Hiking has many meanings for different people. For some, hiking involves going out to a well-groomed nature trail and simply walking in the outdoors. For others, hiking means going to the backcountry and spending days navigating tough terrain, and others are all about. Some people see hiking as a day trip, while others spend weeks— or even months— through-hiking on long trails like the Appalachian Trail.
There are many types of hiking, and in this article, we will cover the many different ways you can enjoy the sport.
Three Main Types of Hiking
While hiking has lots of subtypes, many people divide hiking into three major categories: day hiking, long-distance hiking, and summit hiking. Each of these categories differ in time commitment, skill level needed, distance, and gear, among other features. These categories also overlap at some times.
|Day Hiking||Long-Distance Hiking||Summit Hiking / Peak Bagging|
|Time Commitment||A few hours to a full day– no overnight trips||At least one night, usually more||Variable|
|Skill Level||Beginner to Expert||Intermediate to Expert||Beginner to Expert (depends upon hike class and length)|
|Distance||Short, often not more than 8-10 miles, but can be for fast hikers or trail running||Almost always more than 10-15 miles||Variable; it might just take a few miles to reach a summit but many miles to get to the mountain itself.|
|Gear||Hiking essentials like sturdy shoes/trail runners, hiking boots, water, etc.||Hiking essentials, overnight equipment- tents, sleeping pads and bags, food for meals, etc.||Possibly advanced footwear like spikes, hiking essentials, day bag if you’re base camping|
Day hiking is how many people get started with hiking. It’s the most accessible type of hiking because it has fewer specialized equipment requirements and doesn’t need as much of a time commitment as longer hikes. Day hiking is also frequently done on well-marked trails, so it’s a great way to learn hiking skills in a safe environment.
You don’t need to bring overnight camping gear on a day hike, although you still need to bring food, water, sun protection, and other components of the Ten Essentials. (That said, use your best judgment; if you’re going for an afternoon hike on a local nature trail on a nice day, you don’t need to bring fire starting equipment with you!) You should also have a sturdy backpack that can carry all of your gear, including snacks and water.
It is worth noting that day hiking can be simple and short, to extremely complex, technical, and long.
Types of Day Hiking
Day hiking is a very broad category, with no specific terrain type, skill level, or distance requirements. However, there are a few subtypes with more specific definitions.
Geocaching is a type of hiking that involves using a GPS device to locate hidden containers, called “caches,” at specific coordinates around the world. Geocaching can be part of a longer hike, but many people enjoy day hiking to cache locations.
Geocaching is a great way to develop navigation skills. It’s like a modern day treasure hunt and is a fun way to get the whole family involved in hiking and enjoying the outdoors.
Not all hiking is about endurance or pushing your body to its limits. Many hikers simply love to get outside and enjoy nature. Hiking is a way to reconnect to the natural world and take some time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Nature hiking can be as simple as an easy-paced ramble through the woods where you simply take the time to notice the world around you. Maybe you’re looking for waterfalls, or you’re a birder listening for the calls of migratory songbirds. Whatever the case is, nature hiking is a great way to connect with the environment, even if it’s just for a few hours.
Longer hiking can also be considered nature hiking. Many of the longest-distance thru-hikers deeply appreciate the beauty of nature and the challenge of natural terrain, while summit hikers get to achieve the rare joy of seeing the world from its highest vantage points.
Trail running is a sport where you run on a hiking trail instead of walking. Trail running can be an activity on its own, or included as part of a larger hiking experience. Trail running often involves technical terrain (but not always), and usually includes some elevation gain.
Trail running creates a new challenge for runners who are used to running on roads or sidewalks. It can be done for exercise or done competitively in trail running races.
There is no set exact distance that determines whether an adventure is long-distance or hiking or not. Instead, it’s easier to think about long-distance hiking as a time commitment to set it apart from day hiking. Long-distance hiking takes several days to complete– sometimes even longer. Thru-hikers, for instance, may spend months on the trail.
Long-distance hiking is also frequently referred to as backpacking, since they require large backpacks to carry all their gear. Long-distance hikers need to be comfortable camping and spending nights in the backcountry. They need to carry their necessary gear and supplies for several days, including a source of water. For longer hikes, this involves finding water and using a water filter or purification tablets to make the water safe to drink.
Long-distance hikers also need a significant amount of gear, especially when compared to day hiking. They need to be able to carry their tent with them, and at minimum require:
Types of Long-Distance Hiking
There is a lot of variation within long-distance hiking. This category includes everything from a two-day camping trip to months spent on long trails.
Who needs a trail? Not you, if you’re a bushwacker. Bushwacking involves going off-trail with your navigation tools and potentially evan a machete in jungle like areas. Bushwackers push their way through the backcountry, moving branches and bushes in their way. The terrain is always varied and the difficulty is high. You have to be really good at navigation to go bushwacking, and it requires methodical packing and planning.
