Backpacking versus Thru-hiking

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Backpacking versus Thru-hiking

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    Addie Bedford
    BPL Member


    Locale: Montana

    Companion forum thread to:

    Backpacking versus Thru-hiking

    Sean Staplin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Cdn Rockies

    Not having done a thru hike…yet, I have over the years backpacked with a minimalist attitude. The last two years have me at a 5-7lb base weight for all of my trips. Luckily I see food as simply something that fills what is empty and can eat darn near anything. THis article gives me some confidence in what I am doing, so I can complete a thru hike. There are always those nagging doubts. Even though i have done 100 milers in four days etc, the biggest for me is if I have the mental toughness to go day after day. Will I get homesick or will I grow to see the trail as my home. These for me are much bigger than the gear and technique issues. Listening to trail lore is a good tip. I have read many journals and try to imagine myself in their shoes. One day soon we will see.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Weekend backpacking can be a tough when a weekend warrior must return to work in time to close the Figby account but there's the mental aspect of 'the deadline', so UL has relevance for those who need to be back for glorious Monday morning (ugh). Maybe load the same pack/gear with gourmet food for weekends then UL rations for weeklong trips? My idea though the most I've been out backpacking is a week. Maybe 2 weeks is next before tackling 1 month or more.

    My issue that it doesn't sit well is paying mortgage/rent while out for a month or 2, … unless it's too hot at home.

    Michael Ttrafton
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Carolina

    Great articel. It took me several years to learn what he said. I still do the weekend trip, but I find I would rather do a three week trip. I do not start to have fun until about day 10. I hope thease longer trips have given me that knowalage I need to do the Thru-Hike in 2014 when I retire.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Was this article written for the BPL audience? I ask because so much of the methodology described seems to be what we ULrs have been doing as standard operating procedures.

    James Schipper
    BPL Member


    Yeah, what Ken said.

    Adam Kilpatrick
    BPL Member


    Locale: South Australia

    +1 on the audience aspect, but I think these kind of articles are excellent, and should be "put out there" for those who need to read and hear it.

    jennifer ross


    Locale: Norcal

    Some people that are new to backpacking and are non-ULers do bring a change of clothes for everyday since they're only out for 2-3 days. I saw people at trail camp near mount whitney with CHAIRS. I thought everyone used their bear can as a seat/dinnertable. Almost everyone we passed had brand new gear and kept the packaging the stuff came in (i.e. rei pad in the rei information sack).

    I cringe to even admit this but when I was a dayhiker I kind of just hid my tp from my number ones in leaves. HORRID I know. Now that I "leave no trace behind" and I see all the tp from dayhikers and noob backpackers I get livid. I didn't start backpacking in places where the wilderness permit hander-outer gave you a 15 minute how to camp in the wilderness lecture so when I get the lecture and know everyone else got that same lecture and they choose not to abide is when I get mad.

    Anywaay I think there is a huge difference from people who backpack a couple days in a row once a year and people who do it all the time and get into so much they read and post in forums. Articles like this show people different and better ways to hike.

    Bradley Danyluk
    BPL Member


    Are you sure the opinions expressed in this article are really always valid?

    Why can't thru-hikers take a different pace if their style is not necessarily go-go-go!?

    It's not like a thru-hike must be 6 months long or a certain number of miles to be considered so. We're not all in such a rush to log miles or finish a huge trail.

    I'd strongly argue that one can thru-hike at the pace that one sets for oneself. If you want a day in camp during a rainstorm, just set a schedule beforehand which allows it.

    I understand the whole "do the entirety of the Appalachian Trail before winter" mentality, but that does not a thru-hike make.

    Jim Colten
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    I like this kind of article. Did it tell me anything new? … no, other than the tale of the $20 AT thru-hike. But I'm glad to see articles like this as part of the BPL publishing mix.

    Was this article written for the BPL audience? I ask because so much of the methodology described seems to be what we ULrs have been doing as standard operating procedures.

    True … but preaching only to the choir does not grow the choir. Consider Doug Prosser's ultralight at Philmont articles … I've shown them to countless scouters, didn't help some, few became ultralighters but many made very significant pack weight reductions (40%-50%).

    It's not like a thru-hike must be 6 months long or a certain number of miles to be considered so.

