What’s the Difference Between Hills and Mountains?

(Last Updated On: November 10, 2022)

When you think about mountains and hills, you probably just kind of know what the difference is based on what they look like. But if you were to try and define it, you’d probably just say one is just… Smaller than the other. That doesn’t sound all that technical at the end of the day, so what’s the difference between hills and mountains?

Further reading: What Are the Tallest Mountains in the United States?

Where do the words come from?

The English word “hill” doesn’t have very interesting origins. The word itself has always just been “hill” at least at a basic level. If you go back to Old Norse we get that the word “hill” might be derived from hallr, meaning “stone.” It may be otherwise derived from words meaning “rock”, “rising land”, or “island.” Older versions of the word are related to the word “mountain,” which should foreshadow the future of the distinction between hills and mountains.

As far as mountains go, the word seems to be derived from the Old French montaigne. It has always referred to natural elevation, rather than being derived from other words like “hill.” 

There was once distinction in the US

Geographers used to define mountains as hills whose peaks exceed 1,000 feet in height. Anything above 1,000 feet was a mountain. That was how the United States Geological Survey defined them for a while until they concluded that there wasn’t a distinction. This distinction was abandoned in the early 1970s. 

There are also hillocks, which are literally just small hills, with no further distinction. 

While the USA doesn’t have distinction anymore, the United Kingdom does generally define mountains as being greater than 2,000 feet in height (for them it’d be 609.6 meters). Which has actually turned some things from hills into mountains. No really, Mynydd Graig Goch is a Welsh mountain that was a hill before 2008. It was believed to be 1,998 feet in height, or 609 meters flat. Turns out when it was resurveyed, the mountain was actually 2,000 feet and… six inches (609.75 meters). So yeah. Mynydd Graig Goch made the cut barely. 

Otherwise, you can kind of go on vibes. Hills are generally considered rounder, while mountains have more pointed peaks. The latter part stems largely from the idea that mountains are more “prominent” than hills. It’s a bit of an ambiguous word, but “stands out a lot from the surrounding area” is at least something people don’t generally disagree on.

The UN has you covered

Within the United Nations, mountainous environments are really just defined as places with mountains. Which are just elevated regions. But within those mountainous regions is striation.  They have 7 classes of mountainous regions. We’ll start with meters since that’s how the UN classifies them–but we’ll also include imperial units. 

Class 1 regions are elevated above 4,500 meters (14,767 feet).

Class 2 regions are between 3,500 (11,483 feet) and 4,500 meters. 

Class 3 regions are between 2,500 (8,202 feet) and 3,500 meters.

Class 4 regions are between 1,500 (4,921 feet) and 2,500 meters. The slope of the incline also has to be more than 2 degrees. 

Class 5 regions are between 1,000 (3,281 feet) and 1,500 meters. The slope’s incline also has to be above 5 degrees. 

Class 6 regions are between 300 (984 feet) and 1,000 meters. 

Class 7 regions are weird little regions that don’t meet the criterion to be classified anywhere in the 6 previous classes, but are totally surrounded by mountainous regions. 

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.