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Picking the Best Hiking Trail for Your Abilities (Easy, Moderate and Strenuous)

December 2, 2018

People enjoy hiking for a variety of reasons, but many of those who hit their local trails do so for the exercise the activity provides.

However, there’s a big difference between breaking a sweat and working out your muscles during a hike and biting off more than you can chew. You don’t want to wear yourself out and require assistance getting back to the trailhead. Conversely, you don’t want to head out for an afternoon in hopes of working out your calves and burning a bunch of calories only to find that the trail you chose is no more challenging than a sidewalk.

To avoid either eventuality, you’ll need to pick a trail that suits your skill and fitness level. This will help you have a great time and achieve the goals you’ve established. We’ll talk about the way trails are rated and the things you’ll want to consider when making your choice below.

Trail Rating Systems

Unfortunately, there is no widely recognized, universal trail-rating system.

Different parks, trail guides, hike leaders, websites and books subscribe to different rating systems, making apples-to-apples comparisons hard. Some rating systems use numbers to rate trails, while others employ the easy-moderate-strenuous convention. Still others use variations of these approaches.

Nevertheless, there are a few rating systems that are more commonly used than others. For example, many parks and hiking authorities subscribe to the Yosemite Decimal System when rating trails.  However, this system is intended to cover an extraordinarily broad cross-section of trails and paths, including the ½-mile gravel loop at your local park and the South Face of Mount Everest.

According to the Yosemite Decimal System:

Class 1

You can walk Class-1 trails without much chance of injury. The trails should be well-marked and easy to follow. Hiking boots are recommended, but no other gear is required (although it is always wise to bring water and a cellphone whenever you are traveling through wilderness areas).

Class 2

Class-2 trails require you to use your hands occasionally to scamper up hills. Some parts of the trail may be poorly marked, and you’ll likely find hiking boots necessary. Injuries – particularly serious injuries – are still unlikely, although Class-2 trails are more dangerous than Class-1 trails.

Class 3

Class-3 trails will require you to use your hands to keep your balance and climb the trail. Hiking boots are imperative, and injuries may be serious – falls from Class-3 trails may be fatal. Many hikers (who may be better-considered climbers when ascending a Class-3 trail) will find ropes helpful, if not necessary.

Class 4

Class-4 trails require simple climbing. Rope is typically considered necessary. The hillside or cliff face is usually very exposed, although natural barriers and shelter may be present. The threat of injuries is very real for Class-4 trails, and falls are increasingly likely to be fatal.

Class 5

Class-5 trails (which, like the other classes, are subdivided into many different sub-classes) involve technical rock-climbing. Ropes, anchors and belay systems will be required, and falls are quite likely to be fatal.

Other parks and hiking authorities prefer to use a trail-rating system developed by the Sierra Club. As with other trail-rating systems, it is often adapted to suit the trails in a given area.

The Sierra Club rating system is primarily based on the length of the trail and the elevation change hikers will encounter while completing it. This system breaks trails down into one of three categories: Easy, Moderate or Strenuous.

Easy

Easy trails are generally less than 6 miles long and do not include elevation changes of more than 1,300 feet.

Moderate

Moderate trails are between 6 and 10 miles in length, and they include elevation changes of between 1,300 and 2,500 feet.

Strenuous

Strenuous trails are 10 or more miles long, and they include elevation changes in excess of 2,500 feet.

However, these ratings are often adjusted to provide the best possible rating for a given trail. For example, if a trail is about 8 miles long, but only includes elevation changes of a few hundred feet, it’ll often be classified as easy, even though it is a bit longer than most trails in this category.

Of course, many trail-rating authorities or authors devise their own rating systems, which may differ significantly with those explained above.

Factors That Influence Trail Ratings

Different rating systems use different criteria to rate trails, but most consider trail length and elevation change to be the most important factors to consider when rating a trail. However, in practice, there are several additional factors that may be considered by those rating a given trail.

Some of the most notable criteria considered include:

  • Temperatures – A 1-mile trail in Minnesota may not be much more difficult than a 1-mile trail in Arizona in March, but it’ll be much more difficult if you’re forced to slog through 2 feet of snow while doing so in January. And the opposite would be true of those hiking in through Arizona during August.
  • Precipitation – Trails that experience frequent rain, or those covered in snow for most of the year, will often be significantly harder to complete than they otherwise would. It can also increase the likelihood that you’ll suffer an injury while hiking. These factors may make a trail rated as “easy,” to feel much more like a “moderate” trail.
  • Trail Condition – Trails that are well-marked, wide-open and relatively smooth are easier to hike than similar trails that are difficult to follow, cluttered with vegetation or marked with divots, mud puddles and washouts.

