Terminology: Hiking vs Trekking vs Mountaineering vs...

Our take on mountain climbing terminology

May 03, 2019

Short answer:

To “hike” is to go for a long walk; to “trek” is to go on a long and arduous hike; “mountaineering” is climbing (using your legs, or legs and hands, to ascend) a mountain for sport. There are overlaps between these and other terms, and opinions will vary, but the difference in use tends to follow the level of technical difficulty (verticality, conditions, and height), and the distance or length of time spent on the activity.

Is it important to get this terminology right?


Summits.com is about going on foot up mountains in Southeast Asia. When choosing which verbs to use for describing what this website and its pages is all about, we tend to use the verbs hike, trek, climb, summit, or climb mountains. We recently asked Cathy O’Dowd – a 4 time climber of Everest – about the word she would use, and she said “hiking up mountains”. But, aren’t we sometimes “trekking up mountains”?

Sometimes we use the terms ‘correctly’, and sometimes we don’t. We flatly refuse to get too hung up on it.

We know that there is someone on the Internet who is, one day, going to do the online equivalent of standing up in a crowded room and tearfully screaming at us for this laissez-faire attitude. We would remind such a person that the English language is fluid, it steals and misappropriates all the time, and it isn’t perfectly homogenous between even native English speakers. For example, in New Zealand, tramping seems to be used instead of trekking. In India, trekking is usually used instead of hiking. In South Africa, using the word “trek” might be confusing as it seems to have come from the Afrikaans for hauling or pulling something.

Nevertheless, as an olive branch (or glove slap), I offer our glossary of related synonyms:


Types of walking:

  • Hiking: Going for a long walk
  • Trekking: Going on a long, arduous hike
  • Climbing: Using legs, and sometimes hands, to go up something
  • Scrambling: Moving or climbing quickly with difficulty, often supporting with hands
  • Backpacking: Walking (or just travelling) for extended periods carrying a backpack

Types of walking specific to going up mountains:

  • Mountain climbing: Using legs, and sometimes hands, to go up a mountain
  • Mountaineering: Mountain climbing for sport
  • Summiting: To climb to the summit of a mountain or hill
  • Alpine climbing: Climbing in higher, more difficult reaches of mountains
  • Peak bagging: Summiting as many mountains on a list as possible
  • Murno bagging: Peakbagging in Scotland above 3000ft
  • Gunung bagging: Peakbagging in Indonesia, Malaysia, or Timor Leste
  • Highpointing: Summiting the highest point of an area, such as a country

(Other) Types of climbing:

  • Hill climbing: Using legs, and sometimes hands, to go up a hill
  • Rock climbing: Climbing rock faces with ropes and special equipment
  • Bouldering: Climbing rock faces without ropes or special equipment
  • Ice Climbing: Climbing on ice, usually in alpine environments
Our badly drawn and barely useful graph of mountain climbing words Pete Silvester
Our badly drawn and barely useful graph of mountain climbing words Pete Silvester

A more ‘official’ take difficulty levels

The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is used, mainly in North America, to rate the difficulty of routes in mountainous terrain. We’ve used this in the Y-axis of the above graph. The YDS classes are:

  • Class 1―Hiking trail (hiking, backpacking, and maybe easy trekking)
  • Class 2―Off-trail scramble (hard trekking, easy scrambling)
  • Class 3―Climbing, use of ropes for beginners (moderate scrambling)
  • Class 4―Belayed climbing (difficult scrambling, and easy rock-climbing)
  • Class 5―Free climbing (rock/ice climbing, with ropes and specialist equipment).

Class 5 is further subdivided, which the US Army mountaineering doctrine explains as follows:

  • Class 5.0-5.4―Little Difficulty. This is the simplest form of free climbing. Hands are necessary to support balance. This is sometimes referred to as advanced rock scrambling.
  • Class 5.5―Moderate Difficulty. Three points of contact are necessary.
  • Class 5.6―Medium Difficulty. The climber can experience vertical position or overhangs where good grips can require moderate levels of energy expenditure.
  • Class 5.7―Great Difficulty. Considerable climbing experience is necessary. Longer stretches of climbing requiring several points of intermediate protection. Higher levels of energy expenditure will be experienced.
  • Class 5.8 Very Great Difficulty. Increasing amount of intermediate protection is the rule. High physical conditioning, climbing technique, and experience required.
  • Class 5.9 Extremely Great Difficulty. Requires well above average ability and excellent condition. Exposed positions, often combined with small belay points. Passages of the difficult sections can often be accomplished under good conditions. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).
  • Class 5.10 Extraordinary Difficulty. Climb only with improved equipment and intense training. Besides acrobatic climbing technique, mastery of refined security technique is indispensable. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).
  • Class 5.11-5.14 Greater Increases Of Difficulty. Requires more climbing ability, experience, and energy expenditure. Only talented and dedicated climbers reach this level.
climbing glossary hiking mountaineering terminology trekking