Backpacking vs Mountaineering – The 10 Key Differences

There are various types of hiking that require varying skillsets, preparation, and equipment. Two popular types that may seem similar at first glance are backpacking and mountaineering. If you are new to hiking, you may be wondering about the differences between the two.

The 10 key differences between backpacking and mountaineering are:

  1. Preparation and planning
  2. Equipment
  3. Difficulty level
  4. Danger level
  5. Skills and training required
  6. Travel time
  7. Costs
  8. Weather expectations
  9. Accessibility
  10. Goals and targets

As you can see there are multiple key differences between backpacking and mountaineering. Those who wish to experience either of these types of hikes should understand the differences and required skills. Below, we go into detail on everything you need to know about backpacking and mountaineering.

Is Mountaineering The Same As Trekking?

Mountaineering is not the same as trekking, but they are similar. The terms trekking and mountaineering are often misused. They are similar in the fact that you head out into nature with a backpack seeking adventure. However, there are several differences between the two.

Trekking refers to a journey of multiple days, often covering long distances over man-made trails, and usually ends each evening with the trekker finding refuge somewhere no more hostile than a cheap motel or hostel. Although, camping out at the end of a long trek is certainly on option.

Mountaineering refers to a journey of multiple days, often covering long distances as well. However, unlike trekking, mountaineering will mostly be over terrain that has no trails or consists of very intense trails. Harsh terrain and even harsher conditions are part and parcel of a mountaineer’s journey. Therefore, mountaineering differs vastly in preparation, expectation, and effort required.

Trekking involves less specialist equipment and training than mountaineering. A backpack full of the necessary equipment and a destination in mind is often all that is needed to start trekking. In fact, a destination isn’t always necessary for treks.

Knowing how to use your mountaineering equipment should be a prerequisite before attempting this type of trip. Knowing how to tie knots, rappel, set anchors, set up a belay system, and having someone to belay for you, all differ from trekking due to complexity and safety concerns. A mistake when trekking could be inconvenient or painful, but a mistake when mountaineering could be life-threatening.

10 Key Differences Between Backpacking And Mountaineering

1. Preparation And Planning

First and foremost, for the benefit of this article, when we’re referring to backpacking, we mean that in the sense that your backpacking trip is in the great outdoors. Think national parks or the wilderness, rather than backpacking across European cities offering no greater danger than overpriced accommodation.

Planning a backpacking trip can be almost as exciting as the trip itself, often one of the most enjoyable aspects of a trip is the excitement and anticipation of actually going. Deciding on the trails to take, the sights you’ll see, and the fun you’re going to have is part of the experience.

You’ll need to decide what to carry in your backpack, check weather reports, decide on how much food and water to carry, how far you hope to travel each day, and the trails you plan on using will all influence the items you take with you. Knowing what to pack will allow you to choose an appropriate backpack. Then you need necessary equipment, durable boots, and weather-appropriate clothing.

And then there’s mountaineering, an exciting, adrenaline-pumping climb to the peak that tests both climber and equipment to the max. Preparing for a mountaineering trip requires focus, humility, and potentially weeks or months of planning. A climb that hasn’t been undertaken before needs careful attention. Ensure that you have the necessary skills and equipment to attempt this kind of trip.

A hiking trip can be planned at short notice. A weekend suddenly freed up could see you and friends head off into the hills for a relaxing backpacking weekend. However, heading mountaineering on a whim could end in disaster. Your mountaineering trip doesn’t have to be heading up the north face of the Eiger to be dangerous.

Planning for either backpacking or mountaineering, each has its own demands and requires a level of competence. The difference between getting it wrong when backpacking may mean forgetting a can opener or getting lost for a few hours, getting it wrong when mountaineering could mean serious injury or worse.

2. Equipment

Backpacking equipment needs to be sturdy, light enough to carry, and functional enough to cover poor weather or poor hiking trails. Ensure your equipment is clean and properly packed then check that you have everything you’ll need before heading out. A first aid kit, water, weather-appropriate clothes, and a good tent and sleeping bag are a must.

There are many quality-of-life items that can make a backpacking trip much more enjoyable, such as carrying a multitool, powerpack, and hiking poles. It is worth repacking and making sure everything is there, you don’t want to find out mid-trip that you’ve left something behind. Check that your map is accurate, your phone is charged, and someone knows your planned trails in case of emergencies.

Mountaineering equipment is vastly different from backpacking and requires careful consideration. As well as the usual backpack and tent, you’ll need rope, a harness, climbing helmet, sunglasses, mountaineering axe, crampons, carabiners, and everything else your camping trip might entail. Keep in mind that you will be carrying all this up a mountain, in potentially hazardous weather conditions.

