So, how hard is that hike?
I’ve decided to throw something different out on the blog. Once a month or so, I plan to write an informational post about something hiking related. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned a lot over my time hiking and figured this might help someone out there. A common question among hikers revolves around the difficulty of hikes. For very popular hikes especially, that’s the first thing people want to know- how hard is it? How long does it take? Can I take my elderly mother? I’ve found it’s not always an easy question to answer and I encourage others to use a few different criteria to evaluate what a hike might be like. Hiking websites typically have a rating system, but one person’s idea of “easy” might not mean the same to you. For those hiking in the southeast, Atlanta Trails is a great resource and I’ve found their rating system to be reflective of the average hiker’s experience.
For starters, distance is NOT everything. I’ve hiked 1 mile trails that left me gasping for breath and 10 mile trails I felt refreshed after hiking. Distance is a good starting point, but it’s not the be all-end all of how difficult a hike is. Elevation gain and loss plays a huge factor as well. I find many people underestimate the role of elevation and I used to as well, mostly because it involves math and that is not my strong suit. Now when reading up on a hike, the elevation profile is what I look at first.
A hike of one mile with 1000 feet of elevation gain is going to feel much harder than the same elevation gain spread out over 10 miles. It’s also helpful to look at how the elevation actually plays out. Is it rolling hills or is most of the elevation gain a straight up the side of the mountain? Hint- if the elevation profile looks like a giant “M”, you’re probably in for a challenging time! Similarly, I try to avoid hikes that start with a long, steep descent. Hiking at higher altitudes also presents challenges, especially if you aren’t used to it. As a southerner who mostly hikes below 6000 feet, altitude is not typically an issue for me. If I found myself hiking a 14-er, I’d have to prepare differently and adjust my expectations.
Another thing to consider is the actual terrain. Is the trail rocky or root-filled? Covered with soft pine needles? I recently hiked on a predominantly pine needle filled trail and it was like walking on clouds! But don’t get me started on sand, which is probably the most challenging surface for me. Some hikes into gorges also have stairs, sometimes hundreds of them, and climbing stairs can be very different than hiking up or down a mountain. Hiking on different surfaces presents challenges that can be handled with equipment, such as footwear or trekking poles. The weather can also play a factor. Hiking on wet, muddy, or snowy surfaces can be more tiring. Trekking poles and appropriate footwear can lessen the burden of challenging terrain.
And lastly, there’s you. What personal characteristics do you bring to the hike? Are you “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired“(HALT)? That’s a page from my background in social services, but I think it applies to hiking as well and how our emotions can affect us. Being tired, unprepared, or mentally stressed can make a hike seem harder than it actually is. I can think of one hike that was not very long or elevation filled, but my head was not in the game that day and it seemed like the hardest hike ever! It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your capabilities. If you’re a newer hiker, start out with shorter, flatter hikes and see how you feel. Use an app such as View Ranger to plan your routes, determine elevation gain, and take your hiking to the next level (this pictures in this post are from my View Ranger log). But most importantly, don’t get discouraged if you feel you aren’t “crushing miles”. For every hard hike I do, there are a dozen easy ones in between. That’s how I stay in shape and don’t completely break down my body. The phrase “hike your own hike” is very popular these days, but something I think we should all keep in mind.