What is Backpacking?
Backpacking is the ultimate freedom. It’s a combination of long Day Hikes and Primitive Camping, all rolled into one. Backpacking involves venturing out into the wilderness, with everything needed to survive strapped to your back. This includes water (as well as water filtration), food, shelter, sleeping accommodations, etc. You typically walk and explore all throughout the day and set up camp in a new place each night. While there are many types of Backpacking, we’ll try to boil it down to a single, simple definition for the moment. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a very thorough definition of Backpacking:
“Backpacking is the outdoor recreation of carrying gear on one’s back, while hiking for more than a day. It is often but not always an extended journey, and may or may not involve camping outdoors. In North America tenting is common, where simple shelters and mountain huts widely found in Europe are rare. In New Zealand, tramping is the term applied though overnight huts are frequently used. Hill walking is an equivalent in Britain (but this can also refer to a day walk), though backpackers make use of all kinds of accommodation, in addition to camping. Backpackers use simple huts in South Africa. Trekking and bushwalking are other words used to describe such multi-day trips.”
Why go Backpacking?
There’s no feeling more freeing than the one you get while carrying everything you need to be self-sufficient on your back. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just someone who’s curious about hitting the trails, Backpacking is a great way to create memories you’ll cherish the rest of your life. Backpacking allows you to reach locations not many travelers have access to, and you’ll get to experience the unique natural flora and fauna of the area. In a completely different sense, Backpacking gives you the opportunity to travel and see the world on a budget. So, whether you’re looking head into the wilderness away from the busy of the world or looking to hike from hostel to hostel across a section of Europe, Backpacking provides the means for the ultimate adventure. Furthermore, once you are a Backpacker you won’t stop being one. The lifestyle is addictive.
And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later. – Randy Komisar
Life is an adventure, it’s not a package tour. – Eckhart Tolle
Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere. – Isabelle Eberhardt
What do you need?
Ultimately, what you’re going to need while you’re backpacking will depend on the type of backpacking you’re going to be doing. Some versions of backpacking limit the supplies you’re able to carry. However, other types of backpacking allow you the advantage of bringing plenty of supplies. So, why not? Fortunately, we’ve taken the time to research everything you might need regardless of the type of backpacking you’ll be doing. For more information, follow the link below to check out our comprehensive Backpacking Checklist.
Table of Contents
This list outlines some types of backpacking that you may or may not have heard of, or perhaps you just know them by a different name? The list is certainly not definitive, just a guide to help backpackers (and future backpackers) understand the full breadth of backpacking scenes that are available to them.
Types of Backpacking
- Long-Distance Hiking
- Section Hiking
- Overnight Hiking
- Ultralight Backpacking
- Mountain Backpacking
- Travel Backpacking
- Desert Backpacking
Long-Distance Hiking is exactly what you would think it is. Taking advantage of a long recreational trail that typically goes through rural areas used for hiking, backpacking, cycling, horse riding, or even cross-country skiing. For a trail to be considered long-distance, the route should be a minimum length of approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers). Long-Distance Hiking trails exist on every continent except Antarctica. In fact, there are over 170 long-distance trails in the United States alone. Fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a wonderfully documented list of these trails (click here).
When I think of Long-Distance Hiking, the most glaring question for me is, “What’s the difference between it and Thru-Hiking or Section Hiking?” In my opinion, there isn’t a difference. I think of it as more of a general term that covers both. Obviously, if you complete a Thru-Hike, then that is considered a Long-Distance Hike. As well, if you do a Section Hike that goes over 30 miles, that also is an acceptable Long-Distance Hike. However, most importantly Long-Distance Hiking is an exercise in endurance and perseverance, both mentally and physically.
One of the keys to a successful Long-Distance Hike is being resilient enough to deal with whatever nature throws at you. You will get hot; you will get cold; you will get tired; you will get dirty; you will get bitten by bugs; you may get sunburned; you may get rained on; you may get blisters. However, it has been proven time and time again that there is no greater remedy for discomfort than panoramic views, refreshing drinks from icy streams, or sunsets lighting up mountain peaks while you enjoy supper around a campfire. The point is even though you’ll deal with some discomfort while on a Long-Distance Hike, you’ll experience moments that will last the rest of your life because you’ll remember what it took to attain them. The most important thing is just getting out there.
