Since the pandemic declared gyms a hotspot for the Covid19 virus, many of us have found our endorphin ‘hit’ by escaping to the great outdoors. However, as we inch closer to another year away from the treadmill, we are left wondering whether hiking can truly replace the gym.

The average person will burn more calories per hour when hiking a shallow trail at a moderate pace than walking on a treadmill at the same speed. However, hiking at this intensity will burn fewer calories than running on a treadmill at approximately double that pace.

Although burning calories is a key ingredient to losing inches around your waist, there are plenty more factors to consider before you trade your beloved Nikes for a pair of hiking boots.

How does hiking train your body when compared to a gym workout?

Hiking incorporates two of the four major fitness disciplines, namely endurance and strength. Hikers build their endurance by walking extended distances, which raises their heart rate and breathing rate.

Strength training plays a large role when hiking. The lower body supports a significant load during a hike, particularly when carrying additional weight, such as a hiking pack. This allows hikers to build muscle strength in their glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.

Furthermore, it increases bone density which aids in supporting the load-bearing muscles.

The gym offers various equipment to practice all four major forms of fitness – strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. Kettlebells, strength racks, and weight machines are only a few examples of what fitness enthusiasts use to build muscle strength through a weight training exercise.

Cardio junkies have perfected the art of raising their heart rate and breathing rate without traveling more than a few steps. Their endurance training can be found in a spinning class or when gripping a jump rope.

The final two forms of fitness, flexibility, and balance, are commonly practiced on a Pilates mat. Balance training improves coordination of movement, which aids in preventing injuries and builds muscular synergism.

The primary goal of flexibility training is to optimize the body’s range of motion. This creates supple muscles for deeper movements during exercise while reducing the risk of injury.

What is the difference between endurance exercise and strength training?

The focus of endurance exercise is to increase the time that the body can do work. This form of training often involves simple, repetitive movements such as cycling or running.

Strength training aims to increase the amount of force that muscles produce during a single maximal effort. This training involves bearing as much weight as possible during one repetition of an exercise.

Although endurance exercises and strength training often involve the same muscle group, they activate different muscle fibers. Endurance training activates slow-twitch muscle fibers, which improves the muscle’s ability to utilize oxygen, thus increasing performance time.

Strength training activates fast-twitch fibers. These fibers are responsible for the force the muscle produces when bearing a load. They multiply during this type of training, thus increasing muscular strength.

How does hiking boost your mood when compared to a gym workout?

Our brains reward us for working hard at maintaining a healthy lifestyle by releasing endorphins during exercise. These are chemicals that elevate mood by reducing pain sensation and boosting pleasure stimulation.

While all forms of exercise release endorphins, endorphin production is proportional to heart rate. The faster blood is pumped around the body, the quicker you will experience your “runner’s high.” It would seem that increasing your speed on the treadmill instead of navigating a trail is the answer to elevating your mood.

However, Mother Nature plays a large role in boosting our mood during exercise. Spending time outdoors increases oxygen levels in the body, which boosts serotonin release. Serotonin is one of the major hormones responsible for stabilizing our mood and combatting depression. 

Researchers in South Korea and Japan have studied the mental health benefits of “Shinrin-Yoku,” a Japanese practice that involves taking leisurely walks through natural areas.  Studies showed that participants experienced a marked reduction in stress levels and increased mental clarity after just fifteen minutes of strolling through the greenery.

Clear blue skies and sunshine have long been the spokespersons for a cheerful mood. Our bodies respond to light exposure by producing melatonin, the hormone responsible for a good night’s rest. Sleep helps the brain process emotion, thus influencing how we respond to daily stress, which ultimately affects our general well-being.

Furthermore, UV radiation emitted by the sun is responsible for the body’s production of vitamin D. Research has shown that elevated vitamin D levels promote a better mood and ward off depression.

Therefore, if you find yourself white-knuckled after a stressful day, consider lacing up your hiking boots and tackling your nearest trail.

How practical is hiking as a primary form of exercise when compared to the gym?

For many, the practicality of replacing the gym with hiking comes down to cost. Gym memberships require a monthly fee ranging from $58 to $100, depending on which city you live in. Although this may grant you access to a wide variety of exercise equipment, costs escalate with personal training services and premium access memberships.

While gym members will pay between $696 and $1200 annually to stay trim, the initial cost of hiking is notoriously pricey. Your backpacking gear will set you back between $300 and $2,200, depending on which brands you shop.

However, purchasing gear that will last you many years is an investment compared to paying a monthly membership for the use of gym facilities.  Besides hiking gear, certain parks expect payment for overnight permits and entrance fees, which can total averaging between $25 and $35.

Time is money. City living demands busy work schedules, narrow deadlines, and many minutes spent in traffic. The gym suits a high-pressure lifestyle since it requires less time traveling to the treadmill than it does escape the city for a hike.

A moderate hike, usually between 3 to 5 miles, at a pace of 3mph will require 6o to 90 minutes of your day. Steeper, longer trails will require more time. The intensity of a 60-minute gym workout depends on which kind of exercise is included in the session and which fitness level you are performing. Therefore, the gym beats hiking when it comes to convenience.

Climate is a significant deciding factor when choosing to make hiking your primary exercise. Heatwaves can rattle even the most experienced hikers. Dehydration and hyperthermia can lower blood volume, which results in disorientation and, in more serious cases, hypovolemic shock.

Extreme cold weather conditions may also prove dangerous to hikers. Snow and heavy rainfall can cause injuries by destabilizing your footing and making safely crossing rivers difficult. Strong winds can cause trees to fall, thus increasing the danger of setting up an overnight camp.

Many parts of the world experience these climate conditions for most of the year, making hiking an impractical exercise choice.


Whether or not hiking can replace the gym depends on your fitness goals. If you aim to increase your muscular and cardiovascular endurance while building lower body strength, hiking is a good alternative to the gym. However, if you wish to grow overall muscular strength and synergism while improving your endurance, you may not want to focus solely on hiking.

Furthermore, it is important to consider what encourages you to move your body. If you are highly motivated by boosting your mood and prioritizing your mental wellness, spending time outdoors will be a more appealing substitute to joining the gym. If you are easily deterred by unpleasant weather, you may find less opportunity to get your blood pumping by hiking than you would find in a comfortably airconditioned gym.

Finally, canceling your gym membership to explore the great outdoors depends on how you budget your time and your pennies. Hiking has greater startup costs than joining the gym does. However, this cost is a once-off investment in gear that will last you many expeditions, while your annual gym fee is simply an ongoing expense.

If your daily routine only allows an hour to get your endorphin kick, hiking may not be as practical a sport as the gym. Depending on where you live, accessing trails and hiking challenging hills will require more of your time than the gym would. Ultimately, making this substitution depends solely on whether your lifestyle will allow it.