The Difference Between Hiking & Backpacking (plus the best places to do both!)
If you’re a fan of being in the great outdoors, or even if you’ve just toyed with the idea of spending some days and nights exploring the wilderness and all its beauty, you will have heard of the terms ‘hiking’ and ‘backpacking’ numerous times.
Many people associate one word with the other, and insist they go hand-in-hand. Other people get confused at the meaning of the words, and make the assumption that they mean the same thing.
Technically speaking, the two words have very different meanings, however there is some crossover.
So what is ‘hiking’? Hiking is basically the act of walking through natural environments, whether it’s up mountains, through valleys, along coastlines or around the countryside. Hiking is also often known as ‘trekking’. This is not a long walk through town to get from A to B, but it can range from a relaxing stroll to an intense trek up a mountain. You generally follow a set trail, which is recommended to avoid sudden drops, protected foliage or wild animals. You can also choose to hike and camp in the backcountry, taking the road less traveled.
And what exactly is ‘backpacking’? The clue is in the word – you would generally be living out of a backpack while traveling. You take the luxury out of traveling and strip it back down to basics. This includes swapping swanky hotels for bunk beds in affordable hostels. You would perhaps be camping along the way, too. You keep all of your belongings in your backpack, and lug it around with you as you go.
You will often backpack around a particular country or set of countries, known for their more budget accommodations, local and cheap food options and beautiful scenery or interesting cultural highlights.
So while hiking is not backpacking, it is quite likely that while you are backpacking you will hit the trails and go for a hike at some point. You may also camp during both experiences.
Below are some of the world’s best options when it comes to hiking stunning places in the big beautiful outdoors, and amazing backpacking trips that are well-known for either being incredibly cost-effective, full of fascinating history, are drop-dead gorgeous, or a combination of all three.
The Best Hiking Trips in the World
Machu Picchu, Peru
Known as one of the most famous treks in the world, Machu Picchu in the Cusco region of Peru, boasts some of the most pristine and otherworldly views of Inca ruins high up in the Andes mountains.
Throughout your hike you’ll be treated to awe-inspiring views of rolling mountains, and local wildlife there to keep you company, particularly woolly alpacas.
The long hike straight up the Inca Trail usually takes around four days and since it is immensely popular, booking a permit in advance is a must, as only 500 people are allowed on this trail per day.
If the hike proves too much for you or you are short on time, there are various other routes up the mountain. This includes other trails and also bus and train services making relatively frequent trips up the mountain.
Pacific Crest Trail, USA
Whether you’re keen for a week-long or month-long hike, camping as you go, a short weekend trip or a day hike, there are sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, that can scratch that itch for an incredible hiking experience.
The PCT takes you from the dry heat of Mexico up to the icy peaks of Canada. It winds through California, Oregon and Washington, and takes you through every landscape imaginable.
You can hike through deserts, thick leafy forests, wide exposed prairies, tall mountains and every weather type. For this reason, make sure you pack enough resources like food, water, a thick sleeping bag, a reliable tent and other camping gear if your hike will take longer than one day.
Be aware that before your hike you will need to pick up a permit. Depending on how long you plan on hiking and whether you will be entering Canada will determine what kind of permits you will need.
The Dolomites, Italy
For an up close glimpse at the serrated Italian peaks, hiking is the way to go. The famous jagged-edged mountains, often dusted with snow and and surrounded by acres of lush green fields and crystal turquoise lakes, are a must-see in Europe.
There are a number of hikes you can take that will get you to the peaks. The Croda Da Lago circuit is a popular trail that will take you approximately five hours, although with regular stops for photos and snacks, it could take longer.
The Adolf Munkel trail is another beautiful and popular trail which suits those with a little less time on their hands, as it will only take you around three hours.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is world famous and is enjoyed in many different ways. Some tourists book guided tours and head straight for the designated view points for remarkable panoramas of the sprawling rocky canyon. Others take to the skies for helicopter tours, to get an aerial view and skip the crowds.
Others take to the trails and experience the Grand Canyon through hiking. Due to its enormous size, there are a plethora of hiking options and trails at all corners. However, some are longer and harder than others.
Doing your research about what kind of trail, either length or difficulty, will help you make the best decision for your hike. The Rim Trail offers the easier hike, which may suit many who aren’t accustomed to the sweltering temperatures at the canyon.
The Bright Angel Trail is for the hardcore hikers and requires a lot of time, effort, food and water, but also delivers fantastic views of the canyon. Be aware that hundreds of people are rescued from the Grand Canyon every year after misjudging a hike and coming unprepared, getting lost or sick with heatstroke. Come fully prepared with a compass, map, first aid kit, a lot of water, and research every single track and trail!
Overland Track, Tasmania, Australia
The Overland Track is one of Australia’s most famous and beautiful hiking experiences. At 65km long (or 84km if you choose to walk along Lake St Clair) it is in the top twenty-five longest hikes in all of Australia, with its alpine trek winding through open fields, around glistening lakes and past towering mountains such as the well-known Cradle Mountain with its craggy peaks reflecting in Dove Lake.
The long distance hike can take between five and eight days, depending on the time of year and your general fitness levels. You generally walk from north to south, finishing at Lake St Clair which is Australia’s deepest lake.
You can choose to hike the Overland Track independently or as part of a group tour. You can also opt to camp or stay in one of the huts along the way. Plan your trip accordingly so you can set up camp each night safely, and be prepared for unpredictable weather year-round with waterproof clothing and plenty of water.