Thru-Hiking, sometimes spelled Through-Hiking, is defined as hiking an established hiking trail end-to-end, which means hiking a long-distance trail with continuous footsteps in one direction. In the United States, the long-distance trails Thru-Hiking is most commonly associated with are the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), However, Thru-Hiking also refers to other end-to-end hikes, and may even be called “end-to-end hiking” or “end-to-ending” on some trails. Other popular hiking trails in the U.S. of A. include Vermont’s Long Trail, New York’s Long Path and the Northville–Placid Trail. Thru-Hiking obviously isn’t limited to just the United States though. For example, if you’re looking to take your hiking skills abroad, here is a list of other countries and trails usually associated with Thru-Hikes in their respective countries: the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand, the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the Via Francigena in France and Italy, the Lycian Way in Turkey, the Israel National Trail in Isreal, and the Great Divide Trail (GDT) in Canada.
Next, I think we need to address the elephant in the room, what’s the difference between Thru-Hiking and Backpacking? Thru-hiking is a very specialized form of Backpacking that’s more focused on long-distance and high daily mileage. This is in order to complete the hiking trail within a given time frame that takes longer than the typical Backpacking weekend or weeklong trips. So, basically all Thru-Hiking is Backpacking, but not all Backpacking is Thru-Hiking.
Setting out on a Thru-Hike is an intense undertaking that should not be attempted by the faint of heart. Is it an impossible dream? Technically, if you can put one foot in front of the other, day after day, the dream is definitely attainable. However, the obvious fact is that a Thru-Hike should not be your first experience with a pack strapped to your back. You should clearly start with much shorter Section Hikes. I don’t say that to discourage you, but no experience can prepare you for life on the trail. If your heart is set on it though, do your research and prepare yourself for your transformation from the giddy hiker with two headlamps to full-on Suvirorman.
“Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience—buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello—become new all over again.” – Anthony Doerr
Section Hiking means backpacking sections of larger Thru-Hikes in attainable time frames. The fact is most people can’t uproot their lives and take off anywhere from 3-8 months from work and life to complete a Thru-Hike. However, mapping out sections of a trail like the Appalachian Trail and completing it in its entirety one section at a time is much more achievable. In fact, my first time backpacking was completing a Section Hike on the Appalachian Trail. My best friend John and I set out and Section Hiked the first 52.3 miles of the AT from Springer Mountain up to Unicoi Gap in 5 days. We now go back every year picking up where we left off and complete another section.
There are lots of advantages to Section Hiking over Thru-Hiking. The most obvious advantage is the aforementioned time commitment. Another gain of Section Hiking is the ability to do more research on the portion of the trail you’ll be Backpacking on. Supplies aren’t as much of a worry either. If you’re fine with your pack being a little heavy at the start of the trip, you can easily carry all of the food you’ll need for the entire trip. So, you won’t have to worry about mailing food to yourself at different checkpoints to replenish during the hike. Finally, the compounded wear and tear your body takes is significantly less as well. While you might be a bit worn out and have some sore feet at the end of a Section Hike, that’s nothing compared to the torment put on your body during a Thru-Hike in its completeness.
In my experience, there is no better way to decompress from all the stresses of the world than a Section Hike. The simplicity of life reaches its pinnacle while on the trail away from the gizmos and material possessions that typically take us away from being present in everyday life. It’s amazing how everything that you thought was important takes a back seat once you’re faced with making sure you have enough water to survive. Don’t get me wrong, there are stressful moments from time to time while you’re on the trail. However, there is no deeper breath of fresh air the moment you walk out of the woods and everything is fine.
