A common mistake for many is the belief that backpacking and traveling are the same ideas. But really, these are two different kinds of trips. Knowing the difference is essential for planning a journey that meets your expectations.
Backpacking vs. traveling are mainly different due to five factors:
- Reasons for taking the trip
- What to pack
Traditional backpacking is usually more affordable, and backpacks are the sole source of luggage for a more extended trip. Travelers tend to spend more money on lodging, have shorter trips, and bring luggage to suit their needs.
Both backpacking and traveling are fantastic ways to get out and see all that the world offers, although each has very different methods. To learn the difference between the two, and find out which is right for your next adventure, keep reading.
Reasons for Backpacking vs. Reasons for Traveling
Traditional backpacking differs from traveling in that it’s a means of exploring, without a specific plan or end goal. Traveling is usually done with a purpose, whether it’s visiting family, a two-week vacation at a hotel, or traveling for business.
Sightseeing is also a part of backpacking and traveling, although the methods of doing so are different. Backpacking involves a lot of individual sightseeing, without tours and guides.
Travelers that set out to see specific sights usually are more intentional and use more tourist-focused sightseeing methods.
Of course, there are plenty of people who will backpack across Europe while visiting family or those that like a hybrid backpacking-traveling option. But, classic backpacking vs. traveling usually happens within these goals.
Because traveling comes with a specific purpose, there’s often somewhat of a schedule that goes into the trip. It doesn’t have to be a rigorous schedule, but there’s more intent behind the reason for the destination.
Backpacking is more of an exploration method, so sticking to a schedule isn’t always necessary. Moving from one location to the next depends on the schedule of transportation, but there are so many options within the timeframe, the schedule doesn’t have to be precise.
Keeping the overall purpose of a trip in mind, we can now dive into the other differences between traveling vs. backpacking.
Different Transportation Methods – Backpacking vs. Traveling
Depending on the final destination, flying or ground transportation are both efficient for travelers and backpackers. For shorter trips, flying is the best option. For longer, more leisurely trips, taking a train or car is better.
Getting to the Destination
Depending on the final destination, the plane is a logical means of getting there for both backpackers and travelers. But, the considerations and logistics of air travel vary.
Multiple destinations are usually on a backpackers’ list, so budget is always a driving factor. Affordable flights are vital in planning a backpacking trip.
Some backpackers prefer to fly standby and not commit to a scheduled flight, so they’re free to change their plans. But, today’s travel climate has changed, so standby isn’t always an option to count on.
This means that most backpackers have to purchase tickets before their trip, but they always search for the best deals possible, which can also mean some less popular seats or airlines.
You will also notice with backpackers that they have a lot more to consider when arriving for their flight. This can be because they have to be more aware of what is in their bag, and what makes it most comfortable to limit what they have packed.
The individual traveler preference and budget will dictate whether or not affordability is a factor in flights. Some travelers don’t have to consider funds at all, so flight cost doesn’t matter. Others are budget conscious, which will drive the options available for air travel.
This option is mainly available if you travel somewhere domestic, like a road trip, or visiting different locations in the same region.
This is an uncommon method of getting to a destination for backpackers since they’re typically out and about exploring a new country. But, ground transportation within a specific region or area is typical for backpacking after the initial arrival. Stay tuned for more details on that in the next section.
While most travelers find it easier to take a plane to reach their destination, many prefer to drive. Driving can save on a plane ticket cost, but some travelers like to access their vehicles while visiting somewhere new.
Transportation Within a Destination
There are all kinds of different options for seeing the sites and exploring for both backpackers and travelers, once they’ve arrived at their destination.
Cars, Buses, and Trains
Hopping on a plane isn’t always a logical travel solution for backpackers or travelers to use upon arrival. Unless there’s a destination that’s longer than a couple of hours away, taking a car, bus, or train is the best option.
As you may know now, backpackers often consider the cost when deciding how they will move around. Most backpackers will find that they prefer to walk over taking any form of vehicle to a location within the city.
Public transportation is another standard transportation method for backpackers. Most major backpacking destinations make public transportation easy to access, like Rail Europe. This is a one-stop-shop that makes navigating different countries a simple process.
Many backpackers will also take advantage of the less expensive public transportation options like buses and subways. Traveling to Luxembourg is a backpacker’s dream since they’ve made public transportation free.
For travelers, they will typically use whatever form of transportation that is the easiest to access. If a traveler drives their car to a destination, this will most likely be their main transportation mode when visiting.
It isn’t uncommon to see travelers using other methods depending on what they are doing, as sometimes it can be easier to take a subway or bus. You will also see travelers using a taxi, which is highly avoided by backpackers because they tend to be more expensive. This is also true for options like getting an Uber.
The last thing to consider is that some travelers prefer to have their vehicles to move around, which is why travelers who arrive by plane will often rent a car to use while staying there. This is something a backpacker try to avoid due to the various reasons I have mentioned previously.
Walking or Hiking
The primary mode for many backpackers is to hike from location to location. Some can grab a ride where they can, but most are satisfied with walking if the destination is close enough. This is ideal for exploring big cities, where everything is more packed together.
