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How Hard Was That Hike?by Al_HikesAZ by Al_HikesAZ


Ever wonder how your recent hike compared to a prior hike?
Ever wonder if a hike is too hard for you?

I did. So I approached this scientifically and systematically. The difficulty of a hike can be represented by the equation:
Hikedifficulty=functionObjective Factors functionQuasi Objective Factors functionSubjective Factors

The equation can be refined as follows:

=functionDistance functionAccumulatedElevationGain functionTime functionAltitude functionTerrain functionTrail functionRoute Finding functionWeather functionSeason functionComfort functionFitness functionPsychological/Emotional functionOther

Some of these elements are objective, some are quasi-objective and some are very subjective.

I reviewed existing rating systems and fashioned what I have now adopted as my personal rating system.

In this treatise I review existing rating systems, present my point rating system and provide examples applying the points system to several hikes.

I am reminded of two of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein:
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

HikeArizona.COM SYSTEM
HAZ has adopted a 1 through 5 system for hike difficulty (where 1 is easy and 5 is difficult) and a 1 through 5 system for popularity (where 1 is the least popular and 5 is the most popular). I have no argument with the popularity rating system or the popularity ratings. With enough votes, popularity will be appropriately reflected. Other popularity systems are developable, but this simple system should work given enough votes.

I question some of the difficulty ratings. Sometimes I look at the difficulty ratings of hikes on HAZ and think - that can't be right:

  • A 3 for that hike, that's at least a 5
  • A 3 for that hike, that is at best a 1...
Since these ratings are applied subjectively by the person writing the hike description, there are easy 5s and there are 3s that are more like 5s. Voting will not improve this rating, difficulty is perceived differently by different hikers at different times.

If you think it's tough on you as a hiker, it's even tougher on a hike leader. The enjoyment of everyone can be ruined by a hiker who is not capable of the hike. Typically, if the hike leader doesn't know you, the hike leader will ask questions about the toughest hike you've completed in the last year. If the toughest hike you've completed in the last year is a 2, don't try jumping to a 5. Progress to that hike through the ratings.

One rating system lists hikes as Easy, Moderate, Difficult and Strenuous. This is simple and is apparently sufficient for many hikers. However, Piestewa Peak is easy for some and difficult for others. Superstition Ridgeline is moderate for some and impossible for others.

Most hiking clubs and groups follow the Sierra Club system. As a guideline, outings are classified as follows:
  • "A" - More than 16 miles or more than 3,000 feet elevation change
  • "B" - 8 to 16 miles, 1,500 to 3,000 feet elevation change;
  • "C" - 3 to 8 miles, 500 to 1,500 feet elevation change;
  • "D" - Less than 3 miles, less than 500 feet elevation change.

Club hikes are rated for degree of difficulty and risk by the leader using these guidelines.

The Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club describes an additional consideration on their website:
"CALORIC SYSTEM. The ABCD system is concise and easy to use, but it doesn't distinguish between hiking on trail vs. off trail, or between climbing vs. going downhill. The calorie system solves most of these problems by computing the energy needed on a day hike: E = 100 (10 + R + 2C + 4H)
  • E = energy expenditure in calories (calories)
  • R = distance traveled on roads or trails (miles)
  • C = distance traveled cross-country (miles)
  • H = altitude gain (thousands of feet)
Thus for an "A" hike on trail, E = 100 (10 + 16 + 2*0 + 4*3) = 3800 calories."
...This club uses the ABCD system, with adjustments for hikes whose calorie count would imply a different rating.


Here is a great rating system that I found and adapted. The Metropolitan Washington Regional Outings Program (MWROP) of the Sierra Club developed a "points" rating system based on linear distance and elevation change. Every linear mile contributes one point and every 400 feet of elevation change - up or down - contributes one point. From their explanation:

"A seven mile circuit hike with 400 feet of ascent accumulates nine total points. Seven of these points derive from the mileage, and two from the elevation change - counting both 400 feet of ascent and 400 feet of descent."

MWROP uses this point system to rate hikes from A (their easiest) to H (their most difficult).

This isn't a perfect system - there are many other factors that go into the difficulty of a hike. The MWROP system addresses the major "objective" factors and is relatively simple, but subjective factors do affect the difficulty of any hike.

