What is the difference between taking a hike and taking a walk?

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Answered by: Catherine, An Expert in the Walking - General Category
Many new hikers are embarrassed to ask the most basic of questions: What is the difference between taking a hike and taking a walk? While the answer seems simple enough, the more it is defined the muddier the definition seems. The Oxford English Dictionary defines hiking as a long walk for pleasure but when does a walk become a hike? Is it walking on a path in the woods or wearing special shoes or carrying a backpack? Is it spending nights out in the deep wilderness with only a thin piece of nylon separating you from the elements? Not necessarily. How can we define hiking and walking so that we know when we’re doing it?

So let’s consider defining hiking by geographic area. If a hike is a walk in the woods, what is a walk in the desert or the plains? Some of the best hiking areas in the United States are in the Southwest deserts and canyons. The Canaveral National Seashore in Florida boasts miles of trails meandering through coastal terrain. In Michigan, hikers go on “ice hikes” in the winter along the frozen coastline of the Great Lakes. Some intrepid souls have pushed the boundaries of the traditional definition with urban hiking. Let go of the definition as walking in the woods, and a new possibilities open up.

So we still haven’t really defined the difference between taking a hike and taking a walk. Ask a hiker what he or she thinks the definition is and you’ll get a different answer. One will tell you that hiking through the dense forests on Bartram Trail in North Carolina is the true definition while another will say it’s the rugged paths of Breakneck Ridge in New York. One thing that all hikers will have in common is that look of yearning and peace when they talk about their hikes. They’ll tell you about testing their bodies’ limits and the spiritual awakenings that they’ve had. They’ll groan fondly about bug-filled, rain-soaked hikes. They’ll smile when they tell you about the people that they’ve met and the bonds they’ve strengthened with friends and family.

So what is the meaning of taking a walk? According to the American Volksport Association, walks can be taken nearly anywhere but most are in towns, along roads or on short trails. A walk doesn’t involve camping overnight or much equipment beyond comfortable shoes and a water bottle. But the organization will tell you that a walk can be anything from a short stroll down the street to 10Ks on a trail. A walk can be strenuous and include challenging terrain.

So it seems that hiking and walking often are the same thing, and the best outdoors people have difficulty in drawing the line of when a walk becomes a hike. John Muir, the famous naturalist and hiker, didn’t worry about the difference when he said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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