Backpacking Vs Hiking: The Simple Difference of The Two

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In this article, we will delve into the differences between backpacking vs hiking, comparing the gear, the physical demands, and the costs involved in each. 

As we wander through the great outdoors, the crisp mountain air in our lungs, and the endless expanse of nature before us. We are reminded of the boundless adventure that awaits. For those who love to explore, there are many ways to do but two popular ways are hiking and backpacking.

Both offer unique experiences, each with its own challenges and rewards. No matter if you seek the solitude of a multi-day backpacking trip or the thrill of a day hike. There’s something for everyone in the world of outdoor exploration. But before you do so it is best to learn the differences between these two activities and the demands.

Definition of Backpacking vs Hiking

The terms hiking, backpacking, trekking, or even walking get thrown around all of the time and used interchangeably. When I started hiking and backpacking, I personally found this a little confusing sometimes. I found that although these activities are very similar there are a lot of differences to them and most variability is dependent on where you are in the world.

Hiking Definition

In most places in the world, hiking is a form of outdoor recreation that involves walking on trails, usually in the countryside. Hikes can range from a leisurely stroll through a park to a strenuous ascent up a mountain. Hiking is a great way to enjoy the scenery, get some exercise, and it is typically done in a day or half-day trip.

To note some places in the world, refer to taking a walk interchangeably with hiking and vice versa. In our hike vs walk article we discuss this difference a little further.

Backpacking Definition

Backpacking is an extended hiking trip that involves carrying a backpack and camping gear for multiple nights. Backpacking trips can range from a weekend excursion to a multi-week journey through a wilderness area, assuming you’re up for the challenge. 

The goal of backpacking (for most) is to immerse oneself in nature and enjoy a self-sufficient, minimalist lifestyle. 

In areas such as Asia and Africa the word “trekking” is commonly used in place of backpacking to define a long-extended excursion. In North America backpacking is the phrase heavily used that also shares this meaning.

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a popular thru hike.

Subcategories of Backpacking

Thru Hiking

Thru hiking is known as a long backpacking trip that often takes many months to complete. In North America thru hiking is a commonly used term. Commonly thru hikers carry ultralight gear and focus on minimalist packing because these trips often consist of many hundreds or even thousands of miles.

Section Hiking

Similar to thru hiking although these hikers are completing one section of a thru hike one at a time. An example of this would be someone who completes the Pacific Crest Trail but does so in four separate sections instead of completing it all the way through in one go.

Bottom Line

So, after reading these definitions you should notice that both backpacking and hiking are both basically hiking. The only thing that has changed is the duration of the trip. When hiking for longer times with a backpack full of gear the phrase backpacking is often used to describe the activity. However, the thing to note is that backpacking is still at its roots just hiking.

Distance and Time Spent on Backpacking vs Hiking


Hiking is an activity that can vary greatly in terms of distance and terrain. Some hikes are short and easy, while others can be long and challenging. The distance of a hike will depend on several factors, including the experience of the hiker, the length of the trail, and the time available.

Typically, most hikes range from 3 to 15 miles in distance. Hikes that are shorter in length are generally easier and are ideal for those who are new to the activity or who are looking for a more relaxed experience. These hikes can often be completed in a few hours and are a great way to get out into nature and enjoy some fresh air and exercise.

On the other hand, longer hikes can be more challenging and are typically reserved for more experienced hikers. These hikes can range from 15 miles to several days in length and can involve steep inclines, rough terrain, and remote wilderness areas. Longer hikes can also require more preparation, including adequate food, water, and gear. 

This is where hiking begins to blend into backpacking. It’s important to note that hikes typically don’t extend for multiple days. This type of extended excursion is more fitting for backpacking, rather than hiking. 


Unlike hiking, which is typically done in a single day, backpacking trips can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the trail and the individual’s plan.

The distance of a backpacking trip can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the location, the time of year, and the individual’s physical ability. As long as you have the necessary supplies and adequate time, there’s no limit to the distance you can cover on a backpacking adventure.

For most backpacking trips, the distance can range anywhere from 20 to 40 miles or more, and the terrain can vary greatly depending on the location and time of year. For example, backpacking in the mountains can be much more challenging than backpacking in a flat, open desert. The distance of a backpacking trip can also be affected by the weather, with some trails becoming impassable during inclement weather.

Short hike at Mount Rainer National Park

Backpacking vs Hiking: Terrain Differences


Regarding terrain, hikes can vary greatly, ranging from smooth and well-maintained trails to rugged and difficult terrain. 

For example, some hikes may take place on flat, easy-to-follow paths through lush forests, while others may involve steep ascents up mountains or across rocky terrain. Hikers should be prepared for the type of terrain they will encounter and should have the appropriate gear, such as sturdy shoes, to handle any challenges they may face.

It is also worth noting that some hikes are designed for specific purposes, such as bird watching, wildflower viewing, or wildlife spotting. These hikes may have different distances and terrains and may require particular gear or knowledge.


Backpacking is similar to hiking in that the terrain can vary greatly, from gentle hills to challenging mountain ranges. However, backpacking also involves carrying all your gear and supplies on your back, making it a more intense form of hiking. 

Along your journey, you may encounter a variety of landscapes including rolling hills, river valleys, streams, lakes, and wetlands, as well as steep inclines and rocky mountains. 

The key difference between backpacking and hiking is the requirement to set up a camp and sleep in the wilderness. This added element of camping requires preparation and gear to ensure a comfortable and safe overnight experience.

