Hiking, trekking and backpacking might all sound like the same activity, and technically they are. However, if you are part of the outdoor industry and community, you begin to learn both the subtle and obvious differences between hiking, trekking and backpacking.
When comparing hiking, trekking and backpacking, hiking refers to a journey completed in one day. Trekking refers to a journey that uses an outfitter to reach a destination across a great distance. Backpacking refers to a journey completed in multiple days, carrying your necessities on your back.
It can be a bit confusing, as these three terms can be used interchangeably. However, every hike, backpack, or trek is unique and must be treated as such. Below, we will discuss the definitions of hiking, backpacking, and trekking as they relate to the outdoor world and how they differ.
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Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – Terminology
While the most significant differences between hiking, backpacking, and trekking occur when observing these genres through an outdoor industry lens, it is notable that the region also has a considerable influence on the terminology used. However, this terminology occurs more often to describe travel instead of an outdoor experience in nature.
How different regions describe hiking, backpacking, and trekking has little to do with trails through forests and nature and much more to do with young people traveling the world on a budget with long bus rides and cheap train tickets.
In the east, notably Asian countries, you are more likely to hear the word ‘trek’ to describe travel destinations or to be used by outfitting companies for an array of activities. Whether those treks are through the jungle, to a temple, or simply to a hostel is entirely at the user’s discretion.
In the west, notably Europe and North America, you are more likely to hear the word ‘backpacking’ to describe similar travel activities. But with these terminological nuances out of the way, let’s get into the real differences between hiking, trekking and backpacking.
Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – Key Differences
What Is Hiking?
Hiking is the activity of going for a long walk, especially in the country or woods. However, hiking often also means just going for a walk of any distance through various terrain outdoors. A hike may end up at a specific destination, or it may loop back to where it started.
Plus, most seasoned hikers consider a hike to involve at least a minor climb in elevation as well. Can we call backpacking going for a hike? Yes. Can we call trekking going for a hike? Again, yes. But a seasoned backpacker or trekking guide rarely uses the word hiking to describe these two physically demanding ways to move through the backcountry.
When professionals, or at least serious outdoor people, refer to hiking, they most likely refer to a day hike on an established trail. The trail may lead to a specific destination, or it may not.
Sometimes, these hikes are an out and back trail or a loop that connects you to the starting trailhead. Although these types of hikes may be strenuous, there is a lot less pressure associated with hiking than with its more advanced cousins, backpacking, and trekking.
Who Is Hiking Best For?
The best thing about hiking is that it is for everybody! You can be out of shape or never have hiked before in your life and still enjoy a short hike. In fact, going on hikes is one of the best ways to start getting in shape. It is as low impact as you want to make it.
Some say that a walk is only a hike when you travel more than five miles, but I am afraid I have to disagree. I know plenty of gorgeous and strenuous hikes that only last three to four miles. In my opinion, a hike is any length of distance that takes you into nature.
A Growing Community
The hiking community has exploded in the last few years. Social media has significantly influenced people from all levels of society to venture outdoors, and for a good reason! Indeed, the benefits are endless.
As far as the physical effects of hiking, it is an excellent source of exercise. It helps strengthen your bones, improve your balance, and improve your heart and respiratory health. In addition, getting into nature does wonders for your mental health and mood regulation. Breathing fresh air, the smell of trees and dirt, and a little solitude can do wonders for depression, anxiety, and insecurity.
What Is Trekking?
Trekking usually refers to making it to a destination through a challenging landscape. A trek is usually done without an established trail and it can take weeks to reach the destination. Trekking involves troubleshooting the terrain and rerouting when reaching dead ends.
Trekking can also be done along well-defined roads and paths. However, it is most likely a slow, grueling process that usually ends in a gorgeous and cathartic destination. Some famous treks include the trek to Everest Base Camp, The Inca Trail in Peru, and the Southern Alps in New Zealand. All these famous treks require guides and outfitting.
Outfitters And Guides
The outfitters will provide the route finding, shelter, food, water, and oxygen if at extreme elevations. There are even luxury options to helicopter off the destination in some places.
Although backpacking can seem expensive if you have to buy all your gear at once, backpacking does not compare to the expenses trekking can rack up. An average trek to Everest Base Camp can run anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000. Keep in mind that this trek is only to Base Camp.
A dear friend of mine climbed all seven summits or the seven highest peaks on each continent. When she trekked to the summit of Mount Everest, the trip set her back about $85,000.
Of course, there are always options to get sponsored when doing these kinds of treks and fundraise, but the cost is a little bit of an inclination of just how much it takes to move through these harsh terrains that do not normally support human life.
Who Is Trekking Best For?
Trekking is not for the faint of heart! Extreme terrain requires intense training. Some people train for years to be ready for certain treks. The hardest thing about trekking must be that you can prepare for years and pay an insane amount of money only to be turned away by harsh weather or injury.
Most trekking outfitters do their best to ensure you get your money’s worth, but the fact is that when the terrain is unpredictable, sometimes you must make tough decisions and protect your own life and that of those around you over the achievement of completing the trek.
