Hiking vs. Backpacking: What’s the Difference

Hiking and Backpacking are very similar activities, one incorporating the other with a little bit extra. So is there a huge difference between the two?

Hiking and Backpacking may be similar, but there are still quite a few differences between the two. The main difference is the amount of time each activity takes. Hiking has a duration spanning from less than an hour to 5 hours or more. Backpacking spans a duration of a few days or more.

However, that’s only one difference, and many other differences between the two are connected to the difference in duration of time as well.

Hiking Trails

Hiking can mean a couple of different things, whether that be through the woods, on a designated trail, or hiking through or around a big city. Mainly though, when people think of hiking, it’s typically in a wooded area – sometimes with a designated trail, sometimes not, just depends on how adventurous you are. Not to mention the area you either live in or plan to travel to for the hike. No matter the type of trail though, it’s important to leave no trace behind and clean up after yourself with any trash or other items left behind.

Foot trails are the most common hiking trails that people tend to use. Their terrain and difficulty can vary depending on the area, but they’re fairly easy for beginners to hike. Foot trails are also the type of hikes that can be found in more urban and city areas since they can be paved sidewalks or rugged dirt paths.

If there are quite a few foot trails in one area, they probably range in difficulty and the skill level for hikers will vary depending on the trail. If it’s a popular hiking area, there may be some fellow hikers who can point out which trail has which level of difficulty, or sometimes the area will have a park ranger or someone of the sort who can also help you decide which trail is best for your skill level.

Bikeways can also be used for hiking, but these types of trails mainly are used to accommodate cyclists. These trails can either be dirt or paved, and sometimes horseback riding can be done on them as well. Since many different activities can be done on bikeways it’s important to know good hiking or trail etiquette and when you’d have the right away or not. The same goes for multi-use trails, which are typically dirt paths and sometimes will have signs to remind you the path is shared for different activities.

In marshy areas especially, hiking trails may be made up of boardwalks more than anything. This helps to keep shoes nice and clean but also protects the plants in the surrounding area. Another good reason to use boardwalk trails is because of how accessible they can make the trail to those who can’t normally go hiking. Boardwalks are typically level and wide allowing for people with canes, crutches, or wheelchairs to enjoy the trail along with other hikers. Since these are probably the most accessible types of trails, they may be more crowded than some of the other types of trails.

Interpretive trails are super fun and are also typically accessible for those in wheelchairs and other accommodations. These trails are fairly easy and have signs posted along the trail that either tell a story about the history of the area or an area similar to it (the trail being a replica of a real place). They can also tell about the nature within the area.

Most interpretive trails have certain respect given to them by the hikers, whether through the purpose of the trail or instructions given through the posted signs or even local personnel. These trails are wonderful for family outings and give an opportunity to learn through the posted signs as well.

However, if you’re feeling rather adventurous, there’s such a thing as off-trail or no-trail hiking. This is where there’s no designated trail for hikers, and is common for hikers with a higher skill level than beginners. These types of hikes can be done anywhere so long as you have the right gear and skill level for it. Some of these hikes can occur in National Parks, mountainous or wooded areas, or even on small beaches and rocky areas. While the terrain may be difficult, the view and the experience are typically considered worth it by the hikers who have accomplished them (Source).

Backpacking Trails

Most trails used for backpacking may be common or rather similar to those trails used for hiking. In some cases, it may be the same trail until hikers either loop back or turn around on the physical trail. Most backpacking trails will probably be off-trail or no-trail, multi-use trails, or footpaths.

Footpaths for backpacking will be an appropriate length for the task. And, like most hiking trails, backpacking trails will typically be in areas like National Parks, mountainous or wooded areas, and small beachy or rocky areas. Though, the latter two may not be as common for a backpacking trip. Some backpackers will also choose to involve rivers for canoeing or kayaking more than actual trails.

Backpacking trails will also vary in level of difficulty, the higher your skill level the more difficult terrain you can traverse, as well as the lengthier the trip you can accomplish. The style of backpacking will also depend on the gear you have with you for the trip, but we’ll discuss that later.

Since most backpacking trails will probably not have a designated trail, there’s more freedom in choosing stops for breaks or for the night than with hiking or designated trails for backpacking- which probably have designated areas for stopping for a break or for the night. Which is nice, but also can be hard for those who have never been backpacking before. For first time backpackers, it would be recommended to either have someone who’s gone backpacking on a no-trail trip before as part of the party or to find a designated trail used for backpacking.

