What is the Difference Between a Mountain and a Hill?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The differences between a mountain and a hill are difficult and nebulous. There isn’t a standard definition that sharply delineates one from the other. Even the United States Geological Survey (USGS) concludes that these terms don’t have technical definitions and no scientific consensus exists to determine if a person is looking at, standing on, or merely regarding a mountain or a hill.

Mount Everest.
Mount Everest.

In the UK, there used to be a standard method for defining a mountain and a hill. This was based on height, and for a while the US adopted this standard too. Both countries defined a mountain as being 1,000 feet (304.8 m) or more tall. Any similar landform lower than this height was considered a hill.

The Matterhorn is one of the most famous peaks in the Alps.
The Matterhorn is one of the most famous peaks in the Alps.

The US attempted to not just measure by height, but suggest that there had to be a drop of 1,000 feet or an 1,000 foot relief in order for a mountain to be considered such. These definitions were discarded in the 1920s, leaving us with no clear distinction between a mountain and a hill. It’s as vague as possible, though most people would agree that exceptionally tall mountains are indeed not hills. For instance, a person probably wouldn’t think of defining Mt. Everest as anything but a mountain, and certainly wouldn’t expect it to be considered a hill.

The tallest mountain outside of Asia is Aconcagua.
The tallest mountain outside of Asia is Aconcagua.

Most people would agree that significantly high areas with large drops are mountains, particularly when their names are preceded by the term Mount. Hills are more vague and are those softer, more easily climbed, areas of rising ground. Climbing a mountain to its peak or summit is called summiting, but people will rarely hear others discuss how they summited a local hill, unless they are in jest. Sometimes the difference is that mountains are named while hills may not be. Instead of relying on heights or drops, the definition in this way depends on local agreement that something is a mountain and deserves a name.

There is a film that references the old UK definition of the difference between a mountain and a hill. The film is The Englishman Who Went up a Hill But Came down a Mountain, made in 1995. The movie is actually based on real events in Wales, though the names have been changed. The basic events concern a certain town’s claim to the first mountain in Wales, named Ffynnon Garw. When a surveyor, played by Hugh Grant, comes to measure the “mountain,” he finds it short by about 16 feet (4.87 m) and declares to the town that they don’t have a mountain. The Welsh villagers respond by adding 16 feet of dirt, rocks, and various other things so they can keep their pride and the title of mountain.

There is no strict definition that distinguishes a mountain from a hill.
There is no strict definition that distinguishes a mountain from a hill.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I think there are two important factors in the hill/mountain comparison.

1. Height. The summit of the mountain must be significantly higher than the baseline elevation of the area. The baseline is related to the bottom of the valleys and plains surrounding the mountain

The height requirement is proportional to the slope. Perhaps a minimum height of 500 feet regardless of the slope.

2. Slope. The elevation must rise at a certain rate so as to have an average slope that can not be walked. You might have 1 or more faces that can be walked to reach the summit, but generally you must climb a mountain.


There are areas in the great plains that are over 5,000 feet in elevation and when you're there, it feels like you're in Florida because it is flat.


I support the criterion of height as to the distinction between a hill and a mountain. I found a difference in their physiques. Pardon my mistake if I make any, however, I think that the mountains are more rocky than the hills and very difficult to climb up and the latter ones are more soily than the former ones. That's the reason why we have frequent environmental problem in the form of 'Landslide' in hilly regions.

Look at the Mount Everest: it's hard and so rough in its appearance. On the contrary, hills are more grassy and soft looking. The hill of Swifts Creek at Victoria represents so. Above all, it's my personal opinion.


Another way to distinguish between mountains and hills is to look out for any other hill or mountain ranges nearby. Mountains don't usually stand by themselves, but rather are a part of a range of mountains.

Do you remember middle school and high school science courses? They had taught us that mountains form when two tectonic plates collide and fold over forming mountains. Just look at some of the most famous mountain ranges, like Mt. Everest. They cover huge areas of land. The chances of having just one mountain surrounded by low level land is just unlikely. If it's the case, it's probably a hill, not a mountain.


@fify--That sounds about right because Cavanal Hill, the highest hill in the world that is located in Oklahoma, is 1999 feet. It would probably be considered a mountain if it was just one feet taller. After the 1920s, geographers might have come to a consensus that 2000 feet is a better distinction between a hill and mountain rather than just 1000 feet.

I'm not too sure about a summit. But as far as I know, a summit is just the highest point. So a hill should have a summit just as a mountain does.


In geography class, we learned that if it is 2000 feet and higher, it is a mountain. If it is less than 2000 feet, it is a hill. Is this incorrect? My teacher also said that mountains have summits whereas, hills do not.

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