What's The Difference Between Hiking and Walking?

8 min read

Have you ever taken a brisk walk through varying terrain grades? Depending on your level of fitness, you may have found yourself a bit tired afterward.

Likewise, you may have also hiked a trail that felt like a breeze. If the hike was easy, would you consider it a hike at all? Or was it more of a walk?

I've completed countless walks and hikes. Sometimes on a paved road in the wilderness, sometimes on steep hills in a city. There are times when the difference between hiking and walking feels like a fine line.

If you're like me, you may often wonder "what's the difference between hiking and walking?" Walking is the activity of traveling by foot at a regular pace on flat paths. Hiking is a long walk at varying elevations, oftentimes in the wilderness or country.

Even with textbook definitions, the fine line between hiking and walking gets blurry. When you're uncertain if you're hiking or walking, there are some other things to consider. This can be your pace, physical effort, and distance.

Regardless, let's explore the differences a bit more. At the end of this article, you will be able to discern the differences between hiking and walking.

What's Considered Walking?

Textbook definitions aside, walking is regarded as moving at a normal, steady pace. For differentiation, most "normal" walking is typically done on flat surfaces or moderate inclines/declines.

Walking has several health benefits. It helps improve your cardiovascular health, and mental health, and even helps with building leg strength. Walking for about 30 minutes a day for overall health is recommended.

Generally, the normal pace of walking pace is going to be anywhere from 2mph to 3mph, depending on age, and a brisk pace will be anywhere from 3mph to 3.5mph. This, of course, depends on your current fitness level. Someone who is more experienced will always set the bar higher.

As far as attire goes, walking attire can be pretty much anything. Whether you're wearing sweatpants, jeans, or cargo shorts, most attire is fitting for a normal walk.

If you're walking for health benefits, though, you will likely be wearing cross-trainer shoes or running shoes, which are specifically designed to help the user keep proper posture and are made to navigate in a forward direction.

What's Considered Hiking?

As far as environmental differences go, hiking is typically walking at a great distance along a trail. Walking for exercise typically occurs in a more urban/residential area.

Unlike walking, hiking involves varying elevation, intensity, and arguably more physical exertion (depending on your goal).

Another difference between hiking and walking is the duration. Most of the time hiking will take place for long periods of time, such as a half-day or, if you're ambitious, an entire day.

In some cases, special equipment may be required for hiking such as the proper hiking boots/shoes, backpacks, and other items. Clothing for a hiker will be quite different, too.

Hikers typically wear heavier shoes (boots), cargo & weather-specific pants, long-sleeved shirts, and thick socks. After all, hitting the trails in some cross-trainers is going to wreak havoc on your feet! And you wouldn't dare risk navigating difficult terrain in basketball shorts.

In regards to gear, you probably don't want to wear hiker's attire on a prolonged, steady-paced walk, either. The weight of the boots can cause excess stress on the joints and muscles. Hiking boots are designed to be used in versatile terrains like rocky paths and dirt hills.

The terrain associated with a hike is typically hilly our mountainous. Hiking trails will often contain ridges, creeks, trees, large rocks, and other possible obstacles. The hiker's stride will also vary depending on their navigation of the terrain.

difference between hiking and walking

Is Hiking Considered Walking?

In most cases, walking in itself is not considered hiking. Although, the act of hiking does involve walking. When you examine the dictionary, the difference between the two often comes down to distance.

For example, here's the definition of walking when used as a verb:

to advance or travel on foot at a moderate speed or pace; proceed by steps; move by advancing the feet alternately so that there is always one foot on the ground in bipedal locomotion and two or more feet on the ground in quadrupedal locomotion.

Now, let's examine the definition of hiking. Or, more specifically, the verb usage of hike:

to walk or march a great distance, especially through rural areas, for pleasure, exercise, military training, or the like.

Although an environment is specified (country or in the woods), the biggest difference here is the distance. Hiking involves walking, naturally. However, not all walking is hiking. Walking in and of itself is just a natural movement.

