The Great Mystery: what’s the difference between hiking, trekking & backpacking?

discover iceland
People hiking in the mountains of Landmannalaugar
Ellert Grétarsson

Hiking, trekking, and backpacking – they may all sound like the same thing. One could say it’s simply a case of semantics, and they’re all different words for a walk in The Great Outdoors. But there’s more to it than meets the eye: yes, all three activities take place outside, but in each, a different type of journey is undertaken. 

We have a clear vision of the difference between the three activities. Let’s dive into the details of hiking, trekking, and backpacking according to our philosophy.

People hiking in Iceland to Reykjadalur hot thermal river
Björgvin Hilmarsson
People hiking in Reykjadalur Iceland


The Oxford English Dictionary defines hiking as “[a] long walk or walking tour”. This definition is quite vague, and understandably the word hiking can be confusing as it is often used interchangeably with the word trekking. That is by no means an issue for us, and our clients use both these words to describe their experiences. But allow us to explain how we view the beauty of hiking.

Some may assume that hiking is more of a leisure walk in the woods nearby your house. Is it a nice stroll where you barely break a sweat but you still get to experience the charm of the countryside and take photos on the way? Not quite.

Hiking is by no means a walk in the park. We see hiking as a journey where we follow man-made trails or roads.  Still, here in Iceland, we are at times following these trails through rough terrain and challenging landscape. One of the most challenging and yet rewarding hikes in Iceland is reaching the peak of Hvannadalshnúkur. Summiting Iceland's highest peak gives you a breath-taking view of Iceland that few people ever see. Another great hike is the Hot Springs & Lava Cave, where you get to hike between the hot springs and feel the heat of the Earth, ending the day by exploring a lava cave. This is a glorious hike that gives you a brilliant idea of how powerful nature can be, and a chance to enjoy its wonders and creations.

People trekking in Laugavegur, surrounded by beautiful and colorful mountains
Jan Zelina
People trekking on the Laugavegur Trail


The word ‘trek’ derives from Afrikaans and means a leg or a stage of the journey. We associate a journey with the word trekking, but the question remains: what type of journey? Trekking suggests a higher difficulty level, and to a certain extent, that is true. Trekking is a form of activity where one goes from point A to point B in one day, and the next day the trek continues from point B to point C. Our trekkers carry a day-backpack but all other essentials, such as food, extra clothes, and tents are driven by our loyal mountain jeeps between these destination points.

We offer great trekking tours in Iceland, and we are fortunate enough to welcome guests from all over the world to experience these journeys with us. The Icelandic people are no exception – many locals are keen hikers and trekkers that have tried out these trails for themselves. The beloved Classic 5-Day Laugavegur Trek is a fantastic experience through the rough but majestic terrain of Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk (see the Laugavegur Hiking Trail Guide for detailed information). After a day of trekking, travelers rest in a mountain hut, before starting their journey the next day. The Volcanic Trails Trek is another trek that allows our guests to tiptoe between the greatest mountains in Iceland, trek through moss-covered lava fields and soak in natural hot springs. Don’t miss out on this one.

  • The Laugavegur Trail

  • Volcanic Trails

  • Fimmvörðuháls Hike

  • Hiking and Trekking in the Icelandic Highlands

People climbing up a mountain next to a river
Ellert Grétarsson
People climbing up a mountain hill


At last: backpacking. To some, backpacking means a bunch of youngsters with Interrail passes in their hands, standing on a train platform somewhere in Europe, using sign language to get on their right train – the backpacking experience simply meaning that your suitcase is on your back. Our idea of backpacking is a little different.

To us, backpacking means carrying everything on your back – and that means all clothes, food, and camping equipment – while out in wild nature. The backpacker does not necessarily follow a beaten path but treads his/her own trail that may be, at times, a bit unusual. The perk of a backpacking tour is that the backpacker can walk into remote terrain and be utterly alone in nature – king or queen of the wilderness. Our Núpsstaðaskógar to Skaftafell tour offers guests the chance to trek between the foothills of the biggest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull. Five days in the wilderness solely enjoying the powers of untouched nature is a meditation for the soul. You won’t be the same person after this experience.

For the serious backpackers, we have the Coast to Coast - The Iceland Traverse tour – a life-changing trip that follows the volcanic rift from the north coast to the south coast and across the highlands of Iceland. The trek is divided into five legs, so you can participate in any leg of the tour or trek all five legs for an epic month-long experience.

The variety of options means that there is something for everyone. This is the beauty of exploring Iceland: there are no limits. You have a wealth of journeys to choose from. Join us – sign up.

We look forward to seeing you with us next summer!

About the Author

Inga Þórunn Waage

Inga Þórunn Waage

Inga Þórunn Waage is born in Iceland but has spent much of her adult life abroad in places such a South America, Australia, Barcelona, Dublin and her beloved Berlin. She has a BA and MA in English literature and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Iceland. She is married to a German artist and she has divided her life between Iceland and Germany for the past years - getting the best of both worlds. Her passion is for writing, wilderness, environmental preservation, horses, travel and the unknown. She is fortunate enough to be a part of the Icelandic Mountain Guide’s team as she gets the opportunity to write about matters dear to her heart. “If you’re doing it for money or fame, don’t do it.” Charles Bukowski

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