What is the difference between camping and backpacking? While they’re both similar in some ways, there are quite a few differences that you may want to know. In short, camping and backpacking are both forms of outdoor recreation that involve sleeping in a natural setting, usually in a tent or under the stars.
Camping is a term we’re all familiar with, but it can involve various forms, including tent camping, RV camping, or even sleeping in your car. Backpacking, however, is a little more complicated as it involves hiking with all your camping gear to your campsite. However, both are great ways to get away from the stress of daily life and spend some time in the great outdoors. Although they require similar gear, there are some big differences, which we’ll discuss below.
With over 30 years of personal experience in camping and backpacking and two decades of sharing my expertise, I’ve come to appreciate the distinct joys and challenges each of these outdoor activities offers. While everyone has their preferred style of enjoying a night under the stars, the differences between camping and backpacking create uniquely memorable experiences.
In this article, we’ll delve into the basics of both camping and backpacking. From essential how-tos to gear recommendations, and insights into why you might prefer one over the other, we aim to provide a comprehensive guide for beginners and seasoned enthusiasts alike. Whether it’s the accessibility and comfort of camping or the adventurous spirit of backpacking, understanding these activities can enrich your outdoor experiences, offering different ways to connect with nature and explore the wilderness. I go into more detail in the article, but let’s start with the basics:
Camping vs. Backpacking Basics
- Camping vs Backpacking: Camping typically takes place at a designated campsite and involves heavier, more comfortable gear. Backpacking involves hiking to a location with lightweight gear and making your own campsite.
- Gear for Camping: Essential items include a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking equipment, lighting, and cooler. Gear can be more extensive as you can carry it in your vehicle.
- Gear for Backpacking: Necessary gear includes a backpack, water treatment tools, navigation aids, a lightweight first aid kit, appropriate clothing, and miscellaneous items like bug spray and extra socks. Backpacking gear is designed to be lightweight and compact.
- How much does it Cost: Camping can be more affordable, with costs for campsites and gear. Backpacking often requires more specialized, and thus more expensive, gear and may involve permits or fees for remote areas.
- Benefits of Camping: Easy to start, suitable for families with children, offers amenities like restrooms and stores, and doesn’t require specialized gear.
- Benefits of Backpacking: Backpacking offers an escape from daily life, good exercise, and experiences in less traveled areas, and it often involves free or low-cost camping.
- Skill Level Requirements: Camping is generally easier and requires fewer skills than backpacking. Backpacking requires more experience and physical fitness, along with wilderness survival skills.
- How to Get Started: For beginners, it’s recommended to start slow and try camping first. You can often use many items from home for camping, while backpacking will require more specific gear.
Key Differences Between Camping and Backpacking
|Campsite Location||Typically at a paid campground||Make your own fun, plus it involves hiking|
|Gear||Heavier and more comfortable||Lightweight and compact|
|Camping Costs||Typically required paid campsite||Free or inexpensive permit|
|Gear Costs||Less expensive||More expensive|
|Skill Level||Easy for everyone||Requires more experience|
|Activities||Many options offered at campgrounds||Make your own fun, plus involves hiking|
By definition, camping is the act of staying or sleeping in an outside area for one or more nights, usually in a tent or RV. However, most people choose to camp at a designated campsite at a private or public campground in national and state parks.
Most people will also choose to camp near where they park their vehicles, and most campgrounds will offer a site right next to their car’s parking spot. This is one of the main differences between traditional camping and backpacking.
Since you have a vehicle with you, car campers will have a lot of space for their camping gear. More room typically allows you to bring some luxury items along on your trip, like a cooler with food, warmer sleeping bags, pillows, a large tent, and a portable grill.
Some campers will also choose to stay in an RV, van, or other vehicle designed for camping. This offers campers many of the comforts of home, such as a bed, bathroom, and kitchen, all enclosed in their camping vehicle.
Backpacking differs from camping because your campsite will be located away from your vehicle, requiring you to carry your supplies in a backpack. This is where the term backpacking came form.
Most backpackers will choose to sleep in a tent when backpacking; however, some ultralight backpackers prefer to sleep under the stars without a shelter or under a tarp using bivy sacks. Also, since you’ll be hiking to your destination, your gear will be limited by what you can or want to carry.
Most backpacking gear is designed to be lightweight, reducing the amount you need to carry while still providing you with many of the luxuries you would have at a traditional campsite. Backpacking also involves staying at remote campsites, which may be established or will involve creating and breaking down your own site along a trail. Numerous backpacking trails are located throughout the country in national parks, national forests, BLM land, and state forests. If you have ever heard of the Appalachian Trail, this is one of the most famous backpacking routes in the country.
Backpacking is also less expensive for accommodations, with many campsites on public lands being free or requiring an inexpensive permit. This differs from a campground, which may charge $20-$30 for a tent site or up to $100 for a full hookup RV site.
