Writer Kittie Turmell once said, “Happiness walks on by feet.” If you’ve ever spent the day walking outside through mountains and forests, you know how much happiness your feet can bring you. But before you set out, you’ll need to decide how long you plan to spend travelling through nature on foot.
Are you planning on spending a few hours outside, or is your trip more of a multi-day or multi-month-long journey? That decision determines whether you’ll be hiking, trekking, or backpacking.
Figuring out whether hiking vs. trekking vs. backpacking is right for you depends on what you’re hoping to get out of your outdoors experience. The three modes of exploring also have very different gear requirements and physical demands on your body. To help you decide which activity is right for you, we’ll take a closer look at what differentiates hiking, trekking, and backpacking and highlight some helpful tips for each.
How are Hiking, Trekking, and Backpacking Similar?
The main thing that hiking, trekking, and backpacking have in common is that all three activities involve walking in nature. They typically aren’t very strenuous, although you can choose the difficulty of your route and the terrain you want to cover. It’s possible to go for a very difficult hike in one area and a very relaxing backpacking trip in another area with flatter terrain.
Importantly, none of these activities involve mountaineering. They shouldn’t require technical climbing gear like metal crampons, ice axes, or ropes. The only things you need for hiking, trekking, and backpacking are able feet and a sense of adventure.
The basic gear between these three activities is also shared. At the very least, you’ll need a good pair of hiking socks and a sturdy pair of shoes. Your choice of shoes can vary from lightweight hiking shoes to sturdy boots – while some styles are better suited for hiking and others for trekking or backpacking, any outdoor shoe will work for any of these activities. You may also want trekking poles, which can relieve stress on your knees when going uphill and downhill and make walking more efficient.
For food and water, it’s up to you to decide how much is right for how long you plan to be outside. In most conditions, you should plan on bringing about two cups of water for every hour you’ll be out to stay hydrated.
Finally, consider navigation and emergency supplies. You should have a map of the area you plan to explore and a compass, and know how to use them together. It’s also a good idea to carry a small survival kit, which can include an emergency blanket, matches, and first aid kit.
How are Hiking, Trekking, and Backpacking Different?
While hiking, trekking, and backpacking have their roots in common, they’re pretty different once you dive into them. To start, let’s look at what each activity entails.
|Description||Hiking involves walking for a few hours to a full day, typically on moderate trails and with a small pack.||Trekking is a long journey, which may be on or off trails. Trekkers can stay at lodges each night or bring camping gear.||A multi-day or longer form of outdoor walking in which you carry everything you need for the entire trip with you.|
|How Long Does It Take?||A few hours to a full day||Two days to one month or more||Two days to one month or more|
|Where Can You Go?||You’ll need to be within half a day’s walk of a road or trailhead||Anywhere, although trekking is best on established paths with lodging nearby||Anywhere, although you’ll want to plan camping sites ahead of time|
|Required Equipment||Food, water, hiking shoes, survival kit, navigation equipment, hiking poles (optional)||Everything for hiking, plus food for dinner at lodges, and a sleeping bag||Everything for hiking, plus water filtration kit, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, and stove|
|Starting and Ending||You end at the same place you started from||You have to get from A to B in a day. The next day, you go from B to C. Ending back where you started is optional||You have complete freedom to follow the trails, with no specific destination each day|
|Advantage||Can be done in a day or less||Go deeper into nature without needing camping gear||Disconnect from the outside world and immerse yourself in the trails|
|Disadvantage||You can’t get that deep into the wilderness in a single day||You have a set itinerary and need to keep to a schedule||Requires a lot of time and your pack is likely to be very heavy|
|Recommended Boots||Hiking shoes or trail running shoes||Hiking shoes or mid-cut hiking boots||Mid-cut or high-cut hiking boots|
When you go for a hike, you’re only walking for a few hours to a day at most. You leave for a trail in the morning, and return to your car before it gets dark. Hiking doesn’t require you to sleep outside, or even away from your home.
The distance you can cover when hiking depends on your speed. Extremely fast hikers who want to spend all day outside can cover more than 20 miles in some cases, but that’s very ambitious for a lot people. Many hikers aim for more modest trails that are less than 5 to 10 miles in length, or simply set a specific time at which they will turn around.
The main advantage to hiking over trekking and backpacking is that it’s relatively easy. Since you’re only outside for a day at most, you don’t need to carry a heavy pack that’s weighted down with overnight gear on the trail with you. That makes every hill easier to conquer, and in turn increases your speed on the trail.
In addition, hiking requires a little less planning. Not only is there less gear to worry about, but you don’t have to think about where you’ll camp each night or figure out what meals you want to bring along for breakfast and dinner.
The disadvantage to hiking is that you can’t explore quite as far. Some areas deep in the mountains simply won’t be reachable within a day, even if you’re hustling down the trail. You also typically lose out on seeing the sunset or sunrise from the trail, which can be a very rewarding experience.
Trekking is a much more open-ended journey than hiking, and as such it has a lot more potential. Treks start at two days, but there’s no limit on how long they can go – you can stay outside for two weeks, two months, or two years depending on your goals.
While trekking can be very similar to backpacking, the term trekking is typically reserved for trips in which you stay at established lodges each night. You may camp a few nights during a trek when there’s no lodging available, but many trekkers are able to get through a trip without any camping equipment.
If you have overnight lodging planned, your trek will have a preset number of miles you need to cover each day to reach your destination. However, when planning out these miles, keep in mind that you will probably have more gear than for a standard hike – and that can slow you down a little bit. It’s better when trekking to err on the side of too few miles in a day rather than too many, as the latter case can leave you stranded on the trail after dark.
The advantage to trekking is that it’s much more immersive than hiking. When you can walk through nature day in and day out without having to leave, your outlook on the world and connection to the environment completely changes. Plus, trekking allows you to go much further into the wilderness, since you don’t have to return to your car at the end of a single day.
Trekking also has a big advantage over backpacking: you don’t have to carry nearly as much stuff. Trekking allows you to focus on enjoying the experience, rather than suffering under the weight of weeks’ worth of gear.
But, trekking doesn’t provide quite as much freedom as backpacking. You’ll need to stay on a relatively established route or close to towns if you want to have lodging options each night. In addition, the cost of staying at a hut or lodge every night for weeks on end can add up quickly, whereas camping as a backpacker is often free.
Backpacking involves the same open-ended timeframe as trekking – a backpacking trip can be as short as a single night, or it can take months to complete. Depending on how long you plan to spend backpacking, you may cover just a few miles or thousands.
The main difference between backpacking and trekking is that for backpacking, you have to carry everything you need for your trip with you. That includes not just food and supplies for the daytime, but also camping supplies – a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, and warm clothes for being outside at night.
That can add up to a lot of weight, so you’ll need to be realistic about how much ground you’ll cover per day and adjust your trip accordingly. If you plan to be out for more than a few days, you can plan resupply points along your route where you can get more food and any other supplies you need. One nice thing about backpacking is that, depending on the terrain, you can camp whenever you feel tired – you don’t have to make it to a specific destination.
Another advantage to backpacking is that you have a lot more freedom for setting your route. While you might need to come close to a town for a resupply, in general your route can take you far from any established trailheads or mountain lodges. As a result, you can explore some places that hikers and trekkers won’t often make it to.
Of course, the downside to backpacking is the weight. It can be grueling to walk with a heavy pack for days on end if you haven’t prepared for it. Most backpackers get used to their pack weight, but it does take some time to settle in.
Tips Before Starting Your Journey
Before you head out, whether it be for hiking, trekking, or backpacking, it’s important to thoroughly prepare. Here are some tips to help:
Hiking vs. Trekking vs. Backpacking: Which is Right for You?
Hiking, trekking, and backpacking all have their merits. Each activity will let you spend time in nature and explore new areas, and it’s hard to go wrong with that. But, the three activities are very different in their physical demands, where you can explore, and how you go about planning and executing a trip.
Ultimately, deciding whether hiking, trekking, or backpacking is right for you comes down to your goals. If you want to spend the occasional day outside or aren’t ready to quit your job to spend weeks on end in the mountains, hiking is a great choice. Trekking allows you to immerse yourself in nature for long periods, but doesn’t require you to carry a heavy load. Backpacking provides the most freedom, but it’s also the most physically demanding of the three activities.
Keep in mind, you’re not limited to one activity forever. You can try out hiking, trekking, and backpacking on various trips and decide which methods of getting outside work best for you.
Spending time outside on your feet is one of the best ways to disconnect from the stress of the world and to explore new places. Hiking, trekking, and backpacking each allow you to immerse yourself on the trail to varying degrees, and no one activity is better than the others. What’s important is that you enjoy your time outside, wherever it takes you.