What is Hiking?

Each morning as I set out with my dogs, I know other people would call what I am doing hiking. I can’t bring myself to call it that. Why not? 1) I didn’t get in the car. 2) I’m not wearing yoga pants (or hiking pants). 3) I’m not carrying a backpack, daypack, front pack, fanny pack or any other sort of pack. 4) I’m not wearing hiking boots. Nor a sports bra. Heck, by some people’s standards I’m not wearing pants at all.  5) I’m not exactly going anywhere. 6) I’m not carrying a map, compass, or water.

I could continue but you probably have grasped my import by now. What exactly am I doing? Walking for several miles on trails (and off trails) in the woods. Sure sounds like hiking to most people, but to me, that isn’t sufficient criteria. Hiking implies something specific, something I’ve had a terribly difficult articulating, despite lots of long buggy mornings out there with time to ponder.


Let’s try narrowing it down by location. If you’re walking in the woods, then it’s hiking. If you’re walking on a road then you’re just taking a walk. Ummm. That doesn’t work: 1) Sometimes as part of a hike you have to walk on a road a little. Maybe the trail crosses a road, or maybe the parking spot is a little ways from the trail head. Either way, you’re definitely hiking when you’re walking on the road. 2) Sometimes there are paved walkways or roads IN THE WOODS. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but I have encountered these “trails.” 3) There are lots of roads in the woods. Logging roads, old bark roads, quarry roads… some are paved and some aren’t. You aren’t supposed to drive on them any more but they are roads, not trails. But if you are walking on them in the woods, then you just might be hiking. For me, I’m going to stick with pavement being a deciding line, with the exception made for between trail road walking. Let’s say that of you’re walking on pavement, it isn’t hiking. Doesn’t narrow things down much.

Being “in nature” – is that a deciding line? What’s “in nature” and what isn’t? Is the rail trail that runs through the village “nature” enough? If you walk on an unpaved rail trail through a village, are you hiking? If you walk on the same trail through the woods in between villages, then you are hiking?

As an aside, it seems to me that bike riders don’t have this problem. Kayakers don’t worry about whether or not they are paddling when they’re on a lake versus a pond. But for hikers it is a quandary. You see if we put our pack on and lace up our boots… we still might not be hiking. If I wear my hiking boots and walk, carrying a pack, from Grand Central Station to Battery Park, did I hike? I vote no. That isn’t hiking. But what is? What takes a walk and turns it into a hike?


Good old Bing offers an opinion: “take a long walk: to go for a long walk in the countryside, usually for pleasure.” Well, that sounds reasonable until you actually talk to some hikers. First of all, what’s a long walk? I saw someone mention going for “an hour’s hike.” In my book, if you can do it in an hour, it isn’t a hike. For me a long walk is over 10 miles and a good long walk is over 15. I know people that think being home for lunch after a morning’s hike is normal, and people who think walking out of the woods by headlamp at 10 pm is normal.

Pleasure? Ask 10 hikers why they hike and I’d guess fewer than half would say they hike “for pleasure.” It is an obsession for some – they hike because they have to. I’m one of those hikers – some days there is very little pleasure but I still need to be out there. Some hike for fitness. Some hike as a way to get to interesting places where other activities occur (photography or bird watching – for goodness sake! Get your mind out of the gutter!). Some hike as a way to be social. If you think people hike for pleasure, I suggest you read trip reports on any online hiking forum, or pick up Bill Bryceson’s A Walk in the Woods. No, hikers don’t hike “for pleasure.” It is much more complicated than that.


Hikers also don’t typically hike for transportation, although I know some people who walk in the woods to get to their workplace. Admittedly that is rare. Some of us hike because we need to move through the woods on foot. Some hike because it is a way to mess around with cool gadgets and gear. Some hike for the bragging rights and the competition with other Type A hikers. And some are more like Sir Edmund Hilary: we hike because the mountains are there. Which begs the question, can it be hiking if there are no mountains?

If you’ve read this far, you must be ready to scream “who cares? Just lace up your boots and go, for heaven’s sake!” And that’s what I do. It’s all good until I need to discuss what I do with anyone. The picture you have in your head of what hiking is will likely not match what I do or what my mental image of hiking is.

I guess the only right answer is that it’s all hiking. Unlike other sports or activities (you always know when you’re playing softball or soccer, for example), hiking encompasses a ridiculously vast range of ways to approach it, skill and fitness levels, and so on. A bit like yoga, when you think about it! The key is not to judge others for doing it differently – again, not unlike yoga! I pretty much stink at not judging, but I strive to do better. I think it’s natural to prefer your own definition for an activity over other folks’ conceptualization. Of course I think I’m right; if I thought my definition was wrong, I’d change it! But back to that not judging thing…

The Catskill Mountain Club is getting ready to unveil a new patch to earn, this one for hiking all the trails in the Catskill Park. The total comes to well over 300 miles of trail. I’m working on it in earnest. I should finish in 2015… maybe sooner. Why do it? Why push hard to do it now? Well, that’s just the kind of hiker I am.


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4 Responses to What is Hiking?

  1. James Kukula says:

    Oh yeah bike riding gets into these categorical conundrums, for sure! Not every bike ride qualifies as a Bike Ride. E.g. maybe you have to have on snug-fitting knit clothing and shoes that attach securely to the pedals. Or you have to be measuring and recording time and distance. etc.

  2. halia466 says:

    Ok! I guess I was showing my ignorance about bicycling! Thanks for the clarification.

  3. I guess my definition is a walk in the woods, and getting back into nature. My walks or hikes are all on flat land now because I live in Florida and what I call mountains you call hills, berms or anthills LOL. I have however done a few hikes in White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Great Smoky Mountains in Tn & NC and Hawk Mountain in the Pocono’s in your neck o’ the woods. It doesn’t matter what anyone calls it I call it “refueling”! I love being outdoors, in the woods exploring Mother Nature, it gives me something I can’t get anywhere else. I’ve loved all my hikes and I’m sure you love your mountains as well whether they last for hours or days, it doesn’t matter what you call it! I love hiking!!!

  4. And we don’t say ‘hiking’ at all in Scotland (apart from ‘hitchhiking’). Just walking. Hillwalking, if it’s in hills/mountains. Climbing, if it’s in mountains and involves using your hands, ropes, etc. That’s it really. There are also I suppose ‘ramblers associations’. Usually a bit more gentle than hillwalking/climbing. But I don’t know anyone who says ‘I’m off for a ramble’ 🙂

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