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  1. #1

    Default Trail Difficulty Rating System

    Is there a consistent trail rating system? I have often seen different guidebooks state certain trails are "easy, moderate or difficult" but I have no idea if that is consistent for trails from different areas. I also do not know what the ratings I see necessarily mean.

    When I used to rock climb, it was pretty easy. If I was fairly consistent at flashing 5.8s and could work out the 5.9s I could also usually safely challenge myself on 5.10.

    Is there a rating system based on elevation gain over given distance and allowing for some other factors (terrain, weather extremes, trail treadway)? Obviously long trails could be rated for various sections. On the AT, sections in the Whites would likely have very different ratings than sections in MA and sections in PA.
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  2. #2
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    no......

    it's all subjective......

    i hate trail ratings like that...

    because they are so subjective....

    and it gets worse on FB----a person who does a hike every 5 years might say the trail is tough----someone who
    hikes on a regular basis is going to say it's easy......

    for instance----this lady the other day was saying a 1.9 downhill hike that she did was tough and needed to cut
    mileage down...

    my thought was how much mileage can one really trim off of a short hike?

    i'd rather look at an elevation profile or a map and see what im getting into rather than rely on someone's opinion
    about how tough a trail is...

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    Registered User JNI64's Avatar
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    This is true what TNhikers saying it's subjective to ones abilities. So with rock-climbing who rates the climb the first accender? I've always wondered about this . For instance if I find a new climbing route and I'm the first accent do I rate it ? Same as trails who rates them? Again what's is a 1.9 to me might be a 5.9 to you ( whatever that means).

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    So with rock-climbing who rates the climb the first accender?

    (disclaimer---i'm not a climber.......but am sorta familiar with the sport)

    it's essentially the same way but based on other people's subjective interpretation of the route....

    it's alot of comparison and contrast for those numbers based on prior knowledge.

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    Registered User JNI64's Avatar
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    Ok the person who gets to rate said trail or climb ,do they have to have a certain amount of experience? And who decides yeah they have enough experience to deam this rated whatever?

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    because it's important it goes in trail guides and map books and climbing routes for peoples future adventures!

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    Quote Originally Posted by JNI64 View Post
    Ok the person who gets to rate said trail or climb ,do they have to have a certain amount of experience?



    nope.......

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    but i think in the climber's world----people would get called out on their rating...

    an inexperienced person might do the first climb of a route, then name it and give it a rating...

    then a more experienced climber will come along and climb same route and go--

    "you rated that a (fill in the blank)? it's more like a (fill in the blank lower number)?"

  9. #9

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    There really is not a standard rating system for hiking trail difficulty, given the enormous differences of terrain, altitude, seasonal elements, and differences between the age and physical condition of hikers. Some scales are mathematical in nature, using elevation gain multiplied by two, multiplied by distance in miles and using the square root of the product to provide a numerical rating. Shenandoah National Park uses this process to develop a rating system.

    For example a 2,200-foot elevation gain on a 10-mile hike is calculated: 2,200 feet x 2 = 4,400 x 10 miles = 44,000, Square root = 209.8. This number is then applied to the Easy, Moderate, Strenuous, Very Strenuous. In this example this trail would be rated at the Very Strenuous level.

    Then there is the non-mathematic driven scale of wetting one's finger to the wind and determining how difficult it was for the hiker and make the rating call based on that. And all sorts of things in-between.

    The only real consistency in trail ratings is to find a scale one likes and stick with it as best you can. This requires some topographical map work to estimate elevation gains and distances to either get a feel for the difficulty or to apply some mathematical processes, but is worth the effort and tends to level the difficulty assessment between various aged and conditioned authors in guide books or reviews. This also allows the hiker to apply their own calculus into the mix like average hiking speed(s), water consumption rates, and other elements that can impact the hike.



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    A friend took a trail assessment class in Arizona and it covered some kind of standard. She tried to explain it to me but I wasn't interested. She wasn't impressed with it either.

    When I think of trail difficulty, it's often seasonal or temporary, as Traveler mentioned above.
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  11. #11

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    Another commonly used formula is 1/2 hour per mile plus 1/2 hour per 1000 feet of elevation gain. The GMC and I believe the AMC use that formula.

    They then use those times to rate the difficulty of a trail segment. A 2 hour or less hike is rated "easy", 3-4 hours "moderate" 6 to 8 hours "difficult", over 8 hours, "extreme".

    There can be as much as a +/- 20% deviation from "book time" depending on other factors such as your experience and fitness level, how heavy a load your carrying, how much your knees hurt on the down hills and a very steep, rocky down hill can take longer due to the need to be careful with footing, if it's raining and so on. Also don't forget to add in time for breaks. Few people can hike for 6 to 8 hours with out stopping for breaks.
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    Way too subjective and variable for a rating system.

    I can say this: any climb of 700 feet per mile or more is very arduous.

