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

Published by Ray Anderson

Hiker and writer. Have hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, The Long Trail (Vermont), and some of the Continental Divide Trail. My trail name is "HAMLET." Have written three hiking novels (thrillers). The first one, "THE TRAIL," was traditionally published in 2015. My second hiking thriller, "SIERRA," released Oct 2016. Book three in my AWOL hiking-thriller series, "THE DIVIDE" releases from Turner Publishing 8/18/2020.

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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