What Are Hops & Hop Counts?

What is a hop and why is it an important piece of information?

An illustration of a simple computer network
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A hop is a computer networking term that refers to the number of routers that a packet (a portion of data) passes through from its source to its destination.

Sometimes a hop is counted when a packet passes through other hardware on a network, like switches, access points, and repeaters. This isn't always the case and it depends on what role those devices are playing on the network and how they're configured.

Note: It's technically more correct to refer to this definition of hop as the hop count. An actual hop is an action that occurs when a packet jumps from one router to the next. Most of the time, however, a hop count is just referred to as a number of hops.

What's the Value in Knowing a Path's Hop Count?

Every time packets flow from one computer or device to another, like from your computer to a website and back again (i.e. viewing a web page), a number of intermediate devices, like routers, are involved.

Each time that data passes through a router, it processes that data and then sends it along to the next device. In a multi-hop situation, which is very common on the internet, several routers are involved in getting your requests where you wanted them to go.

That processing-and-passing-along process takes time. More and more of that happening (i.e. more and more hops) adds up to more and more time, potentially slowing down your experience as the hop count increases.

There are many, many factors that determine the speed in which you can use certain websites or web-based services, and hop count isn't the most important, but it often plays a part.

A lower hop count also doesn't necessarily mean that the connection between two devices will be faster. A higher hop count via one path might perform better than a lower hop count via a different path thanks to faster and more reliable routers along the longer path.

How Do You Determine the Number of Hops in a Path?

There are many advanced networking programs out there that can show you all sorts of interesting things about the devices that sit between you and a destination.

However, the easiest way to get a hop count is by using a command that comes with Command Prompt in every version of Windows, called tracert.

Just open Command Prompt and then execute tracert followed by the hostname or IP address of the destination. Among other things, you'll be shown the hops as they occur, with the last hop number being the total hop count.

See this Tracert Examples page for more on how to use that command and what to expect.