Hiking Vs Walking: A Detailed Comparison

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To some people, the answer to “What’s the difference between hiking and walking?” probably seems rather obvious. Still, for those just getting started on their fitness journey, there’s plenty of confusion about hiking vs walking.

Aside from the straightforward difference between hiking vs walking in terms of definition, there are additional factors of interest in comparing these two popular physical activities.

From the number of calories you burn hiking vs walking, the muscles you work hiking vs walking, and how long it takes to walk a mile hiking vs walking, the differences can actually be explored more deeply than you might think at first blush.

Keep reading to learn the nuanced differences between walking and hiking.

In this guide, we will cover: 

  • Hiking vs Walking: What is the Difference Between Hiking and Walking?
  • Hiking vs Walking Gear
  • Hiking vs Walking Muscles Worked
  • Hiking vs Walking Calories Burned
  • How Long Does It Take to Walk a Mile Hiking vs Walking?

Let’s get started!

A person sitting on a rock looking at the trees.

Hiking vs Walking: What is the Difference Between Hiking and Walking?

In terms of the very basics, walking and hiking are both forms of physical activity that involve locomotion on your feet, but hiking typically refers specifically to walking on trails or on natural terrains, such as grass, dirt, and rocks.

Walking can take place indoors on a treadmill, indoor track, home, shopping mall, etc., or outdoors on a track, sidewalk, road, or other synthetic terrains. 

There is some overlap between walking and hiking in terms of terrain.

It’s possible to walk on natural terrain like grass or along a sandy beach, so just because the surface you’re walking on is natural doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hiking.

There aren’t really “rules” in terms of the distinction between walking and hiking, so in the gray areas—such as walking on a cinder path in a local park, you can use which term feels more appropriate to you.

With that said, one other factor to consider when distinguishing between whether you are walking or hiking is that hiking usually involves elevation changes.

A person walking on the beach.

You can certainly walk in hilly terrain as well, but if you’re trying to decide whether to call your workout on the grass a hike or walk, consider if it’s along a flat field or urban park or hilly, grassy fells or rolling grass-covered hills.

If the terrain is mostly flat, you should call it walking, whereas moving along a rolling or hilly terrain can be considered hiking.

When you hike, you might climb mountains, traverse streams, be rewarded with amazing views, and be submerged in the woods or forest away from the roads, cars, and “civilization.”

Finally, although far from an absolute, hikes are often longer than walks in terms of the length of time you do the activity.

Most people have to intentionally drive somewhere to hike.

A hike might begin at a “trailhead,” and unless you’re fortunate enough to have a forest or national park in your backyard, chances are you’ll have to spend some time getting to the location where you will hike.

For this reason, hiking might be more of a planned activity than walking

As such, many people spend more time hiking once they actually get there and get moving than they might walking around their neighborhood right out their front door.

This is not to say you can’t do a short hike or a long walk, but it is a trend.

A person hiking on a trail.

Hiking vs Walking Gear

In general, hiking requires more specialized gear than walking because of the relative ruggedness of the terrain for hiking. 

Most people wear walking shoes or sneakers as footwear for walking. In contrast, it’s typical to wear hiking boots for most hikes beyond short, relatively flat hikes on easy paths.

Hiking boots provide superior traction over regular sneakers or even trail running shoes because they have more aggressive lug patterns on the outside to grip the terrain and prevent slipping.

Hiking boots are usually waterproof because trails may be wet or muddy, or you might have to walk along streambeds and cross footbridges.

The cut of hiking boots is also typically higher than a walking shoe. 

Walking shoes or sneakers usually come up to below the ankle, whereas hiking boots are often designed to come up above the ankle bones to provide additional ankle support for uneven terrains, such as roots and loose rocks.

Hiking boots also usually have a reinforced toe and are made with thicker, more durable materials than walking shoes. 

A hiker standing on a rock.

The former is designed to protect the foot from accidentally kicking rocks or roots on trails, while walking shoes have mesh panels and thinner materials to promote breathability. 

These differences make hiking boots heavier and more substantial overall than walking shoes.

Paired with these differences in footwear between hiking vs walking are differences in hiking and walking socks.

Socks for walking are typical athletic socks designed to be breathable, with smooth seams to reduce the risk of blisters

They come in all sorts of heights, such as no-show, ankle, crew, and quarter length. The cut you choose is mostly a matter of preference.

Hiking socks are much taller because they need to come up beyond the top of the boot to prevent blisters and protect your ankle and shin from debris on the trail. 

They also tend to be thicker and are usually made with warmer, breathable materials like wool.

Finally, hiking gear often includes additional accessories depending on the length and terrain of your hike. Hiking poles can aid balance, and wearing a hiking pack to carry your water, food, and gear for the trail is also common.

