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 nearly four decades of backpacking and dayhiking, including many years as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and running this blog, and this knowledge can help ensure that you and your companions 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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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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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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.
Hike Difficulty Rating Scale
|Rating||Distance OR||Elevation Gain and Loss (cumulative is double)|
|Easy||5 miles or less||500 feet or less|
|Moderate||5 to 8 miles||More than 1,500 feet|
|Hard||8 to 12 miles||More than 3,000 feet|
|Very Hard||12 to 15 miles||More than 4,500 feet|
|Extremely Hard||More than 15 miles||More 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 (more on that below) of 30 minutes for each mile of horizontal distance or 1,000 feet of vertical. 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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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.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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