Walking, hillwalking, long-distance walking, trekking, hut-to-hut trekking, hiking, long hikes, speed hiking, mountain hiking, backpacking, fastpacking, pilgrimages: these are terms that all more or less describe walking in the great outdoors. Why so many words to describe this wonderful, simple activity where all you do is go outside somewhere and put one foot in front of the other? What differentiates all these “disciplines”? Are there actually any differences worth mentioning? It’s precisely these questions that we want to answer, so we’re taking a closer look at the different disciplines. In doing this, we’re limiting ourselves to movement at a walking pace and without equipment on your feet (such as snowshoes or skis).
Not all walking is the same
An initial answer to the question could be as follows: Outdoor activities on foot are becoming more and more popular, so they’re becoming more and more diversified, too. The spectrum ranges from simple day trips in rural areas close to home to week-long ventures in Central Mongolia. The options vary in terms of their length and the geographical location, as well as according to the effort required and the difficulty. A further differentiating factor for categorising outdoor walking activities is the equipment used. The reason for setting out can also serve as a distinguishing feature. Some people just want to have a nice time, others want to achieve sports goals, while others still want to find themselves or higher meaning. These religious or spiritual motives have become a mass phenomenon with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela along the Way of St. James.
Awkward descriptions, German anglicisms and cool neologisms
The fact that today every variation on moving your feet in nature has been given its own name is likely because we humans like to categorise things. The marketing campaigns of tourism and outdoors companies are definitely not without blame, either, since a wide spectrum of activities naturally brings with it a wide spectrum of equipment and products. Add to this anglicisms from other languages, such as German, which also muddy the waters. These anglicisms can be very practical for German marketing teams, and make it all sound very sexy. At least in comparison to some real German words, which can seem somewhat awkward and outdated to their original audience. So, “speed hiking” seems more impressive than “Hochgeschwindigkeitswandern” (high-speed hiking), and the neologism “fastpacking” rolls off the tongue more easily than “trail running with ultralight packs”, no matter what language you’re speaking!
Nevertheless, this linguistic richness creates vague terminology that can’t always be transferred easily from language to language or marketing campaign to marketing campaign. If you try to, confusion can ensue. For example, the German “Wandern“ can simply be translated as “hiking“ (which, to add to the confusion, can also be “hillwalking” in the UK), while what Germans call “Trekkinghose” are “hiking trousers” or “walking trousers” in English. So are “trekking”, “walking” and “hillwalking” all a little bit different? So it would seem. Then why are “trekking poles” classified as hiking equipment, and why do Germans translate “Trekking pole” as “Wanderstock”?
As if this all wasn’t confusing enough, as well as “trekking”, “hiking” and “walking”, let’s also throw “backpacking” and “fastpacking” into the mix. While the former can include being on the move with a vehicle if we’re talking about tourism, the latter also involves going somewhere with a backpack. “But wait a minute,” you might say. “When I’m hiking or hillwalking I also have my rucksack on my back.” So is it all just rubbish? No, it’s a question of how different regions and countries use the terminology.
Anyway, so far we’ve determined that the terms hiking and hillwalking are identical to Wandern in German. They are always translated like this when, for example, hiking opportunities are touted on a tourism bureau’s multi-lingual website. According to Outdoor Magazin, both describe “daytrips for which a backpack/daypack with a volume of 20 to 30 litres is used”. And for both, you usually return to a fixed place to sleep in the evening. Tours with an overnight stay (in a hut) can thus be defined as hiking tours.
The many other terms for walking in the countryside do not overlap quite so much, but they still cannot always be “cleanly” separated. So perhaps we shouldn’t compare them so much, but instead simply unravel the terms one after the other – then the differences will surely become apparent:
Hiking and hillwalking
If a walk lasts several hours, you can call it a hike. The German Ramblers Association (DWV) sets the more or less arbitrary limit of one hour. Apart from this, the DWV adds “appropriate planning, the use of specific infrastructure (…) (and) suitable equipment” to the definition of hiking.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re walking through woods and meadows, across hills and over mountains, or along rivers, coastlines or beaches. The difficulty is kept in check, since you only walk on “good, marked paths that do not feature any alpine challenges”. The terrain can be traversed without aids, or with minimal ones such as trekking poles. This last thing is, however, no longer part of standard equipment, which is limited to robust, appropriate footwear and clothing that is suitable for the climate of the area.