You can start with the MWROP objective difficulty rating and then add or subtract points for subjective difficulty factors.


As I stated in my preface, the difficulty of any hike is a function of the following:







ALTITUDE Sea level versus high altitude and less oxygen.


Points need to be subjectively added or subtracted to account for these variations.

TERRAIN & TRAIL. These factors have an entire subset of difficulty factors

discussed below. Some factors are "on-trail versus off-trail", exposure,

scree, scrambling, climbing, bushwhacking difficulty, etc.;

ROUTE FINDING. Some trails are difficult to find and follow and some hikers

are directionally challenged;

SEASON. Summer adds difficulties not present in spring. Winter up north is more difficult than winter in other parts;

WEATHER. Snow, rain, lightning, wind etc add special difficulty that should be factored into the equation. The same hike under different conditions will have a different rating;

FITNESS. personal fitness can make a hike easier or more difficult;



PSYCHOLOGICAL & EMOTIONAL FACTORS. This can involve such items

as hiking companions. A hike with a great hiking companion can be much

easier than hiking solo. Conversely, a hike with a bad hiking companion

can be the most difficult hike of your life.

COMFORT FACTORS. Many people have a fear of heights, technical exposure

for some people is perceived differently by other people.


Terrain Rating System
The most common system for rating the difficulty of crossing terrain is the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Wikipedia has an excellent discussion of the Yosimite Decimal System at

"a numerical system for rating the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs, primarily used for mountaineering in the United States. The rock climbing (5.x) portion of the scale is the primary climb grading system used in the USA.

The scale was initially developed as the Sierra Club grading system in the 1930s to rate hikes and climbs in the Sierra Nevada range. Previously, hikes and climbs were described relative to others ("harder than X, but easier than Y"), but this made it difficult for those who hadn't done the other hikes or climbs to understand the comparison, so the numerical grading system was an attempt to codify this into a single scale.

Currently, according to the climbing textbook Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, the system divides all hikes and climbs into five classes:

  • Class 1: Hiking.

  • Class 2: Simple scrambling, with possible occasional use of the hands.

  • Class 3: Scrambling, a rope can be carried but is usually not required.

  • Class 4: Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.

  • Class 5: Technical free climbing. Climbing involves rope, belaying, and other protection hardware for safety. "

Many commentators note that the Yosemite Decimal System works well for climbs, but does not really address the Class 1 hiking dimension. I have adapted another way of looking at Class 1 & 2 hikes from The Grand Valley Trails Association of Ontario Canada. Class 1 & 2 hikes can be classified as follows:

Class D - road or smooth trail. Well-defined trails, gentle inclines. Hiking boots

not required. Suitable for beginners. Recommended for newcomers to club


Class C - rough trail. Hiking boots or good walking shoes recommended. Generally on trail. May be hilly, light bushwhacking, some rough spots or obstacles.

Class B - Rough terrain with one or more of the following: bushwhacking, steep sections, long climbs and descents. Boots, Class C experience, Long pants and sleeves recommended.

Class A - cross-country/bushwhacking. Rough terrain with one or more of the following: extensive bushwhacking, steep sections, long climbs and descents, rock scrambling or other obstacles. Boots, Class B experience, and a high level of fitness essential. Long pants and sleeves recommended.


The model assumes average hiking time for you. This allows you to rate hikes comparatively. If your average hiking time for Piestewa Peak is 30 minutes and Y's is 90 minutes, each hiker can use the system to rate different hikes for themself, but there will be a differential between these hikers. You can slow down the average hiking time which will decrease the points for that hike. Y can attempt to speed up the hike which will increase the points for that hike. The increases and decreases are probably not simple proportional increases or decreases but I haven't addressed this differential factor.


The system is primarily designed for out and back hikes, it should also provide a reasonable score for a loop hike. It needs to be adjusted for shuttle hikes. The adjustment is as follows

a) for a net downhill shuttle hike, remove the 400 feet of ascent factor and multiply the descent factor by .6667; and

b) for a net uphill shuttle hike, multiply the ascent factor by 1.3333 and remove the downhill factor.


One big problem is valid source data. The best data is from your GPS after hiking the hike. I have found reputable books and sources to be significantly different from my mileage and accumulated elevation.

