Have you ever heard the terms thru-hiking and backpacking but not sure what the difference is?
Backpacking is a type of tent camping where you carry everything you need to survive on your back as you hike from campsite to campsite. Thru-hiking is a specific type of backpacking that involves following a long-distance trail from start to finish. What makes thru-hiking unique is that the goal is to complete all or a section of your chosen trail.
Thru-hiking and backpacking are two terms that are often confused with each other because they refer to similar activities. But there are real differences between both types of adventures that are important for hikers to understand. In this article, we’ll talk about some of these differences so you can stay up-to-date on the latest hiking lingo.
Differences Between Thru-Hiking and Backpacking
At first glance, the terms thru-hiking and backpacking may appear very similar. But they refer to slightly different activities and it’s important that all hikers understand this distinction.
Backpacking can be defined as a type of tent-based camping trip in remote areas where you carry everything you need on your back. While backpacking, you’ll hike during the day to a new campsite where you’ll set up your tent for the night. The next day, you’ll hike to your next site and set up camp. This process continues until you reach your final trailhead.
A backpacking trip can take place on-trail or off-trail depending on your skill level and interests. Trails for backpacking can be out-and-back treks, loop hikes, or even point-to-point paths, too.
Conversely, thru-hiking is a very specific type of backpacking that involves trekking on a long-distance trail.
There’s no universal criteria for what constitutes a “long-distance trail,” but most are at least 30 mi (50 km) long. Some long-distance trails are thousands of miles long, like the Appalachian Trail (AT) or Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Most long-distance trails are point-to-point walking paths, but there are some loop trails out there, too, like the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.
Although the actual activities of thru-hiking vs backpacking are very similar (they involve hiking to a new campsite each night), the difference between them really boils down to why people set out on these adventures in the first place.
For thru-hikers, the goal is typically to hike all or part of a long-distance trail. Most thru-hikers want to complete the entire trail in one go, but some will opt to hike sections of trails instead.
When it comes to backpacking, the goal of the trip usually isn’t to “complete” a specific trail. Rather, many backpackers choose their trip itineraries with the goal of making it to a certain location, such as a pretty alpine lake or to the top of a notable peak. Some backpackers don’t even have a goal destination in mind, so their trip is more about getting out and enjoying nature either by themselves or with friends.
What is Considered a Thru-Hike?
There is no universal definition for what is considered a thru-hike. But most people in the hiking community would define a thru-hike as something along the lines of a point-to-point trek on a long-distance path where the goal of your trip is to complete all or part of the trail.
When most people think of thru-hiking, they imagine people hiking really famous long-distance routes like the AT or PCT.
But thru-hiking doesn’t technically have to involve a 1,000+ mile (1,600 km) journey that takes half a year to complete. There are many shorter thru-hikes out there that can be completed in a month or less. For example, the Long Trail in Vermont and the John Muir Trail in California are two shorter thru-hikes that are quite popular.
As a general rule, most thru-hikes take place on well-marked and maintained trails, like the Alta Via 1 in the Italian Dolomites, the West Highland Way in Scotland, or the GR-20 in Corsica.
However, as more people get into the world of thru-hiking and start to push the limits on what’s possible, we’re seeing experienced thru-hikers take on incredibly challenging treks on poorly marked or non-existent paths. Even some really famous long-distance trails like the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) have unmarked sections and are only suitable for very experienced thru-hikers.
How Fast Do Thru-Hikers Walk?
Most thru-hikers walk about 3 to 4 miles an hour (4.8 to 6.4 km/h) on the trail. Of course, this will vary from person to person as some thru-hikers walk slower or faster than others. More experienced thru-hikers tend to trek particularly fast so that they can cover 20 miles (32 km) or more in a day.
In general, thru-hikers tend to walk faster than your typical backpacker, who typically keeps a pace of about 2 to 3 mph (3.2 to 4.8 km/h). This is partly because thru-hikers need to maintain a specific pace during the day if they are going to complete their trek on schedule. Many thru-hikers also opt to take an ultralight approach to their gear list, which can make it easier for them to walk faster on the trail.
Plus, as thru-hikers get more mileage under their belts, they tend to get faster and stronger. This can allow them to hike much faster toward the middle and end of their trek than they did at the beginning of their adventure.
That being said, there’s no minimum speed requirement that you have to maintain while hiking. Everyone hikes at their own pace and that’s okay. Of course, moving at a slower pace will likely limit how many miles you can do in a single day, but that just means that you have to adapt your itinerary to suit your needs.
Thru-Hiking vs Backpacking: Similar But Different
Both backpacking and thru-hiking share many similarities, but they’re not exactly the same. The main difference between the two activities is that thru-hiking is a type of backpacking that takes place on long-distance trails for the express purpose of completing all or part of the route. But these definitions are quite fluid, so it’s often up to the individual trekker to decide how they want to define their adventure.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.