And that there is a definition that is as beautifully uncomplicated as hiking itself.
Here, the definition is already contained in the name: we’re dealing with hiking in mountainous terrain. Marked or at least clearly recognisable paths and trails are generally used, which can usually be travelled along without a need for climbing equipment. Exposed areas are often secured, and pathless passages are usually short.
The line between hiking and mountain hiking is just as blurred as that between mountain hiking and mountaineering. Attempts to determine it according to individual criteria such as altitude or difference in elevation just wouldn’t make sense either because they could never do justice to the variety of landscapes and all the possible itineraries. So a great number of criteria, such as the equipment required, the length and the planning effort involved, or the demands on fitness, navigational skills, surefootedness and having a head for heights, must also be brought into consideration and compared. The only thing you can say here is that the bar for all these criteria is “set a little bit higher” than when you are “just hiking”.
The range of mountain hikes is very wide, extending from walking along wide forest roads to a managed alpine pasture in the foothills of the Alps, through to ascending an ice-free 3000m peak on the main Alpine ridge. There are also many variations such as high-altitude hiking, which takes place at high altitudes without big differences in elevation; or traversing, which usually progresses from one alpine hut to the next.
The word “trek” means to “march”, “walk” or a variety of other kinds of travel by foot. If you look up “trekking” in the Cambridge Dictionary, it is defined as follows: “the activity of walking long distances on foot for pleasure”.
This would mean that trekking was just the same as hiking, and that trekking, hiking and hillwalking were therefore all interchangeable synonyms. So is it all just rubbish after all? No, of course not! With trekking, you conquer longer distances with more luggage. If nothing else, then, there are differences in the criteria of duration and equipment. According to Trekkingguide.de, there are also other differences in terms of movement and the “means of transport”:
“For us, trekking is a journey over the course of several days on foot, or with simple, muscle-powered vehicles such as a canoe or a bicycle, usually with luggage. You could of course call the whole thing ‘multi-day hiking’, ‘multi-day boating’ and ‘multi-day cycle touring’.”
The destination can also serve as another distinguishing feature:
“Remote, less developed areas in largely untouched natural environments with traditional culture are thus the preferred destinations for trekking.”
This also matches the classic idea of trekking as a kind of precursor to an expedition into isolated areas that are often also culturally “original”. As well as a place to sleep (in the form of a tent), you also take a greater quantity of provisions with you.
But Outdoor Magazin, which is certainly a voice that carries some weight, has it’s very own perspective. According to them:
“As soon as you stay overnight – whether in a hut, a guesthouse or a tent – Outdoor talks about ‘trekking’.“
A somewhat more exclusive point of view, but still completely legitimate. So let’s agree that trekking often leads you to countries far from the Alps such as Nepal or Canada, and happens further from “civilisation” than classic hiking. And you also have substantially more luggage with you, and sometimes you also cross through real wilderness.
Long walks and long-distance hiking
Long walks and long-distance hiking could be defined as putting long stretches behind you over several days or even weeks – and it’s another one of those phenomena that is currently thrusting itself before the public eye like a pop-up window. If you take a look at social media or on the blogosphere, the whole world seems to be off somewhere on an Alpine or a longitudinal crossing at the moment. Why is everyone so eager to march around for days or even weeks? The web portal wandern.com might have an answer:
“When you put a long march behind you where you’ve managed 30 kilometres or even more in one day, when you reach your accommodation with burning feet and an aching back, completely at the end of your strength, your soul rejoices and your heart sings. Thanks to this achievement – and not least because of the high levels of oxygen in your blood – you experience a real rush of happiness.“
The accommodation is also the crucial factor in distinguishing long walks from trekking: unlike the trekker, the long-distance walker never travels through completely undeveloped terrain. And when your long walk doesn’t return to the accommodation that it started from, the Germans further differentiate this as long-distance hiking.
