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

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 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 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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

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.

Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide “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.

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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Backpackers hiking the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park.
Backpackers on the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park. Click photo for my e-guides to Glacier and other parks.

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. 

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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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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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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