Hiking vs Mountaineering: What’s the Difference?

Hiking vs Mountaineering: What's the Difference?

Outdoor activities can vary extensively between campers and hikers, making the definition of hiking different from person to person.

One might consider any walk in a natural environment, like a forest or park, a hike. Others consider hiking to be heavy-duty excursions through difficult trails and untouched wilderness.

Within these definitions is another style of outdoor foot travel often combined with hiking: mountaineering.

In theory, these two seem similar despite the different environments, but is there a difference between hiking and mountaineering?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes. Many differences exist between these two types of outdoor adventures. Each is a unique activity with different equipment, preparation, and obstacles.

In today’s article, we’ll see what makes these two great activities separate from one another.


1. Hiking

The Britannica Dictionary defines hiking as a recreational walk through nature, but that hardly captures what hiking is. Both casual and professional hikers will more likely compare it to a sort of sport similar to running but far less competitive and more about experiencing nature than improving one’s physical health.

The physical needs of hiking are far more unique than other walking and outdoor sports, as it can depend much more on the route you take than your own capabilities.

woman hiking in forest

As mentioned by REI Co-Op, different trails have different levels of difficulty, the length of a route will alter how you pack and prepare, and the season or weather can result in a completely different hike on trails you’ve already traveled before.

The main thing about hiking is that it’s extremely accessible. While longer more involved hikes require you to bring supplies like food and shelter, short hikes around an hour-long are also possible.

All you need is a good route, and you can easily start on one during your camping trip or even just as a weekend activity near a natural public park.

That said, this means hiking can be a massively wide range of activities. More experienced hikers will usually go on longer adventures that span multiple days and involve rougher terrain, while inexperienced hikers will have much lighter adventures.

Nonetheless, they can all be defined as hiking, making it a uniquely versatile activity that anyone can define and approach differently.

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2. Mountaineering

Unlike the broad ways that can define hiking, mountaineering is a significantly more specific activity.

Even its Britannica Dictionary definition shows this, being the act of climbing mountains to reach higher points, making it already more specific than hiking. It has a specific end goal of reaching high points and a particular location in the form of mountains and peaks.

climber on a snowy mountain

This definition shouldn’t be seen as literal, though, as much of mountaineering involves hiking rather than literal mountain climbing. Some areas might require ropes for rock climbing up vertical mountain walls, but the safest common way to reach the peaks of mountains usually involves following and making trails.

This essentially means that mountaineering is an activity that often involves hiking, but has completely different needs.

Mountaineering expeditions are usually more challenging and time-consuming than a typical backpacking trip, requiring overnight food and shelter since these paths are quite exclusively long compared to the variety of hiking trails.

Much like hiking, there are certainly a wide variety of styles it can take, but it’s more than just a variation of hiking.

It’s a complex style of outdoor journey that can require skills from across the world of outdoor walking and travel sports, and due to its challenge and remote locations, it’s much less common for people to attempt or enjoy regularly.

Read also: Best Hiking Jacket Brands: These 9 Are Our Favorites

3. What Are the Differences Between Hiking, Trekking, and Mountaineering?

As mentioned earlier, hiking and mountaineering are hard to compare since one is far more specific than the other.

Hiking is any style of outdoor walk and journey, while mountaineering is an activity that involves reaching mountaintops through trails, climbing, and long expeditions. Mountaineers usually will do a lot of hiking, but hiking is a significantly more broad activity.

woman hiking with a backpack in the mountains

There’s also one more popular term worth a mention, namely trekking. Trekking is an even looser term, essentially being just a long journey traveled by foot. Not all trekking can be defined as hiking, but pretty much any style of hiking can be described as trekking.

The real differences between these three activities are the specificity of each one.

Trekking can involve any environment from cities to nature, while hiking is specifically a foot journey in nature. Mountaineering involves much hiking but only takes place in mountain trails and mountain ranges and requires many additional skills and resources.

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4. What Do You Need For Hiking?

For the most part, the equipment you need for a hike will vary massively based on the type of hike you’re going on. Regardless of your hike, you’ll want a pair of solid hiking shoes or boots, with heavier shoes based on how long or difficult your trail will be.

Related: What to Look For in Hiking Boots? 6 Important Things

If you plan on going multiple days, you should also bring a fair amount of food and water usually in a backpack, and many hikers going for long journeys may want to bring trekking poles.

Related: 6 Types of Hiking Backpacks that You Should Know

Beyond that, many things you can include with hiking aren’t necessarily needs, but extremely helpful accessories.

For example, if you don’t plan on stopping frequently, products like Osprey and CamelBak’s hydration bladders will let you drink water without needing to refill or carry small water bottles.

Otherwise, though, the core thing you need is a solid pair of hiking shoes or boots to keep you steady on natural ground, and water to keep yourself hydrated.

5. What Do You Need For Mountaineering?

Since you have longer journeys with mountaineering and a more treacherous environment, you’re usually going to be carrying far more than most average hikers.

For clothing, you’re going to usually need warmer and heavier clothes to help deal with colder climates, meaning you’ll usually need a thick jacket rather than lighter spring and summer outerwear.

You’ll also need to bring a fair amount of food, supplies for setting up camp, high-cut mountaineering boots, and equipment for scaling walls if your journey requires it. Since you’ll be likely walking through snow, mountaineers also are more guaranteed to have trekking poles since remaining stable is especially important on slippery and unpredictable terrain.

hanwag omega boot with mountain and trees background
(Hanwag Omega High-cut Boot)

6. How Are Hiking and Mountaineering Boots Different?

You will need a good mountaineering boot for mountaineering. Much like the activity itself, these products are far more particular than a hiking boot or something you would wear on a simple hiking trail.

Hiking boots and hiking shoes come in various forms, from smaller trail runners to thick ankle boots. Each provides different support and intended for particular trails and hiking styles.

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Mountaineering boots are much more purpose-driven. They provide more protection and are more expensive. The best mountaineering boots are almost always high-cut on the ankles and fairly reinforced with thick rubber soles on the bottom to maintain traction on slippery surfaces and steep terrain.

It’s far more dangerous to go adventuring on a mountain and having weaker or less-reliable footwear can be significantly more detrimental with mountaineering than it often can be for hiking.

Don’t miss: 8 German Boot Brands for Hiking and Mountaineering

7. Conclusion

Not all hiking is mountaineering, but mountaineering is generally a challenging extension of hiking.

Just because you’re strong or practiced in one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at the other, but either way, you need to make sure you prepare for whatever outdoor adventure you plan and prefer.

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