Hiking Vs Backpacking: Which is Right for You?

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Whether you’re new to the world of outdoor exploration or a veteran of the trade, perhaps you’ve thrown out some of these terms without thinking about them. Hiking vs backpacking vs trekking: is there actually a difference? And if there is, how do you know which one is right for you?

Though they share a lot of similarities, these three terms do have their differences. We’ll cover them below, and help you get an idea of where you should start.

Backpacking Vs Hiking: Here’s the Difference

person walking down a trail in the mountains with a backpack

Backpacking or hiking? If you’re familiar with outdoor activities, you might be able to point out the differences between the two on a basic level. However, if you’re new to the world of wilderness exploration, you might be wondering what the difference is. Aren’t they essentially the same? Can’t they be used interchangeably? It sure seems like it when you look at terms like “thru-hiking” or “section hiking.”

However, technically speaking, backpacking and hiking are not the same things. According to Webster Dictionary, hiking is “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise,” while backpacking is “to carry (food or equipment) on the back especially in hiking.”

You probably noticed that “hiking” is in the definition for backpacking. We’ll touch on that a little later. For now, you can think of hiking as a long walk through the wilderness, and backpacking as the act of carrying equipment through various trails with the intention of spending the night outside.

How Does “Trekking” Fit in?

But then there’s “trekking” as well, which is a term you more commonly hear in Europe and Asia. Generally speaking, you can use this word interchangeably with “hiking,” but if you care about being exact, there are minor differences between the two terms.

Trekking is a more strenuous form of hiking, often referring to a trip up a steep mountain pass or over some form of rough terrain. Geographically speaking, trekking is the word used for multi-day hikes through the Himalayas and the jungles of Southeast Asia. So, if you want to use the word accurately, that’s about all you need to know. Otherwise, trekking is a fairly universal term used to talk about going on a long hike, whether it be across one or several days. It’s hard to go wrong when using it.

Special Types of Backpacking

man and woman hiking on a mountain ridge

Within the backpacking category, you’ll find a few subtypes that often get referred to. The first is called thru-hiking, which is a somewhat misleading name, since it’s actually a very intense form of backpacking.

Thru-hikers will often take weeks (if not months) to complete insanely long trails. Backpacking across the entirety of the Appalachian Trail is one example of a thru-hike, a route that stretches across 14 states along the east coast of the United States. Backpackers will tackle these trails in sections, camping at the end of each day, before picking up the trail again in the morning. They’ll continue this process until the route is completed – an arduous journey any way you look at it.

A less extreme version of thru-hiking is called section hiking. In thru-hiking, a backpacker will tackle the trail in sections, camping at the end of each day. Section hikers will still complete the trail in sections, but instead of camping, they may deviate from the route to enter a nearby town or some other pre-arranged lodging. Any “non-camping” related activities are fair game in section hiking, making it a lot more luxurious than thru-hiking. Many section hikers aren’t even interested in completing the full length of the trail.

Infrequently Used Terms

Depending on where you are in the world, you may come across other hiking related terms that appear more infrequently. Here are a few that might want to familiarize yourself with:

Bushwalking: A word that you’ll only hear in Australia, bushwalking can be used interchangeably with hiking or backpacking. It’s an activity that can be done in a single day or across several days.

Rambling: Another word that refers to hiking, rambling is something you’ll mostly encounter in the UK. It’s a relatively old-fashioned term, though, so you may only hear it among the older generations.

Tramping: Time to move to New Zealand for this one. Tramping is typically used to talk about long, difficult hikes through the New Zealand bush. It’s usually associated with overnight trips, but can also refer to very strenuous day hikes as well.

Hiking: The Common Thread

Family hiking in the mountains

Here we are carrying on about backpacking vs hiking, when in reality, it’s a deceiving comparison to make. Hiking is the foundation for both backpacking and trekking. Without it, you couldn’t do either of the other two, since by definition, hiking is simply a long walk through the wilderness. And what is backpacking? Well…a long walk through the wilderness, carrying a certain amount of gear in a backpack, and spending at least one night outside.

Trekking isn’t much different. It’s also a long walk through the wilderness, just with geographical indicators and a certain difficulty rating.

Now, let’s make something clear. We’ve talked a lot about what hiking is, but let’s take a moment to discuss what hiking isn’t. So far, we’ve defined this activity as “a long walk through the wilderness,” so if we deconstruct it, it’s pretty easy to tell when you aren’t hiking.

