How to Determine Your Trails Hiking Difficulty

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Hiking is one of the best outdoor activities for adventurous people. Many people visit popular hiking trails every year, and many among them are new hikers.

Unlike veterans, these new hikers often lack a proper understanding of hiking trails’ difficulty. It is more or less impossible to categorize the hiking trail’s difficulty with a universal scale.

In some parts of the world, regional authorities came up with feasible scaling systems to determine hiking difficulty. YDS or SVM are some of the widely accepted hiking trail rating systems.

Even the best hiking trail rating systems fail to categorize them accurately. Newly minted hikers are unaware of the difficulty level of hiking trails.

Some of them might not even know what is considered a strenuous hike. I’ll try to cover the topics of hiking trail difficulty level, what influences these ratings, and how to pick the one that suits your skill level.

How Does the Trail Rating System Work?

YDS has a three-part rating system. It categorizes hiking and climbing trails based on class, grade, and protection rating. This system is thorough, but it encompasses more than mere hiking trails.

As a result, modern hiking communities came up with more simplified systems which are more suited for rating trails.

The simplified categories range from easy to strenuous. Let’s have a look at the differences between these categories:

Easy Level

Rated easy hiking trails feature a landscape that is easy to traverse. The majority of the trail would be a mix of small hill tracks. These hiking trails could sometimes be relatively long, but they never have any additional obstacles that require external tools to get past. Standard hiking gear and trail runners or hiking boots are enough to enjoy these trails.

People think that a hiking trail’s distance determines its rating. I can assure you, that is not the case at all. Most ratings are based on the elevation gain and total distance. If a trail has little elevation gain, it will still classify as an easy trail no matter how long it is.

Moderate Level

Moderate hiking trails are a lot more challenging than easy ones. These trails have additional obstacles, and a hiker can receive significant injuries if they act carelessly.

Moderate trails are also on a higher elevation than easy trails. The elevation gain of these trails ranges between 500 to 1000 feet per mile. They can go up to a total of 2000 feet or more.

You would need a certain degree of skill to traverse these trails. You would occasionally need to climb, and you need to have good tracking skills to find the markers in such trails. The trail markers of moderate trails are not as visible and conspicuous as easy trails.

Strenuous Level

Strenuous hiking trails are suited for skilled hikers looking for challenges. The elevation gain has a qualitative increase on these trails. On top of that, these trails are also much steeper and require more skill to traverse. The total distance of such a trail is usually far longer than the moderate level.

A trail does not need to have all the difficulty limits to be classified as a strenuous trail. If a relatively short trail has significantly steep slopes, it can also be categorized as a strenuous trail. Likewise, a mix of moderate elevation gain with an outrageous distance limit can also be a strenuous trail.

Moderate to severe injuries are normal on such trials if you are careless. Some injuries can even be life-threatening. Most skilled hikers will prepare a lot of safety measures before undertaking the task of traversing such a trail. Advanced hiking gear is a minimum in these trails.

What Affects A Trail’s Difficulty?

A trail’s difficulty is not determined solely by its elevation gain and distance. The humidity level, rainfall, marker visibility, and temperature also play a significant role in a trail’s ranking. In short, the geographical location of a trail can significantly alter its rank.

Here are a few things that affect a trail’s difficulty:

Marker Condition

All hiking trails have trail markers spanning across the map. Some trails have a lot of traffic, and the markers on those trails are relatively well-kept and clear. Hiking trails that are relatively smooth and wide are easy to travel because the marker visibility is so high.

A dilapidated trail would never have a completely visible marker, and hikers would need to be very careful if they don’t want to get lost. Every decent hiking trail ranking system takes marker visibility into account while ranking them. A poorer trail condition will elevate a trail’s difficulty rating.

Some trails also have additional dangers based on region. Sometimes a lower elevation trail with moderate distance can classify as a strenuous trail because of its trail condition. Likewise, trails with a high elevation and longer length can also be counted as a moderate trail if the trail condition is extremely favorable.

Weather Condition

Weather is an important determining factor for rating a trail. A trail that is covered in snow would be infinitely more dangerous and harder to hike than one that isn’t. Not only does frost make walking and climbing harder, but it also adds dangers such as hypothermia into the equation.

Rainfall is not as extreme as snow, but that is assuming the volume isn’t too high. Moderate rainfall already increases the danger level of a trail, but if it gets frequent rainfall, the entire trail’s difficulty needs to be ramped up a level.

Ambient Temperature

Heat and humidity levels also affect the condition of a trail. They do not have as extreme an effect as rainfall or snow, but they increase stamina consumption. The stamina depletion rate limits how much hikers can explore before they need to rest.

Heat and cold have a significant effect on your exploration rate. Hiking in favorable weather takes less than half the time of an unfavorable hiking trail. That’s why hiking trails with favorable weather have far lower difficulty ratings even if it has higher elevation gain.

Choosing a Hiking Trail That Suits You

Choosing a suitable hiking trail is easier said than done for newly-minted hikers. The experienced hikers can gauge how much they can handle, but newbies often bite off more than they can chew. Fitness level, health conditions, physical limitations are all important factors you need to consider before choosing a hiking trail.

The quality of your gear is also something you need to consider before you choose a hiking trail. An average novice hiker should stick to easy hiking trails until they can comfortably traverse these lands.

Someone who has hiked multiple easy trails can attempt hiking a moderate hiking trail. And finally, strenuous trails are reserved for veterans who have countless moderate trails under their belt.

You should always thoroughly research every hiking trail before attempting it. It would be even better if you can ask someone who has hiked there already. Generally, experienced hikers will give a much better idea of a trails difficulty than any sort of analytical data or grading system.


There are no ironclad hiking trail ratings anywhere in the world. It is extremely frustrating because the same kind of hiking trail can have entirely different ratings given by different organizations. Hiking trail rating systems can only be treated as a rough outline at best.

It is troublesome for newly-minted hikers to get a clear understanding of the situation because of this disparity. What is considered a strenuous hike? What is an easy hike? Different communities have different standards for determining these things. Your best bet is to compare the different ratings and make an average rating out of them.

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