What Is the Difference Between Hiking and Mountaineering?

If you want to know what the difference is between hiking and mountaineering, this text is for you. Both differences and similarities are explained in detail. Keep reading.

The terms hiking and mountaineering describe activities that share many common features, but there are also important differences.

In my view, mountaineering is more technical, and it requires more specialized equipment and knowledge than hiking. But indeed, in some cases it is hard to distinguish which is which.

This is close to what you can read at some other places. So at the site realbuzz they write “As a general rule, hiking is a pursuit that can be followed without the need for any specialist or technical equipment, whilst mountaineering will require the use of technical equipment such as rope, a harness, crampons and ice axes.”

But let’s see a bit more about these terms and activities.

What Is the Difference Between Hiking and Mountaineering - top picture from my tour in Swiss Alps.
From my tour in Swiss Alps.

What is hiking? 

The main title of this post is the exact question that I found on the Internet. So it implies that there are differences. To understand them, it is important to know what is what.

The definition of hiking is discussed in my separate text dealing with hiking and trekking differences. So in Merriam-Webster, the term hiking implies “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise”.

Some other sources mentioned there also seem to define it as an outdoor activity for recreation and pleasure.

What is mountaineering?

In Merriam-Webster, mountaineering is defined as “the sport or technique of scaling mountains.” The same definition is in Cambridge Dictionary.

There is one word here that may be confusing, i.e., ‘scaling’. So from the same source scaling means “to climb up a steep surface, such as a wall or the side of a mountain, often using special equipment”

I must say that not every mountaineering tour implies scaling, so this definition of mountaineering is not necessarily completely correct.

In addition, I am totally convinced that for true mountaineers, this activity is also done for pleasure. Yes, I am aware of those who speak about conquering a mountain, but I am talking about true mountaineers.

A comment about ‘conquering mountains’, I find this word particularly inappropriate, inadequate, and frankly disgusting when this is about mountain climbing. So I finally said publicly this what I have kept in me for many years.

But in any case, you see the difference?

  • Mountaineering is considered as a sport. Wow, this means I am a sportsman.
  • The word ‘technique’ is used in its definition.
  • In the definition of ‘scaling’ there is also a phrase ‘often using special equipment’.

From all this, it seems we are heading in the right direction, and we can to some extent indeed understand the differences between hiking and mountaineering.

Note also that I use the terms mountaineering and mountain climbing as synonyms, this is discussed in my separate text.

Hiking and mountaineering differences

Mountaineering:

  • It requires at least some elements of special equipment. These may include a helmet, a rope, a harness, crampons, an ice axe, some particular mountaineering boots, etc. Therefore, in the beginning you will invest some money in this activity. But most of the elements mentioned here will last your lifetime.
  • It is defined as a sport. Frankly speaking, this is not how I see it, but this is up to you. When I go to the mountains, this is not to compete with anybody. It is to feel alive, and to get in touch with the beauty of our planet.
  • Mountaineering may be more physically challenging and it requires at least some basic knowledge about using the mentioned equipment. This is why the word technique is used in its definition.
  • It may be dangerous and life-threatening. If you have ever crossed a glacier solo, you will know this. More about this you can see in my separate text where I discuss dangers of mountain climbing.
  • Regarding the goal, for me mountaineering implies getting to the summit. But there are many tours in the mountains that require special equipment and they are without summiting, but they cannot be described as hiking.
  • Regarding the terrain, obviously this is about mountains only. You have seen the top picture above, this is from my tour to Pigne de la Le in Swiss Alps. But mountains do no necessarily imply ice and snow, see this photo that shows a breathtaking beauty of Slovenian Alps:
Slovenian Alps, from my tour to Mangart.
Slovenian Alps, from my tour to Mangart.

Hiking:

  • No need for special equipment, so in principle no initial investment, except for clothing that you can normally use in your daily life as well.
  • Easy to get started.
  • Not necessarily life-threatening.
  • Anybody in normal physical situation can do it.
  • Regarding the goal, this can be quite a list. This may imply summiting (a mountain or a hill), round tours, visiting mountain huts, hut to hut tours.
  • Regarding the terrain, this may include a lot. So you may go to the mountains, to the hills, you may do canyoning tours, this can be in the countryside, in the desert.

Hiking and mountaineering similarities

  • These are cardio activities. Trust me on this if you have never been on a hiking or mountaineering tour. These are excellent activities if this is what you need.
  • Both are done for pleasure.
  • Both may imply scrambling.
  • You will burn lots of calories for both hiking and mountaineering. More in my separate text.
  • If you wish, you can use trekking poles for both activities. This is useful for stability on a rough terrain, and also good to make your arms muscles more active.
  • Both may require basic knowledge about orientation, a compass and maps use.
  • Both hiking and mountaineering need clothing that will protect you from the rain.
  • You will need a backpack for both activities, so this implies some weight. Bear this in mind if you have any problems with you back. I myself frequently have some issues with rhomboid pain and it is there when I carry a pack. How I deal with it? I have to use pain killers trying to save the day on a mountain tour, but they usually do not help.
  • It is very possible to make living hiking and mountaineering. The process is explained in my another text.
  • Both hiking and mountaineering may include getting to high summits. This is where confusion starts. If you want to see an example, see this picture from my tour of Barrhorn. This is the highest snow-free mountain in the Alps in summer time, 3610 meters high. The summit is visible in the picture, and to get there this is all just a walk up. So is this mountaineering or hiking?
Barrhon summit, Swiss Alps.
Barrhon summit, Swiss Alps.
  • But this is nothing compared to a discussion about ‘hiking Eiger’ that I have seen recently in a Facebook group. This shows a serious confusion or an incredible arrogance.

What is the difference between hiking and mountaineering boots?

This is a very good question and very relevant for this post because boots/shoes are the most important element in both of these activities.

I mentioned already that for some mountaineering tours you may need special boots, insulated or non-insulated for glacier climbs. The picture below shows my La Sportiva Nepal Extreme Mountaineering Boots for Men on the summit of Punta degli Spiriti in the Italian Alps. They are insulated and designed to be used with crampons.

La Sportiva Nepal Extreme Mountaineering Boots for Men.
La Sportiva Nepal Extreme Mountaineering Boots for Men.

But many mountaineering tours can indeed be done in boots that are suitable for hiking as well and vice versa. I am talking about boots that have flexible yet strong sole, and a good grip.

I am one of those who believe that a good ankle support is important. My favorite of that type that I use in the mountains are Lowa Renegade and Salomon Boots, and these boots are perfect for any hiking tour on a harsh terrain.

So in many situations you can use the same boots for both activities, but you will need some extra for hard mountaineering adventures.

Final thoughts

In summary, I can only hope that I have helped you a bit in understanding the differences and similarities between hiking and mountaineering. In addition to this text, you might want to read also my another text about dangers of mountain climbing.

If you think I have missed to mention something important, or you need more help, just let me know, there is a comment box below.

You might want also to read my text about ventilated backpacks and also my text on what to do if you are caught in a storm in the mountains. Thank you for reading.

 
Me on Jalovec.Hi, I am Jovo, the founder of this OutdoorsFAQs site and several other outdoor sites. I have been mountaineering for almost 40 years already, and I have created this site to use as a reference for various questions that I receive in my sites. Being a theoretical physicist by profession, I tend to base my answers on facts and on my own personal experience.

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