Just as with hiking, it’s important to know the proper etiquette when on a backpacking trip. While this includes the same idea of respect for others on the trail, it also expands to a few other things. Since it contains at least one overnight stay on the trail, it’s important that you have the proper necessities to clean up after yourself.

Sometimes this includes not just picking up trash or any trace of your stay, but also making sure to bury feces or have a WAG bag on hand to be able to respect the nature in the surrounding area you’re in overnight or during stops for a short break. Stuff for this and other things for proper backpacking etiquette will also be covered when we talk about the necessary gear you would need to have while on a backpacking trip.

What Type of Gear is Needed for Hiking?

The specific type of gear you’d need for a hike will likely depend on the terrain as well as the length of the hike and how long you plan for it to take. However, generally, the type of gear you’d have for a hike would be the same no matter the difficulty, terrain, or duration of time (Source).

A good pair of hiking shoes or boots is always recommended, and are helpful no matter the terrain you’re in, as they can help keep your feet and ankles safe and also keep footing with certain types of terrain. This is especially true in rocky/mountainous trails or areas (if you’re hiking off-trail) and wooded trails or areas. The length of the hike or duration of time hiking is not typically affected by your hiking shoes, but your feet may be affected if the shoes haven’t been broken in or if you chose to not wear shoes specifically designed for hiking.

No matter the length of the hike or the duration of time you plan to be hiking, staying hydrated is always key to enjoying the hike. So a good water supply to sustain you for the entire hike is highly recommended, especially in warmer weather. The longer the hike and the more difficult it is the more water you should have.

If you’re going on a hike for a longer duration of time – a couple of hours or more – having a small pack with necessary supplies may be helpful. This can include your water supply as well as snacks. If you plan on having a meal such as lunch on the hike that can also be put into the pack. It’s important to keep your food supply light so as to not weigh yourself down during the hike, so no multiple cans of baked beans or canned fruits and veggies or something of the sort.

Good light snacks to pack would be things like granola bars, oatmeal packs, fruit snacks, trail mix, etc. Food for a meal would include things you can easily fit in a zip lock bag that doesn’t necessarily need to be reheated or refrigerated. Examples of that would be things like sandwiches or leftover pizza slices or things like that. If you feel it’s necessary to also have a first aid kit with you make sure it has the necessities and is small and light enough to be carried in your pack.

A map may also be useful if you’re in an area with multiple trails that cross over one another, to help you not get lost. Otherwise, there should be a map that has a color code for each trail before you get on the trail, and there will be posts or markings of some sort along the trail of that particular color to help you stay on the correct path.

What Type of Gear is Needed for Backpacking?

The gear you would need for backpacking is fairly similar to the gear you would need when hiking, with a few extra necessities since the duration of time is more than a day-hike.

Good hiking shoes, water, and food are all needed. Same with a pack, however, this pack will probably be heavier since all the gear you need for the trip is carried on your back. And how much or how little or the specific type of gear you’ll need is also dependent on the type of backpacking trip style you choose to use, like when canoeing on the trip. Typically the less gear you have the higher the skill level and experience needed for the backpacking trip.

Since a backpacking trip involves overnight stops having sufficient shelter is needed as you sleep. Having a personal or 2-person sized tent and appropriate sleeping bags or other sleeping gear should be carried with you throughout the trip. An appropriate amount of clothes to change into is also needed.

Other hygiene necessities would include things like a trowel and disposable toilet paper for bathroom needs, disposable soap, toothbrush/toothpaste, and so on. Some areas will require the use of a WAG bag instead of a trowel. Also, first aid, lip balm, sunscreen, and bug spray are recommended.

Food should be lightweight, so dehydrated meal packs or similar snacks and food like that when hiking is recommended. If you need a cooler for any food items make sure it’s small and lightweight. All food items should be kept safe from wild animals during the duration of the trip. Typically an Ursack-type of bag is recommended.

Since you’re probably not carrying water bottles to last the duration of the trip, some sort of water purifier or filtration system is also recommended for these trips. Hiking in an area where you’ll have a sufficient water source is a good idea. Cooking ware should be kept simple and lightweight, such as a canister stove and sufficient fuel for the stove, various camping pots or pans not included with the stove, and a match or lighter. The stove can also help you to ensure your drinking water is safe by boiling it (Source).

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