Whether you camp traditionally or go backpacking, you will require specific gear for your trip. In short, you will need a shelter, sleeping gear, food and cooking, lighting, and specialty items depending on the time of year and weather conditions. Gear will vary considerably in price, but you don’t need to spend too much money to get started. However, be aware that inexpensive camping gear will be less durable than more expensive name-brand gear. Below is a list of some basic gear you can expect to need for your adventures in the great outdoors.
Gear for Camping:
Tent: A tent is the most common shelter to protect from the elements and provide a comfortable sleeping area. When shopping for tents, you’ll quickly realize there are many different types of tents designed for the type of camping you plan to do. If staying at a campground for traditional car camping, you can choose a larger tent, such as a 4-person tent. When backpacking, the size and weight of your shelter will be limited. Some experienced backpackers will choose a one-person tent or only carry a tarp to reduce weight. When searching for a backpacking tent, pay close attention to the total weight and packed size (smaller is better).
Sleeping bag: A warm and insulated bag to sleep in is essential. Backpacking sleeping bags will compress much more to save weight and space.
Sleeping pad: Provides insulation from the cold ground and added comfort. A good sleeping pad is a must to keep you comfortable. While some campers will choose a large blowup mattress, backpackers will opt for the lightest weight pad, which may be a piece of foam of an ultra-small inflatable pad.
Cooking equipment: Stove, fuel, cookware, utensils, and food are necessary for any camping trip. At a campground, you may have access to grills or can bring a portable one, making cooking more traditional meals possible. Backpackers may choose a small cook stove to heat water to rehydrate dehydrated food for a warm meal. I’m partial to ramen noodles for their high-calorie content and low weight.
Lighting: All campers and backpackers will want to have reliable light. This can include a headlamp, flashlight, or lantern for visibility at night. The smaller option, such as a headlamp, is ideal for backpacking.
Cooler: If you’re staying at a campground, you will likely be a cooler for storing food and drinks. Backpackers won’t typically carry cold food or drinks.
Chairs and/or camping table: A good chair is a nice luxury for camping. Backpackers may opt for an ultra-small collapsable chair or forgo one altogether.
Speciality Gear for Backpacking:
Backpack: To carry all the necessary gear. Most backpacks are sized by how long you plan to be on the trail. While a small pack may be suitable for a single night, you may need a larger pack for an extended multi-day backpacking trip.
Water treatment: Since backpackers won’t have access to a faucet, they’ll need to carry their water in their pack or purify water from a stream or water source. This can be done with water filters or purification tablets. You’ll also need several water bottles to store it, depending on how much water you think you’ll need before you can purify it again.
Navigation: Map and compass, GPS, or trail guidebook.
First aid kit: Every backpacker should plan to carry a lightweight first aid kit to treat minor injuries on the trail.
Clothing: Backpacking clothing is essential. The key elements for suitable clothes to wear backpacking are lightweight, moisture-wicking, and appropriate for the climate and terrain. When backpacking, you’ll definitely want to have a good pair of boots and a rain jacket too. If camping in cold weather, you must bring extra clothes and dress in layers.
Miscellaneous gear: Bug spray, extra socks, a good book, cell phone for emergencies.
The primary difference between camping and backpacking gear is the weight and portability. Backpacking gear must be lightweight, compact, and durable to fit in a backpack and carry for long distances. On the other hand, car Camping gear can be heavier and bulkier since it is typically transported by car and set up at a designated campsite. Additionally, backpackers need to prioritize versatile, multi-functional gear that can handle the challenges of remote and rugged terrain.
The cost differences between camping and backpacking can vary depending on various factors, such as location, equipment, and trip duration. However, in general, backpacking tends to be more expensive than camping.
Camping costs can be relatively low if you already own equipment or rent it from a local vendor. However, depending on the location and amenities offered, you may need to pay for a campsite, which can range from a few dollars to over $50 per night. Additionally, you’ll need to factor in the cost of food and any gear or equipment you may need to purchase, such as a tent, sleeping bag, and stove.
Backpacking, however, can be more expensive due to the need for specialized gear, such as a backpack, lightweight tent, sleeping bag, and cooking equipment. These items can be expensive and add up quickly, especially if you invest in high-quality gear. Additionally, you may need to pay for permits or fees to enter certain wilderness areas or national parks. Finally, transportation costs can also be higher for backpacking, as you may need to travel further to access remote trails and campsites.
In summary, camping tends to be more affordable than backpacking, but the costs can vary depending on the location and amenities offered. On the other hand, backpacking can be more expensive due to the need for specialized gear, permits, and transportation costs.
Benefits of camping (at a campground)
- Easy to get started and has many options no matter where you live.
- It’s a great activity to try with young children.
- Most campgrounds will have amenities like restrooms, showers, flush toilets, camp stores, activities, swimming pools, etc.
- You don’t need specialty gear; aside from a few items, you may have a lot of what you need at home.
Benefits of Backpacking
- A great way to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and be disconnected from devices
- Good quality exercise in the fresh air
- A way to experience places off the beaten track that few people get to see
- Often free or low-cost camping
- It’s addictive, trust me.
