How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

By Michael Lanza

“How hard will that hike be?” That’s a question that all dayhikers and backpackers, from beginners to experts, think about all the time—and it’s not always easy to answer. But there are ways of evaluating the difficulty of any hike, using readily available information, that can greatly help you understand what to expect before you even leave home. Here’s how.

No matter how relatively easy or arduous the hike you’re considering, or where you fall on the spectrum of hiking experience or personal fitness level, this article will tell you exactly how to answer that question—and which questions to ask and what information to seek to reach that answer. This article shares what I’ve learned over four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, and this knowledge can help ensure that you and your companions or your family don’t get in over your heads.

Whether you’re new to dayhiking or backpacking, a parent planning a hike with young kids, or a fit and experienced dayhiker or backpacker contemplating one of the toughest hikes you’ve ever attempted, it’s important to have a good sense of what you’ll face on a new and unfamiliar hike and whether it’s within your abilities.


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A backpacker hiking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
Pam Solon backpacking the Dawson Pass Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo to read about backpacking in Glacier.

Exceeding your limits or those of someone with you can invite unwanted consequences—and the person with the least stamina, abilities, or experience often dictates any party’s pace, limits, and outcomes. Those consequences may range from an unpleasant experience that dissuades someone from wanting to go again, to failing to reach your destination or make it back to your vehicle, potentially creating a more serious situation.

Making smart decisions comes down to understanding several objective and subjective factors—and recognizing when you may be falling victim to misjudgment because of inexperience or simple overconfidence.

Backpackers hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Backpackers hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

As background about my experience—or perhaps just for entertainment value—see these stories about some of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done, including dayhiking the Grand Canyon 42 miles rim to rim to rim and the 32-mile Pemi Loop in the White Mountains; attempting a one-day, 50-mile traverse of Zion National Park, and a one-day, 30-mile traverse of Maine’s Mahoosuc Range; thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in seven days; and trekking New Zealand’s brutally hard Dusky Track.

The tips below cover “hard” and “soft” measures to understand in evaluating the difficulty of any hike. Please share your thoughts on this article, questions, or tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. And click on any photo to learn more about that trip.

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Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

The ‘Hard’ Measures of a Hike’s Difficulty

There’s no one standard for measuring the difficulty or strenuousness of trails, but there are “hard” measures—statistics for any hike—that are commonly used as reference points.

Backpackers hiking down Death Hollow in southern Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
David Gordon and Todd Arndt backpacking down Death Hollow in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Those stats include the most obvious one—the distance—as well as the total elevation gain and loss, or how many cumulative feet or meters you walk uphill and downhill. Those also include the actual elevations reached on the hike, because the thinner air at higher elevations—generally, above around 7,000 to 8,000 feet—will usually slow your pace and increase fatigue, but can also exacerbate dehydration and cause unpleasant symptoms like a headache or worse.

Elevation gain and loss will sometimes be described as “cumulative,” meaning the sum of the uphill and downhill; in other words, a hike that goes up 1,000 feet and back down again has 2,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss. Bear in mind that going downhill on a trail, especially a rugged or steep one, can be just as tiring as going uphill, and sometimes harder on leg muscles and joints.

Conversely, while hikes in mountains generally begin with going uphill and conclude with going downhill, in many canyons, it’s just the opposite: You usually go downhill first, then climb back up—and in some places, like the Grand Canyon, you might go quite far downhill before climbing back out. Don’t lose sight of how far you’re going down—which may feel remarkably easy at the beginning of a hike, when you’re fresh—and how much you will have to hike back up again.

The table below uses distance and elevation gain and loss to roughly define five categories of hikes: easy, moderate, hard, very hard, and extremely hard. These are not standardized categories; they are categories I’ve created based on more than three decades of dayhiking and backpacking with people of all abilities, from novices to highly experienced ultra-hikers and backpackers, including my children (and others) from when they were very young through their teen years.

