How Hiking Trails are Rated

How Hiking Trails are Rated

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We are headed to a new park this morning and I’m trying to decide which trail we should hike. One of the things I’m using to make my decision is the difficulty rating for each trail, which lead me to ask, “how exactly are hiking trails rated?” There must be some sort of national ‘system’ to rate trails, right?

What makes a trail easy versus vigorous?

It turns out, there is no “national standard” for how hiking trails are rated. There are parks, hiking clubs and even online calculators that will give you an arbitrary scale of difficulty based on elevation gained and length of the trail, but ultimately it is up to you to decide what is within your abilities based on their criteria.

If you’ve been hiking for awhile you probably have a pretty good sense for what you can handle, but when you’re first starting out it can be a little confusing and even intimidating. Most trails are rated with some version of easy to vigorous or strenuous, but what does that really mean? For instance, Jen and I may have two very different opinions on what “strenuous” is.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common trail ratings and break down what you can expect from each.

How Hiking Trails are Rated

Easy Trails

Most ratings systems that I came across while searching the web start out with easy as being, well, the easiest level. While they all have different criteria, easy trails are generally deemed for anyone that is capable of going out and walking a couple miles. You can generally expect very little if any elevation gains.

Easy Hiking Trails
Easy hiking trails are generally appropriate for hikers of all ages and abilities.

Most trails deemed easy are going to be relatively flat. As far as distance goes, most are going be less than a couple miles. Many times you’ll even find parks that have trails that are less than a mile. Just make sure to check the trail distance before heading out.

If you’re new to hiking and are a bit apprehensive about heading out, start with an easy trail. If you’re able to do a long walk around your neighborhood, chances are you’ll be just fine on an easy trail.

Moderate Trails

There seems to be a consensus when it comes to how hiking trails are rated that “moderate” is the first level up from easy. So what does moderate mean?

The thing I like to keep in mind is how many categories, or tiers, the trail you’re looking at is broken into. If the scale has six tiers ranging from easy to, let’s say, extreme (was it an old doritos or maybe mountain dew commercial where the guy kept yelling, “EXTREME!!!”? I hear that in my head every time I read it, or write it in this case. Anyway, I digress…).

If moderate is the second level out of six you can expect the trail to still be on the easy side. However, if it’s the second of three (easy, moderate, difficult) than you could end up with a trail that’s much more of a challenge.

Generally, moderate is going to provide a bit of a challenge, especially for a novice hiker. Length of the trail is probably going be around three or four miles depending on the elevation. You can expect a bit of elevation, but nothing you can’t handle if you’ve been using hiking to get in shape. Of course you could be doing other things to get in shape too, but hey, we’re biased.

Moderately Strenuous/Strenuous/Challenging Trails

Here is where things get a bit wonky. While most rating systems agree on easy and moderate, after that many go in different directions. I’m going to move forward under the assumption we’re using a 5-tier system. But like I stated earlier, if you’re looking at a 3-tier system that’s going to change things quite a bit.

Regardless of verbiage, (strenuous, challenging or whatever) we’re sitting right in the middle of our five tiers here. This is where in my opinion trails start to really get challenging. Expect a longer trail that’s going to be in the 4 to 6 mile range.

While trails are generally longer, the biggest change you’re going to notice at this level is the difference in elevation. Expect to encounter multiple sections that will be pretty steep.

I wouldn’t recommend a trail at this level to a beginner just starting out, but if you’re up to challenge then give something in this mid-tier a go.

Strenuous/Vigorous/Difficult Trails

Once you get to this level, if you’re not sure if you’re ready for this much of a challenge, then chances are you’re not. This level is going to challenge anyone. Expect a long trail, but just like the level before the biggest difference is probably going to be in elevation. Expect a lot of elevation and expect some very steep and challenging sections.

At this level you’re going to want to be more thought into your preparation as well. Most trails on the lower levels can generally be done in an hour or two with a good pair of shoes and a bottle of water.

Difficult Rated Hiking Trails
On hiking trails rated difficult or strenuous, you should expect rocky or rugged terrain and challenging elevation changes.

However, at the upper levels you’re going to want a good trail shoe that is going to give you better grip on the steeper inclines you’re going to encounter. You are also going to want extra water… and a couple little snacks aren’t a bad idea either.

Lastly, if you’re rocking pale Irish skin like mine, don’t forget a hat and some sunscreen. It’s easy to forget when you think you’re going to be ‘in the woods’ all day, but most trails are still going to get you enough exposure to come away with a nasty sunburn.

Very Strenuous/Very Difficult/Extreme Trails

This is for the experienced, well conditioned and well prepared. These are the hikes that are going to take the better part of a day at minimum or maybe even call for an overnight camp to finish. Honestly, if you’re not sure if you should be hiking a trail at the far end of the difficulty scale, then chances are, you shouldn’t be.

Trails at this level should not be taken lightly and should only be taken on by hikers who are experienced and confident of their abilities.

Final Thoughts

It turns out there is no national standard for how hiking trails are rated which is a little disappointing. I get that trails are all subjective and even two trails with the same length and elevation could be different in difficulty, but in the world of rock climbing there is one rating system that is agreed upon by all climbers.

A single rating system would make it easier especially for newer hikers to get a feel for what is an appropriate trail for them.

My best two pieces of advice is to start tracking your hikes early on and note the length and elevation. Then you can use those as a reference point for future hikes. Secondly, research whether the trail you’re heading out on is a loop or an out and back. This will be important information to have if you end in a situation where you feel you need to cut a hike short.

As always, remember to enjoy every minute while you’re out in nature and whether it’s an easy hike or a challenging hike, have fun!

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Ryan H

I love hiking and being outdoors with Jen and our two rescue dogs, Chompers and Mia. I also enjoy a good weekend trail run. I'm also really enjoying sharing some of the knowledge we've learned along the way here on Zenful Hiking!

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