What’s the Difference Between Backpacking and Camping?

Lying on my back I gaze up at the sliver of a moon and the starry summer night. There’s no fly on my tent so that I can fall asleep to the night sky.

I feel my body relax, heart open and mind quiet. With each breath, I notice all the places I’m holding on and feel the restriction dissipate. I take in the silence—hearing nothing, yet through the stillness feeling the earth pulsing. I slowly drift off to sleep.

The next morning I wake up to the sunlight shining on my tent, birds chirping, and a gentle breeze. I’ve slept the hardest I ever have in my life, feeling rested, refreshed, and so alive!

This memory from a solo backpacking trip in the Utah high desert is so clear and vivid. I can remember it like it was yesterday even though it was over a decade ago. It’s the moment when I realized how important it is for me to sleep outside as often as possible. It’s when I realized that this is what grounds me, resets my natural clock, and provides deep, nourishing rest—something I just couldn’t get living in an apartment on top of other people, with the hum of the street nearby.

I know women need to sleep outside more and I know it’s intimidating to figure out how to get started. Often, someone’s first question is, “What’s the difference between backpacking and camping?” Today, I want to answer that as well as provide a few simple tips to help you get started with each.

Camping

Camping involves driving to a state or national park, pulling into a campsite, and setting up your home for the weekend. It’s often referred to as “car camping” because you’re always in close proximity to your vehicle. You pitch a tent, set up a kitchen, and create a comfortable space to relax with camp chairs or hammocks. From there you explore beyond the boundaries of your campsite with day hikes, discovering nearby bodies of water, or even driving to scenic destinations in other parts of the park. Then, you return each evening to the same spot, your campsite home. When camping you’ll also have access to more amenities like toilets, sinks with mirrors, showers, potable water spigots, and camp stores to buy forgotten items.

Top 3 Quiet Adventures Camping Tips:

  1. Carve out time to do some work and planning up front. Start a camp bin to store all of your car camping gear in. Personally, I like to use two plastic bins. One is for general camp gear: tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, headlamp, axe, U-Dig-It, extra tarps, first aid kit, etc. The other is for the kitchen: stove, fuel, tablecloth, Ziploc bags, garbage bags, lighter, all-purpose soap, cutting boards, eating utensils, etc. Then, before a camping trip, I double check the bins to make sure I have everything I need and off I go! Doing the upfront work of setting up the bins makes it easier to go, which translates to you doing it more often
  2. Allow yourself to be indulgent, but don’t bring your whole life with you. Bring items like a fluffy pillow, bulkier food, and a larger camp kitchen, but leave the laptop, MP3 players, and library of books at home. While the importance of these items varies for each woman, the majority of the time they detract from the point of the trip in the first place: to get away from it all for a weekend. Yes, your car can fit a lot of stuff, but just because there’s room doesn’t mean you need to pack it to the brim. Remember, everything you pack into the car has to be unloaded and reloaded upon arrival and departure. Do you want to spend the better part of your trip unpacking and packing? Probably not.
  3. Explore with the intention to find places without people. Camping is a great first step to getting into the outdoors, but sometimes it can feel like you’re not really experiencing the wild. A busy campsite can be filled with people, parties, and generators. Not exactly “getting away from it all.” Make sure to explore other parts of the campsite where there may be less people, like nearby rivers or forgotten nature trails. Take daily excursions to places where you won’t see other people for a few hours (or for the entire day, if possible).

Backpacking

Have you read the book or seen the movie “Wild”? This is a great example of backpacking, which involves carrying everything you need for the trip on your back. This means all gear and supplies, like sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tents, food, water, clothes, etc., which can end up being anywhere from 35-45 pounds.

Typically, you'll drive to a trailhead, pack all of your gear into a backpack (sized 65+ litres), camp somewhere along the trail, and pack everything up to move onto the next spot. Backpacking requires us to pack minimally, wear the same clothes for several days, carry out all garbage, purify our own water, and dig holes to poop in.

The rewards with backpacking are enormous! Backpacking provides the incredible experience of being immersed in the wild for an extended period of time. You get to see places and wildlife that are inaccessible to day hikers, experience the solitude of the backcountry, and build incredible reserves of resilience by only having yourself to rely on.

Top 3 Quiet Adventures Backpacking Tips:

  1. Start small and keep it simple. A one-night trip makes sense for your very first backpacking trip. Keep the round-trip distance to 10 miles or less. Or, if you have two nights, consider this: backpack in and set up camp on the first night, take a day hike to somewhere awesome, then return to your base camp that night. On your third day, backpack out. This way you’ll only carry your backpack for two days, still get the backcountry experience, and feel at ease knowing civilization isn’t too far away.
  2. Test drive your gear before hitting the trail. New boots? Go for a day hike in them. Strapping on a 35-pound pack and walking 5 miles in a brand-new pair of hiking boots can quickly turn into a blistery nightmare. Wear your hiking shoes or boots on short day hikes or even to work to help break them in. Your feet will thank you. Same goes for your backpack—test it out beforehand! Strap burns or a sore back can ruin a trip, but they’re avoidable with a proper fitting and a pre-trip test drive.
  3. Don’t try to conquer; appreciate and savor instead. The energy of backpacking can be a little more intense and rightfully so—you’re carrying everything you need on your back. The very nature of this can send women into a mindset that can be more harmful than helpful. Instead of pushing through, getting from point A to B, or proving yourself with a bunch of mileage, appreciate and savor the experience. In doing so, you won’t end the trip feeling like you got somewhere but never really were anywhere, as often happens with the “conquer” mindset.

Now you’re ready to pick the best starting point for you! Whether you choose camping or backpacking, I can’t wait for you to experience the magic of sleeping outside. Enjoy and keep me posted!

With summer love,

Megan