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A hiker in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Chip Roser hiking off-trail in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

These categories are also based on many years of experience using resources, like hiking guidebooks that rate hike difficulty (and I’ve written some), and consulting professionals who design, build, and maintain trails.

The table defines each category according to distance or elevation gain and loss. For example, it rates a hike that covers either five to eight miles or more than 1,500 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss (which is the same as 3,000 feet of cumulative gain and loss) as moderately difficult—in other words, either statistic makes it that difficult. To reframe that, it means a hike on a trail of five to eight miles with little up and down would still qualify as moderate, as would a hike shorter than five miles with an uphill climb of 1,500 vertical feet. 

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Hike Difficulty Rating Scale

RatingDistance ORElevation Gain and Loss (cumulative is double)
Easy5 miles or less500 feet or less
Moderate5 to 8 milesMore than 1,500 feet
Hard8 to 12 milesMore than 3,000 feet
Very Hard12 to 15 milesMore than 4,500 feet
Extremely HardMore than 15 milesMore than 6,000 feet

There’s no precise way to equate the difficulty of a specific measure of distance with a specific amount of elevation gain and loss. Interestingly, the AMC White Mountain Guide, one of the oldest, most comprehensive (it describes 1,400 trails), and probably bestselling hiking guidebooks in the country, uses an estimated hiking time formula of 30 minutes for each mile of horizontal distance or 1,000 feet of vertical (more on that below). That presumably equates the difficulty of one mile and 1,000 vertical feet. And that’s in the White Mountains, where I’ve hiked thousands of miles and which, in my experience, have some of the rockiest, steepest, hardest trails in the country.

I know trail professionals who would dispute that, asserting that hiking 1,000 vertical feet is noticeably more strenuous than walking a flat mile. Based on my experience, I’m more inclined to equate a mile of distance with 500 to 750 vertical feet of elevation gain and loss. Trail conditions and steepness matter, too.

But that range of comparison measures provides some parameters for judging how much a hike’s difficulty increases depending on how much you walk up and downhill.

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A hiker on the Zeacliff Trail, White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton hiking the Zeacliff Trail, White Mountains, N.H.

Elevation Gain Per Mile

We all know that steeper trails are harder. And while close contour lines on a map indicate steep terrain, they don’t really reveal how steep a trail is because that depends on the angle of the trail on the ground and the map’s scale. A trail that takes a more direct angle up or down a slope will be steeper—possibly much steeper—than a trail that makes switchbacks, or zigzags across the slope. 

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Leave a Comment

32 thoughts on “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be”

  1. I’m doing a Sky climb where you gain 1,660 ft. Of elevation in one mile. How difficult and what would be a decent time?

    Reply
    • Hi David,

      Look at my chart in this story and you’ll see that your hike would rate as moderately difficult because it’s over 1,500 feet of elevation gain. That’s extremely steep to hike over 1,600 feet uphill in one mile, but it’s also just a mile. Many avid hikers view hiking 1,000 feet uphill per hour as a strong pace. The time for the hike you’re doing will also depend on the quality/ruggedness of the trail, but without knowing that, I’d say an hour to 90 minutes would be a strong time.

      Good luck.

      Reply
    • Hi Tim,

      Well, at only about 250 vertical feet per mile, that’s a relatively easy hike, depending, of course, on how many days you spread it out over. Look at my difficulty rating chart in this story for how I grade hikes.

      Thanks for the question.

      Reply
  2. Thanks for sharing this info. Although I’ve been training I’m a little nervous about an upcoming 7 day hiking trip in AK. Reading your story helped me understand trail difficulty much better. Thanks again!!

    Reply
  3. Good article but I’m surprised the word “altitude” isn’t mentioned a single time, which is strange because in my opinion it’s arguably the biggest factor that makes a hike difficult. Without taking altitude into account, I don’t find this breakdown very helpful. For example: The Heather Park/Lake Angeles trail in Olympic National Park would be close to your “Extremely Hard” category. It’s just under 15 miles, with somewhere between 5,100 and 5,300 total elevation gain. However, the trail starts at just barely above sea level, and you spend only a few miles hiking at over 5,000 feet. On the other hand, there are 14ers in Colorado with around 3,000 total elevation gain over 6-7 miles that are *significantly* harder to complete than the aforementioned trail in Olympic, and probably harder than anything in Washington (except Rainier and Adams) because of the impact of altitude. Altitude can be a real killer, and it makes your body feel things it’s never felt if you aren’t used to it.

