Many people use the terms hiking and trekking interchangeably. But do they really mean the same thing? Hiking and trekking both involve traveling on foot in the outdoors, often in a lovely natural environment with beautiful views. While they may seem quite similar, several characteristics distinguish hiking vs. trekking. Key differences between these activities include the motives, the length and duration of a typical hike or trek, the intensity, the type of trails, and the preparation and gear required.
In this article, we’ll go over hiking vs. trekking and explain what makes the two distinct. We’ll also cover related activities, including walking, backpacking, thru-hiking, and mountaineering.
Hiking vs. Trekking
Most dictionaries define hiking as going on a long walk, often in rural areas, for exercise or pleasure. Trekking, on the other hand, implies some kind of difficulty, with many dictionaries considering a trek to be an “arduous journey.” Below, we’ll explore hiking vs. trekking in more depth and explain their differences.
Everyone has their own reasons for hiking. Often, people set out on hikes to enjoy nature, get some exercise, have fun, and reduce stress.
While people also go trekking for fun, treks tend to be adventurous endeavors and have greater spiritual or moral significance than hikes. Many pilgrimages that take place on foot could therefore be classified as treks.
Length and Duration
The duration of a hike ranges from a couple of hours to many months. Hikers can enjoy short day hikes, multi-day hikes extending over a long weekend, and thru-hikes lasting upwards of 4-5 months (see below for more details about thru-hiking). On the other hand, trekking refers to trips lasting at least several days.
Hiking trails can be anywhere from a couple of miles to thousands of miles long. Treks are usually not shorter than 30 miles (50 kilometers) and can be as long as 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) or more.
Treks compared to hikes are usually more intense. In fact, many treks are designed to test your stamina and mental strength. As a result, trekking requires a higher level of physical fitness than day hiking and a similar level of fitness to multi-day hiking or thru-hiking.
Whether it’s a single-day or multi-day hike, hiking almost always takes place on marked trails in scenic areas, although some trails are marked much better than others. For practical reasons, many hiking trails return to the starting point.
In contrast, trekking often occurs on diverse terrain, including dirt or paved roads, mountain passes, ancient trails, and wilderness areas with few or no trail markers. Trekking may require bushwacking, especially in areas with no or unmarked trails, and tends to have a particular destination that is different from the starting point, unlike loop hikes that go back to the starting point. Trekkers can follow a known trekking route or create their own.
Preparation and Required Gear
A single-day hike often does not require too much planning or equipment since most hiking trails are well marked and easy to follow. All you’ll need is a pair of hiking boots or trail runners, quality hiking socks like Silverlight socks, a daypack, water, snacks, and comfortable clothing suitable for the weather conditions. Even on short hikes, it’s always wise to bring additional items like a first aid kit, headlamp, matches or a lighter, and other gear to help you in the event of an emergency.
Multi-day hikes and treks require a lot more gear. Depending on the trip’s location, this could include a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, large backpack (as much as around 50-65L for a thru-hike or long trek), and more.
Longer hikes and treks also come with significant physical and mental challenges and require much more planning and preparation than a day hike. You’ll need to carefully plan out your budget and route and prepare to deal with loneliness and physical stress. Treks require the most advance planning since trekkers don’t always travel on marked trails.
Vocabulary and Regional Differences
Sometimes the difference between a hike and a trek is just a matter of vocabulary. Depending on what part of the world you’re in, hiking, trekking, or even walking may essentially refer to the same activity.
In Asia, the term trekking is much more common than in North America. If you look for multi-day hiking tours in the Himalayas or Southeast Asian jungles, most of them will be considered treks.
North America and Europe tend to use the terms hiking and backpacking more frequently, with walking referring only to shorter, easier travels on foot. However, in the UK and Australia, walking can mean anything from a brief outing to a multi-day hike in the Alps. While people in the UK still use the term hiking on occasion, Australians generally prefer walking or bushwalking when referring to hiking.
In the UK, you may encounter the terms rambling, hillwalking, or fellwalking in addition to hiking and walking. Rambling is an old-fashioned synonym for hiking, while hillwalking and fellwalking usually refer to walks or hikes in Northern England, especially the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales.
New Zealand also has a term of its own: tramping. This word usually refers to a difficult multi-day hike through the New Zealand bush, but some people may use it for a challenging day hike. Like Australians and Brits, New Zealanders prefer to use walking instead of hiking.
Other Similar Activities Explained
There are many other activities closely related to hiking and trekking. These include walking, backpacking, thru-hiking, and mountaineering. Keep reading below to learn more about what these terms mean.
As mentioned above, some parts of the world use walking to refer to the same activity as hiking. In others, a walk is less intense than a hike.
Outside of Australia and New Zealand, walking generally refers to traveling on foot on relatively uniform terrain with few obstacles or steep inclines. While people usually hike on designated trails, walking can take place anywhere outdoors, including, sidewalks, roads, parks, or trails.
