Is Backpacking A Sport? (Fully Explained)

Backpackers can work up quite a sweat on the trail. When you come home feeling like you’ve completed an Olympic triathlon, it’s only natural to classify your chosen activity as a sport. But many beginners may wonder if they can actually classify backpacking as a sport.

Backpacking is not considered a sport in the traditional sense. Sports are organized, competitive athletic events that have a defined set of rules. Though backpacking is an athletic activity, it is not regulated or organized, usually isn’t competitive, and does not have any specific rules.

Even if it isn’t officially recognized as a sport, backpacking is still a worthwhile pursuit. In some cases, it can even be competitive. No matter how you do it, backpacking improves both mental health and physical stamina. Below, we take a closer look at how it does that.  

What Is Backpacking?

At its core, backpacking is a form of entertainment, athleticism, and recreation. Many travelers backpack around cities or towns. But for most outdoor enthusiasts, backpacking involves a hiking trail or a big slice of backcountry to explore.

Loosely defined, backpacking is basically the act of traveling while carrying everything you need to survive on your back. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but self-sufficiency is required on every backpacking trip. Your supplies may vary depending on your location and personal preferences, but there are some things you must have no matter what.

What You Need For Backpacking

A shelter, food, bedding, clothes, and some personal hygiene items are the bare minimum. Many backpackers carry water filtration systems and additional outdoor gear like multitools, headlamps, portable showers. You’ll also need the backpack itself.

Your backpack must be big, as it will hold everything you need to live outdoors for the length of your hike. Sometimes, you need supplies for an extended period of time. Backpacking trips must involve at least one overnight stay, but some people backpack for weeks and even months on end.

What Is A Sport?

A sport is an activity where one person or a team of people competes with another person or team of people to achieve the set goal of victory. As a general standard, the winner is usually the person or team that has greater athletic ability and stronger strategy. However, luck can also come into play at times.

Just like backpacking, sports are a form of recreation and entertainment. They usually involve athleticism as well, though some recognized sports like table tennis may require less stamina than others such as soccer or swimming.

Every sport relies on a defined set of rules that all participants must adhere to. Usually, sports are played for a set amount of time or until a specific action is completed. At the end of this time or upon completion of the action, one person or team emerges as the winner.

Sometimes, sports matches do not end with one person or team winning. If no winner can be declared, the match ends in a tie. Many sports lend themselves naturally to ties, like football. However, racing sports rarely end in a tie – even if only by a second, one person usually wins.

What Makes A Sporting Event?

It’s important to note that official sports are always governed by a regulatory body. This body oversees activities surrounding the sport, including games, matches, or events. They create new rules and implement standards for players, and they may take disciplinary action against players who break the rules.

Sporting events also require a set list of gear. Since each one is different, you need different supplies to play different sports. Some, like swimming, only require a pool and a swimsuit. Others such as baseball require an extensive array of equipment. Balls, bats, helmets, and padding are just some of the things you may need.

Is Backpacking Considered A Sport?

Backpacking is not considered a sport by most people, nor is it an officially recognized sport by any authoritative body. It can be classified as an athletic activity, and can be competitive in some instances. However, it lacks many of the features that ultimately define a sport.

Difficult To Define

Firstly, there are no set standards for what defines a backpacking trip. Sports require standardsthat players must adhere to, and backpacking has none. One person could take a two-day hike while five other people could take a month-long journey, and both trips would be considered backpacking even though each group may have very different intentions and experiences.

In contrast, consider two separate baseball games played in different parts of the county. Even though the weather conditions and scenery will vary wildly, the game itself is played for the same purposes and the intention does not change. The same rules still apply, and specific players from each team will perform their respective roles the exact same way, no matter the location.

Lack Of Competition

In most cases, backpackers aren’t competing. They’re simply going. Backpacking is done for the sake of the journey, and in that sense it can be defined as a leisure activity more than a sport. There is no clear “winner” on a regular backpacking trip. There are only people who walk from point A to point B while carrying a backpack. Backpacking ends when the participants stop walking.

Sports are competitive in nature. In a baseball game, there are two separate teams who are most definitely working against each other. The goal of each sports team is to defeat the other and come out the winner. While baseball can also be a leisure activity, this doesn’t impact or change the goal of winning the competition.

No Regulatory Body

From tennis to Tae-kwon-do, every official sport has an official authority that oversees it. These authorities may act as organizers for official events and distributors of information regarding their sport. They may be in charge of creating and enforcing rules, doling out punishments, and even licensing other officiants involved in the sport.