Travelers enjoy walking from place to place and scoping out the sights, but this isn’t always an option if there’s a schedule involved. Travelers might also hike, but it’s often part of a tour or event.
Different Locations for Backpacking vs. Traveling
This is a significant point to consider when deciding which one may be more interesting for you, as deciding on where you want to visit can largely influence your trip.
You may have noticed it briefly above, but backpackers tend to prefer to move from location to location. This is mainly possible due to their ability to keep costs low, which allows them to continue exploring new locations for much longer.
These locations tend to vary, depending on the backpacker. However, they will typically start in larger towns before moving into more discrete ones where they can. The main problem with this is that smaller towns are difficult to reach using their main transportation modes.
The main thing to keep in mind when it comes to backpackers is that while they may have original destinations in mind, they also tend to have a lot more freedom to change their plan as they want. This often means that a backpacker may have plans for their next stop, but if they meet a fellow backpacker who they want to travel with for a while, they are open to changes.
This is surprisingly common among the backpacking community, and you will often see that they have a lot more freedom in their planning, which can lead many backpackers in Europe to end up going to a completely different country than they originally planned so that they can meet up with a new friend.
You will find that traveling locations are much more limited, and there is usually a much firmer schedule. This is usually due to the limited amount of time they can visit a location, so they prioritize their plans around this. You will also see how this affects the overall experience while visiting each location compared to backpacking.
Most travelers will visit more mainstream locations, as they tend to have more options for travelers to enjoy during their stay. Suppose a traveler is interested in visiting a few different locations. In that case, they will usually be within the same area, so they aren’t wasting a large portion of their time traveling to somewhere new.
Experiences Within Locations
This is where you will start seeing why each of these decisions made so far can influence the overall trip. Experiences are a determining factor in many trips, and sometimes are the entire purpose of the trip.
Experiences for Backpacking
Backpackers tend to avoid doing what is most common for tourists, so they will usually avoid mainstream attraction. This is mostly since tourist attractions tend to require much more money than going somewhere that locals enjoy.
If enjoying local cuisine is high on the list of things to do, avoiding popular restaurants is a god plan for backpacking. Asking locals for recommendations instead of pouring money into a tourist trap restaurant is a fantastic way to enjoy the local fare without blowing the budget.
When I was backpacking on a budget, I avoided shopping in the tourist district. Instead, I’d ask my local friends for suggestions so I wouldn’t be breaking my bank account within the first week there. I also found that restaurants suggested by locals also tended to taste better than mainstream locations.
Another tip I enjoyed was finding free attractions. I had the opportunity to visit a palace in Seoul, South Korea, for free due to it being a holiday, Seollal. Finding these free opportunities can include just wandering around until you find something, like a performer or other similar experiences.
As you can probably tell by now, backpackers prefer to live like locals. This means that backpackers’ experiences tend to be vastly different from what travelers may prefer when visiting somewhere new.
Experiences for Traveling
When traveling, there tend to be plans made in advance to arriving. This is usually due to certain activities requiring you to book in advance, as it may be common for them to fill up quickly.
These activities tend to require much more planning and much more money as well. However, they are great memories to make, and many people prefer them to live like a local. It isn’t a bad thing to want to be a tourist. You just have to be aware of what it means in comparison to backpacking.
What Backpackers and Travelers Need to Pack
You will see here precisely why backpacking and traveling are so different when it comes to necessities. You may be shocked to know that most backpackers will pack fewer clothes than a traveler, but will continue to explore long after travelers have returned home.
For backpackers, this is a significant part of the process to consider. You will understand the more we go into it, and I will break down why certain items are necessary. It is also important not to skip out some costs, as I mentioned previously, purchasing the backpack itself.
The backpack itself is one of the most critical pieces for all backpackers, as it has to hold up to a lot. Most backpackers will bring a rain cover if their bag isn’t waterproof, but many prefer to purchase waterproof bags to save space within the bag itself.
The biggest thing to consider when choosing a backpack is what you plan to bring. Small bags can be difficult for first-time travelers to fit everything into, or larger ones that weigh more.
You will also want a highly durable bag, as it will always have to carry the weight of everything and withstand any rough handling. This is one of the main areas that you won’t want to exception on the bag’s quality just due to the cost.
An exceptional bag is, therefore, essential for backpacking. My go-to for backpacking adventures are the following:
Osprey Atmos AG 65 Men’s Backpacking Backpack
Osprey Aura AG 65 Women’s Backpacking Backpack
I’ve been using Osprey backpacks for years. They are tough, durable, and comfortable to wear, even on longer trips.
Shoes and Clothing
Shoes or boots are one of the most critical areas right next to the backpack itself. You will continuously be walking, as this is the cheapest form of transportations, so you will need to keep your feet comfortable. Below are my recommendations:
They not only have fantastic comfort and traction, but they are waterproof. Never underestimate the importance of traction or comfort in shoes. They’re both critical when planning for any weather changes while still minimalizing how much you bring.
Another weather issue is you must consider what clothes you plan to bring. It will need to be durable and able to hold up reasonably well in any weather condition. Bringing layers can help adjust to any changes in temperature, but be sure not to overpack, or your bag will start becoming too heavy.
