Sun on your face, wind in your hair, dirt on your skin, fresh air in your lungs—there are really few things in life as cathartic as spending time outdoors. For many people, hiking or trekking through the wilderness is immensely appealing. You’ve probably heard the terms used interchangeably, but there are actually several differences between the two.
Hiking is characterized by short, energetic trips through nature that take two days or less to complete and that typically end back at the initial location. Trekking, on the other hand, takes anywhere from several days to months and requires significantly more skill and preparation.
Both hiking and trekking come with tremendous benefits for your overall physical, emotional, and mental health. Your preference for one over the other will largely depend on what outcomes you are seeking and what you hope to accomplish overall.
By definition, hiking typically involves a designated trail and only takes place during a single day. Hikes can be in the mountains, through a forest, along the coastline, or in any other natural environment. The trails are almost always marked by a designated trailhead and easy to identify because they are groomed and maintained by local outdoor recreational services.
Some trailheads will have a booth where drivers will pay a fee prior to entering the parking lot and getting out to begin the hike; other trailheads simply consist of signposts or maps that indicate the name, length, and route of the hike.
Hikers typically end where they started; either the trail loops through natural scenery and comes back to the trailhead, or it ends at a destination from which hikers turn around and hike directly back. Both types of hikes are appealing.
A loop hike will provide variety and interesting, new scenery the entire way through. An in-and-out hike often comes with the advantage of working your way uphill at the beginning, when you have the most energy, and then, once your muscles are tired, enjoying the reward of an easier, downhill hike back to the base of the mountain.
Hiking typically only lasts a day or so, with the shortest hikes being a little under an hour and the longest hikes requiring one overnight camping stay between hiking days. By nature, hiking is energetic and fast-paced, with a destination in mind and a clear path to follow. Though hiking is often rigorous, hikers around the world adore this outdoor hobby for countless reasons.
People around the globe are drawn to hiking because it is relatively easy to learn and full of rewarding benefits. Here are a few of the top reasons to hike:
- A Healthy Heart – Hiking has been proven to reduce your risk for heart disease, improve your blood pressure, and help regulate blood sugar levels. It’s a cardio workout, meaning that it gets your heart pumping and helps keep your heart functioning in optimal health.
- Incredible Views – Needless to say, one of the most rewarding aspects of hiking is the view. High above the rest of the world, you can take in a stunning vista of mountain scenery. Even deep in the forest, jungle, or desert, hiking will bring you to some of the most breathtaking views Earth has to offer.
- Toned Muscles – As you work your way up a mountain or even along a simple trail, you are toning muscles throughout your entire body. Your legs will become especially strong due to the amount of strain put on the muscles in your thighs and calves. Hiking has even proven to reduce the symptoms of Osteoporosis and Arthritis because it increases your bone density and slows down the rate of calcium loss.
- Stronger Memory – Hiking removes your body and mind from the overwhelming stimuli of daily life, allowing your mind to wander as you move through the wilderness. Your brain needs neutral time to make connections between past and present events, and it often doesn’t get that kind of open time during a busy day at school or work. Similar to meditating, hiking has been shown to relieve mental fatigue and strengthen your ability to remember and reflect upon events in your life. And when you return to the demands of your occupation during the week, hiking will have also improved your ability to focus on the tasks at hand.
- Weight Loss – If you want to lose weight in a sustainable, enjoyable way, hiking is the answer. Hiking stabilizes your cholesterol levels, targets fat cells, and burns anywhere from 100 to 500 calories per hour depending on how fast you’re going. Studies have shown that people who regularly hike are not only more likely to lose weight than people who complete a regimented exercise, but they are also more likely to keep the weight off long term.
- Mental Health – Unequivocally, hiking is a sure way to boost your mood and improve your overall mental health. Compared to urban settings, researchers found that the brains of frequent hikers were better at handling symptoms of depression, anxiety, and many other mental illnesses. Stress levels were also significantly lower, in turn lowering the risk of long-term health impacts like strokes.
- Emotional Regulation – Increased urbanization may be one of the reasons that mental and emotional health have declined so rapidly in recent years. Studies indicate that increased exposure to nature directly correlates with an increased ability to identify and regulate emotions. In one study, neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is typically active during the repetition of negative thoughts, decreased dramatically when participants were hiking.
- Enhanced Relationships – It’s always a good idea to go hiking with a friend or family member; never go alone. Not only will you be safer with a hiking buddy, but you’ll also be able to deepen those personal relationships in a unique way. You and your hiking friends will bond over the difficult things you’ve physically conquered together, and with minimal distractions, you’ll have significantly more time for deep, genuine conversations.
- Lower Stress – Studies have shown that people who hike are likely to have reduced levels of adrenaline and cortisol because the body feels more in control of its environment. As you hike, the intentional use of multiple muscles with each movement can help relieve the overall tension in your body, reducing stress levels and bringing you back to a centered, calm state of mind.
- Increased Creativity – Because of all the mental and emotional benefits of hiking, your mind will also become more creative. Hikers have demonstrated higher levels of problem-solving skills and situational creativity than non-hikers in the workplace. Because your body is simultaneously relaxing and working hard, hiking allows your mind to generate new ideas and come up with solutions to problems. This is one of the many reasons that hikers will find themselves wandering in the wilderness when they have a personal problem to ponder and address.
- Boosted Immune System – Exposure to pollen, insects, fresh air, soil, foliage, and Vitamin D from the sun will strengthen your immune system. Hike regularly, and your body will be more prepared than ever to fight any illnesses that come your way.
