Why Is It Called Hiking? Deep Origins, Evolution and the True Meaning of Hiking

As an avid hiker and outdoor-loving mom, I’ve spent countless hours traversing trails with my kids. My daughter recently asked “Why is it called hiking anyway?”



Hummmmmm…… Oh!

I realized I didn’t have a great answer.

I thought to myself, ” So, why is hiking called hiking?” This sent me down an enlightening etymological journey into the history of the word. Join me as we unpack the origins and evolution of “hiking”!


Table of Contents

The Earliest Meaning and Usage of “Hike”

The word “hike” first sprang up in English slang around the early 1800s. Back then, it referred to traveling or moving quickly and vigorously.

Throughout the 1800s, it gained steam, meaning long, strenuous walks and difficult journeys by foot.

So from the outset, “hiking” conveyed ambitious pedestrian travel over great distances rather than a leisurely stroll. This foundation helps explain how it came to describe recreational wilderness trekking.


When Did “Hiking” First Refer to Walking for Pleasure?

By the early 1900s, “hiking” had adopted connotations of recreational long-distance walking, especially in nature.

The first published reference to a “hiking club” appears in 1921, showing it had become an established activity. After World War II, the term took off nationwide referring to recreational backcountry walking.

Expanded access to hiking terrain and promotion of the sport’s benefits cemented its status as a beloved national pastime.


The Surprising Language Origins of “Hike”

The word “hike” traces back centuries and derives from multiple languages, including:

  • Old Norse “hikja” – to amble briskly
  • Dutch “hijken” – to move quickly
  • German “gehen” – to go (possible link)
  • West African “heiga” or “heke” – to go forward persistently

Linguists still debate the exact origin. But they agree the core meaning always involved strenuous, intentional walking or movement over long distances – perfectly describing hiking!

Also Read: Is Hiking Spiritual? Why it is and 7 Spiritual Benefits of Hiking


How “Hiking” Became Linked to Recreational Walking

So how did “hiking” make the leap from arduous travel to pleasurable wilderness wanderings? Several societal shifts helped drive this:

1. More Leisure Time

The Industrial Revolution provided middle class workers time for hobbies like hiking to find nature and adventure.

2. Romanticism and Nature Appreciation

Writers promoted the spiritual benefits of immersive walking in sublime landscapes. Hiking offered access.

3. Improved Transportation

Trains and cars allowed city residents to access hiking terrain in mountains and wilderness for short getaways.

4. Focus on Health and Fitness

Walking clubs touted hiking’s fitness and salubrious health effects from exercise, fresh air and sunshine.

5. Growth of Organized Hiking Clubs

Clubs normalized vigorous weekend “tramps” through the countryside. They popularized hiking culture through group hikes.

By the 1900s, hiking had secured its place as a favorite recreational escape. The term neatly reflected both the physical activity and profound allure of nature.


How Different Cultures Refer to Hiking

While “hiking” is universally used in North America, other cultures have their own descriptors:

  • Great Britain: rambling, walking, fell-walking
  • Australia: bushwalking
  • New Zealand: tramping
  • South Africa: walks
  • Ireland: hillwalking
  • Europe: randonée (French), wandern (German)

Yet despite subtle linguistic variations, all these terms refer to recreational hiking pursuits globally. The local words reflect cultural histories but share hiking’s universal spirit.


The Diverse Range of Modern Hiking Activities

While most think of wilderness trails when they hear “hiking,” the term has grown to encompass many forms:

  • Day hiking – Short walks on local trails
  • Backpacking – Multi-day hiking/camping trips
  • Thru-hiking – End-to-end journeys on long trails lasting months
  • Peak bagging – Hiking to summit prominent peaks
  • Winter hiking – Trekking in snow and icy conditions
  • Coastal hiking – Walking routes along the ocean
  • Urban hiking – Exploring cities on foot

“Hiking” brilliantly covers this range of walking activities unified by recreation, exercise and exploration by foot.

Also Read: Is Hiking a Hobby? 17+ Key Criteria to Consider Hiking as a Passionate Pastime


Why “Hiking” Dominates Over Other Walking Terms

Plenty of words like walking, trekking and traipsing also describe being on foot. So why does “hiking” reign supreme as the chosen label of wanderers worldwide? Here are some of them;

  • It implies intentional time spent in nature vs generic walking
  • Suggests journeying beyond one’s neighborhood onto a path
  • Connotes more adventurous terrain than a sidewalk
  • Denotes recreation not just transportation from A to B
  • “Hiking” sounds more fun and exciting than plain old “walking”!

For outdoor enthusiasts, “hiking” perfectly captures the spirit of their recreational rambles and connection to nature. No wonder it has taken off as the word of choice globally!