A family hiking on a trail.

Hiking vs Walking Muscles Worked

Both walking and hiking are fantastic workouts and can be considered forms of aerobic or cardio exercise. So long as you’re walking or hiking at a moderate pace, you’ll increase your heart rate to the “aerobic zone.”

Therefore, walking and hiking both strengthen your heart and lungs and increase your endurance and aerobic fitness.

Additionally, both walking and hiking use the same muscles—glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, since the motion for each type of exercise is roughly the same.

However, hiking usually requires more muscular work because you’re going up and down elevation, which alters the forces in your muscles and joints. Uphill hiking requires additional work from the posterior chain muscles, such as the calves, glutes, and hamstrings, whereas downhill hiking recruits the quads more. 

Although hiking and walking both use the core and arms to some degree—especially if you’re power walking and pumping your arms—hiking usually challenges these muscles more, particularly if you are using hiking poles.

These differences are partially attributable to traversing hilly terrain when hiking and partially because hiking trails are uneven and less stable than firm roads for walking.

For this reason, hiking is also more challenging for muscles that stabilize the joints in the frontal plane (side to side), such as the peroneal muscles in the ankles, the hip rotators, and the gluteus medius muscles.

In terms of joint loads, hiking can be harder on the knees, hips, and ankles, especially when hiking back down mountains, but the softer surface of trails can also be more forgiving than walking on hard cement or asphalt.

A person taking a step.

Calories Burned Hiking vs Walking

Given the relative ruggedness and hilliness of the terrain, hiking usually burns more calories per mile than walking because it’s more demanding on the muscles and cardiovascular system.

Wearing a heart rate monitor can give you a fairly accurate estimation of how many calories you burn while walking or hiking. Still, even if you don’t have one, you can calculate a ballpark figure by using the metabolic equivalents (METs) for walking at different speeds.

The Compendium of Physical Activities reports different METs for various walking speeds and incline grades.

Walking at a leisurely pace of 2.8-3.2 mph on a level surface is equivalent to 3.5 METs. Walking at a pace of 3.5 mph on a level surface is 4.3 METs while walking at a brisk pace of 4.0 mph on a level surface is rated at 5 METs, and finally, walking at a very brisk pace of 4.5 mph is 7 METs.

Walking 2.9–3.5 mph uphill at a 1 to 5% grade is roughly 5.3 METs, and maintaining that pace while climbing a 6 to 15% grade bumps the metabolic demand up to 8 METs.

Two people power walking.

While there isn’t a specific breakdown of hiking speeds, the following METs for hiking activities are reported:

  • 5.3 METs: walking, hiking, or walking at a normal pace through fields and hillsides 
  • 6.0 METs: walking, hiking, cross country 
  • 7.0 METs: walking, backpacking
  • 7.8 METs: walking backpacking, hiking, or organized walking with a daypack

Using these METs values, you can calculate the number of calories burned walking or hiking for various body weights using the equation to determine energy expenditure:

Calories Burned Per Minute = METs x 3.5 x (your body weight in kilograms) / 200 

For example, if you weigh 165 pounds (75 kg) and walk 3.5 mph on flat land, which is estimated to be 4.3 METS: 

4.3 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 5.6 calories per minute.

In contrast, if the same person hikes on cross-country trails, which is 6.0 METs:

6 METS x 3.5 x 75 / 200 = 7.9 calories per minute.

Because the METs values for hiking activities are mostly higher than the METs for walking, meaning the metabolic cost of hiking is greater than that for walking, when comparing the calories burned hiking vs walking, hiking usually burns more calories per minute or per mile.

A person hiking, holding their arms out on the top of a peak looking at a view.

How Long Does It Take to Walk a Mile Hiking vs Walking?

The terrain for hiking can be quite a range, from a relatively easy woodchip path in a local park to a craggy, steep mountain trail. Therefore, it’s difficult to give an average hiking speed.

However, hiking a mile typically takes longer than walking a mile because there are more obstacles to navigate and difficult changes in elevation.

According to Ramblers, the average hiking speed for adults is about 2.5 miles per hour. Therefore, according to this data, you could hike a mile in about 24 minutes.

This is slower than the average walking speed, which is between 2.5-4 miles per hour, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to this data, you could walk a mile in between 15- 24 minutes.

The terrain, your fitness level, body size, age, sex, effort level, and whether you’re carrying a heavy pack can all affect your walking and hiking speed.

Whether you choose to go walking or hiking, you’ll get a great workout and will have the opportunity to enjoy the unique perks of the activity you choose.

Would you like to start out by walking one mile a day? Check out our guide to walking one mile a day here.

A person walking on a road.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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