Hiking as a form of recreation is an integral part of life and a source of happiness for many people around the world. While hiking up a mountain for pleasure or exercise may seem quite commonplace today, this was not always the case. The History of Hiking for fun is a relatively short and emerged in response to various social, cultural, and technological changes.
In this post, we’ll explore the history of hiking. From early hikers and religious pilgrims to modern-day peak baggers, we’ll look at how hiking evolved through the ages and how it developed in different parts of the world.
Hiking Etymology and Other Terms
The word hiking traces its roots to the early nineteenth century, but the exact origins are unknown. Etymologists believe the word yike (meaning “to walk vigorously”) from 1736 may have been a precursor to the word hike. The first recorded uses of hike in 1809 were spelled “hyke,” meaning “to walk vigorously.” The term began as an English dialectical word and was used insultingly in East Anglia and London in the 1830s. The word was not used more widely until the early twentieth century, when it began to refer to long walks in the countryside.
Today, we have many other terms that are used to describe the activity of hiking, although their use and popularity vary from one region to the next. We’ve already described the differences between hiking, trekking, walking, tramping, and more terms here, but here’s a quick summary.
- Hiking: Hiking is the most commonly used term to describe going on a long walk, often in rural areas, for exercise or pleasure. It is the preferred term in North America and continental Europe.
- Trekking: The word trekking is often used interchangeably with hiking, but tends to imply some kind of difficulty. Many dictionaries consider a trek to mean an “arduous journey.” The term trekking is generally preferred over hiking in Asia. It also describes multi-day hiking tours in the Himalayas, Southeast Asian jungles, and mountainous areas in East Africa, South America, and the Middle East.
- Walking: In places like the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, the word walking describes many forms of traveling on foot. The term can refer to anything from a brief stroll to a multi-day hike in the Alps.
- Backpacking: This term is popular in North America and Europe and refers to a multi-day hike, where the hiker carries everything they need to survive (food, water, shelter, etc.) on their back.
- Tramping: Used in New Zealand, this word usually describes challenging multi-day hikes through the New Zealand bush. Some people use it to refer to a difficult day hike.
- Bushwalking: This word is used mostly in Australia and can describe hiking on a trail or through the bush.
- Rambling: A slightly old-fashioned term, the word rambling is used in the UK for hiking or walking.
- Hillwalking or fellwalking: These terms are mostly used for walks or hikes in Northern England, particularly the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District. The words typically describe challenging walks up hills or peaks.
It’s hard to identify the origins of hiking since humans have walked long distances for various reasons throughout history. From Native American tribes embarking on coming-of-age explorations on foot to armies marching on ancient trails, walking has been a part of human life throughout the ages.
However, the reason for hiking has changed drastically over time, and hiking for pleasure or recreation is relatively new. One of the earliest and most commonly mentioned examples of someone hiking recreationally rather than out of necessity is a poet named Petrarch, or Francesco Petrarca. In a letter to a friend, the poet wrote that he summited Mont Ventoux in southern France with his brother and two servants on April 26, 1336. The peak reaches a height of 6,273 feet (1,912 meters), making it one of the earliest documented examples of hiking and mountain climbing as we know it today. However, some historians have suggested that Petrarch made up the climb.
There are several other documented ascents of Mont Ventoux during the Middle Ages. The earliest example is French philosopher Jean Buridan, who summited the peak sometime before 1334 for meteorological observations.
History of Hiking: Pilgrimages
In antiquity and through the Middle Ages, most people who went on long walks or hikes did so out of necessity or as part of a religious pilgrimage. These journeys were associated with particular religions and involved walking long distances for a spiritual purpose or goal. Typically, a pilgrimage walk retraces the steps of a religious figure or involves a journey to a holy or sacred place. The history and origins vary from one pilgrimage to the next, but they have one major thing in common: spiritual or religious significance.
Many ancient pilgrimage routes are still in use today as long-distance hiking trails. Modern-day pilgrims traverse the routes on foot as they honor the history, pay homage to past pilgrims, and search for spiritual growth. Some of the most famous pilgrimages around the world include:
- El Camino de Santiago in Spain
- The Pilgrims’ Way in England
- Kumano Kodo in Japan
- La Via Francigena in England, France, and Italy
- The Abraham Path in Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan
How Hiking Evolved as a Form of Leisure
While there are some scattered early examples of hiking for pleasure, hiking emerged as a leisure activity in Europe in the 1700s. Before this era, walking was associated with poverty and homelessness, and most people tried to avoid it if they could. However, this idea began to change during the Romantic era.
