What is Backpacking?

Jun 2017
backpacking in aravaipa canyon in south eastern arizona

For those that enjoy venturing deep into the wilderness, avoiding bustling crowds at popular natural hotspots, and exploring the extent of their self-sufficiency, backpacking is the ultimate adventure. Backpacking can be summed up by a simple equation: hiking + backcountry camping = backpacking. The primary difference between backpacking and other outdoor endeavors comes down to one limitation: your own body and what you can carry. Backpacking is rigorous and challenging, it requires proper equipment, planning, and training to to make the experience enjoyable and safe.

Backpacking is not…

Let there be no confusion, there is a myriad of things backpacking is not. It is not a one day hike hike with your friends in which you see a mountain or a pretty area, pack some snacks and some water into your small day packs, and start off for a lovely day of scenic wandering. Backpacking is not camping, where you throw everything into the car and drive off toward the tree line to sleep under the stars. Backpacking is not base camping, in which you camp at a spot and make day expeditions from your home base.

While backpacking, you have to comfortably carry everything you would need for a few days in the backcountry on your back, and it must be carried in a linear or loop route, usually with forward progress made every day. At a minimum, you should expect to carry your clothes, tent, sleeping bag/pad, food, water, and kitchen utensils in your pack. Also remember that when backpacking you must always pack out all of your trash.

The hard part of backpacking is making sure you 1) have everything you would need for a few days out in the wilderness, 2) can fit it all in your backpack, and 3) can carry this backpack for hours at a time. Because of this, backpacking requires much more planning, collaboration, and expertise than just a basic day hike.


Sitting by the campfire after a long day of backpacking in the wilderness


Do you need different equipment for backpacking than hiking or car camping?

Yes. The first thing you must think about is your backpack. For a day hike, you can use any old backpack as you are typically only packing snacks, water, and a camera. But for a multi-day backpacking trip, the right gear is essential. Your pack must be larger and it must fit your body properly. (Check out our advice on buying your first pack) Buying backpacking gear is often quite tricky because one must strike the perfect balance between size, weight, and price. A good rule of thumb is to remember that the smaller and lighter a piece of gear is, the more expensive it is. But, the price is often worth it. I typically ask myself “would I rather pay for this with money or with back pain?” The answer of course differs based on your strength and budget, but I typically prefer to spend money than time in pain. Below I have broken down the primary differences when it comes to equipment for the two activities.


  • Day pack (10-30L capacity)
  • Full water bottles
  • Snacks (apples, trail mix)
  • Phone/map
  • First aid kit (Make sure you have the basics)


  • Backpacking pack (Typically at least 50L capacity)
  • Water filter
  • Camp stove/jetboil + fuel + LIGHTER!
  • First aid kit
  • Maps/GPS
  • Tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag
  • Clothing layers for all weather (rain jacket!)
  • Permits

Seasoned backpackers often have more fine-tuned packing lists, but these are the barest necessities for any backpacking trip.


Other things to consider: food, maps, permits

Besides the gear, backpacking also requires quite a bit more planning with regards to food, navigation, and other logistics like permits. Preparing for your first backpacking trip can be daunting, do plenty of research before you go.

Food: I myself often succumb to the temptation to get by on Clif bars, apples, and trail mix for a few days in the backcountry. I always regret it; there is nothing better than a nice warm meal while recovering from a long day trekking, even if it comes pre-packaged. It is possible to get creative with rice, beans, chick peas, and other dried vegetables if you’re into DIY backpacking food, but Mountain House and Backpacker’s pantry also make some pretty quality meals with a good selection. All you have to do is add hot water! Navigation also becomes less convenient the further you get off the beaten path.

Navigation: While on day hikes, phones and questions to other friendly hikers often suffice for trail finding. In the backcountry, cell service can be spotty or nonexistent. You will definitely want a trusty paper map or very reliable satellite GPS for navigational purposes.

Permits: One must also consider permits while planning a backpacking excursion. Are you going to a protected area? Will you be on public land? While it may be tempting to bed down wherever you find yourself sleepiest, fines can be costly depending on where you are, usually much more than what a permit would cost in the first place. In order to backpack ethically and sustainably, it is important to have a permit so these beautiful areas can be maintained for years to come.

Are you ready?

With plenty of research, there’s no reason you won’t be. Are you intimidated? Yes, probably. Don’t worry, you are not alone. Gear, expertise, fitness, location, and weather are all things to keep in mind and can require serious research and trial and error to learn. If a backpacking trip sounds like something you might enjoy but aren’t certain about, consider one of our guided and well-supported backpacking trips before venturing out on your own. Or, if a day hike is more your style, consider one of our day hiking trips in the Scottsdale area.