Tent and Sleeping Bag
While most people may prefer to avoid sleeping in tents in an unknown location, it will most likely happen at least once. So you should always prepare for the occurrence even if you plan to couch-surf or stay in hostels most of the time.
One of the most popular tents for backpacking is the Copper Spur HV UL by Big Agnes. These tents are a perfect size and are great for a solo backpacker. You can also find a few that are great if you are traveling with another person.
After a tent, the other items you will want are a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. While some people are willing to go without a sleeping pad, most find that it is worth the extra cost and space. Most sleeping pads tend to be reasonably priced, even popular options like the Sleeping Sleeping Pad.
Even if you don’t decide to purchase either a tent or a sleeping pad, it must bring a sleeping bag. No matter where you end up, it is always good to have something that can keep you warm. Winner Outfitters has a great sleeping bag for not only comfort but is also very compact. For a premium sleeping bag, you should check out the highly recommended Hyke & Byke Quandary 15 Degree F 650 Fill sleeping bag.
Layers are the foundation for a successful backpackers’ wardrobe. Researching the weather before any trip is a must, but we all know weather can be unpredictable. Including a few key pieces of clothing that can be worn in multiple ways takes careful consideration, but it’s really the only way to pack.
It’s also hard to fit bulky sweaters and coats in a backpack, so I like to really layer up on the flight. If I’m going from one weather extreme to another, I like to wear my jacket and boots on the airplane instead of taking up valuable space in my pack.
Other Gear Recommendations
While those above are the primary things, there are still a few smaller items that many backpackers never forget.
The necessities will depend on where you’re backpacking and what you absolutely can’t live without, but these are things that you need to consider bringing:
- Kitchen Supplies: if you plan on cooking your meals at all, a few kitchen tools will come in handy. Aeelue Kitchen Utensil 5 in 1 Multifunctional Tool works as a cutter, turner, colander, spoon, and spatula. It’s also nonstick and excellent.
- Food: consider packing a few snacks in your bag that will fill you up in between meals, like high-quality protein bars.
- Water Bottle: many big cities have places where you can fill your water bottle, which will help you save money and stay hydrated.
- Water-Treatment: if you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have quality drinking water, this is an absolute must.
- First-Aid Kit: if you’re backpacking in a rural area or small town, finding something as simple as a bandage can be a challenge, keeping a small first aid kit is essential.
- Toiletries: if you’re going to a location that doesn’t have stores, or is notoriously expensive, bringing your toiletries is the way to go.
- Laundry soap: since you’re limited on the number of socks and underpants you can fit in your bag, you’ll still be doing laundry on your trip. Try Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap, it works for washing clothes and your body!
- Navigation: don’t just assume your phone can take you wherever you need to go. This can be the case, but there are also plenty of times when this won’t work, so make sure you at least have a map or other means of finding your way.
It is always better to slightly overpack, but it can be hard to do so as a backpacker due to the extra weight. Packing a few different ways and testing the weight before the trip can make things easier for the actual trip. This is precisely why the initial planning period is so important
When it comes to gear and packing for travelers, you may find it much easier. Travelers tend only to need to be concerned about clothing and any hygiene products that they will need. Many of these accommodations provide some of these items.
Travelers can also be more lenient with their packing, as they are more willing to spend the extra money to eat out. They can usually bring larger bags, so they can overpack without the risk of dealing with carrying the extra weight since they can leave it inside their lodgings for the night.
Where Backpackers Stay vs. Where Travelers Stay
I mentioned this briefly in the previous section, but I will explain it a bit more here. This will help you understand why both of these options tend to pack so differently compared to the other.
Lodging for Backpackers
Backpackers tend to stay in places that can be considered unconventional, like a hostel or Couchsurfing. There are even programs available that allow them to work to stay at their accommodations for free. It’s called Wwoofing. Check out Helpx and Wwoof.
It isn’t uncommon for backpackers to camp out wherever they can find a free space. This is why bringing a tent and other such materials are so important since the best place isn’t always somewhere with a roof over your head.
Accommodations for Travelers
Travelers tend to stay in more superior locations, like hotels or Airbnb. This is most likely the most evident difference between the two, as they tend to prefer these comforts over having to struggle with finding somewhere to sleep for the night as backpackers sometimes do.
Backpacking Budget vs. Traveling Budget
Backpacking is best known for being a low-cost form of travel that includes carrying all of your necessities in a backpack.
These usually include staying in inexpensive lodgings and finding the cheapest form of travel from each location. Most backpackers will be able to go about this form of travel for weeks, months, and even years at times.
The most money you will see a backpacker spend will most likely be on the backpack itself. The budget dictates the rest of the spending.
The main thing you should note for traveling is that it typically a week or two, and often stays at more common lodgings that may be more expensive than backpackers lodging.
You will find that traveling tends to focus on one city, and usually requires a larger budget despite the shorter trip. This is mainly since travelers will enjoy activities that may be considered more for a tourist than backpackers.
Knowing the difference between backpacking and traveling will help you meet all of the expectations of your trip. Consider both options, and be honest with yourself about what you want out of your next adventure.