Header Notice

Winter is here! Check out the winter wonderlands at these 5 amazing winter destinations in Montana

What Is Thru-Hiking Vs. Backpacking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Esmeralda Naquin



When it comes to outdoor adventure and exploration, two terms often come up: thru-hiking and backpacking. Both activities involve traversing long distances in natural environments, but there are distinct differences between the two. Understanding these differences can help you choose the right adventure for your interests and goals.


In this article, we will delve into the definitions of thru-hiking and backpacking, explore their key differences, and highlight the considerations associated with each activity. Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or a newbie looking to embark on your first long-distance trek, this guide will provide you with valuable insights.


Thru-hiking is an incredible feat of endurance, where hikers aim to cover an entire long-distance trail from start to finish in a single continuous journey. It’s often associated with iconic trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail. Thru-hikers immerse themselves in the trail experience, often spending months on the trail to complete the entire distance.


Backpacking, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses a variety of outdoor adventure activities. It can refer to multi-day treks on established trails, exploratory hikes in remote areas, or even extended camping trips with minimal hiking involved. Backpacking allows you to carry all the necessary supplies, including food, shelter, and equipment, allowing for self-sufficiency while exploring the great outdoors.


Both thru-hiking and backpacking offer unique and rewarding experiences, but it’s important to understand the key differences between them. Beyond the obvious distinction of covering an entire trail versus exploring specific areas, there are other factors that set the two activities apart.


Definition and Overview

Thru-hiking and backpacking are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct in terms of objectives, duration, and the level of commitment required. Let’s dive deeper into their definitions and understand the nuances of each activity.


Thru-hiking is a long-distance hiking journey that involves completing an entire trail within a single hiking season. Thru-hikes are typically one-way routes that span hundreds or even thousands of miles, taking hikers through a variety of terrains and landscapes. The most renowned thru-hikes include the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, which attract thousands of brave hikers each year.


Backpacking, on the other hand, refers to a broader range of outdoor activities that involve carrying a backpack with all the necessary supplies for an overnight or multi-day adventure. It can involve hiking on established trails, exploring off-trail terrain, or even combining hiking with camping in remote areas. Backpacking can be done on short weekend trips or extended expeditions, providing flexibility for individuals to choose the duration and level of difficulty.


Thru-hiking offers a unique challenge and an opportunity to fully immerse oneself in the natural surroundings of a long-distance trail. Hikers embark on a continuous journey, dedicating weeks or even months to complete the entire trail. This requires careful planning, resupply strategies, and physical and mental endurance.


Backpacking, on the other hand, allows for more flexibility in terms of trip length and route choices. It can involve day hikes, overnight trips, or even longer expeditions depending on the individual’s preference. Backpackers can choose their own pace and stop at various campsites or scenic spots along the way.


While thru-hiking often requires more commitment and logistical planning, backpacking provides a broader range of options and allows for more freedom to explore different trails and regions. Both activities offer a chance to disconnect from the daily grind, connect with nature, and challenge oneself physically and mentally.


In the following sections, we will explore the key differences between thru-hiking and backpacking, helping you determine which adventure is right for you based on your goals, preferences, and available time.



Thru-hiking is a pinnacle achievement in the world of outdoor adventure. It involves completing an entire long-distance trail in a single, continuous journey. Thru-hikers dedicate substantial time and effort to cover hundreds or even thousands of miles, typically over the course of several months.


The allure of thru-hiking lies in the opportunity to push one’s physical and mental limits while immersing oneself in the natural beauty of the trail. Popular long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail are revered among thru-hikers for their stunning vistas, challenging terrain, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing such an arduous journey.


Thru-hiking requires meticulous planning and preparation. Hikers must carefully calculate their food and water needs, arrange resupply points, and pack essential gear to endure changing weather conditions. It’s a test of self-sufficiency and resilience, as thru-hikers often rely on their own resources for survival along the trail.


Thru-hiking is more than just a physical challenge; it is a transformative experience. It offers an opportunity to disconnect from the fast-paced world, reconnect with nature, and gain a stronger sense of self. Many thru-hikers report personal growth, increased self-confidence, and a deeper appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of life.