Physicality Between Backpacking vs Hiking


One of the most important things to consider when it comes to hiking is physicality. The level of difficulty of a hike will depend on several factors, including the distance, the terrain, and the individual’s physical ability. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just starting out, it’s essential to choose a hike that matches your physical level to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Hikes can range from easy to strenuous, and it’s important to know your own physical capabilities before you hit the trail. 

Easy hikes are typically shorter in length, have gentle terrain, and are suitable for people of all ages and abilities. 

Strenuous hikes are longer, have challenging terrain, and are generally only recommended for experienced hikers who are in good physical condition.

Your physical level will play a big role in determining the type of hike that is right for you. If you’re just starting out, you may want to start with trails aimed at beginners for shorter, easier hikes that don’t require much physical exertion. As you get more comfortable and build up your endurance, you can gradually move on to more challenging hikes.

It’s also important to consider any physical limitations or injuries you may have. For example, if you have a knee or ankle injury, you may want to stick to flatter, easier trails to avoid putting too much strain on your joints. 

As with anything: listen to your body. 

Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore


Backpacking is a physically demanding trip that requires a certain level of physical fitness. Unlike hiking, which can be relatively easy and leisurely when using beginner trails, backpacking often involves carrying a heavy pack for several days and covering long distances through challenging terrain. This can include steep inclines, rocky paths, and uneven ground, which can put a strain on your legs, back, and joints.

To prepare for a backpacking trip, it’s recommended to engage in physical activities that target the muscles you’ll use while carrying a heavy pack. This can include weightlifting, core training, and hiking with a loaded pack. Building up your physical stamina and strength will make your backpacking experience more enjoyable and less strenuous.

It’s also important to pay attention to your physical limits while backpacking. This means setting a pace that is comfortable for you and taking breaks as needed. Overdoing it on the first day of a multi-day trip can lead to fatigue and injury, making it difficult to complete the rest of the journey.

Backpacking requires a good level of physical fitness and preparation, but the rewards of exploring remote wilderness areas and immersing yourself in nature make the effort well worth it. Just like with hiking, make sure to listen to your body, take breaks when you need to, and enjoy the journey at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

Cost of Backpacking vs Hiking


Hiking is an inexpensive activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. Unless you are hiking at a national park or another area that charges admission fees, the cost of hiking is minimal, with only the typical expenses of gear and transportation to the trailhead. 

This means that hiking is an accessible and affordable way to enjoy the great outdoors and explore the beauty of nature! 

Of course, if you’re looking to invest in high-quality gear, you may end up spending more, but the initial costs of getting started with hiking are low, making it an excellent option for those on a tight budget.


When it comes to expenses, backpacking can come with a higher cost compared to hiking. Along with purchasing gear, backpacking trips often involve paying for camping fees and permits, which can add up quickly. 

While not necessarily true for every camping adventure, these additional costs can strain your budget, especially if you have limited funds after investing in the necessary gear. It’s important to keep this in mind when planning a backpacking trip and budget accordingly.

Gear for Backpacking vs Hiking


When it comes to gear, hiking is a much simpler and less expensive activity than backpacking. As mentioned earlier, hiking gear typically consists of sturdy shoes, a backpack, and enough water and food to last the day. 

Hiking shoes should provide adequate support and protection, and a backpack should be able to carry your food, water, and extra clothing. It is also a good idea to bring a map, compass, and a first aid kit, in case of emergency.

My favorite gear for hiking:

Springtime day hike


Backpacking gear is much more extensive and specialized than hiking gear. In addition to a sturdy backpack, backpacking gear includes a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and enough food and water to last several days. It is also important to have a first aid kit, a headlamp, and a compass or GPS device for navigation. 

When it comes to gear, backpacking demands a larger investment. With the likelihood of being in remote and isolated areas, it’s crucial to have a reliable backpack that won’t fall apart mid-trip. Unfortunately, high-quality backpacking gear can come with a hefty price tag. However, it’s worth investing in durable gear that will ensure a successful and safe trip.

My favorite gear for backpacking:


What is the difference between backpacking vs hiking?

Hiking is an activity that starts from the trailhead, advances to the peak, and wraps up when you return down your chosen path, usually completed within a day.

Backpacking is an extended hiking trip that involves carrying a backpack and camping gear for multiple nights.

What gear do I need for either?

When it comes to gear for hiking, the basics include a sturdy pair of shoes, a backpack, and sufficient water and food for a day’s worth of adventure. It’s also a good idea to bring along a map, compass, and a first aid kit for added safety.

For backpacking, the gear list expands to include a specialized backpack that can carry your gear for multiple days. In addition to the essentials for hiking, backpacking requires a tent, sleeping bag, and additional food supplies to sustain you throughout the journey.

Is hiking or backpacking better?

It depends on personal preference and what you are looking for in an outdoor adventure. Hiking is a simpler, less expensive, and less time-consuming activity, while backpacking allows for a more immersive and self-sufficient experience.

Why is it called backpacking?

The term “backpacking” refers to the carrying of a backpack and camping gear for multiple nights in a wilderness area. The term is derived from the fact that hikers must carry their belongings on their backs.

Final Thoughts

Hiking and backpacking are two popular outdoor activities that offer unique experiences and challenges. Hiking is often done for a day trip and involves navigating a trail, while backpacking is a multi-day adventure that requires overnight camping. Both activities have different gear requirements and physical demands, with backpacking being the more challenging and expensive option. 

Whether you choose hiking or backpacking, it’s important to be well-prepared and to have a clear understanding of the distances and terrains involved. Regardless of your choice, both activities provide a chance to escape the daily grind and connect with nature in a meaningful way.

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