The use of the terms backpacking vs hiking can be very confusing and actually their meanings overlap.
Jumping in to either one of these too quickly can be extremely dangerous. On the other hand, avoiding them altogether is missing out on some of the most enjoyable experiences in life.
So if you need to know the difference between backpacking vs hiking and learn how to get started with the right one for you, you must read:
Backpacking Vs Hiking: What’s the Difference?
When you go backpacking, you go on a long hike and a hike is defined as a long walk so…what’s the difference?
A hike can mean many things including a long walk in the woods or even hiking around a city. Generally, people refer to hiking as going out into the woods and taking a long walk for pleasure. They then return home at the end of the day. Outdoor enthusiasts often refer to this as a day hike to distinguish from an overnight trip.
Backpacking is a specific kind of hiking where you carry the supplies you need to stay overnight in your backpack.
You can assume that you will stay in the woods for at least one night on a backpacking trip. But some people backpack for months at a time. Confusingly, these backpackers are called thru-hikers.
One of the main considerations when comparing backpacking vs hiking is the weight you carry. A hiker might go just as far as a backpacker in one day but, because the backpacker must carry all of his/her supplies, they are likely carrying much more weight. More weight means it is more difficult for the backpacker. A hiker only needs to carry the supplies he/she needs for that day.
Backpacking may also refer to a kind of traveling where you pack light and visit many places in one trip. On this trip you usually carry all your stuff in a backpack for convenience. Here, we will be talking about the wilderness kind of backpacking that involves hiking in the woods.
What is Trekking?
Trekking is a term more common in Europe than North America (although still sometimes used) and may simply refer to a hike or long walk. For example, if you just walked across town with your European buddy, he might exclaim “that was quite a trek!”
Trekking may also refer to an overnight trip in which you hike to your destination but you don’t have to carry your overnight supplies. A travel or adventure company will pack your gear for you by car, donkey, mule, helicopter, etc.
You need a little context to distinguish between someone referring to a simple hike as a trek or if they’re talking about an arranged overnight trip.
Backpacking Vs Hiking: Which One is Right for You?
If you are new to backpacking or hiking and wanting to get into them, you should definitely start with hiking. Backpacking and hiking are very physically demanding activities and you need to get yourself in shape before setting out for a multi-night backpacking trip (see sections below for how to get in shape).
If the thought of sleeping in a dark forest terrifies you, you might want to stick with just hiking. There is still so much you can see just by going out for the day. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to sleep in their own bed at night…especially after a day of walking in the forest (with or without a heavy backpack!).
And as you get in better shape and gain more experience, you can go farther and see even more amazing places, all in just on a day hike. For inspiration, see this list of the 20 Most Beautiful Day Hikes in America.
You may be yearning for an epic adventure, in which case consider getting into backpacking. Imagine getting way out in the middle of no where, eating dehydrated food, and sleeping on the ground when you’re exhausted…if that kind of thing excites you, then train up for an awesome backpacking trip (see section below on how to prepare).
Every trail usually has a rating of beginner, intermediate, and advanced. These are applicable whether you’re backpacking or just hiking for the day.
The ratings take into account the terrain, elevation gain, and length. If you’re not sure what you can handle, definitely start with a beginner trail and work your way up as you get more backpacking or hiking experience.
Here is a guide for what to expect from each difficulty level according to the California Parks Department:
Easy terrain with little elevation changes. Beginner trails are 1-2 miles in length.
Moderate terrain with some elevation changes. Intermediate trails are 2-4 miles in length.
Varying terrain OR more than 4 miles in length.
What Do You Need for Hiking?
Your needs will differ depending on the length and difficulty of the hike but for any hike, make sure you bring:
- Plenty of Water
- Sturdy shoes (hiking boots for intermediate or advanced hikes)
- A snack
- A map of your route
There are some things you should prepare as well. If you’re going alone, make sure a trusted friend or family member knows exactly where you’re going and when you should be back. Something as simple as a sprained ankle can mean serious trouble when you’re alone and no one knows where you are.
It’s not a bad idea to understand some survival basics just in case something goes wrong.
Also, make sure you’re familiar with the area and what to expect on your hike. Bringing a map is not enough, you should have an idea in your mind of where you’re going and how difficult the terrain is.
Training for Hiking: Beginner
If you’re an absolute beginner, you can get in shape just by taking some strolls around your neighborhood. Pay attention to how far you go and try to work your way up to the distance you would like to hike. Walk at a brisk pace.
A hike in the forest will be more challenging than a walk in the city because the terrain in the forest is usually uneven. Walking on uneven ground is challenging on your ankle and calf muscles if you’re not used to it. Choose a trail that is rated as “Easy” to begin with because these should have the easiest terrain.
Here is a guide to the muscles that will be exercised when you start hiking:
If you’re ready to step it up a little…
Training for Hiking: Intermediate to Advanced
The best way to train for longer hikes is to go hiking…often. Hike a few times per week and slowly increase your difficulty levels and repeat challenging trails until they become easier.
If hiking a few times a week isn’t an option for you (like most of us who work a normal 9-5 job), some cardio exercises combined with leg and core strengthening will do wonders for your hiking abilities. A stair stepper works a lot of the right muscles for hiking mountains but it’s certainly not a replacement for doing it.
You’ll also want to get used to carrying a little extra weight in your backpack. As you increase your hiking distance, you will have to carry more water and food.
If you really want to step it up, Backpacker magazine gives a list of exercises to seriously train for hiking.
If you’re planning an overnight trip…
How to Train for Your First Backpacking Trip
If you’re considering going on a backpacking trip, you need to be a pretty good hiker first. Make sure you can easily do advanced day hikes the same length or longer as you plan to backpack in a day.
Even if you’re a good hiker, there is one key difference in backpacking vs hiking that you will have to train for: carrying a lot of weight on your back. Backpackers are often obsessed with getting their packs as light as possible and for good reason: the lighter your pack, the farther you can go.
Still, by the time you’ve got all your gear, food, and water, your pack could easily be 50 pounds. The first mile with a 50 pound pack on your back might be a real eye-opener so make sure you’re ready for it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between hiking and backpacking?
Backpacking requires that you carry gear to spend at least one night away while hiking generally means you return home by the end of the day.
What is the difference between a trek and a hike?
The difference between a trek and hike is mostly just the regional use of different words. They often mean the same thing but a trek may also refer to a long journey despite the location where hiking is usually reserved for the forest or woods.
Should I take hiking boots backpacking?
Backpacking requires you have sturdy boots that provide ankle support (hiking boots). Backpacking without proper hiking boots could result in ankle injury.
What is the difference between hiking and trekking shoes?
There is no difference between hiking and trekking shoes. The use of the words “hiking” vs “trekking” is mostly regional. If you intend to go for a long walk on uneven terrain, it is recommended you have sturdy, comfortable shoes. It’s best if they provide ankle support, especially if you are carrying weight on your back.
The debate of backpacking vs hiking is really a personal one. Backpacking requires you to carry a lot of gear and spend at least a night camping in the woods. Therefore, it is more strenuous, requires more fitness, and requires some camping know-how. Hiking gives you more flexibility to choose the right difficulty level. Also, you also get to return home at the end of the day to sleep in your own bed.
If you’re not accustomed to either, you should start with easy hikes and increase the difficulty. As you get into better shape increase the weight you carry. If you haven’t spent much time in the forest, you are missing out on one of the most enjoyable places you can spend your time.
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