Lexi's Guide to Rating Hike Difficulty
Updated: Oct 2, 2019
"This is one of the easiest 4,000 footers. It will be a gradual, easy 10 miles. You're in great shape this hike will be easy for you." These are all things I've said on different occasions for different hikes in the past few months. On each of these hikes, there have been people who agree with my rating of the trail, but there have also been people who have struggled. There is no universal standard for the rating of hiking trails. Easy for someone with extensive experience in the rugged terrain in the Whites might be incredibly difficult for someone who's new at it.
When I took on the challenge of trying to find a way to rate hikes I found lots of great information, none of which met the guidelines to what I was trying to accomplish. There's the widely used Yosemite Decimal Scale that rates climbs on a scale from 1-5 with 1 being regular walking trails where boots are necessary, and 5 being technical roped climbing with a belay. This is great for technical rock climbing, but as someone who is leading hikes in the Whites with a group (come join us with JP Hikers), I needed something more specific to hiking instead of climbing.
After a lot of thought and consulting many books and websites, here's what I've come up with. I'm going to preface this with the fact that I'm still relatively new at hiking in comparison to many people I know, so if you have any suggestions please let me know! I hope to modify and improve on it to make it more clear for new hikers over time, so your comments would be greatly appreciated!
Easiest: Suitable for people of all ages who are in fair condition. Trails are mostly level with very gently sloping hills. There may be tree roots and small rocks, but they are highly navigable and trails will have good footing. No scrambling or use of hands should be necessary. Examples: Lincoln Woods Trail, Trails in the Emerald Necklace (Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, ect.), Pemi Trail (Profile Lake), Flume Gorge Tr
Easy: Suitable for people of most ages who have a basic fitness level. There may be some roots and larger rocks. Trails may have some elevation gain, but it is gradual and should be manageable for beginner hikers. No scrambling or use of hands should be necessary. Most hikes will be either <5 miles, <1,000 feet gained, or <3 hours in length. Examples: Starr King Tr (Mt. Waumbek), Mt. Major, Mt. Willard, Sugarloafs (Twin Mtn), Lonesome Lake, Mt. Pemigewasset
Moderate: Reasonably fit hikers who get out at least once a month should be able to do this level. This level would be considered easy for frequent hikers. These hikes will offer some degree of challenge, whether it be altitude gain or slippery stretches of terrain, or both. Moderate hikes usually ascend steadily at an incline that would be difficult for an unconditioned person to comfortably handle. Most hikes will be either 5-10 miles, 1,000-2,000 feet gained, or 3-6 hours in length. Examples: Garfield Tr, Hale Brook Tr, Mt. Tecumseh Tr, Welch-Dickey Loop, Jackson-Webster Tr, Edmunds Path and Mt Clinton Tr (Mt. Pierce and Eisenhower), Gorge Brook-Carriage Rd Loop (Mt. Moosilauke)
Challenging: Regular hiking experience is required to participate in hikes at this level. Seasoned hikers will find the terrain for these trails fairly tame but not easy. These hikes will be difficult with steep inclines and often rough footing and/or minor rock scrambles. Combination of significant elevation gain and distance make this level a challenge for many. Most hikes will be either 10-15 miles, 2,000-3,500 feet gained, or 6-9 hours in length. Examples: Franconia Ridge Loop (Mt. Lafayette, Mt. Lincoln), Ammonoosuc Ravine Tr and Jewell Tr Loop (Mt. Monroe, Mt. Washington), Liberty Springs Tr, Blueberry Ledge Tr (Mt. Whiteface), Signal Ridge Tr (Mt. Carrigain)
Difficult: Very regular hiking experienced is required for these climbs. Seasoned hikers will be comfortably challenged on these types of trails, but new hikers may be overwhelmed. They will have a lot of steep terrain with difficult footing. Some route finding may be necessary. There will be some rock scrambling but falls do not pose a high threat of danger to most prepared and adequately experienced hikers. A high level of endurance is required for these hikes. Most hikes will be either 15-20 miles, 3,500-5,000 feet gained, or 9-12 hours in length.
Examples: Airline Tr (Mt. Adams), The Bonds via Lincoln Woods and Bondcliff Tr or Zealand Tr and the Twinway, Wildcat Ridge Tr (from Glen Ellis to Wildcat D), Glen Boulder Tr (Mt. Isolation), Caps Ridge Tr (Mt. Jefferson), Hamlin Ridge Trail (Mt. Katahdin)
Very Difficult: Suitable only for truly experienced hikers, and these trails will challenge even the most seasoned hikers. These trails are not for most dogs, new hikers or children. They may require extensive off-trail navigation or involve very steep or dangerous terrain. This may include and is not limited to slides, extremely steep rock scrambles, and boulder caves. These hikes may or may not be very long in distance, but they will be slow going in technical areas so high fitness level is required to complete within a reasonable time frame. These are some of the most difficult, dangerous trails in the Northeast and they should be treated as such. Most hikes will be either >20 miles, >5,000 feet gained, or >12 hours in length. Examples: Huntington Ravine Tr (Mt. Washington), King Ravine Tr (Mt. Adams), Flume Slide Tr, Owl's Head Slide, Katahdin's Knife Edge, Tripyramids via North and South Slide, Six Husbands Tr, Great Gulf Tr (Mt. Washington)
Disclaimer: These difficulty ratings are still subjective and do not have rigid parameters for mileage, elevation gain, and estimated time. These estimated times are based on the book time used in the AMC White Mountain guide. They represent rough outlines for they type of mileage and elevation gain one could expect, but they are not guarantees and some hikes may fit into a different category than the statistics might suggest. Please do your research and take these ratings with a grain of salt!
Here are some other factors you must consider when you're planning your hikes:
- Your fitness level
- Pack weight: Don't forget to think about water sources and seasonal considerations with this one. The less water sources, the more water you'll have to bring especially when it's hot and water weighs over 2 pounds per liter. Snowshoes and extra winter gear will increase your pack weight as well!
- Your typical hiking speed
- The speed of your hiking companions
- How many breaks you want to take and how long they are
- Any difficult water crossings
- Weather conditions: Things are much slower when they're slippery or if you're breaking trail in the winter.
These guidelines are intended to try to inform hikers of the type of terrain they should expect, but there are no guarantees that they will be 100% accurate for everyone. I hope that these guidelines will standardize the difficulty ratings of group hikes so that people have a better idea of what they're getting themselves into.
Below are links to the resources I use to research each trail and hike. The best, most reliable one by far is the AMC White Mountain Guide. Buy it at The Mountain Wanderer in Lincoln, NH (or online) owned by Steve Smith who wrote the book to support local businesses! Steve is also a wealth of knowledge, so I usually stop by the bookstore before any big intimidating hikes for advice. I have yet to meet anyone who knows these mountains better than him. Here are some other websites and blogs with information and pictures as well!
Hiking Up with the Pup (shameless plug sorry guys I had to do it) New England Waterfalls 48 Guide Section Hiker: great for gear reviews, lots of trip reports and backpacking suggestions in the Whites Trail to Summit: good NH48 guide 4,000 Footers: good maps for all of the 4Ks (but be warned some of the distances are incorrect), good for basic info (mileage, elevation gain, ect.) but not great trip reports New England Trail Conditions: seriously amazing updated trip reports, my go to in the winter before any hike to see what kind of terrain I'll be facing and whether or not I'll likely be breaking trail, more utilized in the winter than summer and info is subjective because anyone can (and should) post
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!