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What is the Difference Between Hiking and Trekking?

A photo of three people trekking.

I have heard the term hiking used commonly throughout my experience in the outdoors. On the other hand, the term trekking is not a word I hear bandied about very often.

At the same time, both focus on a long journey on foot, but there are several differences between the two activities. These differences mostly focus on the time required, necessary equipment, and the activity’s overall purpose.

Let’s Talk About Definitions

One way to understand the difference between two words is to examine their definitions. So, according to Merriam-Webster, a hike is “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise.

” While the same dictionary defines a trek as “a trip or movement especially when involving difficulties or complex organization: an arduous journey.” As you can see, the definitions are quite different, and one thing stands out to me more than others.

Hiking is for “pleasure or exercise,” while trekking involves “difficulties” and can be described as “an arduous journey.” It seems that one may be more difficult than the other.

Now, I won’t jump into defining specific words within the definitions, but other key indicators highlight differences. It seems that more organization is required for trekking and will often involve more people.

In contrast, a hike can be done on a whim with some friends and bottles of water. Interestingly, the synonyms for each word are quite different, according to Merriam-Webster. A hike is synonymous with a stroll, a tromp, or perambulate (my personal favorite).

In comparison, synonyms for trek include pilgrimage, voyage, or trip. From my own experience, I believe that I have hiked quite a bit in my life, and I rarely have, if ever, trekked.

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Time Required

When comparing and contrasting hiking and trekking, one of the key indicators that highlights the difference between the two activities is how much time each one requires. Hiking requires less time than trekking.

Going for a hike can be a fun activity that requires varying lengths of time. We enjoy going to several local trails close by and spending an hour or two hiking in my family.

On other occasions, I participated in more challenging hikes that required much more time, but most were one-day activities. Hiking can even span multiple days as you make a trip and spend several days hiking in the woods. But, a trek will not be as simple or short as a hike.

While a hike can be measured in hours, a trek will never be a few hours or even a single-day experience. Trekking requires much more time and requires those involved to commit to days, weeks, and even months in the wild.

For example, it would not be fair to say that the pioneers who settled the Western United States in the 1800s hiked. The proper term would be that these people trekked.

And, because the difference in the time required between hiking and trekking is rather drastic, the equipment needed can be very different.

Equipment Needed

A photo of equipments needed for hiking in a white background.

Some of the equipment needed for hiking and trekking is the same. Because trekking requires more time and effort, more equipment is generally necessary. To hike safely, you should have these supplies with you.
•    Good hiking boots or shoes
•    Enough water for the duration of the hike
•    Proper clothing for inclement weather
•    Hiking backpack or bag
•    Plenty of food or snacks
•    Map
•    Compass
•    Knife
•    First-Aid kit

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Hikers should have a good pair of shoes that will be durable, comfortable, and not blister your feet. They should also be prepared for any type of weather that the region can offer. Layers are encouraged as hikers should be able to add or shed layers of clothing.

Water is essential, and hikers should always have plenty of water. It is recommended that hikers drink 16 ounces of water an hour, generally. Each person’s individual water needs are different, but to find out more, you can use a hydration calculator to help find out your body’s needs.

A good pack will help you on your hike to carry water, food, and other important things like a first-aid kit. 

Those going on a trek will need everything a hiker needs, but it must be sustainable and transportable for multiple days. Here is a list of what is necessary for a trek.

  • Good boots or shoes
  • Water and water purification tablets, or a water purifier
  • Layered clothing and changes of clothing
  • Enough food and a plan to obtain or replenish food stores
  • Matches, lighter, or flint and steel
  • Map and compass
  • First-Aid kit
  • Knife
  • Hatchet or Ax
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag and pad
  • Something to cook with, like a stove or burner
  • Hygiene supplies like a toothbrush, deodorant, and soap
  • Supplies for cooking like pots, pans, utensils, etc.
  • A convenient way to transport all your gear

The trekking materials are more extensive and much heavier than those for hiking. While on a trek, you must be able to move on each day towards your destination, cook, set up shelter, and eat along the way.

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This requires cooking utensils, a stove to cook with, and a way to continually replenish your water. The length of your trek will dictate how much food and clothing you will need to pack with you.

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The Purpose of Hiking and Trekking

As mentioned before in the definitions of hiking and trekking, the two activities are very different in purpose. Hiking, in large part, is deemed a leisure activity and, at its most strenuous, a form of exercise.

That does not mean that hiking is less, wimpy, or not beneficial. Of course, hiking is a great activity for everyone. It has health benefits and provides an opportunity to experience nature positively.

Trekking is defined as an organized journey to arrive at a certain destination. When on a trek, you move towards a specific goal to reach a place. A long time ago, multiple populations uprooted and trekked across countries, continents, and oceans to find a new home.

More modernly, a trek can be done by challenging incredibly difficult terrain like those huge mountains in the Himalayas. In this case, the purpose is not leisure or exercise. It is the reach the summit. When on a trek, you are on a physically demanding journey of discovery.  

Just because a trek seeks to challenge the most difficult terrain does not mean that you cannot also feel that sublimity in nature while hiking. Nor does it mean that you cannot go on a hike to reach the top of a mountain or find that beautiful vista.

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Hikers can challenge themselves and find incredible experiences in their hikes. Just because a trek takes longer and is more extreme does not mean that hiking will not also provide that communion with nature you are looking for.

I have been able to have incredible experiences in hiking and, dare I say, even spiritual experiences. It is good to get on a mountain top and feel very small occasionally. Getting out of doors and taking on a challenging trail, even for a few hours, can benefit your in so many ways.

Trekking and Backpacking

A photo of a woman who travels in mountain.

While the differences between hiking and trekking seem fairly standard, there may be another term that can confuse, backpacking. What is the difference between backpacking and trekking? They both are multiple-day journeys that require a lot of the same things.

And, the difference is pretty slight. However, trekking is a term that isn’t used as much in the US. That does not mean that backpacking is the same thing. But, backpacking is the activity most closely associated with trekking.

Trekking often will include transporting supplies and gear without using a giant pack. For example, settlers used wagons, horses, and even pull carts to trek across the US.

Often, there are ways to trek without relying solely on a pack on your back. In contrast, by definition, backpacking requires that you carry your gear on your back.

While this contrast may be small, the implications can be quite large. For example, using animals, vehicles, or other people to help with the packing of gear, you can transport much more on a trek.

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Climbing Mount Everest would be described as a trek. Or expeditions into the wilds of the Amazon can be described as treks.

So, can you be backpacking and trekking at the same time? Yes, in a way. Generally, the activity of backpacking would not be considered trekking. But, at times during a trek, you may be backpacking. I find it easiest to distinguish between hiking and trekking.

Then, slip backpacking in the middle as the link between hiking and trekking. To be on a trek, you will be off the beaten path, facing the toughest of obstacles for days, months, or weeks.

And, to get to your location safely, you may need the help of transport, pack animal, or another form of aid. In essence, a modern trek is a journey to the most difficult places to get.

Backpacking will not use anything but your own two legs, and your strong back to carry what you need and arrive at your destination. But, you may not be able to backpack to every location. To reach certain places, you must go on a trek.