One of the defining features of thru-hiking is the sense of community that develops along the trail. Hikers often form tight-knit bonds with fellow thru-hikers, sharing experiences, stories, and resources. This camaraderie creates a unique support system that provides encouragement, advice, and even trail magic – acts of kindness from trail angels who provide food, water, or other amenities to hikers.


Thru-hiking is not without its challenges, however. Hikers must contend with physical ailments such as blisters, sore muscles, and fatigue. Additionally, they face mental hurdles, enduring long stretches of solitude and overcoming doubts and fears. Weather conditions can also pose risks, ranging from scorching heat to freezing temperatures and torrential rain.


In the next section, we will explore backpacking, another popular adventure activity that differs from thru-hiking in several key aspects.



Backpacking is a versatile outdoor adventure activity that allows individuals to explore the natural world while carrying their supplies in a backpack. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from short overnight trips to extended expeditions in remote areas.


One of the main appeals of backpacking is the freedom it provides. Unlike thru-hiking, where the goal is to complete an entire trail, backpacking allows individuals to choose their own routes, duration, and level of difficulty. Whether it’s hiking on established trails, venturing off-trail to discover hidden gems, or combining hiking with camping in picturesque locations, backpacking offers endless possibilities for exploration.


Backpacking provides an opportunity to disconnect from the stresses of everyday life and reconnect with nature. It allows individuals to immerse themselves in the wilderness, appreciating the serenity and beauty of their surroundings. The simplicity of carrying all necessary supplies on one’s back promotes self-sufficiency and self-reliance, fostering a sense of empowerment and adventure.


Depending on personal preferences, backpacking can range from a leisurely activity to a physically demanding undertaking. Some backpackers prefer shorter trips that focus on relaxation and enjoying nature, while others seek the thrill of conquering challenging terrains and testing their endurance.


One of the advantages of backpacking is the ability to customize the experience according to individual preferences and skill levels. Beginner backpackers can start with shorter trips on well-marked trails, while experienced adventurers can explore more remote and rugged areas. The flexibility in trip length also allows backpackers to choose the ideal duration based on their available time and physical capabilities.


Similar to thru-hiking, backpacking fosters a sense of community among outdoor enthusiasts. While on the trail, backpackers often encounter like-minded individuals and share experiences, advice, and even campsites. These chance encounters can lead to lasting friendships and memorable experiences.


Backpacking does come with its own challenges. Planning and preparation are key to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. Proper gear selection, route research, and understanding of weather conditions are essential for a successful backpacking adventure. Additionally, backpackers must be prepared to face potential obstacles, such as navigational challenges, variable terrain, and encounters with wildlife.


In the next section, we will dive deeper into the key differences between thru-hiking and backpacking, helping you determine the best outdoor adventure for your interests and goals.


Key Differences between Thru-Hiking and Backpacking

While thro-hiking and backpacking share similarities as long-distance outdoor activities, there are several key differences that set them apart:

1. Objective: Thru-hiking focuses on completing an entire long-distance trail in a continuous journey, while backpacking allows for more flexibility in route choices and trip duration. 2. Trail Length: Thru-hiking involves covering hundreds or even thousands of miles, while backpacking can encompass a wide range of distances, from short overnight trips to more extended expeditions. 3. Time Commitment: Thru-hiking requires dedicating weeks or even months to complete a trail, while backpacking allows for shorter trips or the flexibility to extend your adventure based on your preferences and available time. 4. Self-Sufficiency: Thru-hikers must plan and pack for long stretches between resupply points, carrying all necessary supplies and navigating carefully to ensure they have enough food, water, and gear. Backpackers also carry supplies but often have more frequent resupply opportunities and may rely on established campgrounds or facilities along the way. 5. Community: Thru-hiking often creates a tight-knit community of hikers along the trail, with shared experiences and a sense of camaraderie. Backpackers may encounter fellow adventurers on the trail but have more flexibility in choosing solitude or companionship during their journey. 6. Physical Demands: Thru-hiking requires a high level of physical fitness and endurance to cover long distances consistently over an extended period. Backpacking can be adapted to various fitness levels and offers the freedom to set your own pace and mileage based on individual capabilities. 7. Sense of Accomplishment: Thru-hiking a long-distance trail brings a tremendous sense of accomplishment upon completion due to the sheer distance and challenges involved. Backpacking, while also rewarding, may offer a different level of personal satisfaction depending on the length and difficulty of the trip. 8. Logistical Considerations: Thru-hiking requires intricate planning, including resupply strategies and potential support from friends or family. Backpacking, while still requiring planning, allows for more flexibility in terms of route changes, resupply points, and access to amenities. It’s important to consider these differences when deciding between thru-hiking and backpacking. Each activity offers its own unique experiences, challenges, and rewards. Understanding your goals, available time, skill level, and personal preferences will help you choose the outdoor adventure that best suits you.


