There are times when carrying a backpack can feel like a bit of a chore for hiking. The weight of the pack can feel like it’s draining your energy on a long hike, or perhaps your shoulders and back start to ache. It is at these times you begin to wonder whether you can hike without a backpack.
To hike without a backpack, you could wear a fanny pack or hiking shoulder bag. However, you will only be able to pack minimal resources and should only go on short hikes on familiar and popular trails without a backpack, preferably with a companion hiker.
A backpack will let you carry essential items for a hike, but is it always necessary? In this article we further discuss whether you can hike without a backpack, when you should use a backpack, and some of the alternative options.
Can You Hike Without A Backpack?
You can hike without a backpack, but it is only advisable to do so on short hikes along trails you know well. A backpack will hold all the essentials for a longer hike, including water, food, waterproofs, change of clothing and trail maps. To forego a backpack, you need to be certain of your hike, its duration and the conditions.
A few miles on an easy trail in settled weather will usually be fine without a backpack, carrying any water or food by hand or in smaller bags. However, even in this scenario you may still be better off taking a backpack with additional supplies if you are hiking alone. If there are two of you hiking, you can share the load and pack minimally.
However, if you are hiking without a backpack and with minimal supplies, look to stick to popular trails where you are likely to meet other hikers if you do require help. It is important to let people know of your hiking plans and route in advance, as well as to hike on an accessible trail in case you need someone to come and help you get back.
The Risks Of Hiking Without A Backpack
Hiking without a backpack on a short, accessible trail should not be an issue. However, safety should always be your first consideration and planning is key. If you choose to hike without a backpack, prioritize what you need to take according to the trail and the conditions.
You should stick to familiar trails to avoid getting lost as well as reducing the risk of injury from unknown obstacles. A lack of supplies in these instances may prove dangerous. Similarly, if you have ditched a change of clothing or additional warm clothing in order to hike backpack-free and the weather takes a turn for the worse, things can get dangerous.
A well-planned hike is essential at any time, but perhaps even more so if you are taking minimal supplies because you want to hike without a backpack. There may be good reasons you do not want to take a backpack, such as fitness issues when carrying heavy loads, or a back problem, but this needs to be balanced against the risks of the trail you intend to hike.
Why You Should Hike With A Backpack
For most hikers a backpack is seen as an essential part of the hike. It holds all the essentials for a successful hike, providing peace of mind that you have enough food, water and clothing for the duration of the hike. A backpack also allows you to take a little extra food and drink that you might need, just in case the hike ends up taking longer than expected.
The main reason you should hike with a backpack comes down to safety. Preparing the correct gear and the right equipment for a hiking trip is paramount to safety and also to fully enjoying the experience. Running out of water or food, or not having a change of clothing after a sudden downpour, can soon make a fun hike very unpleasant and potentially dangerous.
While storage is the principal purpose of a backpack, there are also a few further benefits to consider.
Knowing you have packed all you might need for your hike provides the best opportunity for a stress-free hike. When you hike light without a backpack, you might be worrying about what could happen if things went wrong. Knowing you have all gear you need removes such thoughts and allows you to focus on your hike.
Comfort From Carrying A Backpack
Some people can find it a little odd when they’re used to carrying a backpack to hike without one. Modern backpacks designed for hiking are comfortable and spread the weight across the shoulders when properly packed. This can make them easier to carry than a smaller bag or purse, particularly on inclines. Trekking poles will also help maintain posture and relieve strain on the back.
Hiking backpacks are water resistant, and you will find ones with good waterproofing properties. The weather forecast may say that it will be sunny all day, but you should always prepare for rain showers. A waterproof backpack will help keep a change of clothing dry, as well as allowing you to bring wet weather gear just in case.
A good hiking backpack should last for a long time, protecting your hiking essentials. This can prove a good investment, providing you with a backpack you can take on all of your hikes. When you have a comfortable and durable backpack in which you have total confidence, you can enjoy your hike and take in the surroundings without constantly checking on your gear.
Why You Shouldn’t Hike With A Backpack
In most situations you should hike with a backpack, unless the hike will only be a few miles on a familiar trail. On these types of hikes, you probably don’t need to worry about a backpack. However, there is no getting away from the fact a backpack can be a weighty piece of equipment to have to carry on your back for many miles.
If you have an existing history of back pain, then a backpack could aggravate the issue and may not be for you. However, you will need to plan around this in order to take sufficient supplies for your hike, unless you only plan to complete very short hikes.
A heavy backpack can be a prime cause of lower back pain when hiking, particularly on inclines. You could try reducing the weight you carry, but this means prioritizing what you pack, which can be an impossible task on longer hikes.
Trekking poles may also help, as will frequent breaks and stretches. However, if you keep experiencing back pain then you may want to avoid hiking distances requiring a backpack, as well as consulting your physician.
4 Backpack Alternatives For Hiking
1. Fanny Pack
Also called a lumbar pack, this is a good alternative to a backpack for short hikes or on a nature trail in the woods. The fanny pack is lightweight and sits around the waist, ideal for taking the strain off the back and shoulders.
A fanny pack has a very limited storage space and is therefore not recommended for anything but short hikes. You will be able to securely carry essentials including keys and wallets. You can also purchase fanny packs with shoulder straps that tend to be slightly larger, giving you more options in what you can take.
This option is still a backpack in essence, as it has shoulder straps and other trappings of a backpack. However, a daypack is a lightweight, smaller version of your standard backpack, and usually cheaper too. Daypacks tend to have a capacity of 20 to 35 liters, whereas a backpack suitable for a one-to-three-day hike can be up to 50 liters.
A daypack is a good alternative to a backpack for a single day’s hike. The smaller capacity is enough to pack all the essentials, such as food, drink and clothing, that you will need for the day. If you are looking to pack light but need something above the size of a fanny pack, a daypack could be just the ticket.
3. Hiking Shoulder Bag
A hiking shoulder bag provides another decent option if you are looking to pack light for a hike. This bag is slightly larger than a fanny bag but can still relieve strain from the shoulder and back compared to carrying heavier backpacks.
Also called a sling bag, the hiking shoulder bag has a single strap that goes over one shoulder. If you have just one shoulder that struggles to take the weight of a load, this bag could provide the solution. Many hiking shoulder bags have a 6-to-8-liter capacity, enough for most essentials, including a rain stash jacket.
4. Dixon Roller Pack
This is the most out-there of the alternatives listed here, but is an option to consider for those who need to carry a good weight but do not want it on their backs. It is like pulling a backpack along on a sled which runs on wheels, so it can easily roll over obstacles encountered on the trail such as rocks and tree roots.
A Dixon rolling backpack is pulled along using shoulder straps and can halve the effort needed to carry the attached weight. You can pack more for a longer hike if required, though you will need to carry it on any sections where pulling is not possible. A Dixon roller pack will cost you more than an average backpack, but it is worth mentioning as an alternative.
What About Backpacking Without A Backpack?
Backpacking has become a fairly general term for any form of outdoor trip, whether it involves a few nights under the stars or a gap year exploring the other side of the world. Backpacking was so termed because it depended on the use of a backpack, as opposed to hiking where you may get away without using one on shorter hikes.
However, depending on the type of trip you have planned, you do not always need a backpack to go backpacking. If you are backpacking to explore different countries and cultures, and will be away for a good length of time, then a good hard shell suitcase may be the better option which you can lock to keep valuables safe. In addition, a case won’t get so grubby from all the traveling.
When people backpack in nature, it tends to be a slower paced affair compared to those who like to hike. Backpacking can often involve a night or two of camping, where taking more weight is essential. However, if you want to travel light and without a backpack, rolled sleeping bags and mats are an alternative.
Again, like hiking, whether you take a backpack depends on the nature of the trip and what you need to carry. Many backpackers will take a backpack because they can carry more, with convenience and comfort trumping other concerns. Yet a backpack is not obligatory and if another form of luggage is more suited to your journey then that’s fine.
Hiking without a backpack should be fine for short hikes of a few miles over familiar terrain. If you do opt to hike without a backpack, it is best to do so with a companion and on popular trails just in case you require help. There are also various backpack alternatives you may wish to try.