Treks Are Long
Trekking does not have to be over intense terrain, but it does have to be of significant mileage. The sheer time and distance it takes to complete a trek can be astounding, but in a way, trekking may seem less stressful than backpacking because you get to rely on someone else most of the time.
However, the sheer magnitude of some of these famous treks makes trusting a stranger with the details a little scary. If you are trekking without an outfitter, you have to be an expert mountaineer with years of experience trekking with guides. This level of mountaineer is someone who has been training their whole lives and rarely takes time off from training.
What Is Backpacking?
Backpacking refers to spending one or more nights in the wilderness by carrying all your necessities in a backpack. Backpackers often use established trails like hikers might do, but backpacking may also involve going off-trail to reach remote places.
You can backpack by through-hiking or peak-bagging. Famous examples of through-hiking would be the Pacific Crest Trail on North America’s west coast or the Appalachian Trail on North America’s east coast. Famous examples of peak bagging would be the Colorado Fourteener Summits.
You can also backpack as a means of peak-bagging. Peak-bagging is my favorite way to backpack. I like hiking to the base of a remote peak, setting up a base camp, and then summiting the mountain the next day with minimal equipment on my back. Regardless of your style, backpacking requires training, endurance, and composure.
Who Is Backpacking Best For?
Backpacking is for avid day hikers who have researched their route, acquired the appropriate gear, and trained for the occasion.If you have never backpacked before, going with a more experienced friend is also helpful.
Backpacking can be more dangerous than trekking because you will most likely have a guide when trekking. Backpacking requires self-reliance on route finding.Someone unfamiliar with the area they are exploring or unable to read a topographical map can quickly find themselves lost. Even marked trails are hard to find at times.
Backpacking deep into the backcountry will expose you to the elements. It is up to you to pack the appropriate gear for your climate without weighing your pack down too heavily.This takes practice and skill. Every backpacker has their own way of packing their backpacks and determining the priority that each piece of gear holds.
Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – The Gear
Essential Hiking Gear
One of the best things about a day hike is that you will not need a bunch of expensive gear. However, you will need a good pair of tennis shoes at the very least, or ideally some hiking boots. Hiking boots have excellent ankle support that tennis shoes lack. Even if you are in tennis shoes, make sure they are of decent quality with a good thick sole.
Your feet must carry you out of the woods, so keeping them comfortable and functional is essential. If you plan to hike up steep hills or mountains, I recommend opting for hiking boots. Going downhill, you will be happy to have the extra support. Plus, trails at high elevations tend to get a bit rocky. If you are not careful, it is easy to roll an ankle. Hiking boots prevent you from doing that.
What To Pack For A Hike
Even when I go on small hikes, I always bring my backpack. At the bare minimum, your backpack should contain some water, a little food, a map of the area you are hiking in, and a small first aid kit. Bonus points if you have a knife and a rain layer!
Accidents can happen on the smallest of hikes, so it is always good to be at least a little prepared. The two most important things to have with you are food and water. If you have those two things, you can survive a decent amount of time in the wilderness. If you are injured and have to wait for someone else to assist you out of the backcountry, you will be thankful you brought it.
If you are new to hiking, go with a friend, or if you prefer to hike solo, make sure to stay on popular trails.Novice hikers should stay off deserted trails until they are confident in their hiking abilities. I consider myself to be an expert hiker and the most I will do solo is a day hike. I never go alone overnight.
Essential Trekking Gear
If you are using an outfitter and guide, they will provide you with most of your gear. The outfitter usually handles food, oxygen, and extremely lightweight equipment that holds up in gale-force winds. Depending on where your trek takes you, it is up to you to choose the appropriate clothing.
Clothing for treks is usually highly specialized to the area. For example, you might need warm clothes for sub-zero temperatures or light, long, quick-drying layers for the thick rainforests. Most treks only require you to carry a daypack. Usually, supplies are transported by the outfitter using some form of motorized vehicle or, in some cases, checkpoints previously set up by guides.
These checkpoints can be temporary shelters, but they are well established in the more famous locations. Some places even have running water and hot showers, but that is a rare luxury that you should not rely on. Most of the time, a small shelter and food preparation area are all there is.
Trekking Outfitter Dangers
Treks tend to be longer than backpacking trips and certainly longer than hiking. Food preparations must be made weeks in advance, usually brought in by air or famously by Yak in Nepal. Each trekking area or outfitter has their way of doing things, and a lot of the time, you will be at the mercy of whatever group you chose.
Occasionally, you hear horror stories about outfitters who tried to offer a trekking service and cut corners to make more money. I have heard of people running out of food or oxygen at high elevations.
If you plan to do a dangerous trek, I recommend spending money on a well-respected company with many successful trek attempts. However, do your research to avoid relying on an outfitting company completely. Know where you are going and what to expect.
Essential Backpacking Gear
The essential items you will need to carry on your back are a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, a water filtration system, a backpacking stove, and the items I mentioned to bring along on a day hike like food and water. If you are backpacking with a group of people, you can stay in one tent and spread some of the weight around. The same goes for camp stoves, food, or other group necessities.