Considerations for Thru-Hiking

Thru-hiking is an extraordinary adventure, but it requires careful consideration and preparation. Here are some important factors to keep in mind before embarking on a thru-hike:

1. Physical Fitness: Thru-hiking demands a high level of physical fitness. It involves walking long distances day after day, often carrying a heavy backpack. Strengthening your endurance, building leg strength, and improving cardiovascular fitness are crucial preparations. 2. Time Commitment: Thru-hiking requires a significant time commitment. Completing a long-distance trail can take several weeks to months. Consider the impact on work, family, and personal obligations when determining how much time you can dedicate to a thru-hike. 3. Logistics and Planning: Thru-hiking involves detailed planning and logistics. Research the trail, understand the resupply options, plan your route, and prepare a thorough gear list. Ensure you have the necessary permits and permissions, and familiarize yourself with the trail regulations and safety guidelines. 4. Weather and Season: Different trails have varying weather patterns and seasons. Consider the best time of year to thru-hike a particular trail, taking into account weather conditions, potential hazards (such as snow or extreme heat), and accessibility of resources along the route. 5. Resupply Strategy: Thru-hikers must carefully plan their resupply strategy. Determine where to obtain food, water, and other necessary supplies along the trail. Research towns, stores, or mail drop locations that offer resupply opportunities and plan your schedule accordingly. 6. Physical and Mental Endurance: Thru-hiking is a mentally and physically demanding endeavor. Be prepared to face challenging terrains, weather fluctuations, and long periods of solitude. Develop mental resilience and find strategies to stay motivated and overcome obstacles encountered along the way. 7. Support System: Consider your support system, including family, friends, and fellow hikers. Thru-hiking can be mentally and emotionally taxing, and having a strong support network can provide encouragement and motivation during difficult times. 8. Basic Wilderness Skills: Brush up on your wilderness skills, including navigation, campsite selection, wildlife safety, and basic first aid. Knowing how to mitigate risks and handle unexpected situations is essential for a successful thru-hike. 9. Leave No Trace: Thru-hiking is an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of nature, and it is crucial to minimize our impact on the environment. Familiarize yourself with the principles of Leave No Trace, which promote responsible outdoor ethics, and strive to leave the trail as you found it. 10. Trail Etiquette: Respect other hikers, trail communities, and local residents. Familiarize yourself with trail etiquette, such as yielding to uphill hikers, minimizing noise pollution, and practicing good campsite etiquette. Thru-hiking can be a life-changing experience filled with breathtaking scenery, personal growth, and a deep connection with nature. Taking these considerations into account and being well-prepared will enhance your enjoyment and ensure a safe and successful thru-hiking journey.


