Tips for picking the best hiking trail
Preparing for the outdoors involves more than selecting the right gear.
Hiking is one of the easiest, most accessible ways to enjoy the outdoors. If you didn’t grow up mountain biking, mountain climbing, or even living near a mountain, don’t worry. You can always pick up hiking.
While trekking through the wild may be an easy way to explore the outdoors, it still requires some safety considerations. You not only want to make it to your next hike, you want to end the first one feeling accomplished rather than keeling over from exhaustion.
Hiking safely means hiking the right trail for you. So before you lace up and head out, make sure you know these four things about whatever wilderness walkway you’re about to explore.
Think about distance
You likely wouldn’t attempt a marathon without adequate training, and the same principle applies when it comes to hiking. Set yourself up for success by working your way up to longer hikes.
Hiking paths come in all lengths. Even some national parks offer hikes as short as a quarter-mile. You can also find hiking trails that are wheelchair-accessible. Eventually, you may look to hikes that are long enough to require backpacking or even try thru-hiking.
When considering distance, keep in mind that some trails are loops and some are out-and-back (or in-and-out). Loops return you to your starting point, and there’s no confusion about what a posted or printed distance means—if it reads 3 miles, it’s 3 miles round trip.
Things get tricky with out-and-back trails. For happy feet and happy hiking companions, triple-check your source. You don’t want to assume you’re going on a 3.5-mile hike and end up trudging 7 miles! Not every source doubles the length or indicates a “round trip” distance. Printed and digital sources should tell you if they’re listing round trip or one-way distances for out-and-back trails, while posted trail signs usually show how far you’ll walk one way.
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Last, understand that hiking trails may be in remote or hard-to-reach areas, so you may not want to max out your distance if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
Consider elevation gain
The next thing to consider is elevation gain. This will tell you how high the trail climbs. Generally, this means the total vertical distance you can expect to walk, but check your guide to ensure it’s not simply the elevation of the trail’s highest point. It’s also key to consider this metric along with distance. A lot of elevation gain over a short distance means a steep climb. However, that same elevation gain over a longer distance makes for a more gentle incline and, in most cases, an easier hike.
We all have different abilities, outdoor skill levels, and fitness levels, so it’s going to take a little bit of hiking to figure out how much elevation gain you’re okay with. Where the trail is and what time of year it is will also have an impact. For example, navigating a route far above sea level will be more strenuous if you don’t live at high altitude.
Find the trail’s difficulty rating
Although understanding your tolerance for elevation gain will come with experience, trail difficulty ratings will be a huge help in the meantime.
You’ll find there are different rating systems, so make sure you know exactly what the one you’re using means. One system may rate trails as easy, moderate, or difficult, while another system may include additional categories.
If you’re looking to visit one of the many US national parks, check the National Park Service’s website beforehand to find the one you want. Then go to your desired park’s homepage.
In addition to information about closures and other announcements, each park’s site has its own park newspaper (also called a brochure or visitor guide) under the Plan Your Visit or Learn About the Park tabs. You’ll find the link you need under News, Publications, or Maps—it varies by park. This document is the downloadable version of the materials they hand you in person when you drive through the gate. It details all available hiking trails, including their distance, elevation gain, and difficulty rating.
[Related: What you need to know when hiking with kids]
Some parks, like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, show exactly how they determine each trail’s difficulty. There, they multiply the elevation gain by two, then multiply that number by the trail’s length in miles. The square root of the answer determines if the path is rated easy, moderate, moderately strenuous, strenuous, or very strenuous.
Apps are another great source for difficulty ratings. My personal favorite is AllTrails (free for Android and iOS). It has an easy > moderate > difficult rating system, but also includes a topographic map of each trail so you can see where along the hike the elevation gain occurs and how quickly. They also display an informative visual below the map, showing your climb in much the same way a treadmill screen might.
Apps are fantastic, but they should not be your sole source of information and guidance once you’re on a hike. Mobile phone signal on trails can be poor to nonexistent, so be sure to bring a paper map and guide with you.
Books are also an excellent way to find difficulty ratings. DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer is a classic book series with large, color maps which will help you find trails, campgrounds, and Bureau of Land Management locations. When using books, always check the publication date to avoid using outdated maps and information. Lighten your backpack by tearing out or copying the pages you need rather than carrying the whole book on your hike. At home, you can even use plastic sleeves to organize them in a binder, waterproofing your pages for the trail.
Complete the full picture of your chosen path by reading reviews. Learning how other people felt while hiking a particular trail is incredibly helpful because reviewers often mention their age, fitness level, what season it was, if they took an older or younger family member, or even if they were accompanied by their dog. Chances are you’ll find out what someone with a similar skill level and situation thought about the hike.
AllTrails not only has my favorite app-based maps and trail visuals, but its review section has been most helpful, too. The highly engaged user community has written thousands of reviews and I’ve always been able to find a reviewer with a hiking situation similar to mine. Another good anecdotal source is a park ranger. Whether at a national, state, or US Forest Service site, they’re incredibly knowledgeable about the hiking trails.
Once you get into the habit of considering these four sources of information, it will be easy for you to determine if a given trail is right for you and almost guarantee you’ll be hiking safely and enjoyably.