The Romantic movement originated on the European continent towards the end of the eighteenth century. In response to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, artists, authors, musicians, and intellectuals glorified nature, emotion, and individualism. As a result, more and more people wanted to escape the overcrowded and polluted cities and experience the splendor of the natural world through activities like hiking. Taking a walk in the countryside was no longer associated with poverty but instead became a luxury enjoyed mostly by wealthy Europeans, authors, and artists.
As interest in walking for pleasure and spending time in nature grew, hiking clubs began popping up throughout Europe and North America. The clubs sought to join hikers together and improve access to natural areas. You can read more about how this transition played out and how hiking evolved in different regions of the world below.
History of Hiking Around the World
Europe and the United Kingdom
From the English countryside to the Alps, much of the earliest documented evidence of hiking for recreation comes from Europe, particularly the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. Here’s a brief look at the history of hiking in Europe.
In the late 1700s to early 1800s, the idea of walking for pleasure was popularized mostly by writers in the United Kingdom. Various writers and influential figures published works about their journeys on foot. For example, an English priest named Thomas West published a guide to England’s Lake District in 1778 that piqued interest in walking as a leisurely activity.
William Wordsworth, an English poet, also enjoyed walking for pleasure and embarked on several walking tours in the UK and Europe in the late 1700s. He later shared these journeys with the world through various poems. Other prominent walkers include the poet John Keats and author Robert Louis Stevenson. As these writers and others began publishing works about their travels, more and more people began taking walks in the countryside and enjoying walking tours throughout the UK and Europe.
Throughout the 1800s, urbanization and industrialization in England increased the demand for escapes to the countryside. However, much of the land around industrial cities like Sheffield and Manchester was privately owned, and walking on these lands was illegal. Rambling clubs started popping up in northern England, and early hiking enthusiasts began advocating for the “right to roam,” or the right to access certain natural areas (both publicly and privately owned) for recreational purposes.
Leslie White founded the country’s first rambling club in 1879 and named it Sunday Tramps. In 1905, early hikers formed the Federation of Rambling Clubs, a national group overseeing the various rambling clubs that had emerged throughout the nation. Activists continued pushing for legislation protecting the “right to roam” for decades and even staged a mass trespass in Derbyshire to bring awareness to their cause.
Eventually, Parliament passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949. The act created a framework for establishing nationally protected lands and improved public access to natural areas. In 1951, the UK established its first national park: the Peak District National Park. Since then, many other national parks have been created in the UK, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 further protected the right to roam.
German-speaking Countries and Other Parts of Europe
The breathtaking mountains in Germanic countries inspired many early hikers and mountain climbers to explore the great outdoors. In 1732, a poem called Die Alpen (“The Alps”) by Swiss poet and scientist Albrecht von Haller marked the budding appreciation of nature and the mountains. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, numerous European travelers explored the continent on foot and recorded their journeys. German author Johann Gottfried Seume is a notable example. Over the course of nine months in 1801, Seume traveled from Leipzig to Sicily on foot and described his experiences in a book called Spaziergang nach Syrakus, published in 1803.
The Alps also played a central role in the development of present-day mountain climbing, with many first ascents of Alpine peaks occurring throughout the mid-1800s. Climbing peaks, claiming first ascents, and establishing new routes in the Alps became a source of national pride for many nations in Europe.
Just like in the UK, hiking clubs started popping up in Germanic countries. The Swiss Alpine Club became the first alpine club in continental Europe when it was established in Olten in 1863. In Germany, youth groups launched the Wandervögel (translated as “Wandering Birds”) movement as a protest against industrialization. From 1896 to 1933, German youth set out to hike in the countryside and enjoyed opportunities to connect with nature by spending time in the forest. The movement was tied to German nationalism and revived old German folklore and folk songs.
The growth of hiking in North America stemmed from many of the same sociocultural trends that occurred in Europe. The transcendentalist movement (influenced by European and British romanticism) emerged in New England in the 1820s and 30s, which led to an increased emphasis on self-reliance, independence, and appreciation of the natural world. Transcendentalist authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau influenced the growth of outdoor appreciation and exploration in North America in the 1800s, which continued to develop throughout the following century. At the same time, large-scale mining and timber operations in areas that were once pristine wilderness fueled concerns that these beautiful natural areas could disappear.
Industrialization in the nineteenth century made taking a walk in the woods increasingly challenging, yet also desirable, for many people in the US and Canada. Problems with overcrowding, pollution, and poor health in North American cities in the late 1800s led to a reform movement that pushed for improved access to open, natural spaces. However, venturing into nature for fun required effort, time, and financial means, making hiking a luxury that only the wealthy could afford.
