The Difference Between Hiking, Mountaineering And Climbing

The Difference Between Hiking, Mountaineering And Climbing

Nature is a fascinating place. Humans for thousands of years have traversed the open environment for one reason or another. Adventure is as much a part of being a human as hunting is for many animals. 

There is a natural draw to nature that leads to many outdoor men and women trying to find the perfect type of outdoor activity for them.  It's hard because along with the variety of things that you need to learn to fully enjoy your experience in the wild, even knowing where to begin can be confusing.

Most don't know the difference between hiking, mountaineering, and climbing. Often they are used interchangeably as if they are the same thing when they are unique to the skill set and physical demands that each requires.

Many people who follow one discipline have tried or actively participate in one of the other two.  The most significant difference besides in the skill set that is required is the types of gear that are needed to be able to do it safely.


It is entirely dependent on the type of outdoorsman you are, but in most cases, proper gear is a requirement. In this article, we will go into what each is, and what makes it unique, as well as what is required to participate actively.


Beginning with the harshest of the choices, mountaineering requires all of the skill sets that make an outdoorsman efficient and resilient. Mountaineering is essentially using a mix of gear and physical training to navigate rough terrain to traverse an area's challenges successfully.

Mountaineering is the hardest and in many cases most dangerous because of the wide variety of environmental situations you may find yourself in. It requires hiking and climbing to scale a mountain and may include scaling ice, snow, or rocky terrain.

It requires being able to climb with efficiency through in some cases brand new routes that haven’t been thoroughly tested. It requires a mix of survival aptitude and training that if not done properly can lead to serious injury and maybe even death.

Mountaineering comes in two forms: Alpine & Expedition trips.

  • Alpine: Alpine is a form that happens in smaller groups that usually requires climbing mid-sized mountains. There is less equipment required and is safer and more accessible than expedition trips
  • Expedition: This form of mountaineering requires long trips, usually done in bigger groups with multiple camping stops that require anything from oxygen to pack animals to traverse the rough environment. That said, it’s a significantly more physically arduous and dangerous experience.


Next regarding ease is general climbing. Climbing can be in a variety of forms, both outdoor and indoor. Initially, like mountaineering, a skill set developed out of necessity, it is an immensely popular sport. Solo free climbing is one of the most significant tests of athletic ability and mental willpower.

The risk of injury is significant, and the training requirement and experience level is high because essentially all safety precautions are limited.

Climbing is often used as equivalent to mountaineering. While all mountaineers actively have to climb, not all climbers participate in mountaineering.  Climbing can be limited to climbing a wall inside of a gym that is specifically designed to be a challenge and test problem solving and creative ability.

Climbing is rougher on the knees and joints due to the pressure and rotation placed on them during even rudimentary climbs. The difference in comfort comes down to conditioning your body gradually and not undertaking more than it can handle. 

One of the most common injuries is the tearing of the meniscus from a simple dig and rotation of the leg, which invariably requires surgery and a four to six month recovery time. That said, climbing can be rewarding and a good middle ground for the adventurous.  A climber can climb anything that their skillset is prepared for; the only limitation is equipment and experience.


Hiking is the most simple of all of the three choices. Hiking demands the least, requiring in many cases a reasonable amount of endurance and an affinity for walking long distances. Depending on the severity of your hike and how well prepared you are, hiking can be done in some environments and climates.

One of the most popular ways for many people to hike is to go via a trail. While hiking can be in any environment, most prefer natural settings like forests for their open opportunity for fresh air and the chance to see wildlife. 


Hiking for some is a casual way to get exercise and be immersed in nature whereas others take it very seriously. Hiking can require equipment such as a pack, camping gear, and specialized boots for those that undertake long expeditions such as hiking the Appalachian trail.

Some hikers undergo months-long hikes that require living off the terrain in part or at the least not leaving an imprint. Hiking can be dangerous both due to the isolative nature of long hikes and the dependency on being prepared for any situation. 

Of the three, Hiking is the best starting point for those that want to begin to adventure outdoors and test their limits without extreme risk.

In Closing

To summarize the points that we mentioned above:

  • Mountaineering & Climbing: Mountaineering and climbing do have similarities but in general climbing tends to be a more moderate undertaking for those that want something to do outdoors or indoors that has is physically demanding. 
  • Mountaineering is a whole different level of athleticism and preparation that requires a significant time and financial investment to do and at high personal risk.
  • Hiking: Going out in nature for long walks with or without equipment, the easiest of the options that still is a challenge depending on the intensity, environment, length, and type of trip.

Whichever you are a part of or plan to participate in, safety is critical. There is no shortage of horror stories from even the most casual hike that has gone wrong. Being prepared for anything means being prepared for everything from blisters to wild animals. Before you decide on your next outdoor trip, do your research and know what you are getting yourself into.

Leave a Comment: