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Understanding The Difference Between Rock Climbing, Hiking And Mountaineering

Climbing is a terminology which is used to describe various outdoor activities. It is therefore likely to find people using the term rock climbing interchangeably with hiking and mountaineering as if they are synonyms.  Even though these outdoor activities all take place in the mountains and basically entail ascension, they have some fundamental differences in the skill set, types of gear, physical demands and terrain each activity requires. It is therefore important to understand the difference between rock climbing, hiking and mountaineering.

Rock Climbing 

Rock climbing is an outdoor activity that entails scaling up vertical rock faces using one's hands and feet. It is done using specialized climbing equipment and requires knowledge of basic climbing skills and techniques. People practice rock climbing for recreation and competition reasons whilst others embrace it as a lifestyle. This article explores rock climbing and its different types in more detail.



Hiking is a long-distance outdoor walk in nature on a reasonably well-defined trail. Hiking difficulty varies from easy to extreme. Some hikes can last for days whilst others can be a long day walk at a steady pace. 

The skills required for hiking are generally not demanding. Specialist skills like map reading, terrain judgment and navigation are however essential for the self-sufficient hiker.

Hiking typically requires good hiking shoes, hiking poles, weather-appropriate clothing, sun protection, water and snacks. Camping gear is necessary for long hiking expeditions lasting for days. 

A reasonable amount of endurance and an affinity for walking long distances is critical to hiking.  

The skill set, type of equipment, and physical capabilities required for hiking all depend on the severity of the terrain, the altitude gained and the distance covered.


Scrambling is an important term to understand. Scrambling involves elements of both hiking and rock climbing on easy rock faces. Its main difference with hiking is that you need to use your hands during the ascent. It does not require the use of technical equipment or ropes. Sometimes it is also called “rock scrambling” or “alpine scrambling”. 


Mountaineering, also referred to alpine climbing or alpinism, usually involves a combination of hiking and scrambling as well as rock and ice climbing in mountainous areas. The mountaineering terrain is mixed and ranges from rocky terrain to steep mountain slopes and climbing faces plastered with snow and ice. 

Mountaineering: ©Peter Naituli

Mountaineering requires all outdoor skills and techniques associated with hiking, rock climbing and ice climbing to get to the top. Another key factor to achieving mountaineering success is good acclimatization due to the altitudes gained.

Specialized gear and equipment associated with hiking, rock and ice climbing is needed in order to navigate the mountaineering terrain successfully. Camping gear is also required. 

Mountaineering is in general more physically and technically demanding than hiking or rock climbing.

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