How Hiking Deeply Connects Us to Nature

Now that we’ve covered the origins and evolution of the term, let’s look at why so many love hiking itself. Hiking enables richly experiencing nature in ways no other form of mobility allows:

1. Total Immersion in Natural Surroundings

Moving at walking speed allows you to notice each flower, critter, and landform. You become part of the living landscape.

2. Engaging All 5 Senses

You can smell, hear, feel and even taste nature’s wonders on the trail. It involves full sensory immersion.

3. Mental Clarity and Curiosity

With no distractions, the mind wanders freely. We ponder our tiny place in nature’s grandeur.

4. Intimate Familiarity with the Elements

Wind, rain, and terrain nuances become familiar guides. We respond intuitively to nature’s rhythms.

5. Boosted Creativity and Ideation

Being immersed in sights, sounds and motion inspires novel insights. Solutions seem to spring from the trees.

Hiking lets our spirit recalibrate by stepping briefly away from urban-focused minds. The 36th step you take is just as rejuvenating as the 1st.


A Brief Timeline of Hiking Through History

Having covered the roots of “hiking,” let’s explore how the activity itself evolved:

– 18th century: Rousseau and Romanticism inspire appreciation of walking in nature and mountains. Hiking for pleasure emerges.

 1800s: Alpine clubs summit peaks in Europe for adventure. Walking clubs promote group hikes as wholesome recreation.

– 1892: Sierra Club forms to explore and protect US wilderness, bringing hiking mainstream.

– 1916: National Park Service is established to protect natural spaces and trails.

– 1920s: The Great Depression spurs hiking as an affordable escape and pastime. Mountain hiking gains devotees.

– 1940s: After WWII, thousands take to trails to find peace and wilderness. Gear evolves.

– 1960s: Rising eco-consciousness inspires new legions to appreciate nature via hiking. Backpacking surges.

– 1970s: End-to-end “thru-hiking” of long trails like the AT and PCT becomes a pursuit.

Today: Millions worldwide flock to urban and wilderness trails for challenge, community and restoration.

The timeline shows how hiking rose in tandem with values like nature conservation, fitness and escape from urban life. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We need the tonic of wilderness.” For over two centuries, hiking provided that precious tonic.

Also Read: What is Unparalleled Hiking and 5 Powerful Benefits You Can Get From It


Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Hiking

With recreation trends constantly shifting, one may ask: Is hiking still relevant? Does hiking offer real benefits? The answer is a resounding yes! Beyond fun, hiking delivers profound mental and physical boosts:

1. Cardiovascular Conditioning

Hiking extends heart rate for sustained periods while building leg and core strength. This dramatically boosts cardiovascular fitness.

2. Lower Risk of Disease

Regular hiking prevents chronic illness by improving cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Being active outdoors also exposes people to health-enhancing time in nature.

3. Mental Health Lift

Being active outdoors is shown to relieve anxiety, elevate mood and reduce depression through feel-good endorphins and emotional restoration.

4. Stress Relief

Hiking allows our minds space to detach from stressful routines and thoughts, while boosting resilience.

5. Social Bonds

Sharing hikes with others forges strong communities around common interests and achievements. Hiking buddies become friends for life.

6. Accessible Activity

Hiking can be enjoyed from a young age into elder years, unlike high-impact sports with age limits. It’s an activity for life.

Clearly, the mental and physical benefits of hiking are unmatched. And there is no better term for describing the activity than “hiking” itself!


Hiking Motivations and Passions

After understanding the origins and benefits of hiking, it helps to explore why people feel so passionate about it in the first place. Common motivations include:

1. Appreciating Natural Beauty

Humans are drawn to the restorative beauty of nature. Hiking satiates our thirst for gorgeous vistas.

2. Adventure and Exploration

Hiking scratches our itch to journey into new terrain and discover the unknown. Each bend in the trail promises fresh delights.

3. Escape from Urban Life

Hiking provides an antidote to the stress and distraction of modern city living. It lets our senses recalibrate.

4. Physical Challenge and Prowess

Humans take pride in overcoming obstacles. Conquering a grueling trail boosts confidence and fitness.

5. Solitude and Introspection

Being alone with one’s thoughts fosters insight and mindfulness. Hiking’s peaceful silence restores inner balance.

6. Camaraderie and Sharing Experience

Humans bond through shared experience. Hiking friendships last lifetimes.

7. Goal Completion

Finishing an epic thru-hike or bagging a challenging peak provides an immense sense of achievement.

8. Spiritual Connection

Being immersed in nature connects people to forces larger than themselves. Hiking evokes gratitude and awe.

