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  1. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Slo-go'en View Post
    What I call "micro bumps" which don't show up on the trail profile can wear you out. That "flat" ridge walk wasn't so flat after all...
    This. A PUD of 30-50' in elevation gain/loss will not show up on most profile maps but several of these in a row will definitely wear on you.

  2. #22
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    Yes. As I hiked in the Southern Appalachians through the years, the elevation profiles were daunting. From Blood Mountain to Hump Mountain was just one steep climb after another. When I got the maps for the north part of Tