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Hiking tests the limits of human endurance.

Its challenges surpass predictable athletic arenas.

But as adventurers brave the elements, a question emerges: why is hiking the hardest sport?

#1 Mountainous Trial by Terrain: The Elevation Equation

Hiking presents an unparalleled challenge through its merciless terrain. Unlike the static and predictable surfaces of a gym or track, hiking trails are a shifting mosaic of rocks, roots, mud, and gradients.

The Appalachian Trail, for instance, with its formidable total elevation gain of around 515,000 feet, is akin to summiting Mount Everest 17 times.

Hikers must constantly adapt their stride and balance to the capricious earth beneath them, which demands an extraordinary level of physicality and mental attention.

According to the National Park Service, trails like the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon can see elevation changes of over 4,380 feet, which requires both muscular endurance and cardiovascular resilience.

#2 Wilderness Weightlifting: The Backpack Burden

The weight of one’s backpack while hiking is a tangible measure of endurance. Hikers regularly carry between 20-30% of their body weight in their packs, according to the American Hiking Society.

This weight, which includes essential gear, food, and water, must be carried up and down mountains for miles.

Carrying a 30-pound pack over a 10-mile hike is undeniably more grueling than any weightlifting session on flat ground.

The compounding effect of elevation gain, often not accounted for, exacerbates the challenge exponentially, intensifying calorie burn and muscle strain.

#3 Isolation Intensity: The Psychological Slope

As much as hiking is a physical endeavor, it is also a mental marathon. The seclusion of the wild pushes hikers into deep psychological territory.

Studies suggest that long-distance hikers can experience a range of emotional responses, from euphoria to anxiety and loneliness.

This isolation means that hikers must rely on an internal reservoir of grit and resilience.

The Pacific Crest Trail, crossing 2,650 miles, exemplifies this mental fortitude; hikers face weeks of solitude and must maintain motivation without immediate external support, which is a stark contrast to the team spirit and spectator encouragement found in other sports.

#4 Climate Conundrum: Weathering the Extreme

Hikers navigate not only the terrain but also the whims of Mother Nature, which can range from scorching heat to freezing blizzards.

On a single hike, especially at high altitudes, temperatures can drastically fluctuate. The Mount Washington Observatory recorded a temperature of -47Β°F (-44Β°C) with wind gusts up to 231 mph, conditions synonymous with the Arctic rather than a sporting challenge.

The body’s capacity to persist in such extremes is extraordinary, requiring both physical conditioning and specialized gear to maintain core temperature and prevent ailments ranging from heatstroke to frostbite.

#5 Altitude Attitude: The Breathtaking Challenge

High-altitude hiking amplifies the difficulty due to thinned air and decreased oxygen levels.

At elevations above 8,000 feet, where famous treks like the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu reside, oxygen levels can be 40% lower than at sea level.

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) are serious concerns, with the former claiming lives each year.

Athletes must acclimate to the altitude gradually, a challenge unique to hiking among sports.

The physiological demand on one’s body to adapt to these heights and perform under pressure is astronomical, making each breath, step, and heartbeat part of the overarching test.

#6 The Never-Ending Endurance Event

Hiking transcends traditional endurance measures. Long-distance trails, such as the Continental Divide Trail, stretch over 3,100 miles.

Completing such a trail can take months of continuous exertion, compared to a mere few hours that marathon runners or triathletes experience.

It requires sustaining a high level of physical performance day after day.

The demanding reality of through-hiking is backed by numbers; with a recommended daily mileage of around 20 miles, a through-hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail consumes upwards of 5,500 calories daily to maintain energy, which is more than twice the average daily intake for adults according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

This superhuman output exemplifies the extreme endurance necessary for conquering the monumental task of through-hiking.

Do you agree?

Is hiking truly the ultimate test of endurance?

Weigh in on the debate about hiking being the hardest sport.

Stefanie is a hiking and camping enthusiast who spends most of her travels experiencing the outdoors. She is the founder of Open Road Odysseys, a road trip travel blog for budget and outdoor adventurers.

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