Hiking is always safest as a group activity, but this is especially true for bushwacking. It can be genuinely dangerous to go alone, since you might not be able to get help immediately when you’re so far off the beaten path. Make sure that everybody in your group is comfortable administering first aid. You should also make sure that you have protective clothing to avoid insect bites, sunburn, thorns, and other hazards.
Section hiking involves completing parts of a longer route or trail. It’s a slower, more methodical approach to completing a trail, and is a great way to see parts of famous trails like the John Muir Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or the Appalachian Trail. You can section hike on shorter trails, too– all that matters is you choose a point and then turn around and go home.
Many section hikers like to do parts of the same trail until the whole trail is completed. It’s much more beginner-friendly than other types of long-distance hiking, because it involves staying on a trail and only doing as much as you can handle in a certain amount of time. You can also take different approaches to a trail, so that you are seeing a new part of it each time you take on a section.
Thru-hiking is the longest form of long distance hiking. It involves completing an entire long trail or route, like the Sierra High Route or the Pacific Crest Trail.
These hikes take several months to complete, and are extremely involved and often difficult. For example, there may be stretches of trail that take you far away from civilization with no guarantee of clean water for days. Thru-hiking is hard work, but the people who practice this type of hiking find it incredibly rewarding.
Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
You can go long-distance hiking at any time of the year, but winter hiking requires special considerations and equipment. If you’re doing a long-distance hike in winter, you will require gear with better insulation and maybe even a heater to help you stay warm in your tent.
Snowshoeing can be part of a longer hike or a day hike activity in the winter. It can be used to access different parts of the backcountry and reach challenging locations.
Snowshoeing involves attaching a wide, flat overshoe to your regular hiking footwear. Hiking snowshoes can offer different amounts of traction, so make sure to choose a snowshoe that can support your activity needs.
Summit hiking is hiking up to the summit of a mountain or peak. This type of hiking is for those that want to sit on top of peaks. Difficulty of peaks can vary widely.
There is plenty of overlap between summit hiking and mountaineering. Generally, summit hiking is challenging hiking, while mountaineering can involve more rock climbing or even ice climbing skills. Mountaineering is usually riskier, requiring additional safety equipment like harnesses and helmets, which you don’t typically need for summit hiking.
Types of Summit Hiking
While at its core, summit hiking involves climbing up a mountain, reaching the peak, and coming back down, there are lots of ways to engage with this type of hiking.
Base camping is extremely popular with summit hikers who want to reach numerous close peaks. This type of hiking has you setting up your tents at a base camp location, then taking shorter hikes and returning to the base camp between trails.
Base camping means that you can leave your heavy gear in one place and take shorter hikes with less equipment. It can be combined with other types of hiking, like trail running or bushwacking, to extend the amount of time you spend in the backcountry.
Glacier hiking or glacier scrambling is a type of summit hiking that can only be done in areas of the world where glaciers are. This type of hiking is highly technical and best done with an experienced guide.
Glacier hiking is very similar to more advanced types of mountaineering; because you are directly on ice, you will need crampons, harnesses, and ice axes for safety. You’ll also need crevasse rescue skills, knowledge, and equipment.
Peak bagging is another name for summit hiking, but usually refers to going on a series of hikes in an area. The name doesn’t refer to specific equipment. Instead, it refers to getting a number of peaks “in the bag.” This type of hiking frequently involves hiking a series of peaks. These include many famous groups of mountains, including:
- Adirondack High Peaks: The 46 peaks above above 4,000 feet in the Adirondack Mountains
- California 14ers: The 15 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet
- Colorado 14ers: 58 peaks above 14,000 feet in Colorado
- New Hampshire 4,000 Footers: 48 peaks in New Hampshire above 4,000 feet
- Seven Summits: The highest peak on each of the seven continents
- Wainwrights: 214 fells in England’s Lake District described in Alfred Wainwright’s guidebooks
- Washington Cascades: Several peaks in Washington state, including Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount Baker.
Hiking vs. Climbing
If your outdoor recreation takes you into the mountains, you may find that some of your hiking overlaps with rock climbing or bouldering to an extent. Some hiking routes may require you to haul yourself over rocks using your hands.
Hikes are rated on difficulty scales, also called a class system. The most common one used in the US is the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS. On the YDS, hikes are rated 1-4, and climbs begin at a 5. If you aren’t comfortable climbing, check your hike’s rating before you go. You can even find out from the local hiking community what obstacles they’ve encountered on your chosen hike.
Hiking vs. Trekking
Trekking is a type of hiking, but the exact definition of it is nebulous. Generally, trekking is more strenuous hiking and takes days to complete. It may involve going a great distance or through challenging terrain. There’s no set definition for trekking; what one person considers trekking might be just a long hike for somebody else. But generally, here are the key differences that many people cite between hiking and trekking.
|Length||Any length||~30+ miles|
|Duration||Any duration||At least 2-3 days, usually longer.|
|Ability Level||Varies||Any level, but you need to be able to stay on the trail for at least a few nights|
|Difficulty||Beginner to advanced||Intermediate to advanced|
|Terrain||All types of terrain||All types of terrain and often includes some time away from established trails|
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about