Many times the elevation for a hike is the gross elevation change between the trailhead and the highest point. This ignores the many ups and downs on a trail. One source lists the Superstition Ridgeline elevation change as 2,850 feet which is accurate for the gross elevation change. However, my Garmin Etrex Vista C recorded accumulated elevation gain of almost 4,400 feet. Quite a significant difference.

Seldom will a hike description tell you the distance on-trail versus off-trail. Usually this is an approximation that you estimate after the hike. My estimation is that approximately 2/3's of the Superstition Ridgeline hike is "off-trail".


1) Piestewa Peak = 8.4 points.

DATA: 2.4 miles, 1,200 feet elevation gain, Class C+/B- terrain. Assuming no complicating factors such as weather or season. Assuming average time (time and fitness are co-dependent variables and are too complicated to introduce to the model at this time).

CALCULATION: 2.4 points from distance plus 6 points for elevation (1,200 feet up plus 1,200 feet down equals 2,400 divided by 400 equals 6 points) yields 8 points.

2) Camelback from Echo Canyon = 9 points

DATA: 2.5 miles, 1,300 feet elevation gain, Class B-/B terrain. Assuming no complicating factors such as weather or season. Assuming average time (time and fitness are co-dependent variables and are too complicated to introduce to the model at this time).

CALCULATION: 2.5 points from distance plus 6.5 points for elevation (1,300 feet up plus 1,300 feet down equals 2,600 divided by 400 equals 6.5 points) yields 9 points.

3) Superstition Ridgeline = 40 points

DATA: 11.5 miles, 4,400 feet accumulated elevation gain, Class A terrain to light Class 3 terrain, difficult route finding in places. Assuming no other complicating factors such as weather or season. Assuming average time (time and fitness are co-dependent variables and are too complicated to introduce to the model at this time).

CALCULATION: 11.5 points from distance plus 22 points for elevation (4,400 feet up plus 4,400 feet down equals 8,800 divided by 400 equals 22 points) yields 33.5 points from the objective measures. The Level A/Class 3 terrain, the Route finding and the climbing in Siphon Draw add roughly 20% to the difficulty or 6.5 quasi-quantifiable points for total points of 40.

4) Bright Angel to Bright Angel Ranger station and Back to Rim = 41.8 points

DATA: 19.4 miles, 4,480 feet elevation gain. Class B/B+ terrain, long climb and descent sections. Assuming no other complicating factors such as weather or season. Assuming average time (time and fitness are co-dependent variables and are too complicated to introduce to the model at this time).

CALCULATION: 19.4 points from distance plus 22.4 points for elevation (4,480 feet down plus 4,480 feet up equals 8,960 divided by 400 equals 22.4) yields 41.8 points from the objective measures. No subjective additions.

5) Kaibab South Down to Bright Angel Ranger Station and up Bright Angel Trail to the Rim (showing the complication added by a loop or shuttle hike). = 36

DATA: Kaibab South 7.3 miles 4,595 feet elevation descent.

Bright Angel 9.7 miles 4,480 feet elevation ascent.

Both trails are Class B/B+ terrain because of long climb and descent sections. Assuming no other complicating factors such as weather or season. Assuming average time (time and fitness are co-dependent variables and are too complicated to introduce to the model at this time).


Kaibab South = 15 points - 7.3 points from distance plus 21.6 points for elevation (4,595 feet down multiplied by .6667 plus 0 feet up equals 3,063 divided by 400 equals 7.7) yields 14 points from the objective measures.

Bright Angel = 24.6 points - 9.7 points from distance plus points for elevation (0 feet down plus 4,480 multiplied by 1.3333 feet up equals 5,973 divided by 400 equals 14.9) yields 24.6 points from the objective measures.

Combined Total:

Kaibab South 15.0

Bright Angel 24.6

Total 39.6

In this case there is approximately a 5% distinction between the Bright Angel down & up and the Kaibab South/Bright Angel loop because of the distance and the relative elevation gains. The result on a shuttle could vary greatly if the legs of the hike had greater variation.

6) Mount Whitney = 65 points

CONCLUSION: Take it or leave it This rating system works for me and is offered as a general guide.  After using it, please feel free to disagree wholeheartedly, accept completely, or remain absolutely ambivalent.

2006-09-09 Al_HikesAZ


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