How Hikes are Graded: Part 1

If you love to hike or are just getting started, you’ve probably spent time looking up the best trails near you. There are tons of resources all over the internet that will tell you where to go, what to bring, and what to expect. Each trail offers its own variety of information, but there is one thing you’ll always see: the difficulty. This is helpful to an extent, but if you don’t understand what the different difficulty ratings mean, it does you no good.

Thankfully, these ratings aren’t just guesstimates of how easy or hard it will be to the average person. In fact, the ratings have very little to do with how long the trails are and how much physical exertion takes place. Instead, they are based on five aspects that are graded and then rated so you can make an informed decision about which trails to trek. This two-part article will break down the five aspects and the types of trails you’ll encounter.

The five aspects are:

  • Trail Width
    • How wide the trail is on average.
  • Tread Surface
    • What the surface of the trail is made of, such as pavement or rocks.
  • Average Trail Grade
    • The slope of the trail is on average.
  • Maximum Trail Grade
    • The maximum slope of the trail.
  • Natural Obstacles and Technical Trail Features
    • The features of the trail. Natural obstacles are there by nature, but Technical Trail Features are placed by humans to make the path more difficult.

Easiest Trails

The easiest trails are the best for beginners or those recovering from injuries that want to get some exercise. The trail width of the easiest trek is 72” or more, with plenty of room to spare. They are often paved or have a hard surface that will work well with tennis shoes or even sandals. The average grade is less than 5%, with a maximum of 10%, meaning you won’t have many hills, if any. If there is a hill, it will be a gentle slope. The easiest trails also have zero natural obstacles or technical trail features.

Easy Trails

Easy trails are a step up in difficulty from the easiest trails, but not by much. The trail width will be 36” or more, and the tread surface will be stable and firm. The average grade will be under 5%, and the maximum tops out at 15%. The natural obstacles along the path will come in two forms: unavoidable and avoidable. For easy trails, unavoidable obstacles will be under 2” (think roots along the path), and avoidable obstacles will be present (such as rocks you need to go around). Easy trails may also include bridges that are 36” or wider. There will be no technical trail features.

Please see our “How Hikes are Graded: Part 2” for the More Difficult, Very Difficult, and Extremely Difficult explanations!