    Also true. But note that Francis opens with the info "About one in five prospective Appalachian Trail thru-hikers quit within the first week!" … that would apply to any trail long enough to qualify as a "thru-hike" and closes with "a whopping 50 percent quit within the first six weeks of a thru-hike". … not all of those are quitting in week 5 or 6, again could be applied to shorter long hikes.

    Travis Leanna
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wisconsin

    While I also agree that much of the article simply describes a standard BPL'ers normal operating procedure, it would find a good home on a page dedicated to people who are very new to BPL and the concepts that make up our general philosophy toward backpacking. Sort of a free run-down of the BPL philosophy/FAQ page complete with articles such as this.

    Paul Magnanti
    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado Plateau

    What I find interesting is that many thru-hikers do not backpack if they are NOT thru-hiking (or participate in the outdoors at all).

    Part of the reason I live where I do is that I need the outdoors part of my daily life, not just a trip every couple of years or so.

    I loved my long trips (and I can't wait to get back out there again in about 2 yrs, but that's another story) but need the after work climbs, the long day hike, the hut trip or the long weekend backpack as well.

    To only do something outdoors once every couple of years or so is not something I can wrap my brain around.

    So, oddly enough, many thru-hikers do not backpack all that much comparatively speaking in the grand scheme of things. :)

    FWIW, I've take the UL philosophy and applied it to my weekend trips. I might take some creature comforts depending on the trip (wine comes to mind. ;) ), but overall my gear does not change all that much, if at all in the case of solo trips, from the thru-hikes I've done.

    Hamish McHamish
    BPL Member


    Locale: USA

    >Part of the reason I live where I do is that I need the outdoors part of my daily life, not just a trip every couple of years or so.

    Same here bro. Not everyone can constantly take 1, 2, 3 weeks away from work and family. Sometimes I think the "career outdoorspeople" start to forget that.

    >I've take the UL philosophy and applied it to my weekend trips. I might take some creature comforts depending on the trip

    Again, same here. I did a quick little overnighter last weekend in which I only hiked in 6 miles (gasp!). I enjoyed the misty sunset, sleeping under a 5.5'x8' tarp, a glorious sunrise, and a leisurely stroll back out. My sin: carrying a SnowPeak canister stove instead of a 0.00438 ounce alcohol stove.

    I hope everyone can forgive me.

    Melissa Spencer
    BPL Member


    Locale: PNW

    Jennifer, you bring up a good point. This is another difference I noticed while thru-hiking. At least the year I hiked the PCT, I noticed very strict LNT principles such as carrying out TP, drinking the water used to clean a pot (and of course never draining food water on the ground), and never building a fire.

    Paul, you are also right about thru-hikers not backpacking. I admit, I do much less backpacking now that I have completed long trails. It isn't the same. And I only day hike for exercise. I think thru-hiking ruined backpacking for me.

    And James, you are right too. No one can take that kind of time off consistently. I had to quit a high-paying career to become a career backpacker. And now I work in retail during the months I am not thru-hiking. It isn't something that people can just do. They have to create it, and that takes way more sacrifice than most people are willing to make.

    Michael Davis


    Locale: South Florida

    Friends that know my passion for hiking often ask if I want to thru hike some day. I say "No" without any hesitation. Yet, I could live in the woods.

    The unappealing part of a thru hike is having to follow a course and a time table. Must get to Katahdin before winter sets in.

    That sounds just like my everyday work life – phooey!

    I want to just wander aimlessly in nature with no particular place to go and no particular time to get there. Well, since I'm older now, I probably will get my wish soon enough as Alzheimer's set in. :-(

    Inaki Diaz de Etura
    BPL Member


    Locale: Iberia highlands

    I was intrigued by the potential difference between thru-hiking and backpacking according to the article until I realised that for me it's the same thing :)

    If anything, a thru-hike demands the mental strengh that usually comes with a determination to make it. Most of the hikers that left their thru-hikes that I saw were doing technically fine but couldn't handle it anymore.

