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Home » What is Backpacking? A simple, straightforward definition

What is Backpacking? A simple, straightforward definition

Backpacking is a type of camping; the main distinguishing aspect of backpacking is that, rather than driving to a campsite, backpackers load all of their gear and food into a backpack and hike to their campsites. Backpacking is a great way to get exercise, practice wellness, and spend time in nature – it’s also pretty cheap (after you get all your gear, that is).

What is backpacking cover photo

The absolute strictest definition of the word, often used outside the US, simply means choosing to travel out of a backpack. In Europe, backpackers take trains, stay in hostels, and do other things that US “backpackers” don’t do, but they still live out of a backpack. That definition isn’t as popular in the US, which I suspect is mostly to do with how obsessed we are with our National Parks System.

Below, I’ll get into a little more detail on where backpacking comes from, what it’s like, and how it’s grown over the last 100 years.

Backpacking: Origins and Development

Vintage photograph of backpackers at mount rainier
Campers/backpackers in front of Mount Rainier, 1923. Retrieved from Library of Congress.

Ever wondered why people started putting tents, sleeping bags, and beef jerky on their backs and walking into the woods? I mean, sure – existentially, we have all dreamed of doing just that – but how did that desire become the backbone of REI’s business model?

The origins of backpacking as a recreational activity can be traced back to the turn of the 20th century. As a rapidly modernizing society, one that was also doggedly focused on worker’s rights (this was around the same time as the onset of the 40-hour work week and the end of legal child labor), people found themselves having a little bit more money and a little bit more free time.

For most of recorded history, the vast majority of people were either too poor, too busy, too focused on survival, – or all three – to be able to go on vacation. But, when you’re not working 80 hour weeks on a farm or in a factory, you start to look for ways to enjoy yourself. So, when the 20th century got into full swing and quality of life for everyday people in America started to shoot upward, so did the amount of free time people had. Naturally, many people wanted to spend that newfound time and money enjoying life outdoors.

The influence of people like John Muir and others who advocated for conserving America’s best landscapes inspired the general public to spend more of their time appreciating the great outdoors. The national parks system was growing at this time, as well. The first national park was designated in 1872; by 1920, there were 15 national parks, including some of the most famous like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier.

What’s all this mean? Basically, the early 1900s was a lot of things, and one of those things was a perfect recipe for the explosion of outdoor recreation.

The Emergence of Specialized Equipment Makes Backpacking Easier

In 1922, Lloyd “Trapper” Nelson developed the first backpack with a rigid external frame. The design allowed people to walk further, faster, while carrying more gear and experiencing less fatigue. The image below isn’t the same backpack, but it is a great example of the external frame pack:

From Wikimedia commons

As a result, camping trips began to extend far beyond the parking lot. Nature lovers could go as far and fast as their legs could carry them, and a new phenomenon was born. It would still take another 50-60 years before backpacking and backpacking gear started to resemble what it is today, but we can safely say that the 1920s was the dawn of modern backpacking.

1920s-1970s: Development of Trail Systems Makes Backpacking Accessible

Vintage photograph of nature conservationist John Muir
John Muir (left) and John Burroughs, photographed in 1909. From the Library of Congress.
  • 1915: Mount Rainier’s legendary Wonderland Trail is completed.
  • 1932: The first iteration of the Appalachian Trail was established.
  • 1968: The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) joins the Appalachian as America’s two most famous trails, codified into law by the National Trails Act
  • 1991: After more than 60 years of planning, advocacy, and development, the PCT’s 2,650 mile route is finally complete. Large segments of the trail precede WWII.

1970- Present: Backpacking Grows Up

The 1970s were a period of innovation for all sports and outdoor pursuits as well – this was the decade in which Nike was mostly just an idea, Converse was reinventing the basketball shoe, and we had only just developed stopwatches that could accurately determine the winner of a race. As more people became passionate about recreation, more people became passionate about perfecting it.

In 1967, inventor and outdoorsman Greg Lowe invented the internal-frame backpack, the first direct descendant of the high-tech packs you can buy today from Osprey, Gregory, and other outfitters. From there, backpacking gear got better, more specialized, and more accessible with each passing year.

What is Backpacking Like?

Photo of a waterfall in north cascades national park
A photo I took from Junction Camp while backpacking in North Cascades National Park

I don’t want to simply say “it depends on who and where you are”… but it kinda does. There are many different types of backpackers, and many different types of backpacking trails, which means you can’t just make blanket statements about the feeling of backpacking. Bit, I’ll try anyway.

On backpacking trips, you’ll run through a range of emotions.

  • A sense of freedom, being untethered from your phone, laptop, and email account
  • A fear of bears (that one is a little more intense for me, even though I’m well aware of how irrational it is. Big props to bear spray!) that’ll have you thanking yourself for reading up on backpacking safety ahead of time.
  • A cleared mind, dedicated fully to the task at hand – which is often simply taking in the environment around you.
  • A discomforted frustration, wondering how Therm-a-Rest ever convinced you a sleeping pad felt the same as a hybrid mattress.
  • A sense of sleep deprivation, very slight, brought on by a fact we all avoid: sleeping outside while backpacking is great, but it’s not quite as restful as sleeping in a bed.
  • A sense of focus, that comes from having the required backpacking skills and awareness.

What Does Backpacking Mean in Europe?

East of the Atlantic, the word “backpacking” has a pretty specific definition, but in Europe, you’ll hear it used in two different ways. Think about how many times you’ve heard of college graduates saving their cash to “backpack across Europe” – that’s the other definition.

It might be helpful to think about the two different ways you can use the word like this:

  • Backpacking in North America usually refers to overnight hiking trips on established trail systems in national and state parks/forest land.
  • Backpacking in other parts of the world usually refers to extended travel wherein the traveler only brings what they can fit in a backpack.

What about hiking?

The main difference between backpacking and hiking is the backpack (and the stuff inside it). While hiking, at its most basic, only requires shoes and water, backpacking is much more involved. Oh, and the camping! Hiking does not mean you’ll be camping, but backpacking certainly does.

Read Also: The Jetboil Flash is one of the best backpacking products I’ve ever used.

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