The outdoor lifestyle involves a broad range of activities. Some people like to go hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and so forth. There are two activities, however, for which people can’t seem to nail down appropriate definitions: camping and backpacking.

When you go backpacking and pitch a tent in the wilderness, are you camping? Similarly, when you go to your camping site with only a bag on your back, are you backpacking? Where does the camping begin and the backpacking end?

Camping is a more or less sedentary activity while backpacking is active. You pitch camp somewhere and that becomes your base for the time you are outdoors. On the other hand, when backpacking, the motto is “keep walking”, because you want to have as many experiences and see as many things as possible. However, the two activities have a way of melding into each other.


The main thing about camping is you have to spend a night (or nights) outdoors. You sleep in a cabin, a tent, or even a camper (RV).

Spending a night in the outdoors, not having modern amenities such as plumbing and electricity, “roughing it out” – these are the things that make camping what it is. Camping is really about living in the wild. It’s about retreating from modern life and its conveniences for a moment to experience what life in the wilderness feels like – a means of reconnecting with a more primitive way of living.

In other words, camping is about temporarily living outdoors for a short while. Generally, it’s a finite experience, which means it ends. If you live in the woods, you are not camping – you are just living in the woods. Camping is not really living in the woods – it’s retreating to the woods for a short while before you return to your regular life. It’s an excursion, a thing you do to experience an alternative way of living.

When folks go camping, they are essentially escaping the daily comforts to live in the wild. The spirit of true comping involves cutting out any unnecessary things that may be regarded as convenient back in the city. That’s why true campers find it funny that some people bring laptops, tablets, and even TVs to the jungle.


Backpacking, unlike camping, is about the journey. If a camper is a tourist in the outdoors, a backpacker is an explorer of the outdoors. It’s an extended journey that you take with your feet as your mode of transportation, and your backpack as your means of storage.

You pack everything you need for the “journey” in your backpack: food, sleeping bag, change of clothes, any equipment, and so forth.  Campers, on the other hand, are likely to carry more items because they have more storage space.

For instance, campers who have a car can bring non-essentials like beer, laptops, marquees, and so forth. A camper is at liberty to bring as many modern conveniences as he is able to, but a backpacker can’t do that. A backpacker has to travel light – only the essentials will do.

A backpacker will walk for miles, simply enjoying the tranquility in the woods. In contrast, a camper may arrive at the camping spot by RV, car, kayak, or even a canoe.

Backpacking is about seeking adventure. Unlike camping, backpacking does not necessarily involve spending the night outdoors. You could go backpacking through the woods during the day and sleep in hotel rooms at night, or even go back home when the day is over.

Camping and Backpacking: A Thin Line in Between

These two terms, camping, and backpacking are often confused for each other because of how often, in practice, they meld together. In reality, people don’t do “pure camping” or “pure backpacking” – they do whatever seems fun to them.

A person may backpack to their camping site. Someone camping in a cabin might go backpacking some days or fishing in the lake on other days. This melding into each other clears out the confusion.

The Takeaway

The best way to enjoy your outdoorsy experience is to not think in terms of “camping vs backpacking”. Do both if you want, let them meld until there are no discernible boundaries! In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether camping and backpacking are the same thing or different things.

What matters is that you have fun and you do what your soul yearns for. There is really no formula when it comes to adventure and exploration. The outdoors are like the sea and you are a sailor out to enjoy the voyage, perhaps with the hope of finding some treasure, if you are so lucky!

Kelvin Mwathi