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Ethan Rambacher | 05.16.2019

Hiking and trail running are two similar sports in many regards, but each can offer very different experiences. As both a trail runner and a hiker, I sometimes find myself conflicted when planning a trip because I can't decide whether I want to run or hike. I am always excited to get outside as a chance to adventure and escape from work, but how I choose to travel has a big impact on my experience.

Both hiking and trail running are a way to enjoy nature and escape from work and daily life, but they are very different. Hiking allows you to slow down and relax while getting outside to enjoy nature at a calmer pace, whereas trail running allows you to forget about the gear and the backpack and just go. For trail running, all you really need is a pair of shoes—and some hardcore trail runners even forgo shoes and just run barefoot.


Trail running carries with it the thrills of minimalist adventure: the feeling of freedom on the trail. Loreah Winlow.

Imagine stripping your pack down to just the essentials: food, water, headlamp, first aid kit, and extra jacket. Imagine, too, the feeling of lightness and freedom, as if leaving behind the non-essentials had also helps to leave the extra stress back at the car. Run like these will make you fall in love and the feeling of being free and in nature.

This simplicity makes it easy to squeeze in a run after work or before breakfast or whenever your busy schedule has a rare blank spot, which makes it popular as a form of daily exercise. For this reason, many athletes seek out trails close to home as a convenient training ground, but trail runners are also known for traveling far and wide to seek out the most intense and challenging trails with thousands of feet of elevation gain.

Many famous trail races (Western States, Hardrock, and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc to name a few) draw trail runners from across the globe. Trail runners are often attracted to sometimes seemingly insane challenges, and the allure of physical, mental, and even emotional trials entices them to compete against each other and against themselves, not only to be strong or prove themselves, but to feel empowered and alive.


Hiking, whether a short hike to a viewpoint or a long-distance trek, gives you time to soak in the surroundings. Shane Kucera.

While these trail runs often serve as a high-intensity workout and physical challenge, hiking can take any form from a vigorous long-distance trek to a short, leisurely stroll. Although trail running is a great way to explore nature while staying fit, hiking can be an easier sport to get into for newly-minted outdoor enthusiasts who can choose to take on hikes that will challenge them but still be a relaxing way to connect with the outdoors. The overall accessibility of hiking also explains much of the popularity of hiking over trail running.

Just like trail runs can become intense ultramarathons, so too can a leisurely stroll become a long-distance, mettle-testing thru-hike. Such expeditions require planning at least as intense as the hike itself, a juggling act of seasonal variables like wildfire seasons, the imminent threat of winter, changing elevation, and coordinating food and equipment resupply over the course of several months—if you go big for a thru-hike several thousand miles long like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails.

If I asked you to picture a trail runner, you might see a tall, lean Kilian Jornet wearing a thousand dollars worth of running equipment, running 100 miles along an epic Norwegian ridgeline. But the truth is, trail running doesn't require any of that. If I asked you to picture a thru-hiker, you might picture someone like Jennifer Pharr Davis, whose record thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,200 miles stood for four years. She completed the hike in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.

But the fact remains that you don't have to be an extreme athlete, you don't need any expensive gear, and you can often find trails to run nearby, no matter where you live. Both hiking and trail running are sports for anyone who longs to be outdoors. So whether you are new to trail running or you're training for your third race at Western States, I encourage you to get outside, go for a run, and enjoy being out in nature.


The trail is a wonderful way to experience nature, whether you're running or hiking. Stephanie Groudons.

However you choose to get outside, be it trail running, hiking, or anything else, get out there and do it! Try these suggestions to get yourself started.


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