You’ll often hear people talk about hiking and trekking, but you may not know the difference between them. Where is the line drawn? Does it matter? Do I want to take a hike, or a trek? What do I need to do to prepare for each?

The difference isn’t as vast or as crucial as you might think. It’s more of a fuzzy line in the sand, two circles of activities that overlap a little bit. But at the same time, they offer unique experiences, and one will involve a little more preparation and effort. Read on to learn more about trekking and hiking.

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What is Hiking | What is Trekking | The Differences

What is hiking?

Hiking is an outdoor activity that involves taking long walks through nature. Hiking usually occurs on marked, well-traveled trails. Hiking usually lasts anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Typically, hikers will end up in the same place they started, either because the hiking trail loops, or because they travel out to a destination (like a mountaintop or a scenic overlook) and then head back.

Why hike?

There are many reasons to go hiking! Health reasons are among the most popular! Hiking’s great for your heart health. It can lower your blood pressure. It can reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.

There are mental health benefits, too. All exercise releases endorphins. But hiking specifically has been shown to reduce rumination and has a positive effect on memory. You don’t see either of those health effects just walking in the city.

But beyond health concerns, hiking is just nice! It feels good to get away from air pollution and smell what air is supposed to be like. It’s refreshing to get away for a little bit, maybe outside of cell phone service, but definitely away from the daily grind.

What to take hiking

For most hikes, you won’t need a ton of gear. But it’s still a good idea to bring a few essentials. Here are some things to consider, depending on the conditions and length of your hike. If you’re not sure about whether to take something, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  • Clothing that’s appropriate for the weather. (Coverage is important, whether it’s from the cold or the Sun. And try to choose moisture-wicking fabrics. You never want sweat-soaked clothing, no matter what the weather’s like.)
  • Appropriate shoes. (For some, that means boots, but trail sneakers are becoming more and more popular.)
  • Food (Whether that means snacks or easy-to-cook meals depends on the length of the trip)
  • Water (and water purification).
  • A flashlight
  • A first-aid kid
  • Whatever fire-starting method works best for you.
  • A pocketknife or multitool
  • A way to navigate (preferably one that doesn’t depend on a cell signal)
  • A backpack (to put everything else in!)

What is trekking?

Trekking is a subset of hiking. A “trek” involves a multi-day journey. It’s longer and more intensive than ordinary hiking. It may involve spending time away from clearly-marked trails, out in greater isolation than most hiking trips. It definitely involves sleeping under the stars for at least one night.

Usually, treks will start in one place and end in another. They’ll often cover a long haul through harsh terrain, like a series of mountains. One popular trek is up to Everest Base Camp. Reaching just the base camp is an endeavor that takes two or three weeks. That’s a definite trek.

Why trek?

Trekking gives you everything hiking does, but more so. While strenuous, the health benefits are greater. The sense of communing with nature is particularly greater. But there’s also a sense of achievement that comes from tackling a long trek. A trek can be a profound challenge, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Overcoming that challenge can give you a profound sense of accomplishment.

It’s empowering to prove to yourself that you can do it. And it’s memorable to look out over a scenic mountain vista, or to look up at the night sky with no light pollution and see what the stars are supposed to look like. And whether you take a lot of high-tech gear or just the basics for survival, you’ll almost certainly feel like you’ve removed yourself from the modern world in favor of a more natural one.

What to take trekking

The question of what to take trekking is more complicated, since “trekking” involves so many different things—all of them strenuous, but to vastly varying degrees. For some treks, you can get by with the basics of essential camping gear. Throwing an appropriate tent and sleeping bag in with your hiking essentials can go a long way.

But other treks may involve packing for weather extremes. But even if you’re not packing four different layers of clothing for each day, there are things you’ll want to do to take care of yourself over the long haul. For instance, bringing a second pair of shoes—boots for day, and slippers for night—is something you might want to consider. That’s because boots can wear on your feet after wearing them day after day for an extended period of time.

One other important thing to consider. On a hike, you might be able to bring all the water that you need, without need a form of water purification. But on a trek, you will absolutely need a way to purify water on your own.

What Are The Differences Between Hiking, Trekking, Backpacking & Mountaineering?

Since trekking is a kind of hiking, it can be hard to draw a firm line between them. Generally speaking, trekking is longer and more strenuous than basic hiking. Trekking doesn’t have to be brutal, by any means. It just involves longer trips, often over less well-trodden ground.

Some websites claim that anything over one day is a trek, but drawing a line that firm in the sand isn’t universally agreed upon, and it’s not particularly useful. Plenty of people will go on a two-day trip, camp out along a hiking trail overnight, and call it a long hike. Those people aren’t wrong!

A 15-mile trail might be a day’s hike for an experienced hiker, and a two-day trip for a newcomer. That doesn’t mean it’s suddenly a hike for one and a trek for the other. At 2,200 miles, the Appalachian Trail is absolutely a trek. But you’re just as likely to hear someone say that they’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail as you are to hear them say they’re going to trek it. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong!

Think of these words less as strictly-defined territory and more as broad categories, with a little bit of overlap.

Hiking

Duration – Less than one day, some may say 2-3 days. (But this is getting into backpacking/trekking territory)
Difficulty – Easy to very hard
Length – Generally, what you can fit into a full day of hiking, or a very short backpacking trip (under 30 miles)
Terrain – Can be all kinds of terrain, but generally on man made and established trails. No need for special equipment.
Experience Level – All ability levels

Trekking

Duration – Usually at least 3 days and beyond.
Difficulty – Intermediate to very hard
Length – Generally30+ miles
Terrain – All types of terrain. With longer distances, it does mean that trekking may take place on non-established trails. No need for special equipment other than camping gear.
Experience Level – All ability levels – but need to be able to be on the trail for multiple days.

Backpacking

Duration – 2 days to 2 weeks. (Longer than that, and backpacking is pretty much the same thing as trekking.)
Difficulty – Intermediate to very hard
Length – Usually 10+ miles
Terrain – All types of terrain, generally on man made and established trails. No need for special equipment other than camping gear.
Experience Level – All ability levels – but need to be able to be on the trail for multiple days.

Mountaineering

Duration – Any duration
Difficulty – Very difficult
Length – Any length
Terrain – Usually higher than class 3 hikes. Meaning climbing or very difficult hiking is involved. Mountaineering usually involves special equipment, like ropes, climbing gear, ice axes, crampons, or other gear for serious terrain.
Experience Level – Generally need to be very experienced, or with very experienced individuals.

Other types of hiking

Hiking and trekking aren’t all that’s out there. One common expression used for long treks is “thru-hiking”. While “trekking” is a common term in Asia, “thru-hiking” is often used for long trips in America. (Like the aforementioned Appalachian Trail.) Again, there isn’t a hard and fast rule. It’s all in what you call it.

Mountaineering is more challenging subset of trekking. Mountaineering involves long treks up to mountain peaks, often over 5,000 feet above sea level. If reaching the Everest Base Camp is a trek, reaching the summit is mountaineering. (That’s an extreme example, but it gets the point across). Mountaineering demands that you know how to climb on ice, wield an ice axe, and keep yourself safe in brutally cold conditions.

Stay safe, explore, and have fun

Whether you prefer the shorter trips of hiking or the rigors of trekking, you’re still experiencing the wonder of nature. You’re getting away from your daily routine, and having an encounter with something larger than yourself.

Hiking and trekking are two very different experiences in terms of rigor and challenge. But they offer many of the same joys and rewards. The most important thing is to get out there.

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