backpacking vs hiking

Backpacking vs. Hiking vs. Thru Hike: Is There A Difference?

Table of Contents

Isn’t hiking just hiking? Is there really a difference in backpacking vs. hiking?

Simply put, yes, there is a difference.

The differences may seem semantical, but there is actually more difference between hiking and backpacking than you may initially believe.

From how much time you spend on the trail to the amount of gear you need to bring.

And that is not even taking into account thru hiking…

backpacking vs hiking

What Is Backpacking?

backpacking trip

Backpacking often invokes the image of a rugged outdoorsman clad in khaki hiking pants, long sleeves, a large pack, and stout hiking boots.

While this image was true at a time (and you will still see this look), the world of backpacking has evolved as much as the rest of society.

Nowadays, you will see folks with bright-colored short sleeve shorts, shorts (that are sometimes shorter than you’d ever wear), and ultralight gear.

At its core, backpacking is covering a distance in nature, commonly on a trail, while spending at least one night in the backcountry.

These trips can be point-to-point (starting and ending in different locations), out-and-backs, or loops. They could involve spending one night out or multiple weeks!

Compared to hiking (aka “day hiking”), you must carry more gear when backpacking. You’ll need some form of shelter (tent, tarp, hammock), a sleep system (sleeping bag, quilt, sleeping pad), food, and usually some form of water filtration system.

What Is Hiking?

photo from day hike

Hiking is sometimes used interchangeably with backpacking, but most in the hiking community differentiate the two.

Hiking, or day hiking, does not involve spending nights out in nature. Hikes are completed in a single day and generally cover much shorter distances.

Think about heading out to a National Park for the day and hitting a popular trail there. It may be 3 miles, 10 miles, or even more. But if it is completed within a single day, it is considered a hike.

It may seem that day hiking is the lesser brother of backpacking, but that could not be further from the truth.

I have done a lot of backpacking trips, but I still get excited about awesome day hikes. I did some of thepopular hikes in Zion National Park a few years ago, and I loved every second of it!

Whether backpacking, hiking, or thru hiking, it really is about getting out into nature and feeling the wonder that exists out there.

What Is a Thru Hike?

appalachian trail southern terminus

Generally, a thru hike is characterized by a long-distance trail being backpacked in a single go.

They are usually point-to-point like the Big Three thru hikes in the US. The Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail. These three are all over 2000 miles long and take 3-6 months to complete.

There are also some looped thru hikes, most notably the Tahoe Rim Trail that circumnavigates Lake Tahoe.

Thru hikers spend months on the trail, navigating a wide range of scenery in a single trip. They often rely on “trail angels” or volunteers who drop water along long, dry stretches of a trail, provide home-cooked meals, or provide a place to stay.

A thru hike also includes spending time in “trail towns” or communities near a major trail where thru hikers can resupply, indulge in “town food”, and wash their clothes. (and maybe even themselves)

Section Hiking

forester pass sign

A section hike is when you complete part of a thru hiking trail.

For example, on the Pacific Crest Trail, completing the entire Washington section would be considered a section hike.

Section hikers are often indistinguishable from thru hikers, other than looking suspiciously clean and fresh if they are hiking a later section of the trail.

Section hiking is popular for people who do not have the time to commit to a full thru hike, but want to experience a chunk of a long trail.

Is Backpacking Better Than Hiking

It depends on what type of experience you are looking to have.

I have done both and still couldn’t tell you which I like better. I love being out in nature for multiple nights in a row and experiencing places that cannot be reached on a single-day hike.

I also love being able to wake up one morning, head out for a 10-mile hike, and still be able to fall asleep in my cozy bed at home.

Neither is better or worse than the other and don’t believe anyone who swears that one is.

Pros And Cons Of Each

Backpacking

Pros

  • Being able to get to places unobtainable by a day hike

  • A deeper connection to nature

For me, the best part of backpacking is getting to a view on a faraway mountain pass or peak, knowing that not many other people will get that view that year.

Last summer, I was backpacking in a fairly remote section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I know it is remote because I came across a group of trail workers asking me where I came from and where I was going because they hadn’t seen another backpacker for weeks.

I relish this aspect of a backpacking trip. Though sometimes it backfires in the moment, a few years ago, I was on a trip on an “unmaintained trail” that led to an obscure mountain pass. The description of “unmaintained” was generous. ClassicType 2 fun, though.

