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What is the Difference Between Trail Running and Hiking?

What is the Difference Between Trail Running and Hiking?

Trail running and hiking are two distinct sports that both offer an outdoor experience that is both enjoyable and burns calories. There are most certainly similarities between the two, and you may even do both sports and not be entirely clear on how they differ! But how exactly they overlap and where their differences lie is something you may be wondering. 

The primary difference between hiking and trail running is the intensity at which you move over the trails. Both activities take place in similar locations, with hiking being done at a more leisurely pace akin to a slow walk and trail running being more intense and akin to jogging in a wild environment.

So while hiking doesn’t include trail running, but trail running can include hiking, you may be confused about what this looks like in reality and some of the other characteristics of these two sports that distinguish them from one another.

What Counts As Trail Running Vs What Counts As Hiking

There are many different and slightly varied definitions for both trail running and for hiking, but we get the overall picture and will share how it looks. 

Trail running is running outside, in nature, and typically on trails or unpaved surfaces. This may be along wide, maintained, gravel roads or along a single track, narrow mountain path that is overgrown and doesn’t have room for more than one person in width. When the trails get steep, for example, on a mountain or hill, runners may slow down to walk or hike sections of the trail. 

Hiking is considered going for a long walk outdoors in nature, typically also along unpaved surfaces. It is usually a more vigorous walk that involves longer distances, more inclines, and sometimes a variety of surfaces, including rocks, grass, paving, or gravel. Hiking is done at a walking pace, can be done by people with a variety of fitness levels.

The primary difference between these two activities is the pace at which one’s legs are moving: one is walking while the other is running. Both activities take place in nature and are not done on a paved road in a city, such as regular walking or running can be done. While the gear can appear similar, there are differences, the foremost being the choice of footwear involved.

Can You Use The Same Gear For Trail Running And Hiking? 

Trail running and hiking do require different gear. Footwear is the most significant differentiating factor and most important item for the comfort of the participant. Having the correct footwear will also help to prevent injury. 

In hiking, boots often have thicker soles and come higher up the ankle, offering support for balance on uneven surfaces. Trail shoes are usually lighter and more like running shoes, but with extra grip on the soles and generally bulkier, offering more support than running shoes. 

Hikers often carry poles as extra support, both for balance and as muscle support, to take the strain off knees and other joints. Both groups of sportspeople will likely carry water or sustenance in backpacks and also wear lightweight, breathable layers that will protect them against changing weather conditions in the mountains or at higher altitudes. 

Which Is Better For You: Hiking Or Trail Running?

Both of these sports burn calories and more than simply walking, as they require more endurance and usually more energy used on inclines and for balance. Given the sometimes uneven nature of trails, usually, core and other muscle groups besides the legs are also given a workout. 

Trail running burns more calories in general, as one’s heart rate is typically higher for a more sustained period than hiking. Given that it is not just running but on an uneven surface too, it is considered a high-impact sport on your body and is tougher on your joints. The flipside of this, though, is that it is a great full-body workout, especially for your core muscles. 

Hiking paths or trails are usually followed for hours or even for days or weeks. The grade of the trail, as well as the steepness of the path, determines how many calories are burnt. Given that hiking is more of a walking pace, it is typically a lower impact sport, and therefore better on your joints and body generally than trail running is.

While comparing hiking and trail running for the same period of time, trail runners would burn more calories, hiking is typically done over an extended period of time, with a hike lasting longer than a trail run, and also being better for one’s body with a lower risk of injury. Both sports are, however, considered relatively safe.

Another aspect of health involved in sport is mental health. Trail running can involve races and a competitive aspect that is typically not present in hiking, which is done simply for enjoyment. Both sports take place outdoors in nature, though, which is proven to release endorphins, having a calming effect and contributing positively to mental health.  

Can you run on a hiking trail or hike on a trail run?

One of these is definitely easier to do than the other! 

Hiking on a trail run is not only possible but also necessary at times when it is too steep or the surface too uneven to run on, and one needs to slow down to a walking pace. Trail running shoes are easy to hike in and have the requisite grip, though they may not be able to offer as much support. This is usually for shorter periods during the run, though, and is not problematic. 

Running on a hike can be trickier. Hiking boots are often heavier than trail shoes, and given the extra ankle support that is intended to limit movement in this joint, running can be trickier, as you are less agile and have less physical mobility. It is possible to run for a short distance but is likely to be clumsy and uncomfortable, depending on the type of hiking shoe you have. 

Closing Thoughts

Both hiking and trail running are great types of exercise that get you into nature, both burning calories and is great for your mental health and wellness, helping to ease stress. If you’re shorter on time, trail running is faster and more intense, but if you’re looking for a longer and more relaxing period outdoors, hiking is the activity for you. Either way, pick a trail and get outdoors!


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