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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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Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: Re: thru-hiking ruined my life on 02/21/2012 10:06:06 MST Print View

LoL. Try doing a deskjob and concentrate on the work when your mind is thinking about needing to keep fitness, maintaining toughness of the human body and improving one's gear.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
American or Un-American? on 02/23/2012 17:45:18 MST Print View

Not sure what it is about us Americans... but it seems we have a greater tendency than most to categorize our activities and ourselves!

(1) Must '"everything' be either one or the other? Backpacker or thru hiker? Democrat or Republican? Liberal or conservative? And so on and so forth... Obviously, labels are also used by others as well... but we seem to have this anal requirement to put everyone and everything into some neat box or another! When will we finally realize that people are multi-faceted, generally inconsistent and downright ambiguous?

(2) As well, many seem to have a mindset that operates like this: we judge people outwardly -- by the things they own! What? You camp only with one pot? You're a thru hiker then! I might be "unfair" -- people usually judge on more than just one possession -- but you get the idea?!?

I am NOT a thru hiker -- although I might just give that crazy idea a go one of these days. However, I do carry:

o just one ultralight titanium pot
o no extra clothes
o light sleeping bag (sleep with your clothes if it's cold)
o small, lightweight backpack
o neither camp shoes nor chair
o no gadgets -- preferring nature's sounds or even just the sound of silence.

But I am not a thru hiker.

K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: American or Un-American? on 02/23/2012 18:04:23 MST Print View

No Ben, no! This is giving me a headache. I need to file you into one of the two categories! I need things to be simple and you are complicating everything.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
My Take on 02/23/2012 18:23:12 MST Print View

I completely missed this thread, likely while I was in my post hike funk....

What is difficult to appreciate is the difference between normal hiking and thru hiking. Prior to my hike I read countless journals, non of which would prepare me for the true difference, it's the lifestyle. To be able to truly "go off grid" for months at a time allows you to get in tune with your environment in a way that week long trips fail to do. It is precisely this lifestyle that I failed to understand prior to my trip and it is this aspect that I miss the most. All the talk of gear etc in the article is frankly irrelevant.

I do wonder though, if thru-hiking ruined me. I have only done a couple of trips since my return and those were very low mile social trips which are in great contrast with my typical prehike trips. I have been able to partially integrate back into society but I also know that I have my gear packed and a set of halfmiles maps in the basement that could allow me to hike the PCT again at a moments notice. Will I? Hopefully not, but it helps my mental health knowing that I have the option.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: My Take on 02/23/2012 19:09:07 MST Print View


It is not necessary to "thru-hike" to go off the grid for months at a time. Actually you can get further away from the grid by wandering around for months at a time, with a little heavier load, which is more food and fewer re-supplies. If you do it right, you will also avoid most other hikers. But I think many thru-hikers actually enjoy the company of other thru-hikers. The social interaction is part of the allure, which for me would not be a positive. Nothing wrong with either. HYOH :)

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: My Take on 02/23/2012 20:12:29 MST Print View

What is difficult to appreciate is the difference between normal hiking and thru hiking... "

EXACTLY! Which goes back to my point questioning the wisdom (and even logic) of distinguishing the two activities based on the gear that people buy (or use)!

Edited by ben2world on 02/23/2012 20:13:37 MST.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: My Take on 02/23/2012 20:37:10 MST Print View


As mentioned, I've never done a thru-hike, but I "think" I can understand what you mean re. "lifestyle" and "getting in tune with [an altogether different] environment". I would appreciate your feedback to see if our perceptions have any commonality...

I went on a 7-month, solo RTW trip back in 2008. Prior to that, I have done many month-long trips. And initially, I figured the RTW would be a fairly similar experience -- just longer. But a completely unexpected discovery from my RTW trip was the sensation of being completely at ease with wherever I was at any moment or place -- my home (with all the feelings of belonging that one associates with one's home) -- was simply wherever I happen to be!! The "lifestyle" of changing hostels every 1-3 days, of quickly learning and getting comfortable with new locations and street names and cultures, etc. and then moving on and repeating again, etc. -- all became merely "the new normal"! This was much more than just feeling at ease. It was a "higher feeling" of actually belonging to a much bigger world (and also feeling I belong to whatever specific locality of the moment). It was both very macro and very micro at the same time.

I wonder if you felt the same when you wrote "lifestyle" and "environment" up above? That on a shorter trip, you might think about home or even doing post-trip scheduling... and then after a few months on a long trip, home is simply wherever you are at that moment -- until you feel so completely at ease that the entire new environment becomes your home! Towards the end of my trip, I was thinking to myself that if my shipping company had called to cancel my voyage home... I really wouldn't / couldn't care less! I was 100% ready to go home... and also 100% ready to continue on -- in other words, it made no difference at all where I was and where I would or should be heading to next -- it was all good.

Obviously a trip entailing trains, planes and ships is "different" from one where your only transportation is your own two legs. But then, do differences in transportation modes really affect one's psyche from a thru hike or thru trip? I would say "no" -- not much different than trips using different gear pieces!

Are your experience / feelings similar?

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Re: Re: My Take on 02/24/2012 09:13:39 MST Print View

You nailed it exactly. I actually suspect that your RTW trip is closer to the thru hike "feeling" than two weeks on say the JMT. Great summary of exactly what I was talking about!

