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Hiking vs running: which is better?

A group of women trail running up a steep mountain
Hiking and running are our two favorite foot sports here at Advnture, both providing fun and healthy ways to get outdoors and explore (Image credit: Ascent Xmedia)

Hiking and running are our two favorite foot sports here at Advnture, both providing fun and healthy ways to get outdoors and explore. But there’s a little rift between some adventurers who race down the trails and those that stop to smell the roses. Some hikers think that runners are missing the point or increasing their risk of injury, while some runners think hiking is boring and doesn’t provide comparable physical benefits. 

In this article, we take on the debate over hiking vs running to figure out if one is really better for you than the other, and whether or not you actually have to choose between the two.

Hiking vs running: calories burned 

Silva Trail Runner Free

In an hour of running, you’ll burn more calories than in an hour of hiking, but you’re more likely to hike for longer than you would run (Image credit: Silva)

In an hour of running, you’ll burn more calories than in an hour of hiking according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. However, you’re more likely to hike for longer than you would run, possibly burning more calories in the end, which levels the playing field somewhat. For example, a 175lb person running a 10-minute mile for an hour would burn around 840 calories, but that same person would burn 1008 calories in two hours of hiking. 

Since hiking is usually a two-hour or longer affair, the difference in calories might not be as cut and dried as you think. Running wins within the same timeframe, but this one really comes down to how long you plan to move for.

Hiking vs running: cardiovascular benefits 

A woman jogger makes a heart shape with her hands

The American Heart Association conducted a study on almost 49,000 people which found that walking and running produced similar results when it came to lowering the risks of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high “bad” cholesterol (Image credit: MixMedia)

Cardiovascular exercise is any form of activity that increases your heart rate. When it comes to that heart-pounding feeling on the trail, you’re more likely to notice it on a run than a hike, where you’ll need to be on the uphill to really challenge your cardiovascular system. But is running actually better cardiovascular activity?

The American Heart Association conducted a study on almost 49,000 people which found that walking and running produced similar results when it came to lowering the risks of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high “bad” cholesterol, all benefits of cardiovascular activity. 

Further, a 2018 study conducted by the Radboud Institute for Health Sciences in the Netherlands found that high volume, high intensity and long term running was associated with cardiovascular damage, so if you’re overdoing it as a runner, you can actually offset the cardiovascular benefits.

Assuming you’re doing things in moderation though, the two seem to provide equal benefits when it comes to your ticker.

Learn more about this topic in our article is running good for you? 

Hiking vs running: impact on your joints 

merrell mtl long sky vegan shoes

Hiking is generally thought of as a low-impact activity meaning your feet don’t land heavily if your form is good (Image credit: Sian Lewis)

Hiking is generally thought of as a low-impact activity. You pretty much always have one foot on the ground unless you’re hopping across a stream, and your footsteps don’t take you very far from the ground, meaning you don’t land heavily if your form is good. Therefore, it’s thought to be easier on your joints.

Running, on the other hand, is considered a high-impact activity. With each step, you move further away from the ground than when you’re walking and therefore land on the ground with more force. Critics of running suggest that this wears away at the cartilage of your knee joints leaving you with arthritis later in life, but proponents claim that keeping your muscles strong by running actually takes the strain off your joints, and the repetitive movement helps lubricate the synovial joints, including your ankles, knees and hips.

Ultimately, if you’re overweight, pregnant or working with arthritis or injury, hiking is probably the better option, but otherwise if you run with good form there’s not a lot of evidence yet to suggest that its additional impact is inherently damaging.

Hiking vs running: muscles used 

How not to bonk

Both running and hiking are great for strengthening your leg muscles such as your glutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings and calves, and both can have a strengthening impact on your abdominal muscles (Image credit: Getty)

Another criteria when it comes to the physical fitness perks of running and hiking are the muscles used. Both running and hiking are great for strengthening your leg muscles such as your glutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings and calves, and both can have a strengthening impact on your abdominal muscles too which work to stabilize you in motion, so we’re calling this one a tie. 

If you're already hiking and running a lot and looking for ways to recover with stretching, check out these articles:

Hiking vs running: injury risk 

A man giving a sports massage to an athlete's calf muscles

Generally, higher impact sports come with a greater injury risk, so running is technically a little more risky (Image credit: Jan-Otto)

Generally, higher impact sports come with a greater injury risk, so running is technically a little more risky. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the most common running injuries are repetitive stress conditions like plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

Hiking however is not without peril. Among the most common hiking injuries are the relatively tame-but-annoying blister and the more unwelcome strains and sprains. In both cases, using good form and wearing the right footwear will help offset the risk of injury.

