Backpacking vs Thru-hiking

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail--Maine

People ask me what’s the difference between backpacking and hiking. I tell them it’s the same thing, but some hikers may take a short hike without carrying a pack. An afternoon hike around a lake for example.

Thru-hiking is an attempt to hike an entire trail during the course of one calendar year. All thru-hikers are essentially backpackers, but backpackers may or may not be thru-hikers. Backpackers may hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, such as Yosemite, and go home. If these hikers plan to complete the PCT in sections over a course of years, they are known as section-hikers.

Sometimes, strange things happen to successful thru-hikers. It’s not uncommon after having spent six months thru-hiking a major trail, to not be eager to go on short local hikes anytime soon. What’s more, some trekkers only want to do a different major thru-hike. And a few others are happiest when they do the same thru-hike all over again. There are Appalachian Trail hikers who have thru-hiked it seven or eight times, and counting.

What to make of this. For me, now that I’ve joined a hiking club, I enjoy regularly scheduled shorter hikes. I don’t know if I have another major thru-hike in me, but I think about it all the time. Normally, I’d be training for one now. I think many thru-hikers liked the experience so much that they try to re-capture that sense of adventure by doing another thru-hike as soon as they can. They don’t think short; they think long.

I understand this. Although I can’t wait to hike in the mountains of New Hampshire next year, I’ll be thinking then of where I was on the AT, PCT, and other trails in years past. We are all made differently, and it takes all kinds to create a world. Happy trails.

(PCT lake picture from public domain)

Pacific Crest Trail Lake

2 thoughts on “Backpacking vs Thru-hiking

  1. Perceptive post Ray. After the AT I only wanted to thru-hike. I hoped to capture that amazing experience again. Unfortunately, work/life commitments have never allowed me that same block of time again, so I’ve had to settle for much smaller thru hikes (3-4 weeks) over the past decade. I’ve completely given up day hikes, as they just don’t do it for me the way thruhiking does.
    I still anticipate thruhiking the PCT or CDT in 20 years, when my life is my own again!


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