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Choosing a Difficulty Level for your hike is a key to wise hike planning. Easy? Moderate? Difficult? A trail’s degree of difficulty—also called its difficulty level or difficulty rating—can greatly vary hiking time. Good hike planning means choosing a hike for your abilities and for the amount of time you have to spend on the trail.

Park agencies and guidebook writers often assist hikers out by rating the degree of challenge a trail presents to the average hiker. Of course the “average” hiker varies widely as does the average hiker’s skills, experience and conditioning. No matter how skilled the trail-evaluator, “degree of difficulty” for a particular hike or trail is inevitably subjective.

difficulty level explained

A more lyrical way to describe a hike’s difficulty level: “Trail Beyond Here is Steeper But Very Scenic”

A path’s elevation gain and loss, exposure to elements, steepness and the natural obstacles a hiker encounters along the way (boulder field, six creek crossings, etc.) figure prominently in the hike difficulty equation, too. High or low temperatures climatic conditions also influence a hike’s difficulty rating.

During my many years as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, I’ve rated hikes with a modified easy-moderate-difficult system.

My Hike Difficulty Level Rating:

Easy Less than 5 miles with an elevation gain of less than 700 to 800 feet. An easy day hike is suitable for beginners and children.
Moderate 5 to 10 miles with less than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. You should be reasonably fit for these.
Difficult 10 miles or more, and those with more than a 2,000-foot elevation gain.

U.S. Forest Service Difficulty Level Ranking:

The U.S. Forest Service uses a Level of Difficulty system that seem to rate the hiker as much as the hike:

Easiest A trail requiring limited skill with little challenge to travel.
More difficult A trail requiring some skill and challenge to travel.
Most difficult A trail requiring a high degree of skill and challenge to travel. Such a hike may be at high altitude, be extremely rugged or have a major elevation gain.

By all means, challenge yourself with a moderately difficult or difficult hike. In fact, in order to reach some scenic treasures by trail you might need to take a hike that’s a real “butt-kicker,” a term used by some hikers I know but rarely used on official hike difficulty ratings.

Choose the hike that’s right for you and hit the trail to fun and adventure.

Hike on.
John McKinney

P.S. No matter how difficult the hike is, you can always wear great gear. Check out our T-Shirts!