There’s no way to replicate that special feeling you get when you embark into the wilderness for an Overnight Hiking or Weekend Hiking trip. While an Overnight Hiking trip is similar to other forms of Backpacking, it still warrants its own category. The Day Hiking involved in an outing like this typically doesn’t add up to a long enough distance for it to be considered a Long-Distance Hike or a Section Hike. You also aren’t out in the wilderness long enough for it to be thought of as Primitive Camping or Wild Camping trip. Which is why Overnight Hiking is a genre all to itself.
Overnight Hiking can be a great way to get started into Backpacking. The first time you’re out on the trail you’re going to bring too many things. Everyone does it when they’re first starting out. However, going out on Overnight Hikes can be a great way to pair down your pack to only the things you need. Another great advantage to Overnight Hikes is finding out how your body will react to having all that weight loaded on your back. I can tell you from experience that the way your pack feels while you’re walking around your neighborhood or at a park is different than out on the trail. When practicing you rarely get the advantage of multiple days in a row with a pack on. The compounded wear and tear that your body takes from a multi-day Long-Distance Hike is not something you want to find out about as your first experience with a pack strapped to your person. So, going out on multiple Overnight Hiking trips can be a wonderful way to prepare yourself with knowledge, mentally, and physically for longer more demanding Backpacking trips.
The advantages of preparation aside, the fact is Overnight Hiking is just plain enjoyable. After going on multiple Long-Distance Hiking trips, regular Tent Camping just doesn’t have the allure to me that it once did. The excitement of the unknown that you get when you set off into the wilderness with everything you need to survive attached to your body is inspiring. The older I get the little flutters of life, like the feeling you get when you learn to drive a car for the first time, are fewer and further between. However, starting a new journey with a pack on my back gives me one of those feelings every time. The only problem is that any type of Long-Distance Hike is a huge time commitment. However, Overnight Hiking is the perfect solution. Going on an Overnight Hike can be accomplished in a single weekend. You get the joy of Backpacking. You’re able to get away from the busy of the world. Although most importantly, Overnight Hiking provides the adventure in your life that only the great outdoors can.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
Fastpacking is a short way to say Fast-and-Light Hiking. Put simply, Fastpacking is the hybrid of running, Hiking, and Backpacking. It’s the art of moving fast-and-light on multi-day trail running journeys. It’s a combination of Trail Running and Ultralight Backpacking. So, in other words, it’s intense. However, you don’t need to be an extreme athlete or adventurer to go Fastpacking. You simply have to be willing to hike the ups, jog the flats, and run the downs. While doing so, you’ll want to carry a light pack with essential supplies that ideally weighs approximately 10 pounds and definitely no more than 15 pounds. If done correctly, there is no doubt that Fastpacking will push you to your limits both mentally and physically.
There are two main forms of Fastpacking, supported and unsupported. Unsupported Fastpackers make no use of outside assistance along the route. However, supported Fastpackers will leave bundles of supplies along the path they will be Fastpacking. Established, well-traveled long-distance trails are typically used because it reduces the chance of getting stuck in the backcountry and becoming a dangerous situation.
In a nutshell, you pick a trail route, pack some minimal overnight gear, run all day, sleep at a basic camp. Then, you do it all over again the next day. While it can be fun to be spontaneous, you generally want to map things out ahead of time. If you’re shopping at a local specialty store like REI, bring along 15 pounds worth of gear and see if they will let you load up a few different packs and take them for spins around the block. Once you’ve got your Fastpacking kit assembled, take it out to your local trails and do a couple of runs. If you have a passion for Backpacking and Trail Running, there is no better way to combine those passions than Fastpacking.
To make this possible, base weight is reduced as much as you can, though reduction of the weight of consumables is also applied. For those of you that are new to the term base weight, I’m referring to the weight of just a backpack, as well as the gear inside and outside of it, while excluding consumables such as food, water, and fuel, which vary depending on the duration and style of trip. Although no technical standards exist, Ultralight Backpacking commonly refers to Backpackers and gear who achieve a base weight somewhere in the range between 10lbs (4.5kg) and 15lbs (6.8kg).