So indeed, hiking is a form of walking. Albeit a longer and arguably more immersive form. Still, we have to factor in distance to determine a clear-cut difference between hiking and walking.

What Distance Is Considered A Hike?

This is where things become a bit more subjective. For someone who is accustomed to walking a mile, three miles can feel like a great distance. Whereas someone with more experience can consider 5 miles or more a great distance.

To complicate things further, there are several hikes that are about 1 mile long. Answering this question comes down to your own personal opinion. However, most hikers agree that anything over 3 miles is considered a hike.

Remember that we want to keep things simple when determining the difference between walking and hiking. Therefore, it's best to factor in your own personal considerations, such as physical effort and pace. For example, I walk 4 miles a day through town. I wouldn't consider that a hike. I would, however, consider a 4-mile walk through varying elevations and at a brisk pace, a hike. Just take a trip to San Francisco and walk through the city for the day and you'll see my point.

Hiking vs Walking Calories Burned

While both hiking and walking are great for exercise, there is a big difference between the two when you factor in effort and elevation.

For starters, a 4-mile walk at a brisk pace for one hour can burn up to 290 calories. This, of course, depends on your weight and heart rate but is nonetheless a good starting point.

Now, a 4-mile hike at a brisk pace, atop varying terrain and elevation, can burn up to 457 calories.

The clear advantage for calories burned goes to hiking, and it always will. This is due to the fact that elevation increases effort, thus increasing your heart rate.

Having said that, both are still great ways to burn calories and stay in shape, so choose whichever fits your fitness goals best.

Hiking vs Walking: What Muscles Are Used?

If you're doing a hiking vs walking comparison of muscle groups worked, both exercises engage nearly the same muscles.

Though the intensity may be different, thus the stress and recovery of the muscles will be pretty different.

For example: walking on a flat surface for thirty minutes will work your core, legs, and glutes. Whereas taking a hike on an incline for thirty minutes will work the same muscles, but the added incline and need for navigation will put more strain on the muscles, and help improve your balance.

Primary muscles worked from hiking & walking:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core & Stomach
  • Calf Muscles

Secondary muscles worked from hiking & walking:

  • Pelvis & stabilizing muscles
  • The symmetrical tibialis anterior muscles in front of the calf muscles
  • The arm and shoulder muscles

Just like the difference between bodybuilding and strength training, it's going to depend on the execution of the exercise, the effort involved, and the overall resistance. Hiking on steep hills for long periods of time will cause more tears in your muscle fibers, leading to more recovery. Whereas walking will keep those muscles at a strong "foundation" strength.

What's Better, Hiking or Walking?

While some may argue one is better than the other, both are extremely beneficial to your health. "Better" is a very subjective term. What's better for your health isn't always better for someone else's health. While both help with muscle strength, cardio, and mental clarity, the more intense exercise and longer duration will always bring "better" results.

But there are some ways to figure this out, and it comes down to your execution of each activity. If a person hikes a steep trail at a snail's pace for forty minutes, while another person tears up the pavement at 3.5 mph, non-stop for forty minutes, the walker might get the "better" workout.

In any event, walking and hiking are both better than doing nothing at all. Both activities improve your fitness and overall cardiovascular health. Hiking does have some added benefits, such as muscle building, but you shouldn't feel the need to ditch one over the other if you're concerned about fitness. Just pick one and get started.

What's The Conclusion?

To summarize the difference between hiking and walking:

  • Walking: Steady & normal pace along a flat surface, typically in urban environments.
  • Hiking: Walking for a great distance at varying elevations, most often in the wilderness or the country.

At the end of the day, if you're looking to improve your health, both candidates are great choices. So put on your shoes (or boots) and start putting your feet on pavement or soil. Consistent walking is a great way to get into hiking. And consistent hiking is a great way to get into other exercises, too, so give them both a shot.