    Usually, a climb of 300 or 400 or 500 feet per mile is fine. But if it comes at the end of a long day, or under the summer sun, it's something entirely different from something done early in the morning on a crisp October afternoon. IE, the same trail would earn very different ratings based upon the fitness and weariness of the hiker, weather, season, etc.

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    I ran into this problem last year. We had a family reunion at my sister's house in Utah. We thought we would go for a hike up in the Wasatch Mountains. Several trail guided recommended a short out and back hike to a high alpine lake. The guide said it was easy and appropriate for all ages, which was important our group include ages 2 to 87. As it turned out only a few of us could make it to the end. The trail was not steep or long, but very rocky with some scrambling and places were washed out with stream crossing necessary. I know "easy" is subjective, but people writing guides could be more objective in trail descriptions and let people make their own decisions. As the OP said, there are objective criteria for evaluating climbing routes. The same could be done for trails.

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    Climbers have the Yosemite Decimal System to indicate the difficulty of a climb. It's a documented system that has been refined over many decades.

    No such system has gained popular acceptance to define the difficulty of back country hiking trails.

    Doesn't mean people are not trying... I seem to recall a news story a few years ago about some grad students were working on a machine that they would take out to trails in a local state park to try to measure and quantify the difficulty of different trails.

    Quote Originally Posted by Slo-go'en View Post
    Another commonly used formula is 1/2 hour per mile plus 1/2 hour per 1000 feet of elevation gain...
    Who is using this formula?
    Because the one I heard is 1/2 hour per mile plus 1 full hour per 1,000' of cumulative elevation gain.I've found this to be pretty accurate for me as a backpacker, as well as casual hikers I've shared with.

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    Elevation profile is usually a good initial indicator. However, even a flat trail can be "difficult" if it's unmarked with lots of spur trails - ie difficult to follow.

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    Elevation profiles have their limitations. Trail tread is important too. Ridgelines in PA are flat and straight, but if you are walking on rocks, it makes it very hard. Also do water crossings have bridges. And elevation profiles don't have the resolution to show a 10 foot scramble up a rock wall.

  17. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by HooKooDooKu View Post
    Who is using this formula?
    Because the one I heard is 1/2 hour per mile plus 1 full hour per 1,000' of cumulative elevation gain. I've found this to be pretty accurate for me as a backpacker, as well as casual hikers I've shared with.
    The Green Mountain Club LT guide and the AMC White Mountain guide both use the 0.5 MPH + 0.5 hour/1000 foot gain formula for their published book times.

    There's a trail down the street from me which climbs 900 feet in 0.8 miles and I can do it in about 45 minutes, so I do a little better then book time. Of course, I'm used that kind of trail.

    The trail was not steep or long, but very rocky with some scrambling and places were washed out with stream crossing necessary. I know "easy" is subjective, but people writing guides could be more objective in trail descriptions and let people make their own decisions.
    It's possible that the trail conditions changed since the trail description was written. One good heavy rain storm can do that in an area which doesn't get a lot of rain. Or it was a poorly written trail description as it apparently didn't mention the rocks and scrambles.
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  18. #18

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dan Roper View Post
    Way too subjective and variable for a rating system.

    I can say this: any climb of 700 feet per mile or more is very arduous.

    Usually, a climb of 300 or 400 or 500 feet per mile is fine. But if it comes at the end of a long day, or under the summer sun, it's something entirely different from something done early in the morning on a crisp October afternoon. IE, the same trail would earn very different ratings based upon the fitness and weariness of the hiker, weather, season, etc.
    +1 - my thoughts exactly. Some of the hardest hikes for me caught me by surprise. In GA, "As Knob" SOBO was brutal for me, and "Round Top" NOBO took out my buddy for a couple of days, and that's not even listed in the AWOL. Looking at the map, they really shouldn't be that bad, but I don't think we were mentally ready for those because they aren't "big name" peaks, and they both came at the end of long days. So yeah, it's going to be subjective, but it would be cool if there was a universal standard like climbing has. After awhile, I'd learn that the "experts'" rating of 5 might mean a 10 (or 20) to me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mclaught View Post
    +1 - my thoughts exactly. Some of the hardest hikes for me caught me by surprise. In GA, "As Knob" SOBO was brutal for me, and "Round Top" NOBO took out my buddy for a couple of days, and that's not even listed in the AWOL. Looking at the map, they really shouldn't be that bad, but I don't think we were mentally ready for those because they aren't "big name" peaks, and they both came at the end of long days. So yeah, it's going to be subjective, but it would be cool if there was a universal standard like climbing has. After awhile, I'd learn that the "experts'" rating of 5 might mean a 10 (or 20) to me.
    Lol, yeah some them bumps on the AWOL map are deceiving for sure. That little line going up hill for just one inch doesn't show all rock and root and steepness etc.....

  20. #20

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    What I call "micro bumps" which don't show up on the trail profile can wear you out. That "flat" ridge walk wasn't so flat after all...
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