Hiking vs. Backpacking: A Beginner’s Guide to Both

Get back to nature with a relaxing hike or backpacking trip

If you’re interested in spending more time immersed in nature and aren’t sure where to start, you might want to consider taking up hiking or backpacking as a hobby. You probably already have an idea of what hiking entails, or what backpacking is, but maybe you aren’t sure of the differences, or what’s required to begin doing each. This guide makes it easier to understand the differences between hiking and backpacking and includes helpful tips and tricks to help you get started.

1. Understanding the Difference

Before you lace up your boots and hit the trails, it's essential to understand the distinctions between hiking and backpacking. While both activities involve exploring the great outdoors on foot, they differ significantly when it comes to duration, gear requirements, and overall logistics. Let's delve into the nuances of each to help you decide which adventure suits your preferences.


Hiking: Hiking involves walking on trails or paths, typically for a few hours or the better part of a day, and often doesn't require carrying much gear beyond essentials like water, snacks, and a map.


Backpacking: Backpacking, on the other hand, is a multi-day trek where you carry all necessary gear and supplies in a backpack, including shelter (like a tent or hammock), sleeping bag, food, cooking equipment, and clothing.

2. Getting Started

Getting into hiking or backpacking can be both exciting and daunting for beginners. Fortunately, getting started is more straightforward than you might think. Whether you're drawn to the relaxation and peace of a day hike or the immersive challenge of a multi-day backpacking trip, this section will guide you through the initial steps to take as you dabble in one of these new hobbies.


Hiking: Start with short day hikes on well-marked trails in your area. Gradually increase the distance and difficulty as you build stamina and confidence.


Backpacking: Begin with overnight trips to nearby campsites with relatively easy terrain. Practice setting up your gear, cooking meals, and navigating with a map and compass.

3. Benefits

The allure of hiking and backpacking extends far beyond the physical exertion of traversing trails. Both activities offer unique benefits that nourish the body, mind, and spirit. From invigorating workouts amidst stunning scenery to soul-soothing moments of solitude in the wilderness, discover the myriad rewards awaiting those who venture into the great outdoors.


Hiking: Offers a chance to connect with nature, enjoy scenic views, and improve physical fitness without the commitment of carrying heavy gear.


Backpacking: Provides a deeper immersion in the wilderness, opportunities for solitude, and the chance to explore remote areas inaccessible by day hikes.

4. Essential Gear

Equipping yourself with the right gear is essential to ensure a safe, relaxing hiking or backpacking experience. From proper footwear to cooking equipment, this section outlines the essential items you'll need to pack for your outdoor adventures, whether you're embarking on a leisurely day hike or an extended backcountry expedition.


Hiking: Comfortable hiking boots or shoes, moisture-wicking clothing, a daypack, water bottles or hydration system, sunscreen, insect repellent, map and compass, first aid kit, and snacks.


Backpacking: In addition to hiking gear, you'll need a backpack, tent or shelter system, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking stove, fuel, cookware, food and snacks, water filtration system or purification tablets, headlamp or flashlight, multi-tool or knife, and appropriate clothing layers.

5. Planning Tools and Tips

Success in hiking and backpacking requires physical preparedness, careful planning, and foresight. Effective planning is the key to a smooth and rewarding outdoor excursion, from selecting suitable trails to anticipating weather conditions and practicing Leave No Trace principles. Discover invaluable tools and tips to help you prepare for your next adventure with confidence.


  • Research Trails: Use websites, guidebooks, and apps like AllTrails or Gaia GPS to find trails suitable for your skill level, location, pets, and interests.
  • Check Weather Conditions: Always check the weather forecast before heading out and be sure to pack accordingly. When in doubt, prioritize your safety.
  • Leave No Trace: Follow Leave No Trace principles to minimize your environmental impact.
  • Inform Others: Let someone know your hiking or backpacking plans, including your itinerary and expected return time.

6. Popular Trails and Destinations

With countless trails spanning the globe, deciding where to hike or backpack can feel overwhelming. Whether you dream of trekking through rugged mountain ranges or wandering along coastal paths, it’s worthwhile to note some of the world's most renowned hiking and backpacking destinations, offering inspiration for your next epic journey into the wild. Aside from these internationally recognized trails and destinations listed below, it’s important to explore nearby trails and routes in your own local area, too.


Hiking: Some of the best-known hiking trails include the Appalachian Trail (USA), Pacific Crest Trail (USA), Camino de Santiago (Spain), and Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania). It should be noted that many people opt to backpack large sections of these trails, but they can be enjoyed in small increments as shorter hikes or outlook adventures.


Backpacking: Popular backpacking destinations include the John Muir Trail (USA), Torres del Paine Circuit (Chile), Annapurna Circuit (Nepal), and West Highland Way (Scotland).