Backpacking (also tramping or trekking or bushwalking in some countries) combines hiking and camping in a single trip. A backpacker hikes into the backcountry to spend one or more nights there, and carries supplies and equipment to satisfy sleeping and eating needs.
What is backpacking?
A backpacker packs all of his or her gear into a backpack. This gear must include food, water, and shelter, or the means to obtain them, but very little else, and often in a more compact and simpler form than one would use for stationary camping. A backpacking trip must include at least one overnight stay in the wilderness (otherwise it is a day hike). Many backpacking trips last just a weekend (one or two nights), but long-distance expeditions may last weeks or months, sometimes aided by planned food and supply drops.
Backpacking camps are more spartan than ordinary camps. In areas that experience a regular traffic of backpackers, a hike-in camp might have a fire ring and a small wooden bulletin board with a map and some warning or information signs. Many hike-in camps are no more than level patches of ground without scrub or underbrush. In very remote areas, established camps do not exist at all, and travelers must choose appropriate camps themselves.
In some places, backpackers have access to lodging that are more substantial than a tent. In the more remote parts of Great Britain, bothies exist to provide simple (free) accommodation for backpackers. Another example is the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park. Mountain huts provide similar accommodation in other countries, so being a member of a mountain hut organization is advantageous (perhaps required) to make use of their facilities. On other trails (e.g. the Appalachian Trail) there are somewhat more established shelters of a sort that offer a place for weary hikers to spend the night without needing to set up a tent.
Most backpackers purposely try to avoid impacting on the land through which they travel. This includes following established trails as much as possible, not removing anything, and not leaving residue in the backcountry. The Leave No Trace movement offers a set of guidelines for low-impact backpacking ("Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photos. Kill nothing but time.").
Why people backpack
People are drawn to backpacking primarily for recreation, to explore places that they consider beautiful and fascinating, many of which cannot be accessed in any other way. A backpacker can travel deeper into remote areas, away from people and their effects, than a day-hiker can. However, backpacking presents more advantages besides distance of travel. Many weekend trips cover routes that could be hiked in a single day, but people choose to backpack them anyway, for the experience of staying overnight.
These possibilities come with disadvantages. The weight of a pack, laden with supplies and gear, forces backpackers to travel more slowly than day-hikers would, and it can become a nuisance and a distraction from enjoying the scenery. In addition, camp chores (such as pitching camp, breaking camp, and cooking) can easily consume several hours every day.
Backpackers face many risks, including adverse weather, difficult terrain, treacherous river crossings, and hungry or unpredictable animals (although the perceived danger from wild animals usually greatly exceeds the true risk). They are subject to illnesses, which run the gamut from simple dehydration to heat exhaustion, hypothermia, altitude sickness, and physical injury. The remoteness of backpacking locations exacerbates any mishap. However, these hazards do not deter backpackers who are properly prepared. Some simply accept danger as a risk that they must endure if they want to backpack; for others, the potential dangers actually enhance the allure of the wilderness.
Almost all backpackers seek to minimize the weight and bulk of gear carried. A lighter pack causes less fatigue, injury and soreness, and allows the backpacker to travel longer distances. Every piece of equipment is evaluated for a balance of utility versus weight. Significant reductions in weight can usually be achieved with little sacrifice in equipment utility, though very lightweight equipment is often more costly.
A large industry has developed to provide lightweight gear and food for backpackers. The gear includes the backpacks themselves, as well as ordinary camping equipment modified to reduce the weight, by either reducing the size, reducing the durability, or using lighter materials such as special plastics, alloys of aluminium, titanium, composite materials, impregnanted fabrics and carbon fiber. Designers of portable stoves and tents have been particularly ingenious. Homemade gear is common too, such as the beverage-can stove.
Some backpackers use lighter and more compact gear than do others. The most radical measures taken in this regard are sometimes called ultralight backpacking.
Due to the emphasis on weight reduction, a practical joke common in some circles is to secretly pack a small but relatively heavy luxury item, such as a soft drink, into another backpacker's pack. Then, once the group stops for a rest, the perpetrator retrieves the item, thanks the bearer for carrying it, and consumes it.
Backpackers always carry some water from the trailhead, to drink while walking. For short trips, they may carry enough to last the whole trip, but for long trips this is not practical. A backpacker needs anywhere from two to eight liters or more per day, depending on conditions, making a water supply for more than a few days prohibitively heavy. Backpackers typically carry two to four liters of water depending on conditions and availability. Although some backpacking camps in heavily-used areas provide potable water, it must usually be obtained from lakes and streams.
Drinking and cooking water nearly always needs treatment with a filter or purifier to protect against bacteria and protozoa (see Potability of backcountry water and Portable water purification). If water is unavailable, or if the only water available is irreparably filthy, backpackers may need to carry large amounts of water for long distances.
Water may be stored in bottles or in soft, collapsible hydration packs (bladders). Some backpackers store water in ordinary plastic beverage bottles, while others use special Lexan bottles or metal canteens. For accessibility they may be carried by a shoulder strap or attached to the outside of a pack. Bladders are typically made of plastic, rubber, and/or fabric. They are light, easily stored and collapsible. They may be equipped with drinking hoses for easy access while hiking. In spite of this convenience, bladders are more prone to leaking than bottles, particularly at the hose connections. Hoses also allow the hiker to lose track of the water supply in the bladder and to deplete it prematurely.
