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Home » Backpacking vs mountaineering: what’s the difference?

Backpacking vs mountaineering: what’s the difference?

On the far outside, these two terms don’t seem to have that much that separates them. But, once you start learning about outdoor pursuits and trying to choose trails for your next trip, the differences between backpacking and mountaineering become not only clear, but very important.

The Difference between backpacking and mountaineering in 1 chart

BackpackingMountaineering
SkillsCamping, hiking, food prep,
first aid
All backpacking skills, plus
technical climbing
DifficultyRanges from extremely
easy to intense
physical challenges
Ranges from moderately difficult
to world-class challenges
CostA few hundred dollars,
up to $2,500 if
you’re buying top-notch
gear, plus travel
Thousands for gear, potentially
tens of thousands to tackle a major peak,
more for travel
AccessibilityAlmost anyone, provided
they’ve got time
Very few, requires free time,
disposable income, and a well-trained body.
SafetyVery safe, injuries uncommon
and fatalities nearly unheard of
Generally safe with training and expertise,
but can be deadly no matter what
Cool factorBackpacking is incredibly coolMountaineering is incredibly cool

What is Mountaineering?

Mountaineers ascending a snowy peak

Mountaineering, known as Alpinism in most places outside of North America, is mountain climbing in the truest sense. Denali, Everest, K2, the Matterhorn – all of those legendary peaks are tackled by mountaineers. Mountaineering involves very technical climbing and scrambling, using a variety of tools, rope, and specialized equipment to tackle challenging and dangerous ascents.

The dictionary definition of mountaineering makes it simple: Mountaineering is the pursuit of achieving, or attempting to achieve “high points” in mountainous regions around the world. That definition comes from Britannica. High points are essentially just mountain peaks, although sometimes the literal peak of a mountain is impossible to climb to, hence the different term.

Mountaineers train for weeks to tackle average difficulty peaks like Rainier and Mount Baker, and months to ascend anything more difficult. World-class peaks, including all the 8000m peaks, often require years of climbing and mountaineering experience before they can safely be attempted. Even then, mountaineering remains an unpredictable and deadly adventure. During the 2022 Everest climbing season, two climbers died, and four more died in 2021.

Mountaineering vs mountain climbing vs rock climbing

Mountaineering isn’t the same as rock climbing; the goal of rock climbing is to climb a route, while the goal of mountaineering is to ascend a peak. The term “mountain climbing” is sometimes used to refer to both rock climbing and mountaineering, but it’s easier to use terms with a little more clarity, hence “rock climbing” and mountaineering.

Technically, mountain climbing and mountaineering are the same, but since many people use “mountain climbing” as a catch-all term, most of the time, it’s better to use “mountaineering” to talk about summiting large, difficult peaks.

The closer you live to mountainous areas, though, the more you’ll find that most people know these definitions by heart. It’s places like the Midwest, where I live, that the terms start to be used interchangeably.

How is it different from backpacking? 6 Key Differences

Mountain climbers walking on a rocky ridge

Knowing the definitions is good enough, but, these 6 things will help fully illustrate the difference between backpacking and mountaineering:

1. Mountaineering requires technical skills that backpacking doesn’t

Mountaineering requires that you know how to self-arrest, ice climb, belay, lead climb, and a whole lot more. Many of these skills can only be gained by taking classes or expeditions with experienced mountaineering guides. Acclimatization – getting your body used to higher and higher altitudes and avoiding altitude sickness – is a discipline unto itself. To become someone who’s prepared to climb a 6, 7, or 8 thousand meter peak usually means mastering all of these skills, and more, over a long mountaineering career.

The basic skills for backpacking are essentially just hiking, camping, and hygiene. Even navigation skills are pretty much optional on many backpacking trails, provided you at least brought a map with you. Practically anyone can embark on a backpacking trip with no prior experience, and no guide, as long as they’ve done a little reading and prep work.