Not all runners will experience injuries, but studies do seem to suggest that runners have a higher incidence of injury than walkers and hikers, so we’re giving hiking a slight edge over running here. 

Hiking vs running: gear required 

running gait

For both hiking and running, you absolutely need proper footwear (Image credit: Getty Images)

Moving on from the physical benefits and risks, let’s consider the gear required for hiking and running. In all honesty, neither sport requires a ton of gear compared to sports like rock climbing or skiing

For both, you absolutely need proper footwear. However, while some people prefer to hike in hiking boots, many choose to do both sports in trail running shoes. For both, you might get started in whatever workout gear you already own but if you’re doing it regularly, you’ll be more comfortable in breathable clothing and need waterproofs for wet conditions. 

Wool socks for hiking are ideal to prevent the aforementioned blisters while women will usually want a bra for running but not necessarily for hiking. If you’re hiking longer distances, you might use hiking poles and will need to carry a backpack, whereas even with long distance trail running, you need to keep your kit to a minimum.

That said, most of the gear you need to get started in either sport is gear that you probably already own, and how much you invest is really up to you, so this one is another tie.

Learn more about the gear you need in our articles what to wear hiking and how to get into trail running

Hiking vs running: time required 

two hikers on a trail

(Image credit: Getty)

Needless to say that you’ll need more time to hike five miles than you will to run the same distance since you’ll be moving slower, which might make it more appealing if you have an already packed schedule or want to get outside more regularly, so we’re giving this one to running. 

Hiking vs running: types of terrain  

two hikers

(Image credit: Getty)

There are ultrarunners who run the world’s toughest trails and peaks, but for most of us, we’re likely to be able to tackle tougher terrain hiking than we are running, especially if steep ascents and descents are involved. You might also be more willing to hike on terrain that is slick underfoot.

If you’re just getting into trail running, you’ll want to avoid slicker trails and stick to flatter terrain such as through forests, or rolling hills, whereas hiking can take you on more exciting and steep trails that might even involve scrambling or climbing. Many trail runners simply choose to walk the steeper sections though, so choosing running doesn't necessarily prohibit you from trying more challenging trails. 

This one really comes down to your ability, but starting out, you might be able to cover a greater variety of terrain hiking than you can running.

Hiking vs running: accessibility 

A mixed group of hikers on a coastal path

Hiking wins the accessibility category as anyone who can walk can do some level of hiking, even if it’s a short, gentle forest walk (Image credit: SolStock)

Hiking wins the accessibility category as anyone who can walk can do some level of hiking, even if it’s a short, gentle forest walk. 

Running on the other hand might exclude people who are pregnant, injured, overweight or dealing with existing heart conditions so it’s a little less accessible to all. However, some of these people will be able to build their fitness through hiking, and work their way up to running.

Hiking vs running
HikingRunning
Calories burnedA 175lb person walking for an hour burns around 504 caloriesA 175lb person running a 10-minute mile for an hour burns around 840 calories
Cardiovascular benefitsHiking lowers your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high “bad” cholesterolRunning lowers your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high “bad” cholesterol, unless you overdo it, in which case it can cause cardiovascular damage
ImpactLow impactHigh impact
Muscles usedGlutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, calves and abdominalsGlutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, calves and abdominals
Injury riskLow, includes blisters, strains and sprainsHigher, includes repetitive stress conditions like plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis
Gear requiredCan be done with gear you already own but requires proper footwear and backpack, may require hiking polesCan be done with gear you already own but requires proper footwear, may require a sports bra
Time requiredLonger, usually more than an hour Shorter, can be less than an hour
TerrainVaried, challenging, steep with scramblingMay be less varied or challenging, flat terrain and rolling hills
AccessibilityAccessible to anyone who can walkMay exclude people who are pregnant, injured, overweight or dealing with existing heart conditions

Hiking vs running: the verdict 

All in all, both hiking and running provide excellent physical benefits and require little in the way of technical gear. 

Running is somewhat less accessible than hiking and carries a slightly higher risk of injury, giving hiking a small edge over running in those regards. But ultimately, if you don’t have to choose between the two, then why not do both?

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.