    Reply
    • Hi Stu,

      I think you have not seen and read all of this story because it, like many stories at my blog, is partly free for anyone to read but requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full. A substantial portion of this story is only available to subscribers who are logged in to their account at The Big Outside, including considerable details on elevation.

      You must have scrolled past messages in the story telling you about the subscription.

      A subscription gives you full access to all of my blog’s stories, including the trip planner section in stories about specific trips, where I share details of the itinerary and other logistics and tips on planning a trip, plus you get access to member gear discounts.

      I hope you consider subscribing because you’ll get much more value from my blog.

      Thanks for the question.

      Reply
  4. Heya Michael,

    I really appreciate the article. Well thought out with some good pointers. I stumbled on your article looking on advice how to measure ability in others. I’m from Belgium but living in the Italian Dolomites (Alpes) with my Italian girlfriend and small 4y old son. We are very regular hikers (and she climber) and we regularly do hikes that would be described as very hard (3000-4000m (9000-12000ft) of elevation gain and loss in a hike), heck even our 4 year old son does hikes of 10km (6miles) and significant elevation gain and loss as long as the motivation is there (mountain hut with good food, ice cream at the end, and lots of stories about mountain trolls, wolves and bears). So I have quite a good grasp measuring what is possible for our family.

    However, a bunch of friends are coming over from Belgium for a 4-day hiking trip, and while I’ve hiked with some of them, there are others who are strangers to me and are asking questions that get my alarm bells ringing (what kind of shoes to take but also overestimation like “2000m of elevation gain, that doesn’t sound so hard”). Not sure how I’m going to handle that but I’ll already redesign the 4-day hike, making it a bit easier so I don’t get any nasty surprises.

    Totally on point by the way as well on descends being underestimated in many cases.

    cheers from the dolomites

    Reply
    • Hi Wannes,

      Thanks for the comment and you can count me among the many people who are envious of where you live and hike regularly. I honestly speak from experience when I say it’s very easy for someone entirely to extremely hard hikes, as you are, to overestimate what others are capable of doing. Even very fit people who are not experienced hikers may find dayhikes of 10 miles/16k and 5,000 vertical feet/1,500 vertical meters very hard (as indicated in my chart, above). Advise them to try some hikes of that difficulty at home before your trip.

      By preparing them and anticipating their abilities, you will ensure everyone has a better time. Good luck and have fun. By the way, I’ve hiked in many of the places you probably want to visit and done a lot of ultra-hiking. Let me know if you’d like my help with planning your trip. See my Custom Trip Planning for information about that.

      Reply
    • Wannes, your initial actions to modify your hike are wise. To digress for a second I am a wee bit envious of your proximity to the Dolomites. I live just outside of Vancouver and have good access to both the Coast and Cascade mountains. But a few years in the Dolomites would be a nice addition.

      May I suggest from experience of organizing and leading hikes with groups that may not be as experienced as you, and that you do not know, to be conservative in your plans. You can have alternatives, that say after a day they prove to be more competent than you expected, you can switch to that are more challenging. Also, do not be shy about being more directive in the type of footwear and clothing that they should use. You know the local conditions. Some may resist or complain but I have found it better to have taken these types of actions rather than have someone unprepared and possibly becoming a liability for the whole group.

      It may sound silly but think of how you prepare your son to go on the hike. If they prove to be more competent and experienced that is much easier to deal with. On many of your routes you have easier and more challenging options that arrive in the same location.

      Good luck.

      Reply
      • Thanks for those suggestions, John, and I fully agree with all, but especially to be directive in the type of footwear and clothing your companions should wear. They may already look to you for advice on what may seem to you like simple questions, but if they don’t, I urge you to ask them what they have to wear and for a daypack.

