What's the Difference Between a Hill and a Mountain?

Is It Just a Matter of Elevation or Name?

White Bird Canyon, Idaho, in spring
Anna Gorin / Getty Images

Hills and mountains are both natural land formations that rise out of the landscape, but what is the difference between the two reliefs? Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted standard definition for the height of a mountain or a hill.

Mountain vs. Hill: Which Is It?

There are characteristics that we typically associate with mountains. For example, most mountains have steep slopes and a well-defined summit while hills tend to be rounded.

To further complicate the matter, some mountains can be called hills while some hills can be called mountains. 

Even leaders in geography, like the United States Geological Survey (USGS), do not have an exact definition of a mountain and a hill. Instead, the organization's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) uses broad categories for most land features, including mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers.

Essentially, if the name of a place includes either 'mountain' or 'hill,' then it is designated as such. Yet, the answer is still not that easy.

An Attempt to Define the Height of a Mountain

According to the USGS, up until the 1920's the British Ordnance Survey defined a mountain as higher than 1000 feet (304 meters). The United States followed suit and defined a mountain as having a local relief higher than 1000 feet, yet this definition was dropped in the late 1970's.

There was even a movie about the battle over mountain and hill.

In The Englishman That Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain (1995, starring Hugh Grant), a Welsh village challenged cartographers' attempts to classify their 'mountain' as a hill by adding a pile of rocks on the top. The story, based on a book and set in 1917, is not necessarily a true story.

So, What is a Mountain and What is a Hill?

If no one can agree what the height of a mountain and a hill are, then how do we know which is which?

There are a few characteristics that are generally accepted as defining each geographic feature and it is best to look at them separately.

What is a Hill?

In general, we think of hills as having a lower elevation than a mountain. They have more of a rounded mound shape rather than a distinct peak.

  • A natural mound of earth created either by faulting or erosion.
  • A 'bump' in the landscape, rising gradually from its surroundings.
  • Low altitude and elevation, often less than 984-1968 feet (300-600 meters).
  • A rounded top with no well-defined summit.
  • Often unnamed.
  • Easy to climb.

Hills may have once been mountains that have been worn down by erosion over many thousands of years. Likewise, many mountains, like the Himalayas, were created by tectonic faults and would have, at one time, been what we might consider hills today.

What is a Mountain?

In contrast, a mountain is much taller than a hill, there is simply no official height designation. An abrupt difference in local topography is typically used to define a mountain and they will often have 'mount' or 'mountain' in their name. Famous mountain ranges include the Rocky Mountains, Andes Mountains, and the Himalayas.

  • A natural mound of earth created by faulting.
  • A very large rise in the landscape that is often abrupt in comparison to its surroundings.
  • High altitude and elevation, often higher than 1968 feet (600 meters).
  • A steep slope and a defined summit or peak.
  • Often has a name.
  • Depending on the slopes and elevation, mountains can be a challenge to climb.

Of course, there are exceptions to these assumptions and some mountains have the word hills in their name.

For instance, the Black Hills in South Dakota is considered a small, isolated mountain range. The highest peak is Harney Peak at 7242 feet of elevation and 2922 feet of prominence from the surrounding landscape. The Black Hills received their name from the Lakota Indians who called the mountains Paha Sapa, or 'black hills.'


What is the difference between "mountain", "hill", and "peak"; "lake" and "pond"; or "river" and "creek? USGS. 2016.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "What's the Difference Between a Hill and a Mountain?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/difference-between-hill-and-mountain-4071583. Rosenberg, Matt. (2017, March 29). What's the Difference Between a Hill and a Mountain? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-hill-and-mountain-4071583 Rosenberg, Matt. "What's the Difference Between a Hill and a Mountain?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-hill-and-mountain-4071583 (accessed March 24, 2018).