Hiking and mountaineering are both excellent ways to adventure outside. However, the scope and skill required differ between the two. In this guide, I’ll lay out the definitions of both, compare them and answer some questions related to both. After reading this, you’ll be better able to decide which activity is the right fit for you!
What Is Mountaineering?
Mountaineering is extreme hiking. It tackles towering snow-capped mountains with the use of technical equipment. You’ll use gear like ropes, crampons, and mountaineering or ice axes. Mountaineering technical knowledge also involves rock climbing, scrambling, and high levels of exposure.
If you’re walking on a trail, you’re likely on a hiking trip. If you’re trying to ascend tall mountains with technical equipment, you’re mountaineering. The two overlap because you often need approach trails, hiking boots, and hiking supplies to reach big mountains. Once you break out the specialized equipment, though, you’re mountaineering.
Visit our How to start mountaineering article for more information.
What Is Hiking? - Is It The Same As Walking?
Hiking is best described as a recreational walk in the woods or mountains. It largely occurs on established trails but can involve a bit of off-trail travel as well. Hiking alludes to outdoor adventures without the use of technical gear. Hiking tours can take all day or as little as a few hours. Multi-day trips are usually referred to as backpacking.
Hiking involves walking, but they aren’t the same. If you go for a walk, you may not bring a backpack, hat, liters of water, or snacks. It may simply be a walk around your neighborhood. Hiking is a concentrated effort to move through nature with supplies, sturdy hiking boots, and appropriate outdoor clothing (quick-dry, rain gear, hiking socks, etc.).
Hiking is also not the same thing as trekking. The movements are the same, but trekking takes place over many days and may not involve a trail at all. Popular trekking adventures include the Inca Trail and John Muir Trail.
What Skills & Equipment Do You Need For Mountaineering?
Mountain climbing requires more from its participants. You should have the skills (and technical equipment) below before you try it.
- Glacier travel. Glaciers are complex sheets of ice that grow and retreat under the pressure of their own weight. This can create crevasses or bergschrunds. Mountaineers need to have the technical skills to get over these features.
- Self Arresting. Falling on snow is very different than on dry land. Once you're down, you may slide. Self-arresting is a technical skill that demonstrates proficiency in slowing down your slide. Success here gives you an emergency handbrake in case you fall on snow.
- Rock scrambling. Just short of roped climbing, scrambling uses all four appendages to get up and down sections. Many mountaineering routes are mixed routes featuring ample snow climbing and rock scrambling. It helps to know the 11 types of climbing holds if you’re going to be climbing or scrambling.
- Rock Climbing. Above scrambling, rock climbing requires full use of rock climbing gear, including harnesses, ropes, and cams or wedges. For steep snow climbing, you may also want to use ropes, pickets, and screws. Visit our guide on Essential Rappelling Gear for more information.
- Comfort in exposed terrain. Big mountains have big exposure. You need to be comfortable scrambling or snow-climbing something very steep with nothing but air underneath you.
- Crampons. Crampons are traction devices. They feature 10-12 sharp points that can slam into ice and hold the weight of a mountaineer. You need to know how to use them and be familiar with the various types. We’ve compiled a list of the Best Crampons for Mountaineering.
- Mountaineering/ice axe. Using a mountaineering axe is a little more complicated than it seems. There are various ways to use an axe for balance, grip, and climbing. How, when, and which part of the axe to use, are technical skills you need to learn and practice. Another overlooked aspect is how to carry an axe. Please keep in mind that a mountaineering axe and an ice axe are not the same thing.
- Personal Locator Beacons. Mountaineering takes place in remote, reception-less environments. Having a good PLB can help people locate you in the event of an emergency.
More than anything else, mountaineering trips are challenging adventures with special equipment. Adventure enthusiasts are often drawn to the challenge aspect. But any mountaineering adventure should be taken very seriously. To be better prepared, here’s our list of the mountaineering gear essentials you should always have with you.
Which Is Better For Exercise: Hiking Or Mountaineering?
Between the two, I’d say hiking is better exercise. You can schedule multiple hikes in a week that hit a certain step or calorie count. Lather, rinse, repeat. If the weather threatens, pick another time or day. All you have to do is bring the 10 essentials and find a trail, park or look up a popular hiking spot. Exercise is only one of several benefits of hiking.
With mountaineering, you’re on the mountain for several days. Each trip will obviously work your body, but you don’t have the freedom to pick a trail and go. Depending on how tall the mountain is, you may also encounter altitude sickness or require supplemental oxygen. At a certain elevation, you’re burning through more energy than your body is able to replenish.
Even if you have the skills and technical gear required to climb tall mountains, your chances of a successful summit are also fairly low. You need good weather conditions, a capable group, and the necessary equipment. Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, only sees about a 50% successful summit rate.
Is Mountaineering More Dangerous Than Hiking?
Yes, mountaineering trips are generally much more dangerous than hiking trips. On big mountains, you may be spending days in extreme environments, which breaks down your body. Between the weight of your specialized gear and the rugged terrain, the danger of trips and falls is also higher. There are also no trails in rough mountainous terrain.
Success rates for mountaineering trips are also far less than for hiking. Seasoned mountaineers know when to turn around. However, many mountaineering accidents (like the Everest disaster of 1996) were caused, in part, by a guide or client's refusal to turn around. This phenomenon is called summit fever; succumbing to it can easily lead to injury or death.
Is Mountaineering More Expensive Than Hiking?
Yes, mountaineering is more expensive than hiking. Mountain climbing requires specialized equipment so you need to buy more stuff. Many mountaineers also opt for guided adventures, specialized training, or mountaineering courses to increase their skills, which costs money. Even if you don’t, rock climbing gear, helmets, snow travel gear, mountaineering clothing, and footwear will drive up costs.
When Is It The Best Time To Go Mountaineering Or Hiking?
The best time to go mountaineering or ski mountaineering depends on where in the world you are. In North America, spring and early summer are best. Here, you still have snow-related obstacles, but the snowpack has consolidated. A consolidated snowpack makes for easier travel. Plus, the weather conditions are less severe than in the winter.
On non-glaciated peaks, when the snow melts, mountaineering trips can become a lot harder. Volcanic scree is sandy, slippery, and difficult to climb. However, exposed granite or conglomerate rock can make for wonderful scrambling or roped climbing experience.
Hiking also depends on what region of the world you're in. If you’re in a more tropical environment with rampant undergrowth, wait until the winter when prickly and poisonous plants die off. If you’re in a mountainous environment, summer and early fall offer the best chance to get out without having to deal with snow.
Of course, if you’re a globe-trotting hiker or mountaineer, remember the seasons are flipped in the southern hemisphere. In all situations, a successful mountaineering or hiking trip requires the following:
- Cooperative mountain weather
- Appropriate supplies (or specialized equipment)
- The physical ability necessary to complete the trip.
Summary - Which One Is Better For Me?
Despite the cost and danger, mountaineering is one of the best ways to get an unbelievable outdoor experience. The adrenaline is real, and the environments are ethereal. Ardent adventure lovers often gravitate to mountaineering.
Hiking, however, is easier to do and doesn't require many specialized skills. The payoff may be a bit muted compared to mountaineering, but if you want to exercise, see cool places, and be back in time for dinner, I’d choose hiking. If you want to stand where few have stood by using advanced equipment and skill, mountaineering is the way to go.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.