Many people tend to use the words hiking, trekking, and mountaineering as if they were synonyms. They’re all similar in that you go out and walk in nature.
However, there are important distinctions between them as well.
It’s important to know the difference between hiking, trekking, and mountaineering so that you can choose the right adventure for you. Safety is also important. You want to choose an activity that suits both your physical abilities and skill level.
The easiest way to explain how these three activities are different is to distinguish each term and to categorize them by difficulty.
The easiest of the three is hiking. You walk on well-marked trails of easy to moderate difficulty, although this depends on where you’re hiking.
These are usually half-day to one-day tours, like these hikes in the German Alps. The terrain varies from relatively flat to steep. It can be on mountains, along a coastline like hiking the Cinque Terre in Italy, or on a popular trail like the last 100 km of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Although the latter is a multi-day hike, the hiking is relatively easy with mild inclines.
Hiking is easier than trekking or mountaineering but it can still be challenging.
Related Reading: Best Trekking and Hiking Backpacks of 2019.
Most hiking tours usually finish in the same place that you started. Either from hiking a loop or returning the same way.
Some hikes have a different start and end points, so always check before you start. I
Hikes usually range between 2 to 8 hours. But having said that, you can also hike as long as you want. I’ve had very long days of 14-hour hikes.
Needless to say, longer hikes are tough physically so you need to ensure that you’re in good shape before embarking on one.
Besides the length, the elevation gain of the hike also plays a huge role in determining how difficult the hike is. A very general rule of thumb is that you can hike 400 m (~1312 ft) of elevation gain per hour. That’s dependable on how steep the slope is and the difficulty of the terrain but it’s a general guideline.
For hiking tours, you need minimal equipment compared to trekking and mountaineering. You can find a list of what you need for a day hike here. Always be sure to bring lots of water!
If you’re new to hiking, start with shorter, flatter hikes and work your way up from there. Also, if you’ve never hiked before it may seem difficult the first few hikes that you do. But stick with it. It gets easier.
And you’ll be surprised at how quickly you progress, especially if you’re doing additional cardio workouts between hiking. It’s important to find a balance between challenging yourself but not overdoing it.
The other thing to be aware of is that the first 15-20 minutes of hiking is often the worst until you get into a breathing rhythm. It can be tempting to think it’s too difficult and to quit when your lungs feel like they’re on fire but commit to hiking for at least 30 minutes. Then see how you feel.
Once you find your breathing rhythm, it gets easier and becomes more enjoyable.
Related Reading: Best Trekking Poles for 2019.
Trekking is between hiking and mountaineering regarding difficulty. Although it’s more similar to hiking. The difference being that treks are longer than hikes.
When I say longer, it doesn’t mean that they take a couple more hours. These trips usually take two or more days.
This means that you will either have to camp (and bring all your food and equipment). A good example of this is the Trilogy. It’s a series of three volcanoes in Guatemala.
Alternatively, when trekking in some locations, you may have the option to stay at small lodges, mountain huts or even bed and breakfasts along the way.
For example, accommodations are available when you trek the Dolomites in Italy, Tour du Mont Blanc, and the Italian Riviera. On other more remote trails like the Jordan Trail, you’ll need someone to set up a camp for you, or be self-sufficient.
Trekking is more challenging than hiking because you will be walking for multiple days in a row.
Related Reading: Gifts That Hikers Will Love
Treks usually start in one place and end in a different one. The distance can vary anywhere from ~40 km to several hundred kilometres away. Some of the most popular treks can take a couple of weeks to complete.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, for example, takes you around the second highest mountain in Europe. You’ll trek through France, Italy, and Switzerland. It’s typically done in 7 to 10 days. When trekking in the Dolomites you have lots of different options but we offer tours of 7 or 10 days.
Related Reading: Tour du Mont Blanc Packing List. Also applies to other similar treks like the ones in the Dolomites.
Of the three, mountaineering is by far the most challenging. It’s a more technical variation of trekking that takes you to higher peaks. Often to ones that are over 5000 meters above sea level.
These are also multi-day trips that require a lot of previous physical and technical training. You need more equipment than with hiking or trekking. And you’ll also need to know how to use it properly.
Not to mention how to survive snowstorms, and how to walk on glaciers. And if you slip, how to rescue yourself with an ice axe.
In addition, in some locations, you need to be strong enough to be able to endure long hours of ascending with low levels of oxygen.
Hiking and Trekking Reading Recommendations
And when you can’t be on a mountain, here are some books that will make you feel like you are:
Trekking Beyond: walk the world’s epic trails. A stunning hardcover photographic journey to the world’s most iconic walking destinations
America’s Great Hiking Trails. Hardcover coffee table book covering Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, North Country, Ice Age, Potomac Heritage, Florida, Natchez Trace, Arizona, Pacific Northwest, New England.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a good introduction to mountaineering if you’re looking to get started.
Into Thin Air, which is a personal account of the Mount Everest disaster of 1996.
Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail. Ditching the city for the wilderness; walking from Mexico to Canada, against all odds.
My Hiking and Trekking Journey
So far I have gone hiking and trekking all over Guatemala and some other places in Central America.
I love it so much that I’ve decided to start preparing for mountaineering. I can tell you that all three of these outdoor adventures are amazing I love each of them for different reasons.
Hiking is my favourite getaway for those days when I don’t have much time.
I enjoy trekking on long weekends when I want to go to a nearby volcano. Or trek to three of them like I did with the Trilogy Tour and do some camping.
Mountaineering is already proving to be quite an exciting challenge, even the preparation for it is a lot of fun.
Which do you prefer, hiking, trekking or mountaineering?
Let me know in the comments below.
Lourdes is a soon to be lawyer from Guatemala with the mission to explore each corner of the country. Her favourite activity is hiking along with exploring mountains, forests, caves, volcanoes and all that the region has to offer. Her goal is to reach as many summits around the world as she can. You can also find her on Facebook.