Hiking Trail Difficulty Rating System: In Layman’s Terms

Surprisingly, we still don’t have a universally accepted hiking trail difficulty rating system in place. However, many countries have adopted some form of rating system that can be used as a general guide.

In the United States and Canada, we have the Yosemite Decimal System. This system ranks hikes based on the gradient of the hiking trails. I’ve talked about this in my article on scrambling but essentially this system breaks hikes down into different classes with one being the easiest and five being the most difficult.

Hiking Trail Difficulty Rating System

By The Numbers: The Yosemite Decimal System

Think of the YDS as a rating system for outdoor junkies. It helps folks know what they’re getting into when they set out for a climb or hike. It was developed by climbers in Yosemite National Park, hence the name.

The system has a three-part structure. The first part is a class, from 1 to 5. A class 1 is like a walk in the park, a flat trail where you’d be perfectly fine in your everyday shoes. Class 2 is a bit more challenging, maybe a steep hill or a little scramble. If you’re in class 3 territory, you’re starting to use your hands as well as your feet to get around, but it’s not too risky yet. Once you hit class 4, you’re in serious climbing territory. Ropes and safety gear are recommended because a fall could result in serious injury. Class 5, you’re in “extreme” terrain. This is where technical rock climbing skills and safety gear are required.

For class 5, there are further divisions, known as grades, indicated by a decimal and number (for example, 5.9). These grades range from 5.0 to 5.15, with a 5.0 being the easiest and 5.15 being extremely difficult. The higher the number after the decimal, the tougher the climb.

Here is a quick chart showing the different classes and their difficulty levels.

1Easy walking on a flat, often well-marked trail.
2Simple cross-country travel, which might include some scrambling, a steep hill, or off-trail hiking. No special equipment needed.
3Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You may use your hands for balance and support. Some people may want a rope for safety, especially if exposure (danger of falling) is significant.
4Simple climbing, often with exposure. A rope is commonly used for safety. Falls can be fatal.
5Technical rock climbing. Involves roped belays, the use of protective devices (or “pro”), and requires climbing skills and specialized gear. This class has further sub-grades ranging from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15 (extremely difficult).

Remember, exposure or other environmental factors can add to the overall difficulty or danger of the route, which may not be reflected directly in the YDS rating.

The Sac Mountain and Alpine Hiking Scale System

Another trail difficulty rating system that you might come across is the SAC Mountain and Alpine Hiking Scale.

It’s a Swiss rating system that’s super handy for understanding how tough a hike might be. The scale ranges from T1, which is basically a walk in the park, to T6, a full-blown mountain adventure. Here’s the lowdown:

T1 – Hiking: Expect well-marked, easy trails. It’s all smooth sailing here.

T2 – Mountain Hiking: Things get a bit steeper, and the trails aren’t always as tidy. No special gear needed though.

T3 – Challenging Mountain Hiking: At this level, you’ll start using your hands for balance. The paths get steeper and you’ll need to be surefooted. Also, it helps if you’re okay with heights.

T4 – Alpine Hiking: Things start to get serious. Expect rough terrain, more scrambling, and less visible paths. Good navigation skills and some alpine experience come in handy.

T5 – Challenging Alpine Hiking: Now we’re talking serious alpine territory. We’re dealing with snowfields, glaciers, and the need for basic climbing skills and gear like ropes, crampons, and ice axes.

T6 – Difficult Alpine Hiking: T6 is top of the scale. You’re on challenging, steep terrain, needing specialized equipment, solid alpine climbing experience, and strong navigation skills. Knowing your way around weather and avalanche assessments is a must.

Here’s that in table form for a quick reference:

T1Easy, well-marked trails
T2Steeper trails, but no special gear needed
T3Challenging hikes requiring surefootedness and a head for heights
T4Rough terrain with some scrambling and navigation skills required
T5Serious alpine hikes with basic climbing skills and gear needed
T6Challenging, steep alpine hikes requiring specialized equipment and solid alpine climbing experience

How Tough is that Hike? Factors That Determine Difficulty

Regardless of what rating system is being used, the difficulty of a hike depends on many different external as well as internal factors. Here are some things to consider when trying to decide how difficult your hike will be.

Miles to Go

The first thing you gotta check out is how long the trail is. More miles mean more effort and endurance.

Going Up?

Next, consider how much climbing you’ll be doing. More elevation gain equals a tougher, steeper hike.

Underfoot Conditions

What’s the path like? A smooth, flat trail is easy going. If it’s all rocks, roots, and rough terrain, that’s a different ball game.

Thin Air

Then there’s altitude. Hiking up high where the air is thin can make everything feel harder. Plus, some folks get altitude sickness.

Weather and Seasons

Don’t forget about the weather. Extreme heat or cold, rain, or snow can all crank up the difficulty. Some trails aren’t safe in certain seasons, either.

Finding the Way

Are the trails clearly marked or will you be consulting your map every five minutes? Tough navigation adds an extra layer of challenge.

Feeling Exposed

Steep climbs and ridge walks often have lots of exposure – steep drops on one or both sides. Even if it’s not physically hard, it can make the hike feel tougher.

What’s Your Fitness Level?

Lastly, there’s you. Are you fit as a fiddle or more of a couch potato? Your personal fitness plays a huge role in how tough a hike feels.

So there you go! These are the things you should consider when figuring out how challenging a hike might be. Always be sure to pick a hike that’s right for your fitness level and comfort with different trail conditions.

Wrapping It Up: Understanding and Applying Trail Difficulty Rating Systems for a Safe and Enjoyable Hiking Experience

So, to wrap things up, when you’re planning your next outdoor adventure,a hiking trail difficulty rating system like the Yosemite Decimal System or the SAC scale can give you a sneak peek into what you’re in for. But remember, they’re just a guide.

The true test of a hike’s difficulty includes a bunch of stuff – how long it is, how steep, what the path and weather are like, and even your own fitness level. Plus, some trails can feel tougher based on their exposure (like those gnarly ridge walks) or if the path isn’t well marked.

Bottom line? Do your homework before you hit the trail. That way, you’ll pick a hike that’s just right for you – one that pushes your limits a bit, but still lets you enjoy the great outdoors.

Jim Murphy

Jim's love for camping started at an early age. His parents would take him camping every summer, where he'd spend his days getting quality time in with his dad and his nights eating too many smores.

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