What is Backpacking? Hiking/Camping vs. Travel/Urban

Split screen of man backpacking: walking down trail and walking down street
What is Backpacking?

When I tell people I’m a backpacker, they sometimes ask, “Well, what is backpacking, exactly?” Maybe they sense a complicated lifestyle choice, so I offer a simple explanation: “Hiking or traveling for extended periods of time with everything I need packed into my backpack.”

Let’s dive deeper and discuss the two distinct styles of backpacking: Hiking/Camping and Travel/Urban. Both are focused on the same principles — Mobility, planning, exploration, and self-reliance. Your substantial multi-pocketed, strapped & waistbanded backpack is the badge you wear. With it, you’re shouldering all of your essentials.

A single adventure can combine both Hiking/Camping and Travel/Urban backpacking. For example, hiking and camping the Grand Canyon may be preceded by days of navigating cities and airports. The same backpack can serve you in both scenarios.

Hiking/Camping Backpacking

Backpackers in the wilderness will hike and camp under the sun and stars for at least a day, possibly even weeks or months. They’ll expect the unexpected and pack the essentials: food, shelter, water, tools, maps, communication devices, and clothing for all kinds of weather. Nature can be unforgiving, so packing properly is critical.

Our buddy, Cu, embarked on the mother of all backpacking trips when she packed all her essentials in an ultralight 40-liter backpack and thru-hiked the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. As you can imagine, she meticulously planned and packed for her trip, knowing she’d be at Mother Nature’s mercy for every step of her journey.

Even with your best intentions in mind, nature will catch you off-guard, as it did on my torrential tornado of a trek in Iceland. Here’s my advice: pack and prepare to the best of your ability, let nature do its thing, and embrace the discomfort. With time, any trail fiasco you endure will become a learning experience that joins moments of beauty and pain.

Backpacking in the wilderness reminds us that we’re all fellow creatures on a vivid and unpredictable planet. But since we humans don’t have thick fur and can’t eat grass, we must develop trail smarts and bring the proper gear we’ll need to survive in the backcountry. And it all ends up packed up neatly and hanging from our shoulders.

Travel/Urban Backpacking

Travel/Urban backpacking typically involves moving between cities, towns, and villages with all your essentials packed into a backpack. No wildflowers or moonrise moments — think days, weeks, or months spent using planes, trains, and automobiles and moving from hostel to hotel to Airbnb. You must carry the core comforts of home in your travel bag, so pack wisely (but don’t overpack).

Travel backpacking in urban areas requires street smarts. Yes, stores and restaurants may be abundant, but it’s still best to carry all the essentials in your pack. Navigating unfamiliar cities and cultures is time-consuming, and you’ve probably got a flight to catch or a hostel to check into soon. Pack light, and stay mobile.

Check out the challenges and rewards of urban backpacking, as told in our stories of bouncing around in Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Japan. While backpacking in nature, you might rediscover our planet, but in cities, you’ll explore human nature and its achievements and maybe make a friend or two along the way.

Compared to Hiking/Camping, Travel/Urban backpacking, and its departure times and language barriers, might seem more stressful and congested. But those moments of cultural connections can be as beautiful as any flower along a dusty trail. You can count on backpacking to put you at the center of either world.

Which Type of Backpacking is More Your Style?

We started this post with the simple question, “What is Backpacking?” Then, we examined two strikingly different modes of backpacking — Hiking/Camping vs. Travel/Urban — and made the case for mobility and self-reliance as the common elements. Do you agree with our definitions? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Being a successful backpacker means you know what’s truly essential in life and how to fit it into a few dozen cubic liters of nylon. Once you’ve developed your minimalist packing habits and backpacking gear list, you’ll be ready to roam and soak all that Earth has to offer, both natural and man-made.

All of us at The Packable Life love our scuffed and sweat-stained backpacks. To us, each one tells vivid stories about unique places and people we’ve discovered around the world. Both forms of backpacking have opened our eyes to the wonders of our planet, and we wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Last Updated on March 15, 2024

Photo of author

Noel Krasomil

Hey, I'm Noel Krasomil, the founder of The Packable Life. I pack light and explore the globe searching for awe-inspiring hiking trails, rich cultural experiences, and ways to continue traveling indefinitely.

Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Affiliate links help support this website and keep it 100% ad-free.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.