Hiking Vs Backpacking: Is There A Difference?

Hiking and backpacking are two popular outdoor activities that often overlap but still can be their own thing. Hiking can be shorter and less involved, making it a good option for people who want to enjoy the outdoors without undertaking a challenging expedition. While backpacking trips are usually longer and require more planning, providing an adventure for those who are looking to push themselves.

Breaking Down Hiking vs Backpacking

It’s simple. You hike while backpacking.

Per Oxford, hiking is defined as the activity of going for long walks, especially in the country or woods. While backpacking is defined as travel or hiking carrying one’s belongings in a backpack.

That’s about it.

hiking vs backpacking
Backpacking loadout for a few days on the Appalachian Trail

If you drive out to the mountains, hike a few miles during the day then return to your car and comfy bed after that you would be doing a day hike.

If you drive out to the mountains, hike a few miles during the day, and then stay the night because you have all the necessary supplies in your backpack. You’re backpacking.

Going for an hour-long stroll in the park during a nice fall day. That’s a hike.

Staying 5 nights in the Shenandoah National Park, hiking from one campsite or shelter to the next. You’re backpacking.

Is There A Difference In Gear Between Hiking & Backpacking?

Yes, with backpacking you carry everything you need to live and survive for the amount of time you are on the trail. All the essential gear like a sleeping bag, tent, water, food, extra clothes, etc.

For hiking itself you could carry nothing. Or maybe a backpack with a few snacks, water, and a jacket kinda thing.

hiking vs backpacking
Day hiking in Trail of Ten Falls Oregon

Which Is Right For You?

That is entirely up to you. If you scoff at the idea of camping night after night….or even one night out in the woods. Backpacking might not be your thing.

You could, of course, always try it out and see how you like it.

Maybe stay at a campground with your car nearby that has all your essentials. Instead of carrying it. Plus there would likely be amenities like a bathroom and potable water to help make things a little more comfortable.

Day hiking could also be a good entry point. Start doing longer day hikes while carrying as much backpacking gear as you can. Maybe you don’t have everything, but most would be a good starting point for the day.

What About Thru Hiking vs Backpacking

When someone is thru-hiking, they’re basically advanced backpacking. Classic thru-hikes in the US like the Appalachian Trail & Pacific Crest Trail can take 3-6 months to complete.

So beyond carrying everything you need in your backpack for a few days out, you’ll need to plan for other things like food restocks, rest days, gear repair/replacement, weather shifts, and more.

It’s a whole other ballgame.

The AT is 2,194.3 miles long while the PCT is 2,650 miles. Each has its own unique vibe and way to go about doing things.

You can even hike certain sections of the trails instead of knocking it all out at once. I’ve done a month-long section, then 10 days, and a bunch of long weekends on the AT. It’s a great way to get a feel for the trails without committing to them for multiple months.

But tackling a whole thru-hike is a huge accomplishment and a guaranteed epic adventure. So it wouldn’t be a bad thing to set your sights on.