        Reply
  5. Hi Michael,

    Well thought out, as all of your communications are. Very helpful for folks staring out or vets of the trail. For me the messy part comes between the margins – esp. between the hard/very hard designation. I hike a lot of long trails with under 3k of elevation gain or loss. I classify those as hard, but they are often so long (18-22 miles a day) that one might be tempted to call them very hard. At any rate, keep up the great work and see you on the trail sometime! Boise is lovely, you are blessed to live there…

    Scott

    Reply
    • Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the nice words about my blog and for the point you make about this story. But please let me clarify that, as I try to make clear in this story’s description of the chart classifications of hike difficulty, each of those difficulty ratings is warranted by either of those definitions; it doesn’t require meeting both of those definitions. So your hikes of 18 to 22 miles would classify as extremely hard, as indeed, they are.

      Keep in touch and keep up your impressive hiking. And yes, we love Boise.

      Reply
      • Hikers all! Let me assure you as the decades pass the miles get longer and the hills steeper! I am in my 70’s so can attest to the fact as I have been wandering the outdoors my entire life. One of the learnings I have developed is not to get focussed on the distance or the elevation gain as it can be demoralizing. A related method I use, especially when climbing up the long ascents to a pass or a summit is to repeat a simple mantra that helps keep me going. One I often use which I learned at a personal development session many years ago is: “Over, under, around through. A Warrior will find a way.” The personal development training used some of the ancient philosophies and learning of warriors like the Samurai and others. Not sure how much it helped be a better leader and manager and work but that mantra I have carried with me to many of the great mountain ranges of the planet and beyond.

        Michael, as you know I have been a subscriber for several years and have mined your excellent site for ideas for places to go as well as using the wisdom that you so graciously share with those of us who love to explore the outdoors. Thank you.

        Reply
        • Hi John,

          Thanks for your comment and excellent suggestion. As I’ve written before, your insights and experience are much valued here. And I know you’ve knocked off many, many hard hikes, so your words carry added credibility in my eyes.

          Reply
  6. I just take how hard I think it’s going to be and then double it. Unless, I am with my kids, in which case I triple it

    Reply
  7. Gooseberry up Mt. Taylor. It’s short…not too many switchbacks…just two.. but from treeline on the SW face all the way to the sign…though not very long trail…is in my estimation very difficult. Partly because of the long, seemingly endless pull from treeline to the first saddle… that alone is a psychological game because you can see the saddle crest seems soooo close…but it takes so long to get there… you don’t realize the constant grade until you turn around and look back…..oh grants is WAY down there…ok. next deceiving extremely hard. Huachucas Miller Peak from Coronado pass. The climb up the south face our of the pass to the first ridge… it seems Jesús will come back before you reach the first crest.

    Reply
  8. Hi, that’s a very helpful article.
    I compare 1 mile to 300 ft gain or 500 ft loss of hight, in my 6 year’s experience of hiking here in Cuba.

    Reply
  9. Great article… thanks so much for taking the time to write the article. These estimates seem pretty spot on for an individual of average fitness and provides an overall easy to remember guideline for the vast majority of hiking trails around the world. Of course weather and trail conditions, and elevation (among other factors like fitness level, hiking experience, rate of ascent/descent, etc.) are going to impact these guidelines, but as a general rule of thumb, for me at least anecdotally, these are a very close to spot on.

    Thanks again Michael, and happy hiking!!!

    Reply
  10. Hello, and thanks for this piece!

    Understanding of course that this is all subjective, given that, might you offer a rough formula for determining how tolerable a downhill hike might be for those of us with aging knees?

    For example, if I’m considering a hike with 3000 ft of loss over 5 miles, then I guess that is about 600 ft elevation loss per mile of descent. Is that very steep, sort of steep, or not very steep? I would guess that is very steep (meaning, a lot of downhill action).

