How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be

“How hard will that hike be?” That’s a question that all dayhikers and backpackers, from beginners to experts, think about all the time—and it’s not always easy to answer. But there are ways of evaluating the difficulty of any hike, using readily available information, that can greatly help you understand what to expect before you even leave home.

Whether you’re new to dayhiking or backpacking, a parent planning a hike with young kids, or a fit and experienced dayhiker or backpacker contemplating one of the toughest hikes you’ve ever attempted, it’s important to have a good sense of what you’ll face on a new and unfamiliar hike and whether it’s within your abilities.

Exceeding your limits or those of someone with you can invite unwanted consequences—and the person with the least stamina, abilities, or experience often dictates any party’s pace, limits, and outcomes. Those consequences may range from an unpleasant experience that dissuades someone from wanting to go again, to failing to reach your destination or make it back to your vehicle, potentially creating a more serious situation.

There’s no one standard for measuring the difficulty or strenuousness of trails, but there are “hard” measures—statistics for any hike—that are commonly used as reference points.

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