Sometimes, the “backpacking vs hiking” discussion is mostly just about definitions. Other times, it’s about the various disciplines and skills that belong to each. On rare occasions, it’s about a pretentious backpacker who looks down on hiking as somehow less than.
In this guide, we’re going to dive into all those aspects of backpacking and hiking.
What’s the difference between backpacking and hiking?
The main difference between backpacking and hiking is that one incorporates camping/sleeping outside and the other does not. But, let’s get a little deeper into the definitions for a minute:
This is an activity with a pretty loose definition. At the simplest level, hiking is just walking outdoors. The common understanding and use of the word hiking involves long walks in nature, typically state/national parks and forests.
Most people think of mountains and scenic vistas when they think hiking, but those are more aesthetic than anything. Hiking is just walking outside; hiking, as a hobby, means walking outside for exercise, pleasure, and connection with nature.
This one has a slightly more strict definition. The definition of “Backpacking” is an extended hike that takes place over two ore more days; one must carry all of their gear (shelter, water, food, etc) on their back. Backpackers carry tents, sleeping bags, food, and other gear in a “pack” – if it doesn’t fit, it’s left behind.
Backpacking has a different meaning in other parts of the world, where anyone traveling out of just a backpack is a backpacker.
Are backpacking and hiking really that different?
Not really. In fact, they are practically the exact same, other than the fact that backpacking brings camping and a little more required expertise into the mix.
There’s an easier way to truly sum up “backpacking vs hiking”, though:
- when you are backpacking, you are always hiking
- when you are hiking, you are not always backpacking.
Backpacking vs hiking: gear and startup costs
On some hiking trails, you can bring nothing other than your phone and a water bottle. But, on backpacking trails, you have to bring a lot of stuff to make sure you are safe, comfortable, and responsible.
Backpacking gear is expensive…
Buying a pack, tent, sleep system, food, survival gear, and clothing can really add up. Like $800 on the low end and upwards of $3500 on the high end. Filling out a backpacking gear checklist with everything you need is expensive, even if you buy 100% used gear and stay away from trendy “premium” brand names.
This is one of the biggest differences between backpacking and hiking, outside of the basic definitions. While hiking is practically free, backpacking is anything but.
… But hiking boots or trail running shoes are all you really need for hiking
Yeah, you need water, sunscreen, maybe a map if you’ll lose cell service, but all that you truly need for a hike is footwear. Longer hikes mean more stuff, but all that’s required for a hike is a pair of shoes.
You don’t even technically need hiking boots or trail running shoes to go hiking. Normal walking shoes or running shoes are more than acceptable for an average hike. The only time you’ll want to buy a pair of trail-specific shoes are when you start to hike often and therefore can justify the expense, or when you are hiking on trials that are more dangerous and require high-quality, specialized footwear.
The point of all this? Hiking is free, or almost free; backpacking is almost always expensive unless you luck into a ton of free gear. This makes hiking a much more accessible and realistic hobby for most people.
Backpacking vs hiking: skills and planning
Both backpacking and hiking involve some basic skills and prep, but backpacking is more complex.
Necessary skills for hiking
Hiking really isn’t all that difficult, even if your legs don’t quite work as well as they should. That said, you can still get yourself injured or even killed if you aren’t prepared and responsible. here are some of the required skills and things to be aware of for a safe hiking experience:
- Bring water: No matter how short the trail, it’s always a good idea to have at least 16 ounces of water with you, if not a lot more. It you’re hiking in hot weather, you’ll need as much water as you can carry.
- Know the trail: Most hiking trails are easy enough to simply follow until you’re done, but you should at least have browsed a trail map or downloaded one on your phone, just in case of an emergency
- Take sure steps: the easiest way to sprain your ankle is by not looking where you’re stepping.
- Stretch: even if it’s just a few seconds of stretching your calves and hamstrings, it’s better than getting a muscle spasm or being sore for days after your hike!
Necessary skills for backpacking
- All of those hiking skills: Backpacking is hiking, so you’ll need all those hiking skills, too.
- Making camp: Finding the right place to pitch your tent, pitching it properly so that you don’t get too hot, humid, or wet, and taking care of your campsite is going to be on you. It’s not that hard, but it is something you need to know how to do.
- Food safety: You need to keep your food fresh, safe to eat, and safe from other animals. Using a bear canister or bear hang is the most important; as it’s really not that hard to make sure your food is safe to eat (just keep it out of the dirt!).
- Hygiene: Germs, bacteria, and viruses abound. Not being prepared to take care of your bathroom business, clean your hands, and all that? That’s a great way to wind up with dysentery or another awful illness after you get home.
- Packing: It’s not that hard, but you do need to know the proper way to fill a backpacking pack. If you don’t know how to make everything fit, and the proper order for packing, you risk being forced to leave precious items at home – or worse, injuring your back.
- First aid: I’ve yet to need first aid that wasn’t Tylenol, but that doesn’t mean you should ever go on a backpacking trip without having a first aid kit, and knowing how to use it.
- Storm safety: Weather gets weird in the mountains, it can be unpredictable in the deserts, and meteorologists generally focus their forecasts on more populated areas, which means weather reports aren’t always as trustworthy. So, when backpacking, you need to know what to do when unpredictable and dangerous weather hits, because once you start hiking, your only choice is to deal with it!
Should you hike a lot before you go on a backpacking trip?
Unless you’re already in really solid hiking shape, you will benefit from going on several short-to-moderate length hikes before you head out on a backpacking trip. Hiking is great exercise, and so is backpacking, but walking for miles on steep, sometimes rocky trails is hard on your joints.
It can also be very taxing, depending on the trail; you’d be surprised how quickly you get worn out. You want to have at least a few decent hikes under your belt so you can enjoy every mile of a backpacking trip instead of being exhausted.
Is backpacking better than hiking?
Not at all. They are simply two different ways to be outside. Backpacking is for trails you can’t finish in a day; hiking is for trails that you can finish in a day. There’s really no difference other than the length of the trip.
Case in point: Sometimes, the best trails in a national park are not backpacking trails. Just because you’re hiking further and camping doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to see anything better or more worthwhile. Of course, there are tons of backpacking trails that take you to incredible places you can’t see when day hiking, but that further proves the point: neither backpacking nor hiking is better than the other.
Yes! In many parts of the world, the word “Trekking” is used in place of “backpacking”, but they have the exact same meaning.
Not at all – while hiking is rather simple and requires only a pair of legs and decent footwear, mountaineering is an art form all its own. Crampons, ice axes, and tons of rope are just three things that make mountaineering different, and that’s not saying anything about the mountains, snow, and ice that make it so adrenaline-pumping and deadly.
Keeping to the established definitions, a trek is an extended hike that involves camping, while a hike is just that: a hike, one where you walk along a trail and get back home by the end of the day.