How Hiking Trails are Rated (The answer may surprise you)

How Hiking Trails are Rated

Jen and I 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 led 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 ratings based on elevation gain 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 a while you probably have a pretty good sense of 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 difficulty ratings and break down what you can expect from each.

Hiking Trail Difficulty Rating System

Easy Trails

Most difficulty rating 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 of miles. You can generally expect very little if any elevation gains.

Easy hiking trails are generally suitable for hikers of all ages and abilities.

Most trails deemed easy are going to be relatively flat terrain. You may come across a slight incline or two, but nothing too difficult.

As far as distance goes, most are going to be less than a couple of 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. Anyone who enjoys walking around the neighborhood should do just fine on an easy hike.

Moderate Trails

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

The thing I like to keep in mind is how many categories, or tiers, the trail rating system you’re looking at is broken into.

For example, let’s say the rating system has six tiers ranging from easy to extreme.

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

Generally, moderate hikes are going to provide a bit of a challenge, especially for a novice hiker. The length of the trail is probably going to be around three or four miles depending on the elevation gain. You can expect a bit of elevation gain, but nothing you can’t handle if you’ve been using hiking to get in shape.Opens in a new tab. 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 rating system. But like I stated earlier, if you’re using 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 difficulty level then you’re in for a challenge. This level is going to challenge anyone even experienced hikers.

Expect a long trail, but just like the level before the biggest difference is probably going to be in elevation gain. The majority of hikes at this level or higher are going to involve mountains.

You should be prepared for an increase in elevation as well as other challenges like steeper sections, potential loose rock and even some rock scrambling.

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.

However, at the upper levels you’re going to want a good trail shoeOpens in a new tab. that is going to give you a 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 experienced hikers who are well conditioned and well prepared. These are the hard 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 rating, then chances are, you shouldn’t be.

Trails at this difficulty level should not be taken lightly and should only be taken on by hikers who are experienced and confident in 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 gain could be different in difficulty, but in the world of rock climbing there is one rating systemOpens in a new tab. that is agreed upon by all climbers.

A single rating system (like perhaps the Sierra Club 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 are 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 up 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!

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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