What is a thru-hike?

What is a thru-hike?

An interesting question that makes the rounds on backpacking forums.

At it’s most basic definition, a thru-hike merely is hiking a defined route or trail from one end to another.

But in the often contentious world of long-distance hiking, the simple question rarely has a simple answer.

A better question, perhaps, might be: When does a backpacking trip become a thru-hike?

One definition is the need to resupply along the way. Simple enough?

Except, well

In my home state of Rhode Island, people will thru-hike the eighty-mile-long North-South Trail. A defined trail with a logical starting and endpoint. And perhaps three or four days for most experienced backpackers who walk all day in this easy terrain.

But my similarly long treks in the Wind River Range or the San Juans were “just” backpacking trips. I meandered and walked for a few days on a route with no name.

Or a more extreme example, Chris Townsend hiked the Candian Rockies in the 1980s along what is now the Great Divide Trail…and then some!  An extremely long and impressive backpacking trip by any standards. But not what we might think of as a thru-hike using modern terminology. The title of the book detailing the journey? Backpacking the Canadian Rockies!

So, perhaps the difference between thru-hiking and backpacking is not merely distance, resupply, or even a defined route?

Please indulge me, and let me go back to my not-so-hidden geek roots.

In my teens and twenties, I devoured the “Sandman” comics by Neil Gaiman.  And one of my favorite books is American Gods by the same author. Most people now know this book as a popular and critically acclaimed television series.

A theme of much of Gaiman’s writing is that belief brings something into being. Belief defines something. Makes it tangible. And makes it real.

 So…what does this malarkey have to do with thru-hiking?!?!

Because many people, esp. among the college educated and corporate or academic background that makes up the core outdoor user base,  like a specific goal and a metric to accomplish.  It is often not enough to “just” backpack.  We need a goal to achieve. Something worthy of our time and pursuits beyond a pleasant and satisfying walking vacation.  I could have had a lovely time exploring Utah.  Picking prime spots and hitching to other places. But instead, I walked across the state. And felt the need to walk jeep roads to connect different areas.  Guilty! And I’ll, no doubt, be indulging in this type of behavior again in the future.

On a similar theme, people give their walks names. The walk is widely shared, people want to do the walk, perhaps even do it, and the belief in a defined walk makes a backpacking trip a thru-hiking reality. To the point where maybe if I had established my loop in the San Juans, shared a GPX track and custom maps, and gave it a catchy acronym, I could have brought this backpacking trip into a defined thru-hike done by others.  A walk across the Sierra becomes the Sierra High Route.

The defined name and the widespread belief in the definition of this backpacking trip as a thru-hike makes for a thru-hike experience. In other words, a thru-hike is whatever people define.  And, perhaps more importantly, if the defined thru-hike is widely believed to be a thru-hike.  Belief brings forth reality.

Somewhere in Wyoming. Thru-hike? Backpacking trip?

So what is a thru-hike? What someone defines as a thru-hike and the widespread belief in this route as a thru-hike.  Get enough believers, and your backpacking trip is now a thru-hike.  Go forth, hike, and spread your own version of the thru-hiking Gospel. You have now done a thru-hike. Or be lazy and merely “backpack.” 😉

Another key difference? I pack in fewer beers on backpacking trips, too.

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5 years ago

It’s not a very exciting definition but when I think of thru hike, I just think of it as any multiday hike that doesn’t start and end in the same place…

5 years ago


I just like going outside and going fast. I like going fast not because I’m pushing for a certain time or distance, but because I like the way it makes my body feel.

I’m squarely in the outdoor demographic. I’m 40, white, male, have multiple degrees, a job that pays pretty well, etc. but I’m also extremely not goal oriented, so I’m an outlier that way. I just want to be outside and enjoy it. Call it whatever you want. I just call it “fun.”

Bob Sartini
Bob Sartini
5 years ago

If I start hiking at Manning and backpack for a week and go home for a week and do that for a nine months until I get to Mecico did I thru-hike the PCT or did I go on a bunch of trips? How much light weight gear can we fit on the head of a pin?

Another Kevin
5 years ago

I’m with you, Mags! For instance, my relationship with the Northville-Placid Trail is complicated. 1. Set out to thru-hike. Got a horrible case of bronchitis and had to take a few days off. 2. In order to fit hiking into my remaining vacation time, I leapfrogged and did the other end of the trail, and went back to work 3. Over the winter, they moved the goalpost on me, so before I got started again, I did a loop including the 7 added miles as a day trip. 4. I started on the remaining middle section, and sprained a knee… Read more »

Jim Austin / Skyline
Jim Austin / Skyline
5 years ago

I like the ATC’s method of recognition that you completed the Appalachian Trail. Their expectations, in order to receive the certificate, 2,000-miler rocker bar, and publication of your name in AT Journeys the next year is that you make every good faith effort to hike by every white blaze. ATC doesn’t care if you carry 50 lbs. or a fanny pack. Don’t care if you do it all the same year or over 30 years. Don’t care if you do it in geographic order. Don’t care if you slack pack or heavy pack. Just that you honor the trail they… Read more »