Is Backpacking A Sport?


When you come home from a long day of backpacking, it usually feels much more tiring than a game of basketball or a few laps around the pool. But while basketball and swimming are considered to be official sports, can backpacking be classified under that same category?

Backpacking is not an officially recognized sport. Sports are generally defined as athletic activities that involve some element of competition and a specific set of rules. Backpacking does require athleticism, but it doesn’t involve direct competition or have defined rules.

It might seem unfair that backpacking isn’t considered to be a sport, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a challenging and rewarding activity. So let’s explore some of the physical requirements of backpacking, different variations, and some ways to challenge yourself on the trail! 

What Does It Take To Be A Backpacker?

Backpacking is a great way to explore the outdoors, get in shape, and enjoy some fresh air. This activity is a good mixture of hiking and camping, so you get to enjoy your adventures for a couple of days. 

But although backpacking is enjoyable, it’s not a walk in the park. If anything, it’s a walk up a mountain with a weight on your back! There is a certain level of physical fitness that every backpacker needs. You don’t need to climb Everest, but you do need to be able to navigate mountain paths, keep your balance, and have enough stamina to make it to the end of the trail.

Backpacking can be hard on your body, especially if you haven’t trained beforehand. Your legs and core muscles will handle most of the strain, but your lungs and heart will get quite a workout too. If you’re preparing for a long backpacking trip, or just want to condition your boy so you can do it more regularly, there are a few areas you’ll want to focus on. 

First of all, you need to build up stamina. Endurance is the main goal, not overall strength. After all, there’s usually no time limit during a backpacking trip, so you don’t need to worry about being the fastest one on the trail. You just need to focus on getting where you’re going and rationing your energy. 

If you’re planning an intensive backpacking trip, you may need to start training in earnest at least 8 weeks ahead of time. Alternate your daily workouts between cardio, strength training, and rest days. 

Exercises like jump squats, step-up exercises, and single-leg deadlifts are helpful during this period. You want to improve your balance, flexibility, and strength. Low weight and high repetition should be the goal when you’re getting ready for a backpacking trip!

You need to bring the right equipment for the trail as well. This usually includes a backpack (go figure), a sleeping bag, a tent, maps, food, water, a flashlight, toiletries, a first-aid kit, and a couple changes of weather-appropriate clothing. 

There is a lot of optional gear as well, and you’ll want to vary your packing list depending on the trail and time of year. Check out our list of recommended backpacking gear if you’re looking for a good place to get started. 

It takes perseverance, strength, preparation, and a lot of willpower to complete a full trail. So although backpacking might not qualify as a sport, it can be just as physically challenging as any of them.

Backpacking And Its Variations

Now that we’ve covered some of the requirements of backpacking, you might be wondering if this is the right activity for you. Maybe you’re looking for something a bit less intensive, or maybe you want something that will push you even harder! 

Luckily for you, there are a few related activities that require a similar skill set. Backpacking has evolved into a popular pastime with different variations and levels of difficulty. The 4 main subclasses of this activity are hiking, backpacking, trekking, and mountaineering. 

Each of these different subclasses involves different skills, equipment, and time frames, but all of them are accessible to interested amateurs. You’ll probably still need to train a bit to attempt the tougher trails, but there are entry-level routes that you can try, just to see if you like it. 

Hiking: 

Hiking involves long, vigorous walks in outdoor settings. Hikes usually take place on established nature trails and are well-marked with fence posts and trail markers. The trails are usually somewhat maintained as well and are sometimes paved. 

Hikes last for less than a day and are usually set up in some kind of loop, so you end up where you started. They can happen on any slope or elevation and the term “hiking” can be used as a good catch-all term for any of the following subclasses. 

Backpacking:

Backpacking is similar to hiking, but it takes longer and sometimes covers more difficult trails. Backpacking is usually done on established routes and is marked by maintained trails and distance markers. 

Backpacking trails usually take 2-3 days to complete and they involve at least one night of outdoor camping. Backpackers need to carry basic camping gear such as tents, sleeping bags, and camp stoves in addition to their hiking gear. 

Trekking:

Trekking involves elements of both hiking and backpacking but takes place over a much longer period of time. Treks are extended cross-country hikes that usually take place away from established trails and population centers. Trekkers follow certain landmarks and planned routes, but they need to be able to navigate based on maps and compass directions as well.

Trekking trails can take multiple days or even weeks to complete. Like backpackers, trekkers need to carry camping equipment on the trail with them. They need to spend more time sleeping outdoors though, so they need more gear and additional survival supplies as well. Sometimes trekkers have the option of spending the night in cabins or lodges along their path, but outdoor camping is usually a big element of this activity.

Mountaineering:

Mountaineering (like the name implies) is the process of climbing mountains! It’s also sometimes known as Alpinism. This is more intense than average hiking and might require special skills like rock climbing, rappelling, snow-shoeing, and bouldering. 

Mountaineering is a more intense version of hiking and can take a single day or multiple weeks, depending on the size of the mountain. Mountaineering may or may not involve overnight camping, but hobbyists will need to bring gear for climbing and mountain survival just in case. 

Challenge Yourself As A Backpacker

Even though backpacking isn’t a sport per se, it’s still a challenging and fulfilling activity. Many backpackers like to set goals for themselves and compare their experiences with other hobbyists. 

There are multiple challenge lists of mountains and trails that backpackers might want to draw inspiration from. The 52 hike challenge can be a great way to explore new areas and challenge your prowess as a backpacker. It has a different goal for every week of the year!

You can also set personal goals for yourself or your group of backpacking friends. This could be a distance goal, a time limit, or a total number of hikes per month/year! Because there are no official rules or qualifiers for backpacking, you’re free to design your ideal activity. 

At the end of the day, backpacking might not be a sport but it’s still a great way to enjoy nature, improve your exercise routine, and challenge yourself to do hard things. 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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