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Backpacking versus Backpacking: a Comparison

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Two kinds of backpacking? What? Most people probably couldn’t explain what one type entails, let alone two. But be assured: there are indeed two types of backpacking. And the only thing they have in common is that you are, in fact, carrying a backpack on your shoulders from point A to point B. But now that I’ve piqued your interest, you probably want the full breakdown, right? Well lean in and get ready to find out how backpacking is different from backpacking.

The first type of backpacking: backcountry backpacking

Backcountry backpacking requires certain equipment. Fun equipment. Equipment that chops things and catches things on fire and generally makes you feel like a mountain man (or woman).  

This is what most Americans probably think of when they hear the word backpacking, though I find that many don’t really know what exactly backpacking is (that’s like, camping, right?). Well, I’ma tell ya. It’s not hiking, it’s not camping, it’s not heading into the woods to find a nice spot by the river to dip your fishing line, though backpacking may contain aspects of all those things. Backcountry backpacking is loading everything you need to survive for at least one night, likely several days or more, into a large backpack and heading out into the wilderness.

This type of backpacking involves no cell service, no bus pass, and dreadlocks are optional. You’ve got your stove, tent, sleeping bag and all your provisions for however many days or weeks you’re planning to be off the grid, all stuffed in your pack. You hike in with everything you need and you hike out with everything you brought in. The woods are your toilet. You start a fire with a flint and a pocket knife and cook your freeze-dried meal over a tiny camp stove. You drink weak instant coffee every morning before you pack up camp and move everything to a new campsite for the next night. You have to take Tylenol PM to fall asleep when you can’t ignore the sound of what you assume is a bear in the bushes. You follow Leave No Trace principles to the letter. There’s dirt under your fingernails and you haven’t showered in days. You sleep under the stars (or more likely in a tent or hammock) and commune with nature sans technology and the only other people you see are other sweaty backpackers and maybe a few day hikers and you smile and nod at all of them because you are backpacking and that’s what you do. At the end of the trail, you walk out smiling, hopefully with no blisters on your feet, and smelling like the business end of a Saint Bernard. And you love it.

Got a pretty good mental picture? Good. Moving on.

Second type of backpacking: Nomadic backpacking

Sub an iPhone loaded with music for the Walkman and a sun hat for whatever that safari head-topper nonsense is and you’ve got the right setup for international backpacking. Don’t forget the uke! (

This is the type of backpacking that most Europeans bring to mind when they hear the term. It’s associated with gap years, traveling, and living in hostels or the back of a van as you traverse a country or continent for several months or longer. It might include hiking, but not necessarily. This is really the only type of backpacking that most other nations think of when you mention the word because they (wisely) have a whole other lexicon for backcountry backpacking: it’s called tramping or trekking. But you use the word tramping in the U.S. and folks get an entirely different mental image. You know what? Just avoid the term tramping when you’re stateside, OK?

This type of backpacking involves crappy cell phones that only work on WiFi, a willingness and ability to sleep on overnight trains, and slightly more bathing (but not necessarily), and dreadlocks are still optional (though more common). Instead of a stove and tent and freeze-dried meals, your pack is full of souvenir snacks that you’ll probably devour before you even arrive at your next destination, no more than two pairs of shoes that you’ve carefully selected to match every outfit in your bag, and an excessive number of maps that you can’t bring yourself to throw away (What if you go back or make a friend that’s headed there next?). You shower in flip flops because the cleanliness of the free showers at the local health club are dubious at best, you wear earplugs to drown out your hostel roommates’ snoring so you can sleep for more than two hours before wandering around Berlin all day, and you get to hang with awesome fellow travelers from all over the world every night. You say a prayer and stick out your thumb in hopes of catching a free ride to your next destination or at least into the city and camp out at coffee shops and cafes for hours just so you can use their wifi to figure out the local bus system. You’re regularly lost in cities that weren’t clever enough to design their streets in a grid pattern and probably searching the web for the cheapest place with the most filling options within walking distance. You’re almost constantly dirty, sweaty and tired and just want your Couchsurfing host to message you their address already. And you love it.

See the difference?

Hitchhiking: an essential part of backpacking. Either kind, really. (vector created by Iconicbestiary –

So basically…

Americans need a new vocabulary to differentiate between these two very different types of backpacking, especially those of us who frequently participate in both disparate activities. We’ve backpacked in the Grand Canyon and Big Bend and backpacked around Australia and Europe (no, we did not hike through Germany or stay in a hostel in a National Park-but you’ve got that figured out now, haven’t you?). Tell you what: I’m gonna try out the word trekking on some folks and see how it goes. My hopes are not high. Wish me luck and throw on a pack and get out there and explore.

Wander on.