Some backpackers enjoy cooking elaborate meals with fresh ingredients, particularly on short trips, and others carry the gear and take the time to catch fish or hunt small game for food. However, especially for long expeditions, most backpackers' food criteria are roughly the same: high energy content (particularly protein), with long shelf life and low mass and volume.
Ordinary household foods used on backpacking trips include cheese, bread, sausage, fruit, peanut butter, and pasta. Popular snack foods include trail mix, easily prepared at home; convenient and nutritious energy bars; and chocolate and other forms of candy, which provide quick energy and flavor. Traditional outdoor food includes dried foodstuffs such as jerky or pemmican, and also products like oatmeal (which can also be consumed raw in emergency situations).
Most backpackers avoid canned food, except for meats or small delicacies. Metal cans and their contents are usually heavy, and, like all trash, the empties must be carried back out.
For dinners, many hikers use specially manufactured, pre-cooked food that can be eaten hot. It is often sold in large, stiff bags that double as eating vessels. One common variety of special backpacking food is freeze-dried food, which can be quickly reconstituted by adding hot water. One can also purchase a commercial food dehydrator which removes the majority of water from a pre-cooked meal. To eat, water is mixed in with the meal several hours before eating and allowed to rehyrdate before heating. Some various distributors of this are Backpackers Pantry and Mountain Outfitters. Another kind of special backpacking food is UHT-packaged without dehydration, and can be reheated with a special, water-activated chemical heater. This technology originated with the U.S. military's Meal Ready-to-Eat ("MRE"), but is now produced also for the commercial market. The small chemical heater obviates the need for a portable stove and fuel, but the meals and packaging weigh so much that, for more than a few meals, there is no weight advantage. On the other hand, MRE's were developed with many more factors than mere weight in mind, and they still make excellent backpacking food for several reasons, such as a) they do not need to be rehydrated nor heated or cooked in any manner, b) they are very durably packaged, c) a single MRE contains a full meal, complete with snack and desert, d) they offer a great deal of variety in each meal, including condiments such as Tabasco sauce, e) they are individually packaged inside the "brown plastic wrapper", so that you can place individual components in various pockets and "eat on the move". As more and more "big box" retail stores carry pre-packaged dehydrated foods (such as Mountain House Brand) however, it is becoming increasingly easier to buy packaged meals retail versus mail order, whereas MRE's are rarely carried in retail stores.
Although backpacking in the winter is rewarding, it can be dangerous and generally requires more gear. Backpackers may need skis or snowshoes to traverse deep snow, or crampons to cross ice. Cotton clothing, which absorbs moisture and chills the body, is particularly dangerous in cold weather, so backpackers stick to synthetic materials or materials that won't hold moisture. Special low-temperature sleeping bags and tents can be expensive, but will be more comfortable than many layers of warm clothing. However when hiking in cold weather it is always better to hike with varying layers of clothing so that as the body heats up layers can be taken off without causing to wearer to sweat or become very chilled.
Skills and safety
- Survival skills are handy for peace of mind: In case the weather, terrain or environment is more challenging than prepared for, or for dealing with shortcomings in
- Navigation and orienteering are useful to find the trailhead, then find and follow a route to a desired sequence of destinations, and then an exit. In case of disorientation, orienteering skills are important to determine where you are and formulate a route to somewhere more desirable. At their most basic, navigation skills allow you to choose the correct sequence of trails to follow.
- First Aid: effectively dealing with minor injuries (splinters, punctures, sprains) is considered by many a fundamental backcountry skill. More subtle, but maybe even more important, is recognizing and promptly treating hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration and hypoxia, as these are rarely encountered in daily life.
- Leave No Trace is the backpacker's version of the golden rule: To have beautiful and pristine places to enjoy, help make them. At a minimum, don't make them worse.
- Distress signaling is a skill of last resort.
- List of long-distance trails
- Hiking equipment
- Ten essentials: minimum gear to carry in case an emergency develops.
- Hazards of outdoor activities
- The Complete Walker
- Hiking may or may not use backpacks.
- Canoe camping is similar to backpacking, but uses canoes or other boats for transportation.
- Ski touring and snowshoeing are alternative forms of hiking (overnight or otherwise) that can be engaged in when the ground is buried deeply in snow.
- In self-contained bicycle touring, cyclists carry their equipment in panniers or in trailers during multi-day excursions, either on pavement, or on back-country fire roads and trails.
- In animal packing ("horse packing", "mule packing", etc.), the hikers use pack animals (usually horses, mules or llamas) to carry their equipment, and sometimes they will even ride the animals. Porters are sometimes hired for the same purpose.
- Backpacking (travel) focuses on cultural attractions, rather than natural ones, though it may also include wilderness side trips.
- Adventure tourism is travel in a region or environment that is, for one reason or another, highly unpredictable or hazardous.
- Thru-hiking is traversing a long-distance trail in a single, continuous journey by starting at one end of the trail with a backpack and hiking essentially unaided to the other end.
- Ultralight backpacking is a form of backpacking focused on minimizing the weight of the gear carried. It is often employed by long distance hikers.
- American Hiking Society Preserves and protects hiking trails and the hiking experience
- BackpackGearTest.org Backpackers evaluate new gear in the field and report their findings
- thebackpacker.com Online backpacking community with tips and advice for beginner and experienced backpackers
- The Beginners Guide to Backpacking (PDF) A guide book in PDF format that includes information about backpacking and equipment.