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How to Pack For Backpacking vs. Hiking

May 06, 2019 5 min read 0 Comments

How to Pack For Backpacking vs. Hiking

If you’re looking to spend some time out on the trail – trekking into the woods, along the coastline, across the mountains, or otherwise – you’ve got two basic options: hiking, or backpacking. These two cornerstones of outdoor adventure are extremely similar in their basic essence. The weight of your pack may vary, but whether you’re out for the day or in the middle of a month long journey, you’ll be moving through a natural landscape by the strength of your own two legs.

However, there are some major differences between a backpacking trip and a day hiking excursion, ranging from how you’ll be experiencing the wilderness to what it will take to pack and prepare. A more in-depth look at the differences between hiking and backpacking will make it clear which type of trip is right for you, and what steps you’ll need to take to ensure that your journey is successful.

How to Pack For Backpacking vs. Hiking

Overview: Backpacking vs. Hiking

On the surface, backpacking and hiking are extremely similar activities – during the day, a backpacker and a hiker might be found on the same trail traveling the same distance, or maybe even sharing some granola on the summit.

But the experiences of a backpacker and a hiker will likely differ substantially. Most significantly, a backpacker isn’t just out for the day – they’ll be spending the night camping, waking up on the trail, hiking again, and then repeating the process, likely many times over. This means they’ll have to carry more supplies (which makes for a heavier pack and a greater physical challenge) and will likely make slower progress than a more lightly laden day-hiker.

However, it also means that backpackers will be able to access regions that would be too remote for many (or any) hikers to get to. Day hiking requires less planning and physical exertion, whereas backpacking requires more involved preparation and physical fitness, but opens up the possibility of a more immersive outdoor experience.

How to Pack and Prepare for a Hiking Trip

The first step to preparing for any venture out onto a trail (backpacking or hiking) is to know the route you’ll be following and have a plan for executing it within a reasonable time frame. For easy day trips, this might just mean studying the map at the trailhead before you get going, but longer treks might require more advanced planning and careful mapping.

For any kind of hiking trip, you should always be wearing sturdy hiking boots and clothing that will keep you warm and dry in the weather conditions (this means synthetics, no cotton!).

And certain items should always be on your packing list – first of all, some sort of light daypack in which you can stow your supplies. You won’t need anything too fancy, but the more comfortable and supportive the straps and the pack, the less sore your shoulders will be at the end of the day.


Packing Details

You should have the following items inside of your pack or on your person any time you step past the trailhead:

  • At least two liters of water and plenty of food for the day
  • A basic first aid kit
  • Extra layers of clothing in case of inclement weather
  • A headlamp or flashlight and extra batteries
  • A lighter, matches, or flint and steel for starting a fire
  • A map and compass for navigating


Always bring more food and water than you anticipate using. Check to make sure your first aid kit is well stocked before you head out, and bring the map and compass even if it seems like they’re just along for the ride. Keep your water, food, and first aid kit at the top of your pack or in an easily accessible pocket, and include a hat and sunglasses among your additional layers, if you aren’t wearing them already.



You might also decide to bring a few additional, but optional items, depending on the length and difficulty of your hike:

  • A water filtration system
  • An emergency tarp/shelter
  • GPS technology

These extra items are never a bad idea to have on hand, but they're not 100% necessary for a short hiking trip!

You can leave behind your tent, sleeping bag, and cooking supplies though – these aren’t necessary on simple hiking trips.

How to Pack and Prepare for a Backpacking Trip

If you plan on backpacking, you’ll be rolling multiple hiking trips into one (and adding camping to the mix) so your initial planning and preparation will be a lengthier process. You should already be familiar with camping and have some previous hiking experience, and should be prepared for slower progress than usual while carrying a heavier backpack.

The size of your pack itself will vary depending on the length of your trip – it might be anywhere from 30 liters for a single overnight, to 80 liters plus for extended journeys. On a backpacking trip, you should be much more conscious about selecting a pack that’s extremely supportive and comfortable. Carrying a heavier load will be exponentially easier with a more comfortable pack.


Packing Details

Backpackers should carry all the same essential items as hikers – they’ll still be hiking, after all.

But, they’ll need to pack an array of additional equipment and supplies as well – most obviously, if you plan on spending the night on the trail you’ll need to bring:

  • A sleeping bag
  • A sleeping pad
  • Some kind of shelter

Most backpackers use small tents, but a hammock and tarp can serve just as effectively, and may take up less space in a loaded pack. A nighttime shelter takes the place of the emergency tarp carried by some hikers, but groups of backpackers should also carry the water filter and GPS system which are optional for day hikers.

When hiking and camping in the backcountry, the group would also do well to equip themselves with a satellite phone in case they encounter a need to contact Search and Rescue.

Lastly, backpackers should carry some kind of portable camping stove and utensils, and at the very least enough meals and snacks to stay full and energized every day of the trip.

Minimizing Weight

While packing for a multi-day excursion, weight minimization is a must. A backpacker will inevitably be more heavily laden than a hiker, but this doesn’t give them license to start throwing items in their pack just for the sake of filling space. After miles of hiking with a campsite on your back you’ll feel every unnecessary pound, so be careful not to bring anything that you aren’t going to use.

Especially on a first-time backpacking trip, leave behind luxury items like heavy cameras, large camping chairs, cast iron pans, and so on. Likewise, you should try to reduce bulk and save space as much as possible – bring a change of clothes or two in addition to your extra layers if you’re gone for a week or more, but there’s no need for fresh laundry every morning.


It's go time!

Whether you’re taking a quick cruise to a summit or setting out for a month long expedition, it’s important to be prepared. Pack effectively and you’ll be able to enjoy your time on the trail to the maximum extent, no matter the size of your pack or the length of your journey.

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