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What Is Thru-Hiking vs. Backpacking? (Which One Is For You?)

There is not anything more relaxing or better for a person’s mental and physical health than walking trails and enjoying nature.
Written By: Josh Koop
December 9, 2019
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There is not anything more relaxing or better for a person’s mental and physical health than walking trails and enjoying nature. That is the reason many people have taken up thru-hiking and backpacking.

However, what is the difference between thru-hiking versus backpacking? The difference can be outlined as follows:

  • Thru-hiking involves a very specialized form of backpacking that’s more focused on long-distance and high mileage hiking to complete a trail within a given timeframe.
  • Backpacking involves hiking for a few hours to days on trails that are well-marked and easier to follow. There generally is no timeframe involved, and backpacking is normally done while on vacation or on the weekend.

This article will examine the differences and likenesses of thru-hiking versus backpacking.

What is Thru-hiking?

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) defines a thru-hike as a trek on foot that is completed within one calendar year or twelve-month period. As a result, this definition is the one most used by hiking groups within the United States. (Source: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy)

However, it is good to understand that a thru-hike can take anywhere from five to seven months, with the average taking just shy of six months.

Thu hiking in places like the Appalachian Trail is a grueling and arduous endeavor that requires great physical and mental stamina. A thru-hiker may experience very hilly or mountainous terrain, mud, wild animals, and flash floods, so it is vital for a thru-hiker to carry enough gear to be safe but not so much as to weigh them down.

Sometimes thru-hikers need to consider freezing temperatures and snow, especially at higher elevations. Thru-hiking is not for the faint of heart as requires months of preparation, both physical and mental, plus doing some great and thorough planning.

What is Backpacking?

Backpacking is a fun and exciting way to travel and take in the local flavor of any country or land. Backpacking is a low-cost, and independent means of traveling that includes the use of public transportation when necessary and inexpensive lodgings such as hostels and inns.

Backpacking is a relaxing way to spend a weekend or to enjoy a vacation for those interested in taking in the sights, smells, and flavor of another part of the world away from where one lives.

Backpacking also means taking everything you need with you in a pack on your back that includes clothes, personal items, food, and camping gear as it involves at least one night spent in nature on the trail.

What Is Thru-Hiking vs. Backpacking - Camping with 2 yellow tents

Like with thru-hiking, pre-planning is vital because knowing the route and places to camp at night before leaving allows for a sense of adventure and alerts people to where you have gone in case there is an emergency. Also, for safety, it is important to sign in at a ranger station to allow them to know you are about.

One Major Difference Between Thru-hiking and Backpacking: Gear

One of the major differences between thru-hiking vs. backpacking is the gear each carries. While the backpacker is interested in convenience and comfort, a thru-hiker is more involved with minimizing the weight they must carry. This difference in gear is related to the type of terrain, and the length of the trail each will be following.

The gear differences can be laid out in a table, like the one below.

EQUIPMENT FOR THRU-HIKING EQUIPMENT FOR BACKPACKING
A tarp / lightweight tentA large comfortable tent
Extra underwear / socksAn extra change of clothes for each day
One ultra-light pan / potPots and pans for cooking
Thin pad for sleeping / inflatableAn Inflatable mattress
Small BackpackLarge backpack
Light Sleeping Bag / QuiltHeavy-duty sleeping bag
No ChairLightweight chair

It is clear from each list that backpacking is a much more leisurely trek than that undertaken by those who choose to be involved in thru-hiking. Weight is the worst enemy of someone who is fighting their way up a steep hill or climbing a mountain, especially over months of continuous hiking.

The Differences Between the Physical and Mental Preparation for Thru-hiking vs. Backpacking

The physical and mental preparations for both backpackers and thru-hikers differ greatly.

The physical differences are that a backpacker can be out of shape as the trek they experience is less arduous and shorter than that undertaken by a thru-hiker. If it begins to rain or snow, a backpacker can postpone their trip or stay in camp until the foul weather passes.

However, a thru-hiker cannot waste time in that fashion and will press on. In fact, it is unusual for backpackers to wake up early and break camp during the rain, but quite common for thru-hikers.

Backpacking isn’t nearly as mentally challenging as going on a year trek along a difficult trail as thru-hikers do. The long trails on rough terrain mean that no time can be wasted pampering oneself with days off for rest, but one must press on regardless of how hard the trail or the way one feels emotional.

Resiliency is a major difference between backpacking and thru-hiking, and not having enough emotional and physical fortitude can make or break a hiking exertion.

Thru-hiking vs. Backpacking in Food Selection

Choosing what food to carry marks another significant difference between thru-hiking and backpacking. Backpackers can afford to buy freeze-dried meals or favor gourmet meals that add enormous amounts of weight to the backs of the hikers.

However, thru-hikers choose a different diet avoiding freeze-dried meals and cooking efficiently as possible. This is true not only because of the weight they would need to haul on their backs on arduous trails, but because freeze-dried foods are expensive and could break the budget of the thru-hiker before their hike is over.

Thru-hikers will typically choose simple foods that feed their bodies but are convenient (small and light) to carry and dense in caloric value.

Josh

Thru-hikers may also eat foods that are higher in fat if they are required to hike in very cold or snowy conditions to help keep them warm. For this reason, thru-hikers, because of the heavy hiking they do, have a seemingly insatiable need for high sugar foods such as chocolate bars.

The Pros and Cons of Thru-hiking Vs. Backpacking

There are pros and cons to both thru-hiking and backpacking, and in this section we shall examine each as related to the other.

Pros of Thru-hiking.

Thru-hiking allows for an opportunity to experience a large sense of accomplishment from completing a long and difficult trek on foot over long distances. Not only this, but thru-hikers get an opportunity on their travels to uncover the power of their minds and bodies like never before.

Choosing to be a thru-hiker provides some extra encouragement to flex any lightweight minimalist ideas one might have with tons of practice on the trail.

The Pros of Backpacking

Backpacking allows for a quickly planned escape into the wilderness away from the pressures of society. One can take all the comforts of home with them and enjoy nature as never before. A person can plan their life around their hiking experiences and enjoy a relaxing time without the pressures of a mileage requirement.

Since backpacking is done in weekend chunks within a paid vacation, it allows time to spend with family and friends without the isolation of thru-hiking.

The Cons of Thru-hiking

Thru-hiking requires a rigorous following of a well-laid out plan of how many miles to hike per day over an approximately six-month journey down hard and unpredictable trails.

The financial pressures from thru-hiking can be exhaustive as choosing to thru-hike will most likely mean leaving the position where one works. This is because most jobs will not allow their employees to take a six-month to a year hiatus from their work.

Some thru-hikers also say that not being able to enjoy the beauty around them for focusing on meeting the daily mileage requirement is a definitive con.

The Cons to Backpacking

The cons to backpacking are mainly involved with getting in shape enough to accomplish a hike. Then there is the expense of buying all the equipment and finding time away from work.

While backpacking is fun, it is also exceedingly difficult on a person’s body and will harm the self-esteem of a hiker if they find they are too out of shape to complete the hike.

Bottom Line

Whether you choose to backpack or thru-hike, getting yourself outside can do wonders on your mental status. It allows you to breath fresh air, eliminate electronics and go back to when life was simpler. While this may not be what you know you need, many of our issues in current society could be lessened by a trip outside the urban jungle.

Please share this on social media if you found it helpful or useful, comment if I missed something or you have a disagreement as I love to talk and learn as well as spread info to everyone!

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