might be in two weeks, a month, or even longer.

Social aspect - for many thru-hikers this is a big part of the adventure. Thus, we have "trail names, trail angels, and hiker havens." My goal was to avoid as many people as possible, to leave the human aspect behind as much as possible. To be honest, when I started, I really knew nothing about the John Muir Trail, other than it was marked on my forest service map. Once I got around the Whitney area, I decided to go to Yosemite via the JMT. Once I got near Yosemite, the crowds turned me off and I turned around and went back, although with many, many scenic detours. I never had any desire to return to Yosemite until around 2004, when my son wanted to visit. And it was worse than I expected, other than the overwhelming scenery.

Spontaneity - not a lot of leeway on the thru-hike. There are time tables to meet. For me, if I found a wonderful place, I might stay there for a few days or even a week.

So I finished the trip in mid-September, because it felt like time to go back. And the trip was successful, because the only goal was to enjoy whatever felt right each day. Highly recommended approach.

Joseph Regallis
(backpackandgear) - F
Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 02/21/2012 07:21:57 MST Print View

Excellent article! My wife and I did an 8+ mile backpacking hike yesterday and it was tiring. We are both in our mid fifties so things are not as easy as when we were younger. My wife doesn't like to carry a backpack so I carry most of our food and drinks on my back. I use a smaller day pack and try to carry plenty of water and drinks (we once backpacked a mountain in northern VA and ran out of liquids, not good). We also brought our 2 small dogs who have lots of energy (5 years old) and who drank a lot of our water. I'm discovering as I get older and still want to do some great hikes that I may have to get my gear weight down more and more. Maybe get a water filtration system (if its lighter) and get a tarp instead of a tent. Thanks again for the article and keep up the good work!