What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Hiking? | Hikers University

What is the difference between backpacking and hiking - is a question most people don't know the answer to. For outdoor enthusiasts, that can be irksome.

If you are someone who loves gallivanting in the wilderness, you must be bothered by the people's lack of understanding of backpacking and hiking because I sure am!

Hiking refers to walking briskly in the woods or up the mountains for some time (mostly a day) before returning to one’s home or hotel, whereas backpacking means exploring the outdoors on foot over the course of a few days. Simply put, the main difference between the two activities is the duration.

Spending time in nature can take different forms, such as hiking or backpacking. But because all such outdoor activities involve traversing natural pathways, people use them interchangeably, which is nothing short of a travesty if you ask me!

Being a mountaineer myself, I take the distinction between backpacking and hiking quite seriously, which is why I wanted to set the record straight. For this reason, I did some research and gathered extensive data on how these two nature sports are different.

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What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Hiking?

As I have already mentioned, backpacking and hiking are two different recreational activities that are often mistaken for each other. Therefore, drawing an in-depth comparison between the two is essential.

That said, of course, backpacking and hiking share some similarities that cannot be discounted. However, at the same time, you cannot overlook the dissimilarities.

If you look up the word hike or hiking in different dictionaries, you will come across definitions such as ‘walking long distances in the woods’ or ‘exploring nature on foot for fun or fitness’ or ‘taking long walks in nature for pleasure or physical activity.

Seeing all the meanings assigned to the term 'hiking,' it's clear that there are some commonalities in how different lexicological pieces of literature define this outdoor sport.

That is, hiking entails two aspects:

  • Covering long distances on foot
  • Exploring natural sites for recreation or exercise

This means any journey that meets the abovementioned criteria will be classified as a hike. However, there is more to discussing hiking in order to differentiate it from backpacking.

While hiking is walking long distances, it comes with a time limitation. A hiker has to come back from their excursion after a few hours; otherwise, they might move away from hiking and enter the category of backpacking.

Hikers go on physically exhausting expeditions in the woods or mountains with only a few essentials such as water, some snacks for recharging their energy, a map, and a knife or cutter. Some might choose to carry other stuff as well, but typically a hiker packs these four things for their trips.

Carrying a limited amount of supplies means that you will have to come back to your base or rest house after a while, or else you will run out of the amenities needed to traverse Mother Nature. Due to this, a hiking trip always ends after a few hours, unlike backpacking that goes on for many days.

Having all that said, it must be noted that hiking trips can be longer than a day. But in that case, a hiker sets up a camp anywhere close to the trails they intend on covering and come back to it once they are done for the day.

This return to the campsite doesn’t signify an end to the entire expedition; it only means that you are bone-tired and will continue hiking after some rest. Sometimes a hiker may also come back from a trail because they have traveled it all the way, and now they wish to travel in the opposite direction.

Basically, they divide smaller hikes over days to create an entire hiking trip. Regardless of the reason for your return, your excursion will be categorized as a hike as long as you take a break and go back to your starting point.

In sum, when a person walks the trails in the wilderness for a specific period of time and comes back to their campsite, rest house, or base, their journey will be a hike.

Backpacking, on the other hand, refers to traveling around nature and setting up a base whenever the backpacker wants to rest or sleep for the night. So you don't have to walk back; instead, you put up a camp on the spot or anywhere close by (to ensure your safety) to rejuvenate.

Unlike in hiking, where a person has to carry only a few essentials, in backpacking, you have to pack quite a few supplies.

Some examples of things you need to bring on a backpacking trip include

  • A tent
  • A sleeping bag
  • A portable stove and cooking supplies
  • Hiking boots and regular slippers for when you just want to walk languidly nearby your camp
  • First-aid kit

You can take other items as well based on your needs. But you must remember that you will be cut off from the city for a few days while packing your backpack, so you need to bring everything necessary to survive in the wild.

Simply put, when backpacking, you don't have the luxury of halting your jaunt midway and going back to a place where you have plenty of essentials waiting for you, as you do when just hiking.

In other words, a backpacker has to travel heavy (in comparison to hiking) as they go too deep into the wilderness and stay there until the end of their expedition.

Another difference between backpacking and hiking lies in their gear, albeit only a little. Apart from the different quantity of resources needed for the two activities, the boots used are not the same.

Hiking boots are generally low cut and less bulky than their backpacking counterparts. Backpacking boots are high cut because they need to protect a backpacker's ankles, especially on rough terrains.

That said, there is no set-in-stone rule that says you need to stick hiking shoes for hiking and backpacking boots for backpacking. As long as you think a pair will serve you right and facilitate you on your daunting journeys, you can take those.

Now that I have been over the main difference between backpacking and hiking let's dive into the different types of both activities.

Types of Backpacking

There are primarily two types of backpacking that outdoor enthusiasts opt for

  • Ultralight backpacking
  • Flashpacking

Ultralight Backpacking

As the name implies, ultralight backing means planning your excursion with the minimal amount of things needed to survive in nature. Moreover, the supplies an ultralight backpacker takes are super light and easily foldable so that they don’t take up a lot of space.

Ultralight backpacking is a great option for people who wish to cut back on their expenses and don’t want to lug a loaded backpack on their way back.