2. Backpacking gear is less intense, and less expensive

No matter what you’re doing outdoors, you’ve got to have the right gear. Getting the right gear for backpacking is a whole lot easier on your wallet than getting mountaineering gear is. The one saving grace for mountaineering is that you can almost always rent your gear prior to a trip rather than buy it outright. Even then, though, you’re still looking at a few hundred – or a few thousand – dollars in gear rentals for any mountaineering trip.

The kinds of gear you need, as well, are a lot more low-key with backpacking than they are with mountaineering. Backpacking packs, tents, and sleep systems are easier to find and a lot more versatile than the stuff made for mountaineering. Mountaineers need tons of specialized gear, from boots and crampons to ice axes and belay equipment. Many mountaineering trips also require some form of supplemental oxygen, something you’d never need on a backpacking journey.

3. Mountaineering trips blend backpacking, rock climbing, and ice climbing

When you go mountaineering, you are combining the skills and knowledge of all sorts of outdoor adventures into a single trip. While some mountains can be safely ascended and descended in a single day, many mountaineering trips take place over multiple days, meaning that you’ll be bringing a 4-season tent and other gear with you. In this way, mountaineering can feel like an extreme alpine backpacking trip.

It’s the same thing with ice climbing and rock climbing, two adventure sports that are practiced the world over. Mountaineers use the same exact skills and techniques as rock and ice climbers, but applied in the pursuit of an alpine high point. Instead of a sport that focuses on difficulty or speed, true mountaineering is a sport that focuses on getting up there. Why? Well, “because it’s there“.

4. The physical demands of backpacking are way, way lower

backpacking tent pitched by a lake

You need some physical fitness for backpacking, but you don’t have to be in the best shape of your life. And, if you fear you aren’t in shape for a certain backpacking trail, you can just choose an easy one; there’s a ton of variety with backpacking in terms of intensity.

Mountaineering, on the other hand, requires a higher-than-average level of fitness, even at the absolute easiest. World-class peaks require world-class fitness, experience, and often a ton of world-class leadership and help.

5. Backpacking is safe, but mountaineering carries a real element of danger

Mountain climbers walking up a glacial ridge

While it’s certainly possible to find yourself in grave danger on a backpacking trip, backpacking is very safe and most people never even risk an injury. Roughly 400 people die while hiking in the US each year, but many of those deaths are unlikely to threaten your backpacking trip, because they include things like medical emergencies and suicides. The point is: almost nobody dies while backpacking, although dangerous situations aren’t totally uncommon.

Mountaineering, on the other hand, can be fatal in a number of ways. It’s not just falls, either – storms, avalanches, unstable surfaces, and extreme sub-zero temperatures can all kill you on top of a mountain. Making things even more dangerous is the fact that alpine rescue missions are far slower and more costly than calling 911 back home. Even a small injury at 15,000 feet can have cascading repercussions. In fact, some mountains are extremely deadly – such as K2, on which 25% of climbers never come back.

6. It’s not just gear: Mountaineering is far more expensive overall

We’ve talked costs already, but this still deserves its own section. With backpacking, travel costs can vary wildly; however, you can usually get to the trailhead for under $300, often less than $50 if you’re within driving distance. Sometimes people spend a few thousand to travel to exotic backpacking locations, but 99% of backpacking trips are pretty cheap.

Travel costs for mountaineering can vary widely too, but they are always more expensive than travel costs for backpacking. Flying to a distant city in another country, paying for lodging, and simply making it to base camp can cost more than a new car. Some mountains, such as those in the US, are easier to reach than others, but unless you already live near the Rockies, Cascades, or Sierras, mountaineering travel costs are always high.

Backpacking vs Mountaineering: wrapping things up

Backpacking and Mountaineering have a ton of clear overlap, and a ton of clear differences. Knowing them can help you better appreciate the types of trails and journeys that are possible, and help you choose between journeys. Mount Rainier National Park, for example, offers tons of trails and routes for backpacking, technical climbing, and mountaineering. If someone isn’t fully aware of what skills a certain trip calls for, they may end up choosing something they weren’t looking for.

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