Backpacking vs Thru-hiking

Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail–Maine
Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, ...
Backpacking in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hikers traversing the Franconia Ridge in the W...
Hikers traversing the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains, much of which is in the alpine zone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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. 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 this 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.

5 thoughts on “Backpacking vs Thru-hiking

    1. I agree with your reasoning, but “purists” still wouldn’t consider it a thru-hike. I’m less rigid about it and don’t consider myself a purist. Happy trails!

  1. You can do shorter thru-hikes, too. At least I think these qualify as thru-hikes. Last year I started at the Beverly Creek trailhead, and came out at the Iron Peak TH, which took two days. This year I’m going to head in at the Cascade Pass TH and come out at Stehekin; with side trips I’m planning a week. It’s a way to not spend half a hike following your own foot steps when a loop isn’t available. (It also demands more in the way of logistics.)

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