Consider how your environment might change when packing your weather-appropriate clothing. The weather at the base of your clime will likely change as you progress. Ensure your clothing is waterproof, windproof, and durable enough to combat the harshest of conditions.

Backpacking may call for a regular pair of gloves, but mountaineers will need two kinds. One lightweight pair for fair weather and a durable, waterproof pair designed for climbing. For mountaineers, having the appropriate equipment and gear is vital for safety and enjoyment.

3. Difficulty Level

Backpacking is popular and accessible to anyone, although with trails that vary in difficulty levels it is always worth ensuring everyone on the trip is fit enough to hike safely and comfortably. Many backpacking trails can be checked beforehand. Check online reviews to read about the experiences other hikers have had on the trail. You can also contact the national park if you have questions.

When choosing your destination for a mountaineering trip, the difficulty level of the climb is even more important than having the right equipment. The difficulty ratings are easy, not very hard, fairly hard, hard, very hard, extremely hard, and incredibly hard. Choosing a wrong difficulty level could mean simply turning back, or worse, attempting a climb that you are not ready for.

Every year, mountain rescue teams all over the world are called out to pluck unprepared or under-skilled mountaineers from dangerous situations, simply because they hadn’t planned and chosen a mountain climb that suits their skill level. Don’t consider raising your mountaineering difficulty level unless you plan to head out with a more experienced climber to guide you through it.

4. Danger Level

The higher the difficulty rating on a backpacking or mountaineering trip, the more the danger levels increase. A well-planned backpacking trip needn’t be more worrisome than keeping an eye out for bears or steep slopes but being aware of the dangers beforehand can make life much easier.

Backpacking on well-used trails shouldn’t be too dangerous, but once off the beaten track, knowing your environment, what wildlife to expect, and the potential weather changes, all need to be considered and planned for. Through having the right equipment or having the experience to handle any unforeseen situation, understand your limits and stick to them.

Mountaineering is a thoroughly rewarding and exciting pastime and can be life-changing in many ways, which is why many people take it up. There are few more rewarding feelings than conquering fears or reaching the summit. The excitement and satisfaction, however, go hand in hand with the danger. Balancing the risk and reward when mountaineering is a key skill to learn.

You may be comfortable with the difficulty level, but when situations change you must be able to think critically. This could be knowing when to find the safer route, head back, or even bunker down until a break in the weather. All these choices can make for a safer and ultimately successful mountain climb.

Many mountain climbing activities need at least two participants, as safety concerns mean buddy climbing to ensure one climber is spotting for the other. It is rare for a mountaineer to head off alone. When things go wrong, having an extra pair of eyes and hands can make a lot of difference.

Backpacking can be enjoyed as a group or alone. While it’s always safer when traveling in a group or at least a couple, for shorter and safer backpacking trips there is no reason at all why you can’t fly solo.

5. Skills And Training Required

One of the biggest differences between backpacking and mountaineering is the gulf in training and required skills between these two great outdoor pursuits. Backpacking can be undertaken with minimal to no training at all. Once the correct equipment has been purchased, a backpacker is free to hike to their heart’s content.

Mountaineering requires a much higher skill threshold. As well as a greater need to be physically fit and able to climb, especially rock climbing and climbing at altitude. The intensity levels of mountaineering can change from one moment to the next, from hiking through snow to having to ascend or descend a difficult climb, and these are all skills that must be developed.

There are many courses available for would-be mountaineers, and these courses offer everything from strength and fitness training to climbing skills and how to properly use the right equipment.

Unlike a backpacking vacation that can be started at short notice, some mountaineering trips need weeks or months of planning. This could include gently progressing through training schedules, practicing on the same kind of terrain when possible, and conditioning your body to be able to hit the mountain in top physical condition.

Heading out with the right skills and the proper training, mountaineering can be as safe and enjoyable an experience as you can find outdoors. The need to understand just how much training is required can’t be overstated. As the five P’s state: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. So, train hard and learn all you can before making the trip.

6. Travel Time

One of the most appealing aspects of backpacking is that it can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere. You can backpack locally if you are lucky enough to have access or go as far or as near as you desire. A backpacking trip can open new areas to a hiker as they go further afield looking for great experiences with nature.

On the other hand, mountaineering involves a lot more research as a climber looks for a location that suits either their skillset or the difficulty of the climb they are seeking. You are more likely to have to go further afield than when on a backpacking trip. Especially if it’s one of the fabled seven summits, which admittedly requires a whole new skillset from the climber.

Many mountaineers often travel far and wide looking for adventure and it isn’t uncommon to have to hop continents seeking the toughest and most prestigious mountains on earth. As experience and skills increase, so does the urge to test yourself against tougher and more extreme mountain climbing.