The German and Austrian Alpine Clubs’ trail guide draws the distinction in terms of the length: Long-distance hiking trails are over 500km long and travel through at least three countries. Long walking trails are over 300 km long and travel through at least three states or counties. Of course, these precise specifications don’t prevent anyone from constructing a route that covers as many national and regional long-distance walking and hiking trails as they want!
Because of the connection of long-distance trails to local resources and infrastructure, people who go on these hikes play a much bigger economic role than the trekker. Accordingly, the former are courted much more than the latter. This economic component is also one of the less romantic explanations for the long-distance hiking boom. In this context, more and more paths are being connected to long-distance trails, marked, developed and marketed.
“Long-distance hiking with a spiritual motivation“ – this phrase could sum up the pilgrimage. More than any other, the paths that make up the Way of St. James in Spain, with its atmospheric landscapes and the extensive network of lodgings, attracts long-distance hikers from all over the world. The most famous of them leads from the Pyrenees to St. James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela.
We recently dedicated a whole article to “turbocharged hiking”. This intensified kind of hiking often takes you onto difficult terrain, often with sturdy poles and lightweight equipment. The poles provide stability and strengthen the muscles of the upper body.
At first, speed hiking was mainly done as a recreational sport or training method for other kinds of mountain sports such as ski touring or trail running. Recently, however, it’s increasingly come to be seen as its own type of sport, through which you can develop really good conditioning and coordination skills. Speed hiking also suits the current ultra-light trend. Of course, it now has its own competitions with various distances and degrees of difficulty for the growing number of athletes at different levels.
(Nordic) pole walking
At first glance, this kind of brisk walking with pointed poles may seem to be the same as speed hiking, since here, too, poles are brandished and the walking pace is heightened. But Nordic walking rarely tears through many metres at altitude or particularly long distances. Upon closer inspections, the terrain covered and the speed are also decidedly more comfortable. So, Nordic walking may be located somewhere between strolling, hiking and jogging.
In contrast to speed hiking, this kind of walking, also sometimes called pole walking, has a somewhat sedate image, so you seldom encounter young (Nordic) walkers in the woods and meadows. As a mountain sport, Nordic walking barely gets a mention. Its devotees tend to prioritise its health aspects and the social factor.
Just like speed hiking, fastpacking also swims dangerously close to the waters of the ultra-light concept. Fastpacking is a mixture of (speed) hiking, trekking and mountain running. The motto here is “fast and long”. This means that it happens over several days, on foot, through mountain terrain that is off the beaten track, over steep summits and undeveloped mountain ridges. Ideally, you sleep in a bivvy, or, if you’re a purist, in the open air.
Fastpacking is not for those with no mountain experience, because its minimalism requires an advanced level of training and the ability to handle your equipment with experience and creativity. The light-and-fast attitude of fastpacking is based on the alpine style of mountaineering. Despite this ambition, it is also about minimising the total expenditure without neglecting safety or comfort.
Creative and exotic varieties
Geocaching is the treasure hunt or game of hide and seek for adventurers who are young or young at heart. Playing around a bit with technology and using your GPS device creates a little bit of extra excitement which can even lure people outside who are not so crazy about nature. The GPS device helps to track down the “caches” (treasures) that are now even hidden all over the mountains. Through geocaching, (mountain) hikes seem a little less off-putting, even for young gamers.
Barefoot hiking doesn’t add anything to hiking, it takes something away – the shoes, that is. What is a nightmarish thought for some represents a liberation from constraints for others. Beginners are best off going only a short distance at first, on a suitable surface (grass, sand or soil), so as to feel their way around it, so to speak. Of course, there’s always the option of putting on shoes that you’ve taken with you.
As you can see, the list of activities in the “hiking family” is getting longer and longer. And since we humans keep on tirelessly inventing new outdoor activities , we can only wait in anticipation to see which unorthodox hiking discipline will next be added to the list. So that means: to be continued…