John Muir took little more than bread and tea into the wilderness. However, by the 1960s, a century later, Backpackers were carrying up to 50 or even 70 pounds’ worth of gear into the woods with them. Luckily, in the 1990s, the mindset began to change and modern materials have switched the attitude of most people back to the “less is more” philosophy. Relying less on gear means relying more on your own judgment of how to stay safe, healthy and comfortable on the trail.
Setting out on the trail with an Ultralight Backpacking kit allows you to spend less time worrying about aches and pains and more time enjoying side trails and the beautiful scenery around you. Ultralight Backpacking with more comfortable gear weights makes hiking more enjoyable for people of all ages. The lighter your pack, the faster you’ll hike and the more ground you’ll cover. Entering into the world of Ultralight Backpacking will test your resourcefulness and challenge your ideas about what you need to survive. Casting off the luxuries of your daily life grants a new kind of freedom, a self-reliant pride that can only come from dismissing the comforts of home, and an inner peace that words will never do justice.
“There’s a whole world out there, right outside your window. You’d be a fool to miss it.” – Charlotte Eriksson
Mountaineering combines a set of activities, such as traditional outdoor climbing, skiing, and traversing via ferratas to name a few, which are combined to successfully ascend to the peak of a mountain. Similar to Wild Camping, Mountaineering lacks any widely-applied formal rules, regulations, and governance. In some ways, climbing a mountain is not all that different than regular Backpacking. You often start out on an established trail with a pack on your back that’s loaded with gear and supplies you’ll need for the duration of the trip. However, proper Mountaineering typically requires combining a wider range of skills and outdoor activities to reach the peak of a mountain.
To be blunt, Mountaineering has hazards, as does any adventurous activity. So, in Mountaineering, personal preparedness and skill development are very important. When setting out on a climb, it’s best to make sure your toolbox of techniques includes but is not limited to: the fundamentals of self-care in a cold environment, winter camping skills, setting up a shelter in snow, how to use snowshoes and/or cross-country skis, Hiking, and Rock Climbing. If that list doesn’t sound daunting, then you’re likely well on your way to your next Mountaineering experience. For the rest of us to prepare for a climb, find an Instructor or a local Mountaineering club to help you learn the many skills needed to reach your first summit.
Few things in life will test your courage, resourcefulness, cunningness, strength, ability, and stamina like climbing to the top of a mountain. For most climbers, the pleasures of Mountaineering lie not only in the “conquest” of a peak but also in the physical and spiritual satisfaction that comes from intense personal effort, ever-increasing proficiency, and contact with the great outdoors. George Leigh Mallory, a famous British Mountaineer, once famously responded to the question of why he would want to climb Mt. Everest with the answer, “Because it’s there.”
Mountain Backpacking is the combination of a few outdoor activities. However, I think the first question anyone would as is, “What’s the difference between Mountain Backpacking and Mountaineering?” In my opinion, Mountain Backpacking, while still a very physically challenging undertaking, is a less intense version of Mountaineering. It involves setting out on a Section Hike with the intention of reaching the summit of a mountain. However, the peak is attainable by simply following a trail that is already mapped out or just doing a little Bushwhacking. Nonetheless, no Rock Climbing, Bouldering, snowshoes, or snow skis will be required.
Look no further than the Appalachian Trail for some examples of good Mountain Backpacking outings. Springer Mountain and Blood Mountain are some of the more well-known mountains, with Blood Mountain being the tallest peak on the Georgia section of the trail. You can reach the peak of both mountains over a long weekend Section Hike from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap if you’re willing to average about 10 miles each day.
Before you set out on a Mountain Backpacking trip, make sure you pack according to the conditions you’ll be facing. For starters, do a quick Google and check to see what the weather is going to be like while you’re on the trail. If you’re anything like me, you plan your backpacking trips months in advance to make sure you can get time off from work, as well as to make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for the trip. So, when the time finally comes, within reason, you deal with whatever mother nature has blessed you with.