Inspired by European outdoor organizations and hiking groups, outing clubs and outdoor-based youth programs began popping up in many parts of the US and Canada in the second half of the nineteenth century. Early clubs included the Alpine Club in Massachusetts (1863), the White Mountain Club in Maine (1873), the Rocky Mountain Club in Colorado (1873), and the Sierra Club in California (1892). These social clubs were popular in larger cities and generally only accessible to wealthier individuals.
This began to change in the 1900s. As Americans placed more value on physical exercise and spending time in nature, outdoor-focused youth organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America flourished in the early twentieth century. These organizations introduced youth to outdoor activities like hiking and camping and created a love of the outdoors in generations of Americans.
However, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that hiking became a popular pastime for a large number of Americans. Labor reform after World War I reduced working hours and gave many Americans paid time off for the first time, allowing them to take vacations and pursue outdoor recreation. Changes in the workplace and mechanization of labor after World War II resulted in a more sedentary lifestyle for many people. Together with the widespread availability of automobiles, these changes made hiking and outdoor recreation more accessible and desirable as leisure activities. Since then, hiking has become one of America’s most popular recreational activities, with millions of people hitting the trails every year.
According to early explorers in the 1700s, Aboriginals in Australia used fire to create tracks and paths to travel through the Australian bush. As the colony grew in the 1800s and the Aboriginals ceased some of their fire management practices, many of these tracks began to narrow and disappear. In the 1800s in Australia, walking was used mostly as a form of transportation for explorers and lower classes, while upper classes walked around their estates to hunt and pursue interests in botany.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Romantic movement fueled interest in spending time outdoors for fun, and bushwalking emerged in many parts of Australia. After World War I, recreational walking became a popular activity in the Australian population. Improved rail transport, guidebooks, outdoor tourism projects, and national parks helped support the development of hiking. Since then, hiking has become an important part of Australia’s multi-million dollar outdoor tourism industry.
Asia is home to many sacred pilgrimages and ancient trade routes, such as the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage in Japan and the Silk Road. However, hiking for recreation developed on the continent mostly in the 1900s. The twentieth century saw significant growth in international interest in hiking and mountain climbing in Asia, with numerous British and European expeditions in the Himalayas.
Local populations didn’t tend to engage in hiking as recreation until relatively recently. In Hong Kong, for example, urbanization in the 1970s made hiking and spending time in nature popular pastimes for city residents. Furthermore, the protection of Hong Kong’s countryside and the creation of long-distance trails encouraged the uptake of hiking and other outdoor recreational activities.
Today, the continent is one of the most desirable hiking and trekking destinations on the planet. From trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal to hiking through the jungles and mountains in Hong Kong, Asia has thousands of stunning hikes to add to your bucket list.
Latin America is home to some of the best hikes in the world. Many of these routes are ancient trails used by indigenous peoples long before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. One of the most iconic routes is the Inca Trail, a 26-mile (42-km) path laid out and used by the Inca civilization in Peru’s Sacred Valley in the fifteenth century. Around 600 years earlier, the Tairona people made trails through the hills, jungles, and river valleys in present-day Colombia. Today, the Lost City Trek takes tourists along these historic paths to La Ciudad Perdida and its ancient terraces.
The contemporary hiking, mountain climbing, and trekking industries in Latin America are rooted in foreign and domestic explorations and scientific expeditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over the decades, governments and corporate actors have sought to boost local and regional development through tourism. In the 1970s, trekking operators and backpacking guidebooks began to popularize trails like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu internationally. Many of these trails had become famous around the globe by the 1990s. Today, these routes draw hundreds of thousands of hikers who want to experience their archaeological wonders, beautiful landscapes, and rich history.
According to many paleoanthropologists, Africa is the first place mankind ever experienced the joys of walking on two legs. The first recorded trails in Africa were ancient routes used primarily for trade and transportation.
Table Mountain in South Africa offers some of the earliest recorded evidence of hiking and mountain climbing in Africa. In 1503, Castillian-Portuguese explorer Antonio de Saldanha logged the first ascent and named the mountain “Tabua do Cabo,” meaning “Table of The Cape” in Portuguese.
Formal conservation efforts and official hiking trails began to emerge in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was established under the name of Albert National Park in 1925, it became one of the continent’s first protected areas. The park was established in the former Belgian Congo and influenced by the European conservation movement. Belgian scientists carried out several expeditions in the park on foot and, in doing so, established early hiking trails.
Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent, has also played a central role in the contemporary history of hiking in Africa. Austrian climber Ludwig Purtscheller and German geologist Hans Meyer recorded the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in 1889. With assistance from local guide Yohani Kinyala Lauwo and other tribe leaders and porters, the climbers were the first to reach Uhuru Peak, the highest summit along the Kibo crater rim.
The Emergence of Official Hiking Trails
Official hiking trails appeared in Europe around the same time as organized hiking clubs. The clubs began to build, mark, and maintain their own trails in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and emphasized the creation of long-distance hiking trails. By 1938, Europe had its first official long-distance hiking trail: The Hungarian National Blue Trail, covering around 62 miles (100 km) in the Hungarian wilderness.
In the US, official hiking trails also started appearing in the 1800s, around the same time as outing clubs. Native Americans, however, had established informal trail networks much earlier. Native peoples in North America created multi-use trails, frequently following animal tracks. They used the trails for various activities, including trade, hunting, ceremonies, and warfare. Some of these routes are still in use today.
One of North America’s earliest hiking trails was built in 1819. Abel Crawford and his son Ethan cleared a trail to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the state of New Hampshire. The 8.5-mile (13.7-km) trail is still used today, making it one of the US’s oldest continually used and maintained hiking paths. In the later part of the nineteenth century, outing clubs promoted and organized hiking trips and developed resources that made it easier to explore those areas on foot. In addition to clearing and marking trails, the hiking clubs built overnight shelters and made trail maps.
Hotel operators also played a major role in trail development. As outdoor tourism blossomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hotels in popular areas like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and parts of the northeastern US built trail systems and footpaths to support recreational hiking. The trails also guided mules, horses, and pack trains in remote areas.
The First National Parks
The first national parks began to emerge in North America in the mid to late 1800s. Westward expansion led to an appreciation of the vast and beautiful landscapes out West. Unfortunately, the migration also resulted in mining, logging, ranching, and other resource extraction activities in these natural areas. As a result, conservationists created a movement to protect wilderness areas.
The 1800s were also marked by rapid urbanization and growing health and social issues in North American cities. These problems led to the recognition of the need for clean air and green spaces, and reformers began to push for public parks. Together, these trends helped foster the creation of early national, state, and city parks.
Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 in the territories of Wyoming and Montana, is widely considered to be the world’s first national park. The Qing Dynasty government established the Bogd Khan Uul Protected Area in Mongolia almost a century earlier, in 1783. However, the creation of Yellowstone National Park is what laid the framework for preservation at the federal level and inspired national park systems around the world.
Not long after Yellowstone was established, governments in many parts of the world began protecting lands as national parks using Yellowstone as a model. Here are some of the world’s first national parks:
- Royal National Park in New South Wales, Australia – established April 26, 1879
- Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada – established November 25, 1885
- Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada – established October 10, 1886
- Tongariro National Park in New Zealand – established October 1887
- Sequoia National Park in California, USA – established September 25, 1890
- Yosemite National Park in California, USA – established October 1, 1890
- Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada – established in 1895
Today, there are more than 4,000 national parks worldwide. These protected natural areas are spread throughout nearly 100 different countries.
The Popularity of Hiking Today
Today, hiking has become one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the world, with millions of people around the globe enjoying this pastime. In the United States alone, around 50 million people hike each year.
The activity has become so popular that a multibillion-dollar gear industry has emerged to support it. In 2019, the market size of the global hiking gear and equipment industry was estimated at a whopping USD 4.5 billion. But what’s driving this trend?
Various factors have contributed to hiking’s rise in popularity, including generational cultural changes and social media. Over the last decade or so, there’s been a growing emphasis on healthy living and recreational activities compared to past decades. This trend is particularly noticeable among millennials and the younger population and has contributed to the popularity of hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Additionally, social media has brought more awareness and attention to public lands and has made remote areas seem more accessible.
Societal changes stemming from COVID-19 have also fueled a rise in the number of hikers on the trails. When the Coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, many people felt safer outdoors than in gyms and other indoor areas. Amid COVID restrictions and fears about contracting the virus, people flocked outdoors and increased their participation in outdoor activities like hiking.
Together, these shifts have made hiking the most popular outdoor activity in the United States and one of the most popular outdoor activities worldwide.
While mankind has walked out of necessity for a few million years, the idea of walking for fun is a relatively new concept in human history. From early escapes to the countryside to the growth of a multibillion-dollar global industry, hiking has undergone significant transitions through the centuries. Despite these changes, one major aspect of hiking remains the same: the innate human desire to explore and take in one’s surroundings.