October 21, 2016

About Hike Difficulty Rating Systems

Knowing what you're getting into when you hit the trail can have a huge impact on how much you enjoy the experience.

When you strike out on a hike for the first time, you want to have some idea of how challenging it will be, so that you can prepare yourself mentally for what you're about to do physically. That's why having a good rating system for measuring hike difficulty is important.

Unfortunately, many of the existing systems are complicated, unclear, and ill conceived. Let's take a look at them, and then we'll look at how we've solved this problem.

"Easy", "Moderate", and "Hard"

The most common way to rate hike difficulty is also one of the worst.

Many resources will use all kind of subjective words, from "easy" to "experts only". But whether someone considers a hike "easy" or "hard" will depend on all kinds of factors, like weather, equipment, and their own physical fitness.

Take for example, a young, energetic, and fit person on a beautiful day...

Fit woman hiker stretching

Their experience of a hike is likely to be very different than an older, more sedentary individual.

Buddha in the grass

What the first person considers "easy" is probably going to seem mislabeled to the second person.

Because of the subjectivity and confusion that such a system creates, we believe it to be unhelpful and perhaps even dangerous.

Green Circles, Blue Squares, and Black Diamonds

Green circle, blue square, black diamond, and double black diamond

One alternative to using single words to describe the difficulty of a hike is to use symbols.

This might not be such a bad idea if not for the fact that some hiking resources have decided to recycle the symbols that are already in use on ski slopes.

At first glance this seems to make sense. Both skiing and hiking are done outside and often on a mountain, and the piste rating system is already widely known and understood. So why not reuse it, right?

Well, the problem is that ski slopes are rated by their slope percentage, with no regard to length.

Chart showing ski trail ratings based on percent slope

When it comes to hiking, on the other hand, it is quite possible to have a 20 mile hike that has a very gradual 5% slope. It would be inappropriate to give such a hike the lowest difficulty rating under any system, but using the piste system allows for that.

Black diamonds and blue squares are already understood to indicate steepness when going down a mountain covered with snow. Because of that, we believe it's confusing and awkward to use the same symbols to describe the physical challenge of a hike.

A, B, C, D...

Another common system employs the alphabet to describe a hike, usually assigning a single letter grade to represent it's difficulty.

Without looking any of them up, can you guess which direction the difficulty in such a system is likely to go? Would you expect an A to be the easiest because that's the natural starting point or would you think an A to be the hardest, perhaps because you had to work hard in school to earn an A? Go ahead, think it over.

Whichever answer you chose, you are either right or wrong depending on which resource you reference. Some will make As the most extreme hikes (there are even some that use double As), whereas others take advantage of the progression of the alphabet to correlate their difficulty.

Due to the lack of a common understanding of which direction difficulty should progress with alphabet rating systems, we believe they are best avoided.


Finally, we come to a system that holds some potential.

Although using a numbering system seems more objective than words like "easy" or "hard", and the use of decimal points gives the appearance of precision, most point systems fall victim to their own complexity.

Two green dots compared with five orange dots

Looking at the picture above, it probably took you less than a second to figure out how many green and orange dots there are. In all likelihood, you didn't even have to think about it or count them. Your brain just instantly recognized the images as 2 and 5.

Our brains are very good at recognizing and differentiating between small numbers, but less so as the scale increases.

Forty two green dots compared with forty nine orange dots

How many green dots are there? How about orange dots?

Even though both are laid out in an organized pattern, it still probably took some mental effort to figure out the answers. And at a quick glance, they don't look all that different.

That's because it becomes increasingly difficult for our brains to comprehend, let alone distinguish between quantities as they get bigger.

What does that have to do with numerical hike ratings?

Well, many such systems will use a formula to produce a numerical value for each hike that can go up to and even beyond 100. If you were looking at one hike rated as a 42 and another that's 49, would you feel like you had a good idea of exactly how much more challenging the second hike would be?

Even if you only use a 10 point scale, adding decimals can lead to the same problem. Although seeing hikes rated 4.3 or 7.1 gives a sense of comfort because the decimal point implies a precise measurement, it also increases a simple 10 point scale by a factor of 10, making it much more difficult to differentiate between hikes.

Special Characters

While special characters aren't really their own system, they are sometimes used to augment those previously mentioned.

You might occasionally see hikes rated as A+ or 17*. In that way, special characters are used to either add values to a limited system (+ and - would bump a 4 point A/B/C/D system up to 12 possible values), or communicate some extra information about the hike, like the condition of the trail or type of terrain it passes through.

There are even some systems that will mash up multiple rating systems and then tack on a special character so that you could have a hike rated as a 23.6/B+


Would you have any idea what to expect if you saw a hike rating like that and hadn't read the necessary Rosetta Stone for interpreting it?

The Solution

We tend to agree with William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, who wrote:
“The greatest ideas are the simplest.”
Rather than using subjective language, re-purposing an existing system, or doing something that is confusing and complex, we believe that the best way to rate hikes is with a simple six point numerical scale.

Level Distance Elevation Gain
Level 1 icon
< 3 miles AND < 500 ft.
Level 2 icon
< 5 miles AND < 1,000 ft.
Level 3 icon
< 7 miles AND < 1,500 ft.
Level 4 icon
< 9 miles AND < 2,000 ft.
Level 5 icon
< 11 miles AND < 2,500 ft.
Level 6 icon
> 11 miles OR > 2,500 ft.

This system provides a clear explanation as to why a hike has the rating that it does and it is small enough to differentiate between values in a meaningful way.

There is good reason to think that this system is ideal, since we drew our inspiration from the well known Yosemite Decimal System. Although the YDS can be used for hikes, it also encompasses rock climbing and adds complexity by way of being a three part system where only the first two classes in the first part are relevant to hiking.

Nevertheless, this system makes it easy to comprehend what kind of hike you are signing up for. If you're a Level 4 hiker at home, you'll generally know what to expect when you find a Level 4 hike on vacation.

Is this system perfect? Of course not. There will certainly be some variation in difficulty within each level as some Level 3 hikes will be more challenging than others. However we believe that the benefits of keeping things simple far outweigh any potential advantages that could be had with a more complex system that tacks on decimals, special characters, or ski slope shapes.

If you're not familiar with this system, we recommend acquainting yourself by starting small. Find a hike that is lower than you think you can handle and work your way up until you find your limit.

What do you think?

Have you ever felt confused by a hike rating system? Do you think ours is helpful? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.


  1. I like your numbering system, however it must also take into consideration the type of trail. Is it rocky,sandy, gravel, grass, muddy etc. I know that not everything can be included, however the trail material can take a 1 to a 2 very quickly. That's why I also like to see comments from folks who have hiked the trail. This way I can decide whether I want to do the trail or not!

  2. Thank you for the comment!

    We sympathize with the desire to know the type of trail as that can have a huge impact on the experience of a give hike.

    As you point out, not everything can be included though, and we opted for maximum simplicity.

    Although descriptions like "rocky" and "sandy" probably won't change, other attributes like "muddy" or "overgrown" can vary significantly from season to season.

    You definitely have a point about the value of reading comments from people who have recently hiked the trail and we agree 100%. That feature is in the works, so stay tuned for a future update.

  3. Elevation gain on trails can be different levels of difficulty. Is the gain gradual? Are there steep sections or even scrambles? Total elevation gain can mask difficulty on a trail with up and down stretches.
    Also, exposure can affect difficulty for many people.