Depending on how far I plan to backpack, I pack my food accordingly. If I plan to camp relatively close to the trailhead and at a cooler high elevation, I will spring for perishable food I can keep cold in my pack. If I plan to do a 10-mile hike in the desert, I will stick to lighter backpacking meals.
My favorite way to cook anything in the backcountry is with my Jetboil. It boils water in 3 minutes, which is excellent for making backpacking meals, pasta, or tea on chilly mornings. In addition, it has an attachable piece that holds a skillet for pan-frying.
When backpacking, you have to meal plan and decide how much food to carry on your back for the number of calories you are exerting. If I am summiting a big mountain, I like to carry lots of high-protein snacks.
The same goes for luxuries. The further I plan to travel, the less I carry. If I am going far, I will leave things at home that I would usually take for shorter journeys, for example, my hatchet. It is nice to have a hatchet to cut down branches for a more manageable fire at night, but If I am going up and down ridges for mile after mile, there is no way I am bringing anything made of steel!
Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – Location And Terrain
Technically, hiking, backpacking, and trekking happen on all types of terrain. However, certain types of terrain are more associated with one genre than another.
For example, when hiking, we tend to think of places closer to home and destinations that do not require a tremendous amount of physical strength and endurance. However, if you live at high elevation, your neighborhood hike could be more strenuous than those who live at sea level.
Trekking can refer to jungle forests or high mountain passes, but it can also mean trekking through cities, towns, and the countryside. A trek is usually long and challenging, but the terrain can vary.
Hiking can be strenuous, but hiking usually implies that the trail is not difficult to navigate. Backpacking might happen on those same hiking trails, but the sheer weight of carrying everything you need to spend the night outside significantly increases the trip’s difficulty.
While you can bushwhack your way without a trail to remote places, unstable ground and a weighted backpack add another layer to the challenge. This is not to say you should not try this backpacking style, but I recommend hiking with hiking poles to improve your balance.
Navigation While Backpacking
One of the biggest things that separate backpacking from hiking and trekking is self-navigation. Even if you plan to stay on trails, harsh weather can easily wash away the path or make navigation difficult. I have been in situations where route finding became super tricky.
It is scary how easy it is to find yourself disoriented if a trail has been neglected for a few seasons. Make sure you always have a topographical map of the area and a compass, as well as knowledge of how to use both of those things. Having these skills as a backup will allow you to assess the lay of the land and pinpoint your location.
If you are unsure of the direction of travel, consult your map. Then consult your friends and make them look at the map. I cannot tell you how many times I looked at a topographical map and mistook one ridge for another. Two sets of eyes on a route are always better than one.
Today, satellite phones are becoming more common among backpackers. These phones can call Search and Rescue in an emergency and give rescuers your exact location. You can use the coordinates to locate where you are on a topographical map, and some satellite phones have a screen with a map and location. Satellite phones are much more likely to be a piece of an outfitter’s trekking gear.
Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – Physical Effects
Hiking has a beneficial effect on your body. As mentioned above, it helps you get into shape and improves your cardiovascular system. However, be advised that the first week you try to hike might feel impossibly difficult. This difficulty comes from not regularly using the muscles that hiking relies on.
Trekking requires the most endurance of the three. Long treks are exhausting on the body. Some of the most famous treks require intense training. Unfortunately, these expeditions have high percentage rates of death and injury. Before attempting any trek, make sure to prepare your body well in advance.
Backpacking is a little harder on the body than hiking, but not quite as hard as a trek. It takes quite a lot of physical strength to carry everything you need. Expect aches and pains in your knees, hips, and shoulder.
I always bring along a medical kit with some Advil or Tylenol in it to ease me into the first couple of days of backpacking. Whenever I take long backpacking trips, I can only bag 5 miles or so the first couple of days, but then my body settles in, and I can get up to 12 miles by the end of the trip.
Hiking, Trekking And Backpacking – Mental Effects
Hiking is excellent for mental health. Getting out into nature helps to regulate your mood, calm your mind, and bring both hemispheres of the brain into play. The physical exertion paired with experiencing the beauty nature has to offer releases serotonin in the brain. Some day hikes can bring a mental challenge with them, but nothing overly stimulating or aggressive.
Trekking is mentally demanding. Even with the help of a guide, navigating a long journey can be hard on a person’s mind. You could argue that trekking is less stressful than backpacking because you can rely on a guide, but usually the terrain is so extreme or foreign and confusing that fear still runs high despite having a professional to follow.
However, trekking destinations tend to be some of the most incredible places in the world. The reward is very much worth the risk when the reward is the Himalayan peaks or some ancient ruins!
Backpacking has all the benefits of hiking, but there are certain challenges to backpacking that can test the strength of your mind and force you to manage anxieties. Sometimes, even preparing to sleep outside can be almost as stressful as actual nightfall in the backcountry.
The first time you try to rely on what you carried into the woods to survive is undoubtedly a little nerve-wracking. However, backpacking builds mental confidence over time because you get first-hand experience making survival-based decisions.
Hiking, trekking and backpacking are just different words for a journey. While hiking generally refers to shorter trails, backpacking can also involve these trails, but usually you’re carrying what you need for several days on your back. Trekking is the longest and most demanding of the three.