At 5,895m and taking around a week to complete, the hike up Kilimanjaro is not for the faint-hearted. It’s best left to seasoned hikers and certainly isn’t recommended for those trekking and mountaineering for the first time! Be fully prepared with excellent hiking boots, insulated and waterproof clothing, a thick sleeping bag and trekking poles.
The are seven multi-day trails up the mountain and the Machame Route is the most popular and cheapest track to take. This route will take between six and seven days and includes some steep inclines.
The Rongai trail climbs up Kilimanjaro from the north, so it gives you a totally different view of the mountain. This route also allows you to see more wildlife than other trails, and if you’re lucky you might share a track with an elephant or a monkey!
Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Banff is arguably one of Canada’s most famous and most striking national parks, with aquamarine lakes shimmering in the sunlight, holding crystal clear reflections of mighty pine trees and nestled between imposing spiked mountain ranges.
It is also filled to the brim with twisting trails and fantastic mountain views at every turn. There are numerous hikes in Banff, but some of the most famous include the Cory and Edith Pass circuit which gives incredible views of Mount Louis.
The Plain of Six Glaciers trail offers a steady trek and a gorgeous wooden tea house in which to rest, and the Moraine Lake Shoreline trail offers picturesque views of the lake and is an easy 2-hour hike.
The Best Backpacking Trips in the World
East Coast Australia
No matter your age or interests, there is always something to do and enjoy along Australia’s stunning east coast. Many backpackers will complete this trip in one go over several weeks or up to three months, depending on how long they choose to stay in each place.
You can start in the north and head south, starting in Cairns. This coastal city with its own rainforest (Daintree) is paradise in itself, but is also within a relatively short distance to tropical islands like Fitzroy Island and holiday resorts such as Port Douglas. If you want to experience the Great Barrier Reef, this is the place to be.
Heading south, Airlie Beach is an amazing place to set up camp for a few nights, with the Whitsunday islands just a short boat ride away. The islands are home to one of the world’s most beautiful beaches: Whitehaven beach. An east coast trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing those white and turquoise swirls in the ocean for yourself.
Hervey Bay, Noosa Heads and the Sunshine Coast are your best bets to witness whales and dolphins and you can stay here on a tight budget. Take to the Glass House Mountains in Noosa for a few days hiking away from the beach.
Brisbane and the Gold Coast will bring you back to buzzing civilization, with the two cities just an hour apart. Enjoy the museums, South Bank in Brisbane, the Gold Coast’s world-famous surf breaks and a real backpacker vibe with hostels at every turn.
Further down the coast, Byron Bay is the town to call home for a few days at least. It’s every backpacker’s goal in Australia, with a chilled vibe, crystal clear oceans, incredible views from its famous lighthouse and a bustling art and music scene.
Keep going down the coast through Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Newcastle until you reach the epitome of Australian tourism: Sydney. Take the ferry from the Opera House to Manly beach to get the best harbor views, see what all the fuss is about at Bondi beach and take a day trip to the Blue Mountains for one of mainland Australia’s best hikes.
Australia isn’t the cheapest place to travel, however there are relatively cheap hostels in each city, you just need to book in advance for the more affordable room rates. Food and alcohol in restaurants and bars is best avoided if you are on a backpacker’s budget, so big supermarkets will be your go-to for cheap eats, and local bottle shops will be the spot for cheaper beverages.
Southeast Asia is one of the most famous backpacking trips in the world due not only to value for money, but the incredible sights to take in on your route.
Many people start their trip in Indonesia with a week or so practicing yoga and taking to the waves in Bali. Hit Kuta beach for the nightlife, Seminyak for the shopping and Ubud for the more relaxed vibe in the hills.
The Philippines is a must on a Southeast Asian trip. There are countless islands to explore, but Palawan always comes first on the list for backpackers. Travelers everywhere can vouch for El Nido’s spotless beaches and Coron Bay’s diving potential.
Head to Manila for a taste of big city life among the islands. Although it is not generally known for its breathtaking beauty, it is famous for its electric atmosphere, colorful jeepneys and multitude of skyscrapers.
Vietnam is often the next stop on this backpacking trip. Start in the north in the capital: Hanoi. Take in the stunning architecture and visit Hoan Kiem Lake and nearby Hai Ba Trung temple. While in Hanoi, take a one or two-day trip to Halong Bay to observe the floating markets, take a boat ride twisting around the limestone towers and explore the Sung Sot caves.
Hoi An is a popular place to rest for a few days. The small town sits on the Thu Bon river and boasts beautiful French-colonial architecture. Stroll around the old town and sample Vietnam’s famous cuisine, and take time to admire the Japanese Covered Bridge.
Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s gems. It is worth the trip and won’t set you back a lot of money. Learn about the country’s heartbreaking history in Phnom Penh at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center and on the S21 tour.
You can’t go to Cambodia without hiking around Angkor Wat. This 900-year-old temple complex sprawls over 163 hectares and is home to some of the most unique and stunning architecture in the world. Arrive before sunrise to witness the temple’s silhouette in all its glory.
Thailand is usually the last destination on a trip around Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai in the north is best known for its grassy countryside and rolling hills, with the sacred Doi Suthep mountain and temple. Take the night train down the country to relish in Bangkok’s busy markets, incredible eateries, palaces and temples. Join the other backpackers at Khaosan Road for cheap eats and wild nightlife.
Round off your trip island-hopping off the south coast of Thailand. Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are famous across the world for their pristine coastlines, long-tail boat trips and beach parties.