Hiking speaks to our deepest instincts – our love of beauty, quest for adventure, desire for companionship and longing for meaning. It makes us feel most alive.

Also Read: Is Hiking Walking? Peculiar Differences Between Walking and Hiking


Finding Your Hiking Community

One of the greatest joys of hiking is connecting with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. Here are tips for finding your tribe:

  • Join local hiking meetup groups to find partners
  • Befriend fellow hikers you meet on popular trails
  • Check outdoor retailers for group outings and classes
  • Follow hiking influencers on social media for inspiration
  • Look into hiking nonprofits like Sierra Club chapters
  • Search for general or women’s hiking clubs in your area
  • Consider volunteering for a hiking-related cause
  • Don’t be shy – strike up conversations on the trail!

Building a supportive hiking community enriches the experience exponentially. You’ll find trusted partners to embark on epic adventures with while gaining wisdom from seasoned mentors.


How to Immerse Your Family in Hiking

As a hiking parent, one of my greatest joys is sharing my love of hiking with my kids. Here are tips for instilling the hiking bug in your family:

1. Start Them Young

Take infants and toddlers out in carriers so they associate the outdoors with comfort. Let preschoolers set the pace on kid-friendly nature trails.

2. Make It an Adventure

Stop often to explore things that capture their imagination – a huge gnarled tree, a woodpecker hole, a pretty rock. Nurture their innate curiosity in nature.

3. Give Them Responsibilities

Empower kids to choose rest stops, use navigation tools, be the wildlife spotter, or carry their own tiny backpack. Help them feel ownership in the journey.

4. Keep It Fun

Go at their pace. Turn logs into balance beams. Hunt for treasures like feathers and stones. Splash in creeks. Bring snacks. Hiking with kids is about the experience.

5. Unplug and Bond

Leave technology behind and give them your undivided attention. Hiking opens up space for meaningful conversations.

6. Set a Lifelong Example

Bring your kids up hiking and make it a shared lifelong tradition. The memories created on the trail will stay with them forever.

Hiking with my kids has given me my most treasured memories as a mom. I hope everyone gets to experience hiking’s profound joys, community and personal growth for generations to come. After all, as the saying goes – “A family that hikes together, stays together!”

Also Read: Is Hiking a Skill? Develop These Top 13+ Skills Through Hiking


The Hiking Journey Ahead

So, why is it called hiking? As we’ve discovered, the humble word “hiking” has a rich history and evokes a powerful spirit of adventure, fitness and appreciation for our planet’s awe-inspiring beauty.

I feel grateful for the opportunity to immerse in nature, push my limits, restore balance to my life and enjoy quality time with loved ones that hiking provides.

While an obsession with tracking steps and speed is not what hiking is about, the mileage covered represents progress on the journey of self-discovery, purpose and environmental stewardship.

I hope this deep dive into the origins and essence of hiking inspires you to explore local trails, join a community of fellow outdoor enthusiasts and nurture an inclusive lifelong love of the sport. Lace up those boots and let’s hit the trail! The mountains are calling…


FAQs on Why is it Called Hiking


What are some of the earliest known uses of the word ‘hiking’?

The word ‘hiking’ first appeared in English slang in the early 1800s simply meaning to travel or move quickly and vigorously. Throughout the 1800s, it evolved to refer to long, strenuous walks and difficult journeys by foot.

When did hiking become a recreational activity?

By the early 1900s, ‘hiking’ became associated with recreational long distance walking, especially in nature. The first published reference to a ‘hiking club’ appears in 1921, showing it had become an established leisure activity.

Does hiking have different names in other countries?

Yes, while ‘hiking’ is standard in North America, other cultures have their own terms like bushwalking (Australia), tramping (New Zealand), rambling or fell-walking (UK), or wandern (Germany). The words differ but refer to the same recreational activity.

What are some different types of hiking?

Day hiking, backpacking, thru-hiking, peak bagging, winter hiking, coastal hiking, and urban hiking are some of the diverse hiking activities covered by the umbrella term ‘hiking’.

Why is hiking considered so beneficial?

Hiking offers many benefits including improved cardiovascular health, stress relief, mental clarity, creativity boosts, strengthened social bonds, and an enhanced connection with nature through immersion and sensory engagement.

How can I safely hike with kids?

Start them young, keep hikes fun with games and rewards, empower them to lead at times, go at their pace, bring snacks/water, choose appropriate trails, teach outdoor ethics like Leave No Trace, and model proper gear/clothing.

Where can I find hiking communities?

Great places to connect with hiking enthusiasts include local meetup groups, popular trails, outdoor retailers, hiking nonprofits like Sierra Club, general or women’s hiking clubs, social media, and by striking up conversations on the trail.

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