Local backpacking trips can be reached by car, or even public transport. Trains are a great way to cheaply and quickly cross country to reach national parks and offers backpackers an ideal way to travel, especially when laden down with equipment. An intensive mountaineering trip may include air travel, which immediately increases costs and travel time.

7. Costs

With an increase in the amount of travel needed to reach certain mountaineering spots, it is no surprise that costs will rise. Certain mountains, such as Mt Everest, can cost upwards of $30,000 to $80,000 to climb, with a permit to climb costing between $8,000 and $11,000. Not all mountaineers will be aiming for Mount Everest, but the principles remain.

The further afield a mountaineer must travel, the higher the costs will be. Once you account for the more expensive equipment, training, and occasional need for guides, this quickly becomes as costly a pastime as it is rewarding.

This doesn’t mean that mountaineering can’t be enjoyed for no cost once the necessary equipment has been bought. With a little research, you may find many places within driving distance that can be climbed safely for free, and over a weekend rather than a longer, more costly trip.

Backpacking costs can be much more manageable once your equipment has been bought. It could be as easy as driving to your local countryside or national park and heading out for a few days of excellent hiking. As with mountaineering, the further afield a backpacker goes, the higher the costs. These costs are much less restrictive for backpacking trips.

The many areas available to hikers, the less specialist equipment required, and the fact that guides are rarely needed, all keep backpacking costs to a minimum. It is the lower threshold for access to backpacking that makes it one of the most popular outdoor activities around.

8. Weather Expectations

Another key difference between mountaineering and backpacking is the weather expectations that both activities engender. A backpacking trip will often start out with high hopes for excellent weather, although planning for rain, wind, or the occasional snow should always be taken into consideration.

A mountaineering trip has much lower weather expectations, as the wily mountaineer plans for the worse first, and gratefully accepts glorious sunshine as a bonus. The higher the altitude, the worse the weather often gets. Traveling over snow, camping in the snow, and having to brave some of the worst weather known to man is part and parcel of any mountain climbing activity.

Waterproof clothing and backpacks are essential for both types of hiking. You must be able to adjust and deal with any change in the weather to keep any trip going. Backpacking in the rain can be just as enjoyable as walking under blazing heat, but for mountaineering, a change in weather can quickly stop an ascent as safety concerns can quickly become more relevant.

Snow-capped mountains may look stunning from a distance, but up-close they offer challenges that a mountaineer needs to overcome. Hiking through snow is a very labor-intensive trek, and fitness and the correct footwear are essential. While hiking boots are fine up to a point, eventually, the terrain and the weather will likely necessitate buying climbing boots.

9. Accessibility

One of the key points of backpacking is its accessibility. Anybody regardless of age, level of fitness, or background can strap a backpack on and go explore nature. Backpacking is a great way to experience nature and if you have the desire, there should be nothing to stop you.

With a bit of online research, you can find your closest hiking trail and with minimum equipment you can head off for a day hike. This adds to the appeal as it isn’t time-consuming, isn’t costly, and can allow you to test the backpacking waters before fully committing to longer or more costly trips.

Mountaineering is a more complicated activity to get into but is well worth the extra effort, as it is a truly rewarding experience. Setup costs and the need for specific skills take time to develop. Therefore, mountaineering is less readily accessible, but overall, it is a worthwhile investment of your time.

It is no coincidence that many backpackers find the natural progression into mountaineering. Hiking skills improve fitness and whets the appetite for more challenging routes. As a backpackers’ equipment collection grows, the urge to take their newly discovered appreciation for nature further becomes irresistible.

Backpacking is much more accessible for beginners, making it the easiest and most poplar route into outdoor activities. This is a stark contrast to the entry-level requirements for mountaineering. Although, a determined person could start mountaineering quite quickly if accompanied by a more experienced climber.

10. Goals And Targets

Many climbers feel an overwhelming need to test themselves against the natural world. Whether it is to prove to themselves that it can be done or to test their abilities and inner strength, mountaineers see a difficult or dangerous climb as a personal challenge. Some mountaineers have a checklist, a must-do list of mountains or rock faces that they must test themselves against.

Backpacking differs in that it is often viewed, even by participants, as a more leisurely activity. Backpacking can indeed be addictive, and a level of fitness and determination is a huge asset, but it’s rare to hear a backpacker declare they “must traverse this particularly tricky path, for it is here, and I must conquer it”.

Enjoyment and personal development are ingrained in both backpacking and mountaineering, after all, no one is forcing you to go on that hike, or scale that cliff, but the subtle difference between the two activities is clear. Mountaineers demand challenge and strive to push themselves, whereas backpacking can be just as rewarding, but without the need to create goals.

Final Thoughts

The differences between backpacking and mountaineering come down to the required mindset, skillset, and equipment. Overall, mountaineering is more intense and more dangerous than backpacking.