The skill level required for camping versus backpacking can vary depending on the specific activities involved and the location you plan to visit. In general, camping may require fewer skills and less equipment than backpacking. Backpackers should already be experienced day hikers capable of carrying a larger backpack.
Camping usually involves staying at a designated campsite with amenities like restrooms, fire pits, and picnic tables. You’ll need to be able to set up a tent, build a fire, and cook food using basic camping equipment. Some camping locations may also offer outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, or boating. Camping is probably a better option if you’re not interested in more strenuous hikes. There are also different types of camping than staying in a tent. You can buy or rent an RV or even rent a rustic cabin at many campgrounds. If you want to get away from the crowds, you can also try primitive camping, which will provide a little less luxury, but a lot more access to nature.
Backpacking involves hiking and camping in remote areas, often with minimal amenities. This requires more physical fitness and endurance and knowledge of wilderness survival skills such as navigation, water purification, and first aid. Backpackers also need to carry all their gear and supplies on their backs, which can require some level of backpacking experience and expertise in choosing the appropriate equipment and packing techniques. Carrying a heavy backpack for longer distances is common for even an overnight trip.
In summary, camping can be a good option for beginners or those looking for a more relaxed outdoor experience, while backpacking requires a higher level of skill and experience. At the end of the day, it really comes down to personal preference. I recommend trying both.
If you’re new to camping and backpacking and are considering trying it, rest assured that you made a great decision. Both are excellent ways to spend time and experience life’s simpler parts. I like to do both. I love taking long multi-day backpacking trips, but I also really enjoy a stay at a campground where I can relax a bit more.
My recommendation is to take it slow. You don’t need to head out and purchase the most expensive gear right away. If you’re planning to stay at a campground, you may already have a lot of items at home that can double as camping gear, such as cookware, blankets instead of a sleeping bag, warm clothes, flashlights, etc. This is one of the benefits of car camping.
Backpacking will be more involved and WILL require more specialty gear, so it’s always a good idea to start with a campground for your first stay. My regular camping gear is a lot of the gear I use for backpacking. I acquired items over several decades and purchased as I learned precisely what I needed and wanted. When getting started backpacking, don’t start with a 4-day backcountry camping adventure. A better idea is to try to find a short distance trail in a lovely natural area. It will feel more adventurous than a car camping trip but won’t overwhelm you. Then, work your way up to longer trips.
If you are new to the whole camping lifestyle, research a nice campground close to home and try it. You can usually find an inexpensive tent online or, even better, borrow one from a friend. By giving it a try, you’ll know if it’s right for you, and after a few trips, you will learn more about the gear you want and need, saving you money to purchase better quality items that will last many years.
Is backpacking right for you?
I highly recommend not starting your camping experience with a backpacking trip unless you’re tagging along with an experienced backpacker. While I absolutely love it and highly recommend it to anyone seeking a bit of adventure, it can be very overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with camping.
Knowing if you’re experienced enough to try backpacking can be a subjective decision, but there are some factors to consider before embarking on a backpacking trip.
- Physical fitness: Backpacking often requires carrying a heavy pack while hiking over challenging terrain for long distances. If you’re not physically fit or have not hiked before, starting with day hikes or shorter backpacking trips may be best to build up your endurance and strength.
- Outdoor skills: Backpacking requires more outdoor skills than camping, such as navigation, water purification, and wilderness first aid. It’s important to have a basic understanding of these skills before embarking on a backpacking trip. If you’re uncomfortable with these skills, consider taking a wilderness survival course or going with an experienced backpacker who can teach you.
- Gear: Backpacking requires specialized gear, including a large backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and stove, among others. If you don’t have this gear or aren’t sure what to buy, consider renting or borrowing from friends before investing in your own equipment. Don’t go to the outdoor store and spend $500 on the best tent until you know exactly what you need.
- Knowledge of the area: Before heading out on a backpacking trip, it’s important to research the area you’ll be visiting, including the weather, trail conditions, and potential hazards. Ensure you have a map and compass or GPS and know how to use them.
In summary, if you’re physically fit, have some outdoor skills and knowledge of the area, and have the necessary gear, you may be ready to try backpacking. However, if you’re unsure, consider starting with shorter trips or taking a wilderness survival course before embarking on a more challenging backpacking trip.
You probably noticed a significant difference between camping and backpacking if you made it through the entire article. If you want a more relaxed trip with your family, camping may be a better choice. However, if you are up for a long hike and a little adventure, backpacking may be perfect for you. The main thing to consider is your comfort level. You can do both, and many people do. If you’re new, starting with the basics is of utmost importance. Then, you’ll have plenty of time to grow into the activity.
You’ll need some gear if it’s your first time doing either activity. The key difference between camping and backpacking gear is typically weight. You’ll also need to be a little picker in what you purchase when backpacking since you can’t bring as much stuff. Before you go out and purchase everything, I recommend that you borrow or rent some gear to ensure you enjoy it and learn more about what you want to buy. The last thing I’ll mention is that don’t be afraid to try it if it’s entirely new for you. You may find that it’s the best way to spend your time. A life without a night under the stars is a life less lived. Happy camping and happy trails.