Hiking vs Trekking vs Backpacking Difference

Going for a walk is linguistically complicated. The vocabulary is expansive: hiking, rambling, thru-hiking, backpacking, trekking, jaunt, hillwalking, and scrambling. Never mind the technicalities between mountaineering vs rock climbing vs bouldering. In everyday language, these outdoor terms are often used interchangeably. But in real terms hiking and trekking are not precisely the same.

Hiking and trekking are primarily divided by pleasure. Hiking is considered an activity done for fun on a marked route, such as a footpath or trail. On the other hand, trekking is an arduous journey and can involve creating your own path through the wilds in-between marked routes.

There is a petty debate in the mountaineering community about whether Everest is climbed or hiked now that there are fixed ropes and routes. However, regardless of opinions on Everest’s climbing merits, Everest is never a hike but is a trek.

Every account of going up this mountain is full of misery and woe. It’s hard, and the pleasure of scaling the world’s highest peak is in retrospect.

Wondering what the difference is between hiking vs trekking vs backpacking? Read on!

Why Does Pleasure Divide Hiking And Trekking?

The difference between hiking and trekking has become blurred in the modern world. Much of this has to do with our current means of travel.

Our long-distance options are no longer confined to walking, horseback, wagon, or ships. Trekking is no longer something that has to be done, but something we choose to do when there are other options, like traveling by bus or airplane.

Historically, hiking was defined as something you did for fun on a marked route. Trekking was typically a type of long-distance travel done out of need and often didn’t have a clear path.

Think of The Oregon Trail, a journey made out of hope for a new beginning. People died, and those that made it endured incredible hardship. It was easy to get lost without a guide, as there wasn’t a road.

The word trek is Afrikaans and comes from the Dutch word “trak.” The most famous South African trek is the Great Trek.

The journey has much in common with people who embarked on the Oregon Trail, including hardship, fatalities, desperation, and problematic politics (white people colonizing land already occupied by indigenous people). 

In modern terms, trekking is no longer primarily done out of need but as a sporting goal. It may not involve mountaineering skills, but it is considered difficult and is generally over a great distance, much longer than your typical hike. While there may be moments of joy and happiness while trekking, it is often done to say, “I did it.”

Does Distance Divide Hiking And Trekking?

Hiking and trekking are often divided by length. Hiking is shorter and generally won’t require more than two overnight sleeps. Hiking can even be done in under an hour while reaping the many health benefits of the activity.

Thus, if you are only venturing out for the day, that is hiking, even if it was a hard, wet, and miserable experience.

Trekking is generally considered to be nearly synonymous with thru-hiking or backpacking. It is a journey on foot that requires more than two overnight sleeps in a tent, shelter, or under the stars.

It’s a bit like the Hobbits out on their quest. However, there are no dragons to fear or Elves to greet, which is disappointing to some and a boon to everyone who doesn’t enjoy carrying a sword.

Does Route Matter In Hiking And Trekking?

Hiking is generally considered an activity that is done on a marked route. Thus, a hike requires fewer navigational skills, although people can and do get lost while hiking. Hikes tend to have markers and are done on a visible path, although it is not always paved and can get “hazy” and hard to see on certain terrain.

Trekking doesn’t always have its entire route marked or a clear path. That isn’t to say a trek doesn’t involve any trails. Instead, it implies part of the route might require navigating on your own to connect various legs of the journey.

Thus, trekking generally requires more skill than your average hike. Nor is it advised to ever try an actual trek with only a GPS, but to have solid wayfaring knowledge, including how to use a compass.

However, many would argue (and I agree) that it is unwise to entirely rely on any electronic device when hiking due to problems with signal reception and battery failures. So, maps and a compass are always good items to have, no matter the length of your trip.

Does Terrain Divide Hiking And Trekking?

Dividing hiking and trekking by terrain appears to be a cultural issue that doesn’t necessarily work on a global scale.

For example, many definitions define hiking as exploring the “countryside,” which may involve hills. Whereas trekking can involve mountains in these definitions. However, this interpretation only works for those not living in mountainous terrain.

The common outlook is that hiking is done on marked trails or footpaths. Whereas trekking can involve walking on roads, trudging through the wilds with no clearly defined route, and can involve dramatic elevation changes. However, there is no clear dividing between the two regarding terrain, and there are exceptions to any rule one tries to make on the matter.

What’s The Difference Between Backpacking And Trekking?

Backpacking and trekking are a Venn diagram. They can often be the same thing, but not always. There are many splitting of hairs between the two, but the primary difference is that backpacking always involves lugging your gear. Thus, in some situations, trekking can be the easier of the two.

While trekking can often mean venturing without a clearly defined path and needing high levels of navigational skills, this isn’t always true.

Sometimes treks are guided and even involve somebody else lugging most of the equipment. The person or organization performing the service might drive the extra gear to the next stop or employ people to carry it on their backs. But the main point is that trekking can be done with a day pack, despite the length of the journey.

Backpackers, however, carry everything they need. Backpackers might indeed have arranged ways to restock their supplies or swop out gear by mailing packages to themselves along the route or having someone meet them at key points. However, this isn’t a daily service, and the backpacker is still lugging a heavy load.

Trekkers are often carrying heavy loads, too. Again, that’s why backpacking and trekking are more of a Venn diagram, where you can arguably use the word interchangeably for many of the same adventures. But you can still do a trek without carrying anything more than a day pack, so long as you have the financial means.

However, having a trekking service does not mean the adventure is easy. Back to the example of Everest. The only people climbing Everest without a trekking service are the Nepalese.

All others going up the mountain have hired expert Nepalese climbers, known as sherpas, to help guide and carry gear. Yet, even when carrying a lighter load, Everest remains a brutal and potentially deadly journey.

Author at Wilderness Redefined camping website

James has been escaping to the outdoors for as long as he can remember. This first started in family camping trips but soon turned into adventure camps and hiking through the Scottish Hebrides. Now he has turned towards trying to make camping more comfortable and accessible.