Hiking up and down steep trails can be exhilarating yet challenging. But what exactly constitutes a steep hiking trail? When does a trail’s incline go from moderate to steep? Understanding grade and slope can help hikers evaluate trail difficulty and pick routes suited to their fitness level and experience.
Defining Grade on Hiking Trails
Grade refers to the steepness or incline of a hiking trail. It is measured as a percentage representing the change in elevation over a certain distance. For example, a trail with a 10% grade gains 10 feet in elevation for every 100 feet of horizontal distance. The steeper the grade, the faster a hiker gains elevation.
Grade is often estimated and referred to colloquially on trail maps and descriptions, using terms like gentle, moderate, steep, or extreme. But it can also be precisely calculated if elevation data is available. Here are some general guidelines for grading trails:
- 0-5%: Gentle or flat
- 5-15%: Moderate incline
- 15-25%: Steep
- 25%+: Extremely steep
However, subjective terms like “steep” can mean different things to different hikers based on their fitness and experience levels. What feels steep to one person may seem moderate to a more seasoned hiker who is accustomed to rugged terrain.
Factors that Influence Perceived Steepness
The degree to which a slope feels steep is subjective and depends on several factors:
- Actual grade: The steeper the actual incline, the more difficult the hike. But grade alone does not define steepness.
- Trail conditions: Rocky, unstable, or slippery trails feel steeper and harder to hike up or down safely. Well-maintained trails with good footing are easier to manage.
- Length of climb: Long sustained climbs feel more tiring and challenging than short steep sections.
- Fitness level: Hikers in better physical shape have an easier time with steep grades than those who are less conditioned.
- Weight of pack: Heavy packs make hiking feel harder, especially when going uphill. Light packs reduce fatigue.
- Altitude: High elevation makes steep hikes feel harder since oxygen is scarcer. Acclimatization helps counteract this effect.
- Weather: Heat, humidity, rain, and high winds exacerbate the difficulty of steep hikes. Cool, clear weather makes them more manageable.
- Exposure: Open, exposed trails with big drop-offs feel steeper than forested slopes or ridges. Fear of heights can also skew perception.
- Trail traffic: Passing other hikers is more challenging on steep, narrow trails. Heavy traffic increases mental and physical exertion.
All these factors interplay to influence how steep a trail feels to an individual. The same slope may rate as moderate for one hiker but extremely steep for another less conditioned or afraid of heights.
Defining Slope and Angle of Incline
While grade describes the steepness of a trail numerically, slope refers to the visual angle or degree of incline. Slope is often estimated in general degrees or categories:
- 0-15 degrees: Relatively flat or gently sloped
- 15-30 degrees: Moderate incline
- 30-45 degrees: Steep slope
- 45-60 degrees: Very steep
- 60+ degrees: Extremely steep or cliff-like
Again, these categories are rough guidelines. A 30-degree slope may feel very steep to some hikers but more moderate to experienced alpinists accustomed to rugged terrain. Factors like trail conditions and length of climb influence perceived steepness at any given slope angle.
Using Hill Profiles to Evaluate Steepness
One of the best ways to evaluate trail steepness before hiking is to study a hill profile. Also called an elevation profile, this graph shows how a trail’s elevation changes over distance. Steeper sections have sharper vertical rises over shorter horizontal distances.
Hill profiles may be included on maps or trail descriptions. There are also apps and websites that provide this data to help hikers preview upcoming climbs. Studying these graphs allows assessing incline steepness over an entire route.
How Fitness Level Affects Perceived Steepness
Most hikers agree that fitness level and conditioning make a big difference in how steep a trail feels. Strong legs, lungs, and heart developed by regular hiking or exercise allow tackling steeper routes with less strain and exhaustion.
How does fitness affect hiking steepness perception? Consider these examples:
- A 25% grade may seem moderate to an ultrarunner but extremely steep to a novice hiker.
- A 40-degree slope feels like a good workout to an avid mountaineer but an impossible climb to someone afraid of heights.
- Sustained 15% grades are tiring but doable for regular weekend warriors but may deter less active people.