First, you’re not hiking if you aren’t going on a long walk. For example, walking from your tent to some nearby bushes to relieve yourself is not what we would consider hiking.

Second, you have to be in the wilderness. Taking a jaunt through some city streets to get to a restaurant six blocks away is also not hiking, since you’re in the concrete jungle instead of the real jungle.

Finally, you have to be walking. Mountain biking, mountaineering, rock climbing, and plenty of other human powered sports can cover a lot of ground in the wilderness. But because you’re not walking, it’s technically not hiking.

Training for Hiking and Backpacking

woman doing lunges on the beach

Whether you call it hiking, backpacking, or trekking, long walks in nature can become strenuous very quickly. Backpackers, especially, will feel the strain, since they’ll be carrying a multipound pack across an unknown number of miles. That being said, what’s the most effective way to train for backpacking and hiking? What muscle groups get used the most?

Spend Time on Your Feet

If you only do one thing to train for a long hike, I hope you’ll do this. Very few of us spend any significant amount of time on our feet anymore, since we sit in the car, at our desks, or on the couch for the better part of the day. Hiking is difficult because of the intense physicality, to be sure, but your feet need more stamina than any other part of your body.

For training, I’d just recommend being intentional about standing and walking every day. Even if you’re not going very fast, go on a two hour walk, ideally with a full backpack on your shoulders. Do some circuits up and down the stairs. If you have a sit-stand desk, do a lot more standing than sitting. Anything you can do to get on your feet more will dramatically improve your experience on the trails.

Strengthen Your Legs

legs in black leggings walking on a trail with green grass

Hiking demands a lot out of your legs, so give them a lot of attention during your training sessions. Quads, hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors are all vital muscles for traversing elevation changes. So, in terms of exercises, I’d recommend starting with lunges. Weighted lunges are going to be especially beneficial, and if you can bear to do them with a full pack, even better.

But while your thighs give you the power to climb steep inclines, it’s your calves and ankles that keep you stable on uneven terrain. To train them, try doing sets of calf raises and heel dips. Again, try to wear extra weight if you can, as it will give you a more realistic idea of what to expect on the trail.

Squats are a must, and frog hops can help with both strength training and endurance. Stair climbing also lets you mimic the up and down motion that you’ll experience outside. However, keep in mind that these exercises are useful if you don’t have an outdoor course to train on, or if you want to do extra training. The ideal way to prepare for hiking is by hiking, so if there are trails near your home, start easy and work your way up to more challenging projects.

Wear Your Backpack

You’ve heard me say it a lot up until now, but training with your backpack is essential for getting the best results. Whether you have a 20-pound pack or a 50-pound pack, your shoulders probably aren’t used to carrying around that much weight for an extended period. Without proper conditioning, you’re going to be in a lot of pain at the end of your first day on the trail.

So, load up your backpack with everything you plan to bring. In the weeks leading up to your trip, wear your pack on walks, while doing squats, walking around the house, doing yardwork, and so on. Trust me when I say this isn’t a step you want to overlook.

Useful Gear

backpack, sleeping bag, book, green shoes, spoon, water bottle

Backpackers and hikers alike will need to bring the proper gear for a safe and enjoyable trip. For starters, both will want to invest in a good pair of hiking boots to help keep blisters and water at bay. If you want to hike during the winter, or if you expect to encounter snow on the trail, it’s a good idea to invest in some microspikes for traction. For very difficult conditions, opt for crampons instead.

What you wear on the rest of your body is also important. Make sure you layer properly, and invest in a good pair of hiking pants that give you a wide range of mobility, breathability, and comfort.

Backpackers will, obviously, want a good backpack to store their gear in. Even if you’re not mountaineering, many mountaineering backpacks make it to the top of my favorites list, so I’d recommend checking them out. Along with that, it’s nice to have a backpack rain cover to protect your gear in case it starts to drizzle.

If you plan to be on the trail for multiple days, you’ll want to do some meal planning beforehand. And once you know what you’re going to make, get a single propane burner, a backpacking frypan, and any other cooking equipment that you think you’ll need.

Of course, you can’t forget about shelter and sleeping arrangements. A lightweight, one person tent will get the job done well, along with a mummy sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and perhaps a pillow too, if you don’t mind the weight.

Need more gear ideas for your next trek? We’ve put together a backpacking checklist that hits all the points that you’ll need to consider: The Most Comprehensive Backpacking Checklist You’ll Find.


Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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