With the variety of options available, there’s something out there for everyone. Whether you enjoy sticking to a well-defined trail or blazing your own path, there’s a Mountain Backpacking trip waiting for you. This is the beauty of exploring, there are no limits. You have a wealth of journeys to choose from, but only one lifetime to achieve as many as your body will allow. Don’t waste any time. Get out there and explore, discover, and may Mountain Backpacking lead you to your next peak both literally and in life.
“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” – Rosalia de Castro
People have traveled for thousands of years with everything they deem a necessity on their backs. However, only somewhat recently in history has society deemed it acceptable to do it for recreational purposes. In former years, Travel Backpacking was looked upon as something undertaken by society’s drop-outs or by young people during gap years. However, Travel Backpacking has gradually entered the tourism mainstream, and statistics show that Travel Backpackers tend to be from Europe, the English-speaking world, Asia, or Israel.
True Travel Backpackers are a special breed, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. They view Travel Backpacking as a way of seeing amazing new cultures and an outlet for personal growth, not to mention a short break from reality. It’s more of a spiritual experience for them rather than a party. Travel Backpackers see the whole world as their home and don’t really feel a need to get back to the ‘real-world’ anytime soon. Travel is their life.
Travel Backpacking usually involves seeing many different countries on a single trip. It provides a great way to travel over longer distances, for longer periods of time, and do it all on a budget. Travel Backpackers tend to be very diverse, which I feel makes sense given that the whole point of Travel Backpacking is about exploring different cultures. However, I think one misconception is that Travel Backpackers only slum along from hostel to hostel and never touch any form of modern society. I’m not saying there aren’t people that do that. Those people definitely exist. However, many Travel Backpackers travel in both cities as well as the countryside. Travel Backpacking is a very fun way to travel, and more importantly, it’s not just young people who do it. As with any form of Backpacking, it’s available to anyone that’s willing to take on the adventure.
Deserts are not all sand and cracked earth. While considered by some to be less majestic than alpine meadows, the fact remains that deserts are dynamic ecosystems full of unique plants, wildlife, and geological features purely unique to them. For those of you that have fallen in love with this vast beauty full of intriguing surprises, Desert Backpacking is a way for you to experience this environment on a whole new level. However, if you’ve never experienced Desert Backpacking, and you’re looking to get your outdoor fix while mountainous areas are covered in snow, then this may be a great option for you, as these places are more accessible during this time.
Backpacking in the desert is a completely different experience than in the mountains. While other types of Backpacking are either waiting to get started or just finishing up, Desert Backpacking is actually best during the spring and fall months of the year. The obvious reason is that these are the few times you’ll find pleasant temperatures for Backpacking and sightseeing across the Southwest. Additionally, due to the high heat and low humidity, as your body produces sweat, it evaporates so quickly that your body’s natural defenses for temperature control don’t work. To help counter this, you want to make sure you choose the right clothes, but also pick light colors that reflect UV rays instead of absorbing them. There are many other differences for Desert Backpacking. However, these are just a few of the most common considerations. As always, make sure you do your due diligence before setting out on a trip to a new area. This is especially true if you’re attempting a new type of Backpacking in new terrain, like the desert.
To enjoy a successful Desert Backpacking excursion, you must prepare yourself for the likelihood of extreme conditions and the absence of water. Not all deserts are as hot as they’re made out to be, but many are, with cool or even downright cold nights. From canyons and red rock formations to sand dunes, dangerous bridges, and hidden valleys, Desert Backpacking offers a truly unique outdoor experience. To sum it all up, Backpacking in the desert can be a beautiful experience. No matter where you go, you’ll have a great adventure as long as you set yourself up for success.
“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.” – Judith Thurman
As you can see, Backpacking spans many different seasons and terrains, all presenting their own unique challenges. Backpacking is an adventure that blends Hiking with Primitive Camping and lets you broaden your horizons to enjoy a richer, more immersive outdoor experience. If you’re new to Backpacking and thinking about getting into it, rent some gear from a local outfitter and take a weekend to go and see what it’s like. On the other hand, if you’re a veteran of Backpacking, then it’s all about planning your next trip. The variety of options available means that there is something for everyone. The beauty is in the discoveries you’ll make along the way and the experiences that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life time.