    I suppose that isn’t really enough info, as there might be 2900 feet of loss over 4 miles and 100 feet of loss in the last mile, which would be more like 725 ft of loss per mile for the first 4 miles.

    Hmm. Thoughts?

    Thanks very much : )

    Reply
    • Hi Kathleen,

      That’s a fair question and probably one relevant to many hikers. While you are correct that it’s subjective and will certainly vary greatly between individuals, I’ll try to offer some insights.

      I’ve had one knee surgery, a meniscus repair that was quite successful but required months of healing and physical therapy (which I followed devotedly so I could return to hiking). Early in my recovery, descending a flight of stairs was difficult and painful. Once I was recovered, I could again take long hikes with thousands of feet of steep descent. That’s one example of the range of abilities of people with any kind of knee issues.

      Yes, the angle of descent and how it’s spread out over the hike’s distance matters as much as the total amount of vertical feet of descent. But you can use 500 vertical feet per mile as a measure indicating moderate steepness; many trail designers try to keep trail grades at no more than 500 feet per mile. Still, depending on the nature of the terrain and the soils and geology, you’ll find many trails with much steeper gradients well above 500 feet per mile and even over 1,000 feet per mile. I expect trails that steep will likely cause some pain for many people with bad knees.

      The quality of the trail will also matter: Packed dirt that provides good traction and stable ground underfoot will be easier on anyone than loose, small stones or scree or rocky trails.

      Ultimately, my advice would be to experiment with the tolerance and condition of your own knees by “taking baby steps,” if you will: Try a trail with less than 1,000 feet of total downhill and see how that goes before attempting a hike with much more total downhill. A hike with 3,000 feet of descent would be a big downhill even for people with good knees (who may feel the pounding in their quads more than their knees).

      And lately, get in the habit of using trekking poles on all of your hikes; they will save you a lot of discomfort and minimize the long-term damage to your joints. Every avid, serious hiker, backpacker, and climber I know uses trekking poles, even those people with good knees. See my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles,” “10 Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles,” and “The Best Trekking Poles.”

      Good luck to you.

      Reply
  11. That’s funny, Steve Allen and I have always said that the easy days are the days you do a lot of miles while the hardest days always have the fewest. Guess that’s because we’re never on a trail.

    Reply
  12. Michael,

    You enjoy taking on challenging hikes and topics. Determining the difficulty of a hike is very complex. Worthy of a book and there would still be more to add. You captured many of the aspects. Another, which is rarely considered is the effect of the weather. An easy or moderate hike can quickly become hard or extreme if the weather changes. Both trail conditions and personal well being can be seriously impacted be it heat, rain, snow, wind or a combination thereof.

    In all of this I have one cardinal rule for my outdoor adventures: “Get home safe and healthy.” This obviously translates into getting to camp, or making a safe camp if on a multi-way or through hike. For me the philosophical mind set is the key. Reaching a summit, a vista, etc. is secondary and minor to returning safely. I have turned around countless times without reaching a summit or a desired destination. I routinely set a turn around time. I also have learned to depend on my ‘gut feeling’ on a hike , trek or climb. If trail, weather, physical performance are not right I will turn around or find a place to stop short of the desired goal.

    This requires that I am continually monitoring many of the factors that you outlined in your article. The real trail conditions, surface type can greatly affect hiking speed, elevation, length, steepness, weather, personal performance all come into play. Equally or more important is my personal psyche.

    As so many Search and Rescue professionals advise: “The most important piece of safety equipment is your brain.”. That is the same brain that tries interpret those myriad trail descriptions to truly determine what type of hike or trail you are about to encounter.

    Reply
    • Always good to hear from you, John, and as always you lend insightful perspective. You are absolutely correct about weather, a factor I did not touch upon only because I did not think of it as a consistent factor, like distance or elevation gain and loss. But certainly the weather on any given day can greatly affect the hike’s difficulty, and some places have more consistently poor/cold/wet weather that creates consistently challenging trail conditions.

      I always appreciate your input. Keep up your adventures and keep in touch.

      Reply