There are so many different terms in the hiking world. Mountaineering, hiking, trekking, bushwacking and mountain hiking are just some of the terms you might come across when reading about outdoor adventuring.
It’s important to know the difference in what each one of those is or you might end up on a trip you are ill-prepared for.
So what exactly is ‘Mountain Hiking?’
Mountain hiking is similar to mountaineering but is not quite as technical. It does not require specialized knowledge or technical skill. Mountain hiking is basically a more physically demanding and challenging version of hiking, only through mountainous terrain.
If you have limited yourself to lowland hikes, or easy and predictable tourist trails and are feeling the call of the highlands and wild peaks – you are not alone. Mountain hiking and mountaineering are deeply satisfying to the mind, body, and soul.
I want to explore this subject a bit more so that when you are planning your next big outing, and kicking the adventure level up a notch, you don’t end up in over your head.
The Difference Between Hiking and Mountaineering
‘Hiking’ is a really widely used term that basically refers to a simple walk in the woods (or desert, or wherever you may be) for pleasure.
A hike may take a couple of hours, could last all day, or could be a three-day backpacking trip.
The important thing to remember about hiking is that it is non-technical. Basically, anybody can do it, regardless of their fitness level.
‘Mountaineering’, on the other hand, requires physical fitness, technical skills, and specialized equipment.
The goal of mountaineering is to climb to the summit of a mountain.
These trips often take multiple days and pass over varied (and often dangerous) terrain that require training to successfully pass over.
These conditions can include crossing glaciers, rock and ice climbing, and boulder scrambling.
Mountaineers not only have to carry all of their standard backpacking equipment but are also weighted down with gear that is specific to “bagging” summits like a helmet, gators, crampons, ice ax, ropes, carabiners, harnesses, etc.
Folks who practice mountaineering often dedicate a lot of time to training off the mountain to maintain peak physical condition and to practice the individual skills they will need on the summits like rock and ice climbing.
‘Mountain Hiking’ is kind of a middle ground.
Believe it or not, some summits do not require any technical climbing skills to summit.
These mountains don’t have glaciers and don’t require any special skills to enjoy.
Essentially, you can walk right up them. These are the trails you’ll find the mountain hikers on.
How do you Prepare for Hiking in the Mountains?
The most helpful thing that you can do before you hit the trail is to get in shape.
This isn’t 100% necessary, and heck, you can even use mountain hiking as your training ground, but it sure makes things easier to have physical stamina before you hit the trail.
Next, plan your trip out carefully.
Read guides, look at topographical maps and study the terrain.
Pay careful attention to the route guides for summiting and if at all possible, get online and research other hikers’ experiences on the same trails.
If you are new to mountain hiking, be sure to go with a buddy who is more experienced or who knows the trails.
Pay particular attention to what the guides say about water sources, campsites or shelters, confusing spots on the trail or even wildlife dangers.
Finally, make sure that you have the proper gear for heading into the mountains.
Great fitting and protective boots are a must for passing over rocky and uneven terrain.
Trekking poles are highly recommended, so if you don’t have any, consider investing in a decent pair.
I did this post on using one pole or two that you might be interested in.
It’s also worthwhile checking into super lightweight options for tents, sub-zero sleeping bags, backpacks, and water containers.
When hiking in the mountains you will burn many more calories than lowland hiking, so make sure to plan your meals and snacks accordingly.
Is Mountain Hiking Dangerous?
Mountain hiking definitely carries more risk than a robust hike in the woods.
But most dangers associated with mountain hiking can be avoided with proper planning and the right preparation.
One of the biggest dangers is getting lost. Many times in the high country trails become hard to follow.
Mountains are also known for quickly changing weather conditions like rain, snow, and fog that can make visibility an issue.
Make sure you know how to read a paper map (that you should have waterproofed) and use a compass to be able to navigate your way to safety.
Other dangers include:
- a higher risk of injury from falls or other accidents
- weather exposure issues such as hypothermia, frostbite or severe sunburn
- altitude sickness – symptoms include nausea, dizziness, and drowsiness
Basic Mountain Hiking Tips
As mentioned, nearly all dangers can be anticipated and planned for to minimize risk.
PLAN! PLAN! PLAN!
Remember that mountain hiking requires no special skills but it does require a LOT more planning.
Tip 1. ALWAYS tell someone where you are going. Tell them when you are leaving, what your destination is, what trail you’ll be on and when you’ll be back. Check-in with them immediately upon arriving home.
Tip 2. Take a first aid class. If it’s a wilderness first aid class, all the better. This information could potentially come in handy and is a great investment in time and energy.
Tip 3. Invest in proper clothing. Remember, COTTON KILLS. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Your risk of hypothermia or frostbite increases from improper clothing and cotton is completely inappropriate for the backcountry or high altitude camping.
Dress in layers and prepare for the worst weather-wise. There are some amazing options for specialized mountaineer clothing, and it’s worth putting together a basic wardrobe to protect you from the elements.
Tip 4. Learn to read maps and use a compass. We are all really technology-dependent these days. Maybe your GPS is guaranteed to 99.9% accuracy but its best not to count on it.
Sometimes, usually, when it’s least practical, technology fails us. As a backup plan, always have a printed topographical map in a waterproof sleeve in your gear.
Learn the basics of using a compass to find north and orient yourself. This could save your life.
Tip 5. Study the terrain you will be hiking for watering holes. Some places might seem particularly green and lush, but offer few spots to refill the water bottle.
If the guidebooks all say that there are long stretches without water, be sure to bring along enough containers to be able to carry sufficient water between refills.
Tip 6. Study your trail map for altitude gain. Altitude affects everyone differently, but if you will be gaining a lot of ground in a short amount of time, it could cause you to get sick.
It might be worth taking two days to do a relatively short but steep stretch on the trail to give your body time to acclimatize.
Learn to recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Tip 7. Until you feel confident in your backcountry skills, be sure to enjoy mountain hiking with a partner or a group. Remember, Safety in numbers!
You may find this article I wrote helpful on staying safe while trekking solo.
Tip 8. I recommend that you bring enough food for an extra, unexpected night on the trail. It might be tempting to whittle down the weight in your pack to a bare minimum – but that extra food might make a huge difference in an emergency.
To Sum Things Up
Mountain hiking is an extremely satisfying sport that nearly anyone can enjoy. Standing on the top of a mountain is not an experience only for the hard-core mountaineer!
With proper preparation, nearly anybody can ‘touch the sky’.