Walking is usually more leisurely than hiking and other activities mentioned here and has less elevation gain. A walk can be anything from a short outing in an urban area to a stroll along the beach or even a multi-day walking tour in the countryside.
Backpacking is a combination of hiking and backcountry camping, with backpackers carrying everything they need to sleep and survive in their packs. Since backpackers carry all of their gear themselves on their backs, this activity requires a high level of physical fitness.
Some treks include overnight camping and require carrying gear similar to the equipment needed for backpacking. Others rely on accommodation along the way, including mountain huts, lodges, or bed and breakfasts, or have porters carry most of the gear. Therefore, backpacking is usually more physically demanding than hiking and trekking.
Backpacking trips usually take place over the course of a weekend or 1-2 weeks and allow you to get further away from civilization for a more immersive experience in nature. Because backpacking takes you deeper into the wilderness, it’s essential to be prepared.
You’ll need to plan ahead and bring more equipment and supplies than you would on a shorter hike. This includes a backpack, shelter, sleep system, stove, cooking supplies, food, water, clothes, headlamp, a knife, navigation, emergency kit, and more. Take a look at our Backpacking Checklist for a complete list of what to bring on a multi-day hike or backpacking trip.
Packing light will allow you to travel farther and faster and put less strain on your body. Thanks to advances in technology, there is specialized ultralight backpacking equipment that allows backpackers to reduce pack weight as much as possible without sacrificing comfort or safety.
Thru-hiking is a longer version of backpacking that requires significant endurance and perseverance. Loosely defined, it’s hiking end-to-end in one direction on an established long-distance trail. We’ve already covered this activity in depth in our thru-hiking 101 blog post, where you can learn more about thru-hiking and section hiking.
Mountaineering is focused on achieving a specific goal: reaching the summit of a mountain and returning safely. Mountain climbing has been documented since ancient times, but the sport of mountaineering, often referred to as alpinism in Europe, traces its roots to the 18th century with the first ascent of Mont Blanc in the Alps. Since then, nearly every major peak in the world has been climbed.
Unlike many other activities we’ve discussed, mountaineering is rarely done leisurely. It is arguably the most physically demanding and dangerous of all these activities and requires the most technical knowledge.
In a single climb, mountaineering may involve rock scrambling, rock climbing using a rope, and ascending ice-covered rock, icefields, and snowfields. Mountaineers must therefore be skilled at climbing on diverse surfaces, including snow, ice, and rock.
Mountain environments often have volatile weather conditions that can change quickly, and mountaineering comes with a range of hazards, including altitude sickness, avalanches, snow and wind storms, falls, and falling ice, rock, and snow.
Because of the significant risks involved, mountaineers must possess excellent survival, navigation, and technical climbing skills. Rope techniques, knowledge of the equipment, and a high level of physical fitness are also essential.
While people can easily go walking, hiking, backpacking, or trekking alone, mountaineers usually make summit attempts with partners or teams.
Like backpacking trips, multi-day hikes, and many treks, mountaineering trips expected to take more than a day require gear and supplies including a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, food, and water. Depending on where the expedition takes place, mountaineering requires additional equipment compared to most hiking, trekking, backpacking, and walking trips. This could include:
- Mountaineering boots: These boots may look similar to hiking boots, but they are specifically designed for ascending snowy peaks. Mountaineering boots are available with varying materials, insulation, and stiffness.
- Crampons: Worn over boots, crampons provide extra traction on ice and snow. There are various types suitable for different kinds of terrain, including icefields, snowfields, glaciers, and climbing ice-covered rock.
- Ice axe: This multi-purpose tool is used by hikers, climbers, and mountaineers or alpinists to safely navigate through frozen conditions. The axe is used to ascend and descend ice or snow-covered terrain.
- Climbing helmet, rope, and harness: Most standard rock climbing helmets are suitable for mountaineering and offer protection if a climber falls or is hit by falling ice or rocks.
- Climbing gear: Carabiners, quickdraws, camming devices, nuts, ice screws, a belay device, and more may be required to protect a mountaineer in the event of a fall.
- Crevasse rescue gear: This is essential when traveling on a glacier in case a member of the team falls into a crevasse.
- Bivouac shelter: Often referred to as a bivvy, this piece of equipment provides emergency shelter and is sometimes used instead of a tent on especially steep or technical terrain. There are many different types of bivouacs for use in varying conditions.
Now that we’ve compared hiking vs. trekking and explained other related activities, you should have a good understanding of these different outdoor pastimes and some ideas about what kind of trip you’d like to go on next.
Whether you’ll prefer hiking, trekking, backpacking, mountaineering, or something else will depend on your individual preferences, goals, and skillset. Whatever activity you opt for, we hope it’s a wonderful adventure!