- Higher Energy Levels – Hiking releases endorphins, the hormones associated with a positive mood, motivation, and intrinsic energy levels. The sights, smells, and sensations of time away from the bustle of daily life will do wonders for your mood. It can even lower the risk for depression and anxiety, filling your body with a hopeful, confident feeling. If you can scale a mountain, you can face whatever tomorrow will bring!
Preparing for Hiking
If you’re interested in hiking but you feel a little inexperienced, there’s no need to be intimidated! Hiking is as easy and relaxing as you want it to be. Look online or through local Parks and Recreational services to learn what kinds of trailheads are near you. Start with a simple, relatively short hike that has minimal elevation gain. And unless you’re preparing for a particularly long or rigorous hike, you’ll only need to pack a few essentials.
- Check the weather beforehand to be sure that you dress in the appropriate amount of layers; you don’t want to overheat or freeze! It never hurts to bring an extra jacket in case it rains or is windier than you expected.
- Wear comfortable shoes. They should be well broken-in and fit your feet nicely. Never wear brand new shoes on a hike; you will get blisters.
- Pack nutritional snacks, like trail mix, protein bars, apples, or sandwiches. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can get hungry while on the trail, and the best way to prevent yourself from feeling prematurely fatigued is to regularly replenish your energy with proteins and healthy carbs.
- Bring plenty of water. The number one health emergency that park rangers deal with each year is dehydration. Far too often, amateur hikers underestimate the amount of water they will need on a hike. As a rule of thumb, bring at least one water bottle per person for every couple of miles you plan on hiking.
- It never hurts to have a few emergency items. Bring a flashlight, a first-aid kit, a fire starter, a pocketknife, a compass, and a handheld radio to be prepared. It’s unlikely that you’ll face a significant emergency on an established trail, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
- Put all of these items in a comfortable backpack so that you can evenly distribute their weight as you carry them. Grab a friend or two, and you’re ready for adventure!
Trekking, also known as backpacking, is a step up from hiking; it’s far more rigorous but still a favorite among outdoorsmen. Typically, trekking involves a long, vigorous hike through wild, unmarked environments over a period of several days—even months. The terrain is often rugged, and the journey itself often begins at one location and ends at a meaningful destination, like a mountaintop or a waterfall.
Trekking is not for the faint of heart or rookies. Living in the wilderness for anywhere from several days to several months requires significant training and a refined outdoor skill set. You need to know how to set up camp, how to start a fire, what areas and animals to stay away from, which plants you can eat, where to find drinking water, how to purify water, how to administer first aid, and so much more. So, if it’s so demanding and intimidating, what’s the appeal?
For the sake of avoiding redundancy, trekking provides all of the same aforementioned benefits of hiking, only to a more significant degree. The mental, emotional, and physical benefits are magnified by the length and difficulty of the journey. In addition to the previous list, here are the added advantages of trekking that make it so appealing to avid hikers:
- Isolation – People who love trekking tend to love time away from the rush and pressures of urban society. Time wandering through meadows, valleys, forests, jungles, and mountains provides an unparalleled sense of self; you are able to connect with your physical capabilities, your thoughts, and your intentions in a way that few other activities could afford.
- Empowerment – As you push your body beyond its normal physical capacity, your confidence increases dramatically. Scaling mountains day after day, or even persevering through a long, open distance, you’ll be amazed at what your body can accomplish when you prioritize mind over matter. That’s not to say that you should ignore your physical needs; take good care of your body and be attentive to its demands. But it’s indescribably empowering to journey from one destination to another, motivated only by your own thoughts and desires. That empowerment is shown to transfer into daily, regular life once you return from your trek.
- Communion – For many people, trekking is a deeply personal, even spiritual experience. Something about sleeping under the stars, walking among wildflowers, and feeling the open wind on your face has the power to unite your soul and mind in purpose. Whether you are the sort of person who worships a higher power or the sort of person who simply enjoys personal reflection, all trekkers will testify that it is a deeply transformative experience.
Preparing for Trekking
When preparing to go trekking, you’ll need a lot more than simple hiking gear. And before even considering trekking, do several hikes and become familiar with your personal capacity. It can be incredibly dangerous to begin a journey you can’t finish, especially when you’re far away from health and rescue services. Train well, and be sure that you’re in physical shape.
Once you’re sure that you are capable of completing a trek, pack all of the basics for hiking, in addition to the following:
- A tent, tarp, and sleeping pad
- A sleeping bag and/or hammock
- Pots, pans, and a mess kit
- Portable meals and snacks (jerky, campfire dinners, oatmeal, etc.)
- Hygiene supplies (soap, pads, washcloths, etc.)
- Portable stove and fuel
- Water bottles and water purifiers/filters
- Hiking boots or sturdy shoes
- Extra clothing (jackets, tees, shorts, pants, socks, underwear)
- A map or compass
- Sunscreen and/or a hat; lotion or aloe for burns
Which Is Harder: Hiking or Trekking?
In summary, the main differences between hiking and trekking are the terrain, duration, distance, destination, and enjoyment that the individual pursues and experiences. Below is a table that visually outlines these differences:
|Enjoyment||Usually done for simple, scenic enjoyment||Usually done to overcome an arduous, physical task|
|Destination||Specific destinations are not required, but common||Often with a specific, rewarding location in mind|
|Distance||Anywhere from 1 mile to 40 miles||At least 40 miles, often more|
|Duration||A few hours to two days||Several days, weeks, even months|
|Terrain||Along designated, maintained trails||Either designated paths or open wilderness|
Generally speaking, trekking is much harder than hiking, but it all depends on how in shape you are and what kind of journey you decide to undertake. Either way, you’re bound to have a marvelous time enjoying all that the natural world has to offer.