All regulatory bodies differ slightly in structure, but they serve similar purposes. Backpacking has no one official regulatory body. There are many different backpacking organizations, clubs, and groups across the world, but they do not look to one official organization for guidance. Instead, each one may take on tasks as it sees fit.

Few Organized Events

Official sports have official competitions. For example, baseball has a set season. During that season, there are a number of games played. The matches are structured in the same way year after year, creating an organized competitive environment. Not every sport has the same season, and some don’t have any season at all. Each sport is coordinated differently, but they are all organized. 

There are very few organized backpacking events. The closest thing you’ll find is a series of wilderness races requiring some overnight stays in the backcountry. Events like the Extremus and the Eastern States 100 are highly competitive, but these and other races are all organized by different bodies. There is no one overseer of events, and requirements differ for each one.

No Rules

This brings me to the last major reason backpacking isn’t considered a sport – backpacking has no specific set of rules. Backpackers can undertake the activity in a variety of ways, and none of them are considered right or wrong. There is no “breaking the rules” in backpacking, because you can backpack any way you want.

Every other sport has a set of rules. Sometimes these are defined by the sport itself, like in baseball. The rules are the same around the world and never differ. In sports like swimming, the rules are defined for that specific event. For example, a 100-yard freestyle race and a 50-yard butterfly race will each have different rules, but those rules are still defined beforehand.

What Is An Athlete?

The term “athlete” is a bit harder to pin down than the term ‘sport.’ Each dictionary definition differs slightly, with some citing proficiency at a specific sport and others citing general physical prowess. The true definition depends on your personal outlook, but it usually lies somewhere in the middle.

An athlete can be a person who is adept at a certain sport or any other form of physical exercise. They demonstrate impressive agility, speed, or stamina. Those who play sports professionally are normally always considered athletes, but you can be an athlete without playing a sport professionally. In fact, you can be an athlete and never play any sports at all.

While many athletes are well-recognized in their field and make a living from competition, anyone can strive for athleticism and be an athlete in their own right. An athlete must have a specific set of skills, but they also need a specific set of qualities. Dedication, determination, and constant improvement are all intrinsic in an athlete.

Athletes are constantly working their bodies, be it through running, throwing, weight-lifting, or climbing. The activity itself doesn’t matter as much as the challenge. As long as someone is constantly developing and honing their skills, they can be considered an athlete.

Are Backpackers Athletes?

Backpackers can certainly be athletes. Even though backpacking isn’t a sport in the traditional sense, it still requires a lot of athletic ability. From hiking through miles of backcountry to scrambling up rocks and down deep ravines, backpacking is quite physical.

An All-Inclusive Workout

Backpacking is both an endurance test and a weight-bearing workout. Thru-hikers need to develop incredible stamina in order to hike long distances, with some hobbyists being out on the trail for months at a time. Each day brings miles of trail to get through, which is a real test of athletic ability.

Backpackers must keep up consistent speeds to reach their destination before running out of food. This can happen rather quickly, as they expend an incredible amount of energy. Backpackers can burn over 5,000 calories per day on a trip, and they need to carry all their nourishment on their backs.

Not only must backpackers carry their sustenance, but they also need to bring along camping gear, cookware, and other supplies. On a moderate thru-hike, the average backpack will weigh between 30 and 40 pounds, and the person carrying it will hike over rugged terrain for miles at a time, sometimes over steep ascents and descents.

The Backpacking Body

Backpacking requires a lot of physical exertion, so it’s no surprise that a backpacker’s body is fit and toned. It functions like a well-oiled machine. Those who participate in the activity with dedication and put in the time necessary to develop real skills will attain a physique comparable to any other endurance athlete.

Much like long-distance runners or cyclists, backpackers are recognizable by their leanness. Especially after a long trip, their body fat percentages can drop into the teens for women and single digits for men. After a particularly challenging thru-hike, many backpackers must gain weight to compensate for what they lost on the trail.

Besides low body fat, backpackers have well-developed leg muscles. Calves especially can bulge, and the thighs and glutes of a backpacker will be visibly defined. Their cardiovascular health will also be exceptional, and most backpackers’ blood pressure is on the lower end of the spectrum.

Final Thoughts

Backpacking isn’t considered a sport, but many backpackers are incredibly well-developed athletes. They work hard to gain the strength and stamina necessary to complete tasks that are impossible for many people, and they deserve respect and admiration from the sporting community.