Day Hiking vs. Backpacking

Goat Trail, Big Bluff Buffalo RiverDay hiking and backpacking are two very different things. Both focus around hiking, and both can be great fun, but the gear that you need and how you need to prepare will depend on whether you’re hiking for a day or week. Here’s a look at some of the main differences between day hiking and backpacking.


Typically, you’re going to cover more ground backpacking than you would on a single day of hiking. This isn’t always the case, however. You can knock out a 20-mile hike in a single day, and you could do an 18-mile in-and-out overnight backpacking trip. Generally speaking, however, you’re going to break up longer sections of trail into multiple days, and you will hike a longer distance backpacking than on a day hike.


Distance can play into whether you’re going backpacking or on a single day hike, but ultimately, time determines the nature of your trip. A day hike means that your trip lasts one day. Now, that day can mean a 4-hour hike, or it can mean a 12-hour hike, but if you start on a Saturday and end on a Saturday, it’s a day hike. Backpacking requires you to carry more gear – specifically food, bedding, and shelter – because your trip takes longer than a day, and you will be camping while on the trail.


Backpacking is typically going to be more difficult than day hiking, but there are a number of factors that will determine how challenging your hike is. Your pace, packweight, the distance of your hike, the terrain, elevation change, and the duration of your trip will all play into the difficulty of a hike. An 8-mile per day pace with a 25-pound pack on flat ground is going to be much more manageable than a day hike mountain summit.

The gear you need.

The type of gear that you need to bring on your hike will depend on a number of different factors (distance, duration, weather conditions, terrain, preference, sun exposure, etc.) There are a few hiking essentials that you might need for both day hiking and backpacking:

  • Water
  • Food
  • Sun protection
  • Navigation
  • Insulation
  • Light source
  • First aid
  • Hiking footwear

Backpacking requires some additional equipment. Here’s what you should add to the list of essentials mentioned above:

  • Backpack
  • Shelter
  • Fire (a way to start a fire like matches, lighters, etc.)
  • Bedding
  • Way to cook food
  • Utensils
  • Cookware
  • Water filter/purifier

How to be prepared.

Being prepared for a backpacking trip or a day hike is easier than you might think. At its most basic, both of these activities are just walking. However, there are a few things to consider to ensure that you have the best possible experience.

  • Do your research. Be aware of special regulations, burn bans, weather forecasts, terrain, distance, difficulty, etc.
  • Plan ahead. Take all of that information you’ve gathered and make a tentative plan to help you prepare for your trip.
  • Have the gear. Make a gear list, and make sure that you have everything you need before you hit the trail.
  • Be in shape. Different trips and trails require different levels of fitness. Make sure that your current shape will allow you to hold up through your trip.
  • Leave a note. Tell someone what your plans are. Include where you’re going, when you’re starting, and when you expect to be finished. This is a smart and practical way to make sure that if something goes wrong on the trail, you’re not left high and dry.

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