Monday, July 25, 2016

Reading a hiking trail for your skill level

The hubs and I just returned from our annual vacation aka hike-a-thon. This time, we went out on a limb to Switzerland to visit the Bernese Oberland. It was GORGEOUS!!!

Ricky on the Eiger Trail

As an event coordinator, it was a scary leap of faith to leave the planning to a tour company to book our hotels and plan our hikes. We were provided a rough topographic map and detailed description of our hike, but we quickly found out this was not enough to prepare us. Hence today's post is about how to read a hiking trail for YOU.


We live in Georgia where what we call mountains are considered small hills to people who live in the Rockies. For example, Arabia Mountain is typically considered a moderate trail.
Distance one way: 1.29 miles
Approx. elevation gain:150 ft

The slightly longer Panther Creek Falls trail is classified as a difficult trail.
Distance one way: 4.71 miles
Approx. elevation gain: 600 ft

Compare these two hikes to a difficult trail out west like Mono Pass in Yosemite:
Distance one way: 3.7 miles
Approx. elevation gain: 900 feet

The average elevation gain of Panther Creek is 127ft per mile while Mono Pass clocks in at 243ft per mile. Both rated as 'difficult', but offering very different experiences.

Once hikes hit the level of difficult to strenuous, it's a crap shoot. Here's a great example two hikes rated as strenuous with very different feels:


Vernal Falls in Yosemite  Iceberg Lake in Glacier
Top of Vernal distance RT: 2.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1000 ft
Iceberg Lake distance RT: 9.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1275 feet

The average elevation gain for to Vernal Falls is 833ft per mile, a drastically different hike than the average elevation gain of 262ft per mile for Iceberg Lake.  What am I getting at here? My point is that you need to look beyond a hike's rating to determine if it's right for you.

Know Your Distance vs Elevation
I lead with those numbers so you understand my thoughts when I say this: hike ratings are meaningless. I don't consider walking 9 miles flat a strenuous hike. I can do distance all day. When you start to sprinkle in some elevation, you have my attention. But that's me! I've gotten moderate hike suggestions from people who causally mention a 2,000ft climb as a small challenge because that is their normal.

The hardest and most critical lesson in hiking is to learn your distance vs elevation max. No one can tell you but yourself. That baseline is critical for knowing what kind of hike you're about to get into.

Find the Elevation Profile
The most important piece of hiking information to me is now the elevation profile that illustrates how steep that climb is and how long it lasts. Topographic maps are another great option, if you have a good one and are skilled at reading it (I'm meh). See for yourself in these two examples from Jagat Jora Jaal.

Topographic map of Half Dome hike

Elevation profile of Half Dome hike

For our last vacation, we had the distance and elevation gain listed on all of our hikes if we didn't take any shortcuts, an okay topographic map, and the amount of time estimated for the hike. It's a start, but not the whole picture. Here's what I mean.  So one day we have great hike with a few small climbs spread out and the next day we're hiking straight up the side of a mountain face when I could have taken the train that's only 20 feet away. Be better than me; demand an elevation profile. 

Know Your Audience
If you can't find any information on a hike before tackling it (a rare event in the internet age), take a moment to reflect on who is providing you the information. Us Georgia folks are not use to mountains. Our trail ratings reflect that with almost any elevation gain on a trail earning it at least a moderate rating. I saw children running up mountains in Switzerland that I struggled to crawl up. Locals compare to what they know so its your job to scale a local's perspective to your experience. 

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