In general, hikers who are in better physical shape have an expanded range of what they consider “moderate” inclines but a narrower definition of truly “steep.” Their muscles, cardio, lungs, and mental stamina are up for the challenge of tougher terrain.
So while slope angle provides an objective measurement, the subjective feeling of steepness depends greatly on the hiker tackling the trail.
Tips for Hiking Steep Trails
Hiking steep trails takes conditioning, technique, caution, and preparation. Here are some tips:
- Train before tackling big elevation gains. Do cardio, hike stairs, do strength training.
- Lighten your pack to reduce weight, but bring essentials like water, food, layers.
- Use trekking poles for stability and to distribute work between arms and legs.
- Wear shoes with good traction. Waterproof boots on slippery slopes.
- Stay centered over your feet as you climb. Don’t lean too far forward or backward.
- Take small steps and go slowly. Watch for unstable terrain that could cause slips or falls.
- Use switchbacks efficiently by traversing across them rather than cutting up the middle.
- Take breaks often to rest muscles, heart, and lungs. Hydrate and refuel.
- Save energy by limiting unnecessary stops, sudden movements, or wasted steps.
- Descend cautiously. Don’t fly down steep slopes. Control speed by zigzagging.
With preparation, caution, and technique, steep hiking trails can provide an exciting adventure and great workout. Evaluate your fitness honestly, and pick routes well within your limits and comfort zone.
Example Steep Hiking Trails in the United States
To provide examples of trails considered steep, here are some well-known steep hiking routes across the United States:
Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park, Utah
- Sustained grades of over 15% with exposure and drop-offs of over 1,000 feet.
- Last 0.5 miles follows a narrow rock fin with chains. Not for acrophobics!
Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona
- Drops 4,380 feet from rim to river for an average 16% grade. Some switchbacks hit 20% grade.
- Exposed with steep dropoffs. Heat and altitude add challenge. Strenuous full day hike.
Mount LeConte via Alum Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
- Grades up to 20% on the 5 mile ascent to the Alum Cave Bluff.
- Steep, rocky, and slippery in spots. Rewarding view from LeConte Lodge at summit.
Clouds Rest Trail, Yosemite National Park, California
- Long 9 mile ascent with over 3,000 feet elevation gain. Sustained grades around 15%.
- Grueling uphill but spectacular summit views of Yosemite’s high country.
Mount Mansfield by Sunset Ridge, Vermont
- Challenging rock scrambles with steep pitches and exposure near summit.
- Rewarding climb with panoramic views from Vermont’s highest peak at 4,395 feet.
Hoh River Trail, Olympic National Park, Washington
- Relentless uphill climb alongside the raging Hoh River, gaining over 4,000 feet.
- One of the toughest trails in the Olympics but lush old growth forest scenery.
Kalalau Trail, Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii
- Follows seaside cliffs with dizzying drop-offs over 2,000 feet to the ocean.
- Uneven and slippery footing requires endurance. Backpacking required to complete full trail.
Devil’s Path, Catskill Mountains, New York
- Notoriously rocky and rough with grades up to 40% on its six peak circuit.
- Demanding trek requiring fitness, stamina, and top notch hiking boots.
This sample of trails gives a sense of what is considered notoriously steep terrain to avid hikers. But again, steepness depends on perspective. Work your way up by conditioning on more moderate routes first. Soon you may crave the thrill of a steep hiking challenge!
Summary: Factors Defining Hiking Trail Steepness
To wrap up, steepness on a hiking trail depends on:
- Actual grade: The percentage of incline, with 15-25% considered steep.
- Slope angle: Visual degree of incline, roughly 30-45 degrees is steep.
- Hill profile: Shows steep sections based on elevation change over distance.
- Trail conditions: Footing, length, exposure influence difficulty.
- Fitness level: A big factor in subjective perception of steepness.
- Weather and pack weight: Heat, wind, rain, heavy packs increase challenge.
While slope measurements provide an objective baseline, ultimately steepness depends on the hiker. Start with more moderate terrain and work your way up as your conditioning and technical skills improve. With preparation, patience, and caution, steep trails provide an invigorating test of physical and mental stamina.