Considerations for Backpacking

Backpacking offers a wide range of opportunities for outdoor exploration and adventure. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind before embarking on a backpacking trip:

1. Trip Duration and Distance: Determine the length and distance of your backpacking trip based on your available time and physical capabilities. Whether you’re planning a short weekend getaway or a longer expedition, ensure your route aligns with your desired trip duration. 2. Trail Selection: Research and choose a trail that suits your preferences and skill level. Consider factors such as terrain difficulty, elevation changes, and availability of water sources along the route. Look for trail reviews, guidebooks, or online resources to gather information about the trail’s conditions and potential challenges. 3. Season and Weather: Take into account the season and expected weather conditions when planning your backpacking trip. Prepare appropriate clothing and equipment to stay comfortable and safe in varying weather conditions. Be aware of potential hazards such as lightning storms, extreme heat, or cold snaps. 4. Permits and Regulations: Check if any permits or reservations are required for your chosen trail and secure them ahead of time. Familiarize yourself with any specific regulations or restrictions, such as camping restrictions, fire regulations, or wildlife protection measures. 5. Navigation Skills: Brush up on your navigation skills before heading out on a backpacking trip. Learn how to use a map and compass, or use GPS devices or smartphone apps as necessary. Being able to navigate accurately will help you stay on track and avoid getting lost. 6. Gear Selection: Choose appropriate gear based on the terrain, weather, and duration of your backpacking trip. Consider essentials such as a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, and clothing suitable for the conditions. Opt for lightweight and durable gear to minimize the weight you carry while ensuring comfort and safety. 7. Food and Water: Plan and pack adequate food and water for your backpacking trip. Research water sources along the trail and carry a filtration or purification system to ensure a safe water supply. Choose lightweight, nutritious, and non-perishable food options that provide energy for the duration of your trip. 8. Leave No Trace: Follow the principles of Leave No Trace to minimize your impact on the environment. Practice proper waste disposal, avoid damaging vegetation, and respect wildlife habitats. Leave the trail as you found it, ensuring its preservation for future backpackers to enjoy. 9. Safety and Emergency Preparedness: Be prepared for potential emergencies by carrying a first aid kit, emergency shelter, and communication devices such as a cell phone or satellite communicator. Familiarize yourself with basic first aid principles and know how to handle common wilderness injuries. 10. Physical and Mental Preparedness: Prepare yourself physically for the demands of backpacking by engaging in regular exercise and conditioning your body for extended periods of hiking with a loaded backpack. Additionally, be mentally prepared for the challenges that may arise during your trip, such as fatigue, unexpected weather changes, or solitude. Backpacking is an exciting way to immerse yourself in nature and discover hidden gems. By considering these factors and adequately preparing for your backpacking trip, you can ensure a safe, enjoyable, and memorable outdoor adventure.



Thru-hiking and backpacking are both incredible ways to experience the great outdoors and challenge oneself physically and mentally. While they share similarities, it’s essential to understand the key differences between them to choose the adventure that aligns with your goals, preferences, and available time.


Thru-hiking offers the opportunity to embark on an epic journey, completing an entire long-distance trail in a single continuous effort. It requires careful planning, physical endurance, and self-sufficiency. Thru-hiking creates a unique sense of camaraderie among fellow hikers and provides a transformative experience that leaves lasting memories and a profound connection with nature.


On the other hand, backpacking offers more freedom in terms of trail choice, trip duration, and route customization. It allows individuals to explore the wilderness at their own pace, carrying their supplies and immersing themselves in the beauty of nature. Backpacking provides flexibility for individuals with varying fitness levels and time constraints, making it accessible to a wider range of outdoor enthusiasts.


When considering which adventure is right for you, evaluate factors such as physical fitness, time commitment, logistical considerations, and personal preferences. Thru-hiking requires a significant time commitment and detailed planning, while backpacking offers flexibility in trip length and route choices.


Both thru-hiking and backpacking offer a chance to disconnect from the fast-paced world, reconnect with nature, and challenge oneself. They provide opportunities for personal growth, self-discovery, and a deep appreciation for the natural beauty surrounding us.


Whether you choose to embark on a thru-hike or a backpacking trip, ensure you are well-prepared, equipped with the necessary gear and knowledge, and practice responsible outdoor ethics. Respect the trails, leave no trace, and prioritize safety to ensure a positive experience for yourself and future adventurers.


No matter which path you choose, through the endurance and exploration in thru-hiking or the freedom and flexibility in backpacking, you’re sure to create lasting memories, forge new connections, and cultivate a lifelong passion for outdoor adventure.