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: My Take on 02/24/2012 09:27:10 MST Print View


Great to know! :)

Everett Vinzant
(wn7ant) - MLife

Locale: CDT
Re: Attitude on 05/17/2012 09:10:31 MDT Print View

I looked up the common definition of thru-hike:
Thru-hiking is the process of hiking a long-distance trail from end to end.

Appalachian Trail beginning to end 2184.2 miles
Average daily distance for 180 days 12.13 miles
Average daily distance for 90 days 24.26 miles

If the goal is to complete a trail beginning to end, in a time period (say six months), there is a minimum average distance that MUST be covered daily. Since distance = rate X time, if you slow the rate, you have to increase the time to cover the same distance. Since the article clearly stated it was about FINISHING a hike (beginning to end), I assume you have some technology available to you that allows you access to a 48 hour day to make up the distance? At least I hope... I have kids and could REALLY use such a thing.

The absurdity above was just to illustrate that the point of this particular article was to finish a trail beginning to end. I TOTALLY agree with the idea of being gone for 90 days, even if I only get ten miles out. Maybe I found some interesting fungi to write about. Perhaps there is a scene that just SCREAMS "sketch me." Maybe there is a stupid squirrel that shows up every morning to talk to you, and you really enjoy practicing communicating with politicians (though you could practice that with the fungi too).

As much fun as all this would be, I don't see that it would be conducive to getting from the beginning to the end of a 2184 mile trail.

I recommend a new term to cover this kind of hike. Mmmmmmm, how about, Zen hike? The point is being there in the moment, not even where you end up. And when you decide you're done, you stop.

Andy Jarman

Locale: Edge of the World
Preaching to the converted? on 11/14/2012 21:02:02 MST Print View

Lynne Wheldon's video's got me into this mess, and I'll be forever grateful to him for it. Anyone who hasn't seen his stuff, you should take a look, its getting a bit long in the tooth now, but the lessons are enduring. Anything can take a couch potatoe like me and get him out of bed at 5am every morning for a 5mile jog out of sheer shame at the waste he was making of his life has got to be good. This sort of article is spot on as far as I am concerned.

Erik Basil

Locale: Atzlan
Re: Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 12/05/2012 09:30:50 MST Print View

This article is a fun read, albeit somewhat provocative regarding the habits and characteristics of "backpackers". We're out of shape, eat expensive freeze dried food and carry chairs? Really?!?

Well, come to think of it, that's all true in my case, so it's probably true for the rest of you that self-identify as backpackers. Ha ha!! I can look by some of that to appreciate the point about Through-Hiking being an entirely different animal, especially after Day 7 on the trail.

Chris Townsend
(Christownsend) - MLife

Locale: Cairngorms National Park
Backpacking versus Thru-hiking on 12/05/2012 14:01:11 MST Print View

I must admit I've never really considered there was any difference. For me a thru-hike - and I've done plenty - is just a long backpacking trip. I think what the article is really describing is different attitudes and I agree you need a different attitude for thru-hiking than a short backpacking trip where distance doesn't matter. As for weight, well, on my first thru-hikes I carried more weight than on short backpacking trips because I thought I needed both more actual gear and also more durable and heavier gear. I still completed and enjoyed the thru-hikes though. Now I carry much the same however long the trip.

david brown
thru hiking vs. b.packing on 04/24/2013 20:40:56 MDT Print View

thanks for the great article :] I've always enjoyed the woods/trails for the simple reason I get to do my own thing and I do appreciate advise from others. but if I want to use tp after taking a crap after eating a huge fancy meal after enjoying it from the comfort of my CHAIR then let me [really how does it affect you ?] Please try to remember why you go out there ....... to enjoy YOUR self so please do so .Throwing around criticism is littering as well. And its just as rude as leaving poopy tp on da trail. have fun , god bless , and don't worry b- happy

Carlos M Perez
(carlosmfd) - M

Locale: Lake Nelson, Wind Rivers
Re: backpacking vs thru-hiking on 11/12/2015 05:45:43 MST Print View

I think that the article should have been titled "Hiker vs Camper". I believe the real difference is not the gear, but the goals and mind-set.

I can appreciate and greatly respect the dedication, tenacity and heart required to undertake a through-hike, and recognize that many people enjoy both. However, the goals are very different. A through-hike, as a previous poster aptly described, is very linear, involves meticulous planning and adherence to a time-table. Fishing, exploring, nature-watching, etc, are rarely a consideration. It also has a very social aspect, with human connections made that enhance the experience.

Hiking, on the other hand, is simply a means to immerse oneself in nature. The only timetable involves arrival and departure. All the time in between is frequently subject to chance and whim, or to a very generalized timetable. I have done everything from day hikes to 2 week off-trail bush whacking (the Wind Rivers and all the awesome trout-filled lakes, for example). As my experience has increased, my pack weight has plummeted, and I use many of the ultralight techniques I have learned both here and elsewhere to increase my comfort and enjoyment, as well as to increase the time available for those, being able to crank out some serious miles is a rush in itself!

We should worry less about HOW we hike, and just get out and do it while we can! And if we happen to cross paths some day, I'll be sure to share my trout and chocolate ;)

Be safe! Carlos m. PĂ©rez