Hiking vs Backpacking: What’s The Difference?

There are a lot of words that basically mean “hiking.” 

Hiking, backpacking, trekking, bushwacking, thru-hiking, day-hiking… what’s the difference? Are they all just different words for the same thing?

To really get to the bottom of this, let’s first explore the difference between hiking and backpacking.

The Difference Between Hiking and Backpacking

In the simplest sense, all backpacking involves hiking, but not all hiking involves backpacking. 

The Definition of Hiking

Hiking means taking a long, usually strenuous, walk for fun or pleasure.

(Thank you, Merriam Webster and Wikipedia.)

The Definition of Backpacking

Backpacking can mean a couple of slightly different things, depending on the context. For example, “backpacking through Europe” looks a bit different than “backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.” 

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be leaning more toward the A.T. version of the word. 

Backpacking is the recreational act of carrying all of your necessary belongings on your back, usually for multiple days, hiking during the  day and camping at night. 

So What Does That Mean For You?

Making the leap from hiking to backpacking will mean “leveling up” in a few areas. 

Fitness

Even if you’re hiking relatively short distances each day while you’re backpacking, it is going to be harder on your body than going on a day hike and then going home to a hot shower and a comfy bed. 

To prepare for your backpacking trip, you’ll want to go on some longer training hikes carrying significantly more weight than you might be used to. 

In order to carry that weight safely, efficiently, and comfortably, you might need to to upgrade your backpack. 

Gear

Many people do their day hikes with a backpack similar to (if not the exact same as) the backpack that they carried in school. 

Those backpacks usually have relatively flimsy shoulder straps, no sturdy framing, and no weight-bearing hip belts. 

If you’re only carrying maybe 10 pounds for a few hours, that’s no big deal. But, if you’re going to be carrying everything you need for multiple days, you’re going to want your backpack to work a little bit harder and have a bit more capacity. 

How To Decide What Backpack Capacity You Need For Your Trip

Here are some general guidelines for pack sizes, but of course, this will vary depending on the circumstances of your trip (like the weather) and how light you can pack. 

Day Hikes or Overnight

For an extended day-hike or an overnight hike where you won’t need to pack a lot of extra gear, a pack under 35 L should work just fine. 

Two or Three Days

If you’re going out for two to three days, you’re looking at a pack between 35 and 50 liters. 40L and 45L are pretty common and popular sizes in this range. 

Three days or more

For more than three days, you’ll want to look at packs in the 50 to 75-liter range. These packs are designed for the extra weight of multiple days of fuel, extra layers, and all of that fun stuff. If you’re going out for multiple days in the winter, 75L might be what you’re looking for. 

Gear Recommendations

If you’re like me, the idea of owning a bunch of different bags in different sizes is not super appealing. 

I recommend a good, sturdy “daypack” sized bag, and one larger bag for overnight trips. My larger bag is 45L which means it works great for up to a few nights. If I am really intentional and judicious about my packing, it’ll work for up to 5 or 6 nights. 

Here are some great options from Osprey to get you started on your search.

Please note, these are affiliate links which means that if you click through and make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. 

This is a great daypack or overnighter with awesome weight-bearing hip belts which will really help stretch this bags usability. It’s the Osprey Talon 22.

My next recommendation is the Osprey 45L Archeon. It’s a solid, attractive 45L bag that comes in both mens and womens sizes, which is important when you start carrying serious weight, as the differences in strap shape, torso length, etc., really help with comfortably distributing the weight. 

In order to help you really organize and make the best use of the space inside your new 45 L pack, I recommend picking up a set of compressible stuff sacks.

These are great for keeping your gear organized inside the large main compartment of your pack, and for squeezing the excess air out of things like your sleeping bag and extra clothes. 

About The Author

Leah is an avid hiker and photographer based in Virginia, USA. Her current big hiking goal is to hike to all of the waterfalls in Virginia!

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