Cons

  • Carrying a heavier back

  • Higher chance of getting stuck in elements

Having to carry more gear is an inevitable downside of backpacking. Tossing on a minimal pack with only the bare essentials gear is nice. Zooming up a mountain with 5 pounds on my back always sounds rather inviting when my pack is 20 pounds.

Additionally, you cannot really avoid a rainstorm when the nearest trailhead is 15 miles away. You just have to toss on the poncho or rain jacket and trudge on til the weather gods let up.

photo from backpacking trip

Hiking

Pros

  • Lighter pack

  • More versatility with itinerary

As I just mentioned, carrying a lighter pack makes difficult terrain a bit more enjoyable.

You also gain some flexibility with your plans. On a backpacking trip, it is hard to work in unplanned stops as you only have so much fun and likely have a timeline you need to roughly stick to.

When on a day hike, if you see an interesting looking peak or beautiful lake, you have the freedom to change your plans on the fly if you want to spend hours at one of these places. There have been times when I was planning on doing a looped hike, but along the way, I feel drawn to a particular point of interest that I wasn’t anticipating. Those turned into impromptu out-and-back hikes because the full loop wouldn’t have been possible with such a detour.

Cons

  • Limited to what you can reach in a day

I feel that this is the major drawback of day hiking. So many times, I have been out day hiking when I feel drawn to a faraway peak or a challenging trail that isn’t achievable in a single day.

It is this wonder of what else is out there that inspired me to do my first backpacking trip. When you look at a map and see that there is a lake basin 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, you know not many people get there to see what beauty it holds.

photo from backpacking trip

Thru Hiking

Pros

  • Unique culture around it

  • A “once in a lifetime” type of feel about it

I have not hiked a major trail as a thru hike yet, so you can take my thoughts with a grain of salt. Though, I have talked with multiple people who have.

Everyone I have talked with mentions the unique trail culture surrounding many of the long-distance trails in the US. I often hear how it feels like its own cultural bubble while out on one of these trails.

You feel a certain sense of camaraderie with fellow thru hikers and a deep sense of homeliness in trail towns.

Cons

  • A big commitment (time and money)

Not everyone feels that they are in a position to take a few months off from their normal lives to spend out on the trail. It will take a few months and at least a couple of thousand dollars, so the commitment to completing a long trail is a real one.

While not really a “con”, you have to feel drawn to complete one of these long trails to get into thru hiking. Unlike hiking or backpacking, setting off on a thru hike on a whim will likely end with you not achieving your goal.

There have been years I have been really interested in a long thru hiking but the logistics didn’t line up, and there have been years it has not interested me too much.

Is It A Natural Progression From Hiking To Thru Hiking

No. Whether it’s hiking, backpacking, or thru hiking, you can start and spend the most time in any.

It can be easy to think that you need to start hiking before you go backpacking. And that you need to gain experience backpacking before thru hiking.

I think this progression makes sense, but in no way is it required. I’ve talked with people who jumped straight into a thru hike as their first backpacking experience. There are also people who just love day hiking and never feel the need to backpack, and vice versa.

There is some comfort to be drawn from day hiking that may make you feel more comfortable backpacking for the first time. But if you feel drawn to backpacking right away, then go for it!

Do Backpacking Trips Require More Gear Than Hiking

backpacking camping gear

You do need certain backpacking gear that is not needed for day hiking.

For example, a shelter. Whether a tent, tarp, or hammock, you need somewhere to sleep at night. With this, you will also need a sleeping bag or quilt and a sleeping pad.

You will also need to carry some/more food and water + a water filtration method. And some cooking supplies, if you plan to cook food. Fuel, backpacking stove, and cookware.

Almost always, backpacking requires more clothing than hiking. Usually, an extra change of hiking clothes, essentially an extra set of whatever you like hiking in. Plus, a rain and insulating layer, depending on the weather forecast.

There are more items that you may want to bring on a long backpacking trip, but I will cover those items in a later post.

grand canyon hike

Conclusion

Whether a backpacking trip, thru hiking, section hiking, or just a long hike. The right outdoor experience is out there for you.

You just have to ask yourself what interests you the most.

Do you want to see things that most others don’t?

Does setting off on a multi-month journey with other thru hikers tickle your fancy?

Or does sleeping in your own warm, cozy bed sound the most appealing of them all?

Whatever you decide on, make the most of your experience and hike your own hike!