If you’re just starting to explore the world of outdoor recreation, you might be wondering what the difference is between backpacking and hiking, or hiking and trekking, or backpacking and mountaineering. When it comes to backpacking vs hiking, which is better?
In this post, we’ll dive into the differences between hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering, what the terms mean, and gear that’s specific to each one.
Backpacking vs Hiking
I’m hesitant to say if one of these is better than the other. They are just different, and each hiker will have their own preference whether they prefer hiking or backpacking. Generally, the term hiking refers to day hiking. You could be out for an hour or 12 hours, but if you intend to return to your car the same day without spending the night outside in the wilderness, that would be hiking.
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Backpacking generally refers to hiking with all the gear, food, and supplies you need to stay overnight for one or more nights in the wilderness. Backpacking and overnight hiking can be used interchangeably.
The term backpacking is common in North America, while many other parts of the world might refer to overnight hiking as trekking or wild camping. To add to the confusion, backpacking can also mean traveling through a foreign country with nothing but a backpack, although these types of backpackers usually stay in hostels, hotels, or other short-term rentals.
In not so many words, all backpacking is hiking but not all hiking is backpacking.
Hiking vs Backpacking Permits
It is also very rare that you would need a permit for a day hike or go day hiking. It’s not unheard of, but it’s very uncommon. Most parks, public lands, and wilderness areas are open to day use and have fewer regulations for day hikers. Sometimes there is a fee even for day use, like in many National Parks.
While there are many places you can go backpacking or overnight hiking for free and without any reservations or permits, it’s also pretty normal for certain areas to require backcountry permits, fees, or reservations to stay overnight. It’s good to get in the habit of doing a quick Google search on the ‘trail-you-want-to-hike permits’ before planning any trips, so you know if permits are required or not.
Backpacking vs Hiking Boots
The type or brand of boots you wear while hiking or backpacking is completely a matter of personal preference. Especially with the gaining popularity of trail running shoes among the ultralight backpacking community.
Generally speaking, hiking boots are usually more lightweight and have more flex to them than backpacking boots. Hiking boots should have better soles and significantly more tread on the bottom than traditional sneakers or running shoes and are often available in waterproof models.
Again, generally speaking, backpacking boots are a bit more sturdy in the soles and uppers than hiking boots, they don’t have as much give and should have aggressive tread on the bottoms of the soles. Many backpacking boots are higher cut, offering more ankle support, and are often available in waterproof models.
Several decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for backpackers to be carrying up to 60 or 70 pounds of gear on their backs, so they needed extremely stiff, heavy boots to help stabilize their feet and ankles under all that extra weight. With great strides being made in the world of gear production and manufacturing, there’s rarely a need to carry more than a 30(ish) pound pack while backpacking.
Many hikers today find the super stiff, heavy boots more restrictive than they’re worth since we can move more freely and efficiently with lighter boots and supportive insoles.
Thru-hiking vs Backpacking
Thru-hiking is a specific type of backpacking or overnight hiking where a person hikes an entire long trail all the way through, in a single go. For example, thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or the entire Appalachian Trail. Whereas, backpacking could refer to something as short as a 2 or 3-day trip.
In a nutshell, all thru-hiking is backpacking, but not all backpacking is thru-hiking.
Thru-hikers will often go to great lengths, and expense, to get their pack weights as low as possible. Hikers who go on shorter backpacking trips might not think it’s worth investing in ultralight backpacks, tents, and sleep systems or they might bring more luxury items like books, booze, or camp chairs that might get heavy and cumbersome on a long-distance hike like a thru-hike.
Backpacking vs Mountaineering
Mountaineering is like hiking and backpacking, on steroids. Mountaineering has a higher barrier of entry than backpacking, requiring much more technical training and equipment. Mountaineers are typically attempting to climb and summit very high elevation peaks, routes that include class 4 or 5+ terrain, where ropes, helmets, belayers, anchor setting, etc. or in areas where ice climbing and avalanche rescue training would be required.
You should only attempt these technical, mountaineering routes if you are with an experienced guide or other trusty friends who also have significant training and experience climbing and route setting.
Hopefully this answers some of the questions you may have as a new(ish) hiker or backpacker. Never be afraid to ask questions, always keep learning, progressing your skills and never stop exploring.
For more hiking and backpacking tips, check out:
- How To Start Hiking For Beginners
- Hiking Terms and Lingo You Need To Know
- How To Prepare For Hiking In The Mountains
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.