    And I know this is probably a very personal thing but for me backpacking and thru-hiking recall esentially the same feelings. Once I have to spend one night outside, it takes me to a certain level of consciousness that's way beyond the day-hike experience. Some of my most memorable thru-hikes were two day hikes :) Anyway, the mind adapts. If I'm out for a week my mind adapts to that and will feel like done when the week expires. It's worked the same for me when I've been out for several months in a row.

    Dale Wambaugh
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    I think thru-hikes are a very different beastie than a shorter multi-day trip. It would be interesting to do thorough interviews of thru-hikers to see what their motivation was. I wonder how many start out because they are at some transition point in their life. Spending some time out alone may find some answers to what they are really about (or really need), with some 40 days and 40 nights biblical leanings and no guarantee that you will like the person you find out there. I imagine that some of the early drop-outs have never spent a light alone in the woods or found that backpacking is a lot of work. To paraphrase the old quip about combat, backpacking can be hours of drudgery punctuated by moments of awesomeness. My real take is that it is punctuated by many small delights walking through a forest garden spiced with an occasional mind-blowing view— but not without the work. It is easy to buy a load of gear and put your feet on the trail with no experience whatsoever. 2500 feet of switchbacks is a very sobering reality! Losing hard-won elevation gains over and over again makes the legend of Sisyphus real.

    I could see the adventure losing it's gloss after a few weeks of endless footsteps, roller coaster elevations, sweat, sore muscles, blisters, bugs, dirt, monotonous meals, heat, cold, wet, hard ground, stormy nights, varmints stealing your food and just plain exhaustion. And I can imagine that it can also be empowering and teach volumes on self-reliance and attaining goals. That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger— indeed!

    Paul Magnanti
    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado Plateau

    I was an outdoors person before I was a thru-hiker. Just love being out there.

    My thru-hikes tended to reflect that feel as I spent a lot of time by myself, enjoyed the social interaction but did not necessarily seek it out, same thing with the ongoing linear community, etc.

    I love looking at maps, making my own route and having my own experience.

    When I do a long hike again, I just may make my own route off the beaten path or no path at all. I, of course, reserve the right to go back on my own words. ;)

    An example of hiking my own hike:
    Seven Days Solo in the San Juans

    The long trails (even the CDT) are too linear at times. Nature of the beast.

    So, guess my weekend (or more) backpacks are about being outside much like my thru-hikes. I do love the journey and being out for weeks or months at a time admittedly.

    Don't get me wrong I LOVED my thru-hikes. The AT was responsible for me moving out to Colorado and everything else that followed in my outdoor 'career'.

    But, if all I did was hike the long trails, I'd miss out on the canyons of Utah off the Hayduke, never explore the Sangres, not see the sun set over the distant Rockies while at the Pawnee Buttes, being immersed in winter while gliding along on skis deep in the backcountry, feel what it is like to rope up and attain the summit of the mountain or climb the glacier.

    I treasure those experiences too much. And doing just thru-hikes would not me experience all that.

    Everything involves a sacrifice. Darn if I know the balance!

    Anyway, works for me. If there was a best way for everyone, it would be a freakin' boring world! :)

    spelt with a t
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rangeley, ME

    Paul, great post. :)

    Graeme Finley


    Locale: SF Bay Area

    One aspect that was touched on that I found to be most critical was attitude, and specifically whether people enjoyed the lifestyle of thruhiking. For people who bought into the lifestyle everything else was secondary. When I did the PCT two people stood out – one hiker with a 60lb+ pack (solar charger, Marine Corps knife etc) who just trucked along without a complaint and ground out the miles, and another who graduated from college in FL with a bunch of mail-order REI equipment and who had never spent the night in a tent before that first night at Lake Morena. Neither finished, but both made it to OR and were just stopped by early winter snow.

    What kept them (and me) going was that they loved doing it. I did view thru-hiking as a job – I worked 6 days a week, and each work day I'd get up at 6am, have breakfast, pack up 'the house' and go to work for 10-12 hours. On the seventh day I'd do chores (laundry, grocery shopping etc) and then start the work week again. The key thing is that I liked my 'job' and looked forward to going back to it each week. Thru-hiking is a profession in a way and thru-hikers become professional hikers for 5 months or so. If you like the job you'll probably finish and if you don't like the job you'll quit and find another one.

    Chuck McCalment
    BPL Member


    While older in experience (years) I am new to the BPL ethos and technics. Observation (of others out and about) and football knees got me here. This fraternity needs to remember the range of people and interest that show up at BPL. There are the Paul Magnanti individuals who are deeply driven to express themselves every day by interacting with nature. There are those here who work 60 hour weeks, every week, in concrete canyons. The only common thread I’ve noticed in 18 months of reading Backpackinglight is we are all seeking a better way to solve the same problem; how to maximize our outdoor hours by minimizing the detritus we drag out there with us.

    Jim Colten’s observation is correct; preaching to the choir is just as valid as preaching to the church deacons and other sinners, you never know what will inspire or resonate another… we are all different, each one of us.

    Thank you BPL and Francis for the article.

    Alfred Lemire


    Maybe not the BPL readership, but, as suggested, others can benefit. Print the article (it can be copied to a word processor, with a little work) and give it to anyone you know who might be considering an extended backpacking trip. I was on the AT for three months and noticed people shedding weight and gear, including me.

    There's another reason to cut down on pack weight, regardless of trip length: it's kinder on the body. Less body strain cuts food need and lessens the tiredness that can lead to accidents and injuries. That's especially so on the AT in Maine, whose difficulty makes it the postgraduate school of backpacking. Someone who had done the PCT quit the trail in Monson, just before the "100-mile" wilderness and Katahdin, in a huff over the unexpected difficulty of clambering close to straight up and down steep mountains of less than 4,000 feet in height. She'd have been better off with less weight on her back, improving her balance and endurance, both desirable, perhaps essential, on the AT in Maine.

    jennifer ross


    Locale: Norcal

    Every long hike I've done I haven't wanted to come back and I try to think of ways I can change my life to backpack more. I go at least 4x a year and you can tell when it's been too long because I'm moody and stressed. I commend those that step out of their societal comfort zone and make careers out of it and prioritize it but for now I'll just continue to use every bit of time away from work to hit the trails.

    Attitude and perserverance: I busted my right knee right before going up a pass on the jmt but the thought of getting up there and seeing that view was enough for me to climb up only using my left leg and keeping the busted leg completely straight. At first it was a matter of remembering "peg leg, peg leg, peg leg" but then another pass the next day and my left leg started cramping in three spots from the uphill and downhill. I may be slow and weak but I'm determined to see what there is to see.

    I know I complained at the time and took a lot of sit breaks but all I remember are the views.

    Nathan Ventura


    Locale: East Coast

    I say this with a touch of humor, but also with some sincere seriousness. Thru-hiking ruined my life…or at least in the eyes of some. Although unlikely, it may not be all that unreasonable to warn aspiring thru-hikers that it can be an extremely addictive thing. You are, for a period of 4-6 months, adopting a completely new lifestyle that is absolutely nothing like your other life, and afterwards it can very hard to find peace of mind in the old daily grind.

    In 2010 I thru-hiked the AT with my girlfriend and we had the time of our lives. It was the most rewarding thing I'd ever done. Afterwards though adjusting back to the real world was difficult. It was unbelievably boring and full of stresses I found much more burdensome than waking up to rain. I managed to get my old job back and kept it for about two months before getting fed up, and quitting. I sort of ran away to New Mexico to work on a farm in the middle of the high desert along the Sawtooth Mountains. Doing this not only ended up costing me my relationship, but it was also a decision not to go back to school and finish up my degree. Being in New Mexico was rather exciting because it was all very new to me and I hiked about 3 days of the week, but after a while I knew what was going to happen…I was going to hike the PCT that spring.

    I just finished on September 16th and I'm already missing it. It is safe to say that I'm a thru-hiking addict…or an epic adventure addict…I'm not 100 percent sure. I'm already planning next year's traverse across Iceland and the CDT the year after that. How I'm going to get myself to suck it up and make the money to afford these things I'm not quite sure, but I know I'll do it. But the chances of me keeping a job for a year or more, or finishing up school, that all seems rather jeopardized by my hiking. The parents aren't too pleased.

    Anyway, thats my two cents on the risks of thru-hiking. Its not for everyone, but fore some there's nothing better.


    the terminus

    Steven Paris
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest


    Your parents just want you to get a haircut. :)

    Congrats on finishing in what sounds like a difficult year!

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