If you decide to go on such a trip, you will have to pick lightweight garments, quick-dry towels, and small packs of everything so that you don't have to carry a heavy load on your shoulders.


Flashpacking is for those who aren’t afraid to spend big bucks on outdoor gear so that they enjoy a lavish trip throughout.

Flashpackers are typically people from the privileged class who are accustomed to elite living standards. Of course, that doesn't mean only people from affluent backgrounds can flashpack; middle-class individuals may also save up and go on a flashpacking trip to have a luxurious experience.

Types of Hiking

There are several types of hiking that you can try depending on your resources, preferences, and free time.

  • Day hiking
  • Base camping
  • Section hiking
  • Thru-hiking

Day Hiking

As the name pretty much gives away, day hiking is when a person goes on hiking for just a day and retreats to their hotel or guest house or even their home.

It is suitable for newbie hikers who are only beginning their hiking adventures. Besides beginners, people who do not have much time to wander in the wilderness can satisfy the mountaineer in them by going on a day hike.

Another advantage of choosing day hiking is that you don't have to pack a whole lot of things as you will be coming back in a few hours. Moreover, if you forget something in the essentials you do take along, you can easily cut your journey short because you will not be too deep into the wild.

All in all, day hiking is doable for anyone and everyone.

Base Camping

I touched upon base camping at the beginning of the article when I went into the details of hiking, but now I will discuss it at length.

Base camping is a form of hiking in which a hiker commences their journey with sufficient supplies that will last them a while. On top of that, they take the essentials necessary to set up a base camp close to the center of all the trails in their chosen location.

Simply put, base camping is somewhat like backpacking in that both entail staying away from the city for a few days and spending nights in a camp. However, in the former, you choose a particular point where you erect a tent, where you will return after covering certain distances. On the other hand, in backpacking, you carry all the supplies with you and settle in any place you wish to at a given moment.

This form of hiking is perfect for people who want to experience the excitement of spending days and nights outdoors without having to haul a fully loaded backpack everywhere.

While there is no restriction as to how many days you stake out in a base camp, most people do it for 10 days at a time. And to be fair, it’s a wise decision because there is only so much you can explore by staying in one location. So, it’s better to end a trip and start elsewhere.

Section Hiking

Section hiking is typically undertaken when a person wants to cover really long trails divided into several parts. So what they do is that they complete each part of their chosen trail in multiple trips over the years.

For instance, a hiker chooses the Appalachian Mountains in Northeast America, and they wish to discover the region from top to bottom. But naturally, they cannot do so in just one trip, so they divide their hike into many sections and cover each of those on a single jaunt every few months.

Section hiking is ideal for true nature enthusiasts who want to walk the entire length of the most challenging hikes because it allows them to divide their adventure into parts.


Thru-hiking is the most demanding type of hiking that's only undertaken by the most seasoned hikers in the world because it entails treading along massive stretches of natural wonders.

There are many never-ending trails in America, such as the Continent Divide Trail (CDT), that cannot be conquered in one go. They require hikers to power through some of the most arduous challenges a hiking pathway can throw at them to complete one thru-hike.

For this reason, thru-hikers spend days and even months at times scaling twisty, super convoluted trails from start to finish.

In sum, you need to stay at a thru-hike for as long as it takes to travel the complete length.

Choosing Between Backpacking and Hiking

As an outdoor adventurer, I don’t think anybody can choose between backpacking and hiking for you. You need to take that decision on your own because nobody knows your stamina and capability to tackle the unknown better than you do.

However, If you are a beginner and don’t know much about either activity, you should start your journey as a mountaineer by hiking for a few reasons.

Firstly, it will give you an idea of how tiresome scaling mountains and exploring the wild can be. Beginners often assume that they can plunge into outdoor sports head-on because they are gym-goers.

Even if you are a fitness freak, you cannot ascertain how your body will react to the heat and fluctuating oxygen levels in the atmosphere as you tread along rugged trails.

You may think you have what it takes to conquer challenging pathways, but you can be wrong.

Moreover, how much supplies you will need to travel certain distances is something you learn with experience. IF you go on a strenuous hike and run out of essentials, you will have to cut short your journey. And to do that, you may look for faster, unofficial ways back to the city, which can be fatal.

Yes, that's right! Many inexperienced hikers lose their lives because they discover an uneven, poorly paved pathway and think they can scale it. But that doesn't happen; they usually fall, sustain brain injuries, and die.

Statistics show that 990 people died on hikes between 2014 and 2016, which means approximately 330 hikers lost their lives a month. Those are some staggering figures that clearly indicate how hiking can be dangerous if not done with caution.

Therefore, you should never attempt to go on a backpacking trip or even a thru-hike if you are new to mountain sports. Once you gain some experience, only then decide if you can take on challenging trails.

Parting Thoughts

People who are not acquainted with the outdoor world toss around the words backpacking and hiking quite flippantly, assuming both are the same. But they certainly are not. And to summarize the difference between the two activities, here is a one-liner for you.

Backpacking is essentially hiking that’s done over the span of a few weeks, whereas hiking is going on long walks in nature for recreation or fitness.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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