Backpacking Vs Camping The Complete Guide

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To an outsider, you might think that backpacking and camping are the same things. However, this is not the truth. There are important if subtle differences. For most people, when they say they are going camping, they mean they are going car camping at a prepared front-country campsite. With car camping, you can bring along more stuff because the only limitation is how much room you have in your vehicle. Meanwhile, with backpacking, you will have to carry everything with you in your backpack. And it’s most common that you will hike at least a mile from where you park your vehicle to your campsite. Finally, most backpacking campsites are primitive campsites which means no restrooms and no potable water on site.

What Is The Definition Of Backpacking

When people say they are going on a backpacking trip what they mean is a combination of hiking and camping. You will park your vehicle at a trailhead and then hike to your campsite. Most people only backpack for a weekend so the hikes are relatively short. The distance would be under 100 miles for the entire trip with the average being 10 miles.

There are 5 common characteristics of backpacking trips:

1 - You must carry everything with you. This includes your clothes, tent, food, water and cooking equipment.

2 - You will not have potable water at the campsite. This means that you must either carry all of your water with you or have another way to make water you can find on your trip safe to drink. Water filters such as Sawyer Mini are the most popular way to make water safe to drink on a backpacking trip. However, you can use water purification tablets or even boil the water.

3 - You count every ounce. You must carry everything with you thus you will want to pay attention to how much everything weighs. This is why backpacking gear is designed to pack smaller and lighter than car camping gear. To be candid, this is also why backpacking gear is less comfortable than car camping gear. And why some people will choose not to go on a backpacking trip. They don’t want to give up their car camping creature comforts. However, canoe camping which is related to backpacking does allow you to bring along more gear and is a nice compromise for people who want to be able to camp at more spots than traditional car camping.

4 - Lack of fresh food. Because you are not going to want to carry a cooler with you on a backpacking trip, you won’t be able to carry as much fresh food such as eggs or steaks or even hot dogs like you can on a car camping trip. Instead backpackers tend to eat things like ramen noodles, dehydrated or freeze-dried meals.

5 - Primitive campsites. Most people who go car camping, tend to camp at prepared front-country campsites such as state parks. These campsites have public restrooms with flush toilets, potable water and sometimes electricity. Meanwhile, with backpacking, you’re going to be at a primitive campsite. This means you will be using the forest as your restroom and you will have to provide all of your own water. Though you might be able to find water along the way of your backpacking trip. Found water includes streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Hiking?

While every backpacking trip will involve hiking, not all hiking involves backpacking. This can become even more confusing to beginners when you see that most hikers will carry a backpack. However, the difference is in expectations.

When you plan for a hike, you plan to complete your hiking circuit during the same day. And while you might complete a hike as part of a camping trip, hikers are just as likely to go back to their house at end of the hike. Or they might decide to stay in a local hotel.

Meanwhile, a backpacking trip means that at least for one night, you will plan to stop and camp at the end of your hike.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Thru-Hiking?

There is a specific subset of backpacking called thru-hiking. A thru-hike is where you are trying to complete a specific trail like the Appalachian Trail. A thru-hiker will be even more concerned with weight than a weekend backpacker. This is because they must cover many more miles every day over several days.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Car Camping

When you go on a backpacking trip, you have to carry everything with you. This means you will often leave many comfort items at home. Meanwhile, with car camping, the only limitation is the space in your vehicle. Thus you can bring along more comfort items and more toys to have fun with. For example, when we go on a car camping trip we will take a multi-burner gas stove, a Coleman kitchen set to give us space to prepare dinner, lawn chairs, full cots, and even extra tents. We bring an extra tent because my buddy Scott is a hammock camper and he likes to have a tent to store his gear. Plus he sometimes will retreat to the tent if the weather turns rough.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Front-Country Camping?

Most people when they go camping they prefer to go to a prepared front-country campground such as a state park. The benefits of these campgrounds are that you have access to flush toilets, showers, potable water, and often electricity. These campgrounds often have camp stores that let you purchase anything you might have forgotten at home. And they often have other amenities like swimming areas, fishing, and hiking trails.

Meanwhile, with backpacking, not only must you carry everything with you, you are camping at a primitive campsite. This means that if you have to poop, you’re digging a cathole. And you must provide your own water.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking And Primitive Camping?

There are many similarities between primitive campsites and backpacking. In both situations, you won’t have access to flush toilets though some primitive campsites may have an outhouse or Port-A-Potty. And you likely will need to bring your own water. However, if you’re not backpacking, you will have your vehicle with you. Thus you can carry a bigger tent, cooler for your food and beverages plus you can bring along plenty of water.

For example, when I go primitive camping I bring along water jugs that contain gallons of water. Meanwhile, with backpacking, you are often filtering the water you find on the trail. This is because water is heavy to carry.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking Tents And Camping Tents?

Backpacking tents are explicitly designed to pack smaller and lighter than car camping tents. Heck, a popular option for car camping is cabin tents. Cabin tents are tall and have plenty of space. But you can’t carry them in your backpack.

My backpacking tent doesn’t even use tent poles. Instead, it uses my trekking poles. This saves weight and space in my backpack.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking Sleeping Bags And Car Camping Sleeping Bags?

When I’m car camping, I will bring along multiple sleeping bags, in particular, if expecting cold weather. This way I can add more layers if I get cold.

But when backpacking, you have to pay attention to the size and weight. This is why I use a down camping quilt. It is warm but it packs down to a very small size and weighs almost nothing. Meanwhile, my synthetic sleeping bag even in a compression sack takes up almost half my pack.

Plus when car camping, you can bring along things like cots and air mattresses which make it easier to sleep more comfortably. When backpacking, I bring my Big Agnes sleeping pad which is comfortable but I am still on the ground. And the older you get, the less you enjoy sleeping on the ground because it’s just harder to get dressed and undressed.

What Is The Difference Between Backpacking Meals And Camping Meals?

When we go car camping, we eat well. We do steak, bacon, eggs, and hot dogs. I often bring my wife’s cherry cobbler for dessert. Meanwhile, when I’m backpacking, I’m limited to tuna, ramen, and dehydrated meals. While modern dehydrated meals can taste pretty good, it’s still a limitation.

Around 40 million Americans go camping every year. About 10 million people go backpacking. The reason why fewer people go backpacking is that backpacking requires you to combine hiking plus camping. You have to carry everything with you, learn how to use a cathole, and make sure you know how to filter your own water.

Meanwhile, if you go car camping, the only limitation is what you can carry with you. Heck, if you want to go primitive car camping, it’s still more comfortable than backpacking. For example, while you might need to dig a trench for your body waste, you can bring along toilet chairs which are more comfortable than squatting over a log. And you can bring along as much water as you need instead of having to worry about filtering or boiling it.