What Should You Consider When Selecting a Trail Rating?

Understanding how authorities rate trails is only half of the equation – you’ll also need to determine what rating is appropriate for you. There’s no clear-cut way to figure out whether you should look for trails rated as “moderate” or “strenuous,” but you can usually get a good idea by considering the following factors:

Are You in Good Shape?

Fitness is certainly relative, but it is probably the most important consideration when trying to determine the best trail rating for you. Couch potatoes should stick to short trails rated as “easy,” while marathoners and other highly-active people may be able to take on “strenuous” trails, depending on their answers for the other considerations detailed below.

Do You Have Any Health Problems or Physical Limitations?

Obviously, if you struggle with serious health conditions, you’ll have to think carefully about your capabilities before selecting the best trail rating for your next hike. However, it is also important to consider less-serious difficulties too – this includes things like nagging knee injuries, arthritis or even gastrointestinal conditions. Generally speaking, if you have physical limitations, you’ll want to consider opting for a slightly easier trail than you otherwise would.

How Much Experience Do You Have Hiking?

Hiking success isn’t all about physical fitness and good health; you’ll also need your brain to complete the trail. Experienced hikers have often learned countless strategies and tactics to help them complete trails with ease, while beginners will often make numerous (if minor) mistakes while learning the ins and outs of hiking. Experienced hikers can usually get by pushing their limits a little more than novices, so adjust your target trail rating accordingly.

Do You Have the Necessary Hiking Gear?

Hiking isn’t necessarily a gear-intensive activity, but you’ll need a few basic things – good hiking boots, a water bottle and perhaps a good set of trekking poles – for all but the easiest and shortest of trails. If you already have a closet full of outdoor equipment, chances are you’ll be ready to take on any trail your body can handle. But, if you are just starting out and have yet to accumulate much equipment, you may want to stick to easier trails for the time being.

Putting This Info into Practice

As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, it can be somewhat tricky to determine the difficulty presented by a given trail. There are several different rating systems used, and most are subjective to one degree or another.

But, that doesn’t mean ratings aren’t helpful and important to research before selecting a trail – they very much are. You’ll just have to remember that ratings are only a starting point. In practice, you’ll want to keep the following tips in mind:

Consult multiple sources when researching trails. Start with your favorite hiking websites and books but be sure to get some human intel too. Talk with your hiking buddies, ask around at the local hiking club and talk to the staff at nearby ranger stations.

Compare unknown trails with familiar trails to help calibrate the ratings provided. If you normally hike a 2-mile nature trail, look it up in your favorite trail guide to find its rating. Then, using the same trail guide, look for other, similarly rated trails.

Stop hiking if you feel like the trail is more difficult than you expected. There is no shame in aborting the mission and returning to the trailhead if you feel inadequately prepared or uncomfortable in any way. It is better to cut the hike short, regroup and make an alternative plan than it is to put yourself at risk.

If you are new to hiking, begin with the easiest trails you can find. Too many novice hikers get themselves into predicaments because they tackle trails that exceed their skill level. Hiking 5 miles on a backcountry trail is much more difficult than walking 5 miles around the neighborhood. You’ll have plenty of time to tackle moderate and strenuous trails in the future.

Always keep safety in mind when traveling a new trail. You may know that you can complete your favorite Saturday morning trail without bringing a water bottle or daypack, but you don’t want to encounter problems on an unfamiliar trail. Always bring water, keep a cell phone in your pocket and consider bringing a minimal first-aid kit if the trail is remote.

Be most adventurous in the Spring and Fall; stick to familiar trails in the Summer and Winter. The mild temperatures of the Spring and Fall will not only make it easier and more enjoyable to explore new trails, but the increase in foot traffic that normally occurs during these seasons will also make it easier to get help if necessary.

If you think the trail may not be well-marked, bring a map or GPS. Trails classified as easy or rated as a Class-1 trail are generally easy to follow, but those at higher classification levels may include stretches that are poorly marked. A map or GPS can help ensure you find your way and don’t get lost in an unfamiliar area.

The differences between various trail-rating systems can definitely be a bit frustrating, but if you consult multiple sources and compare trails you intend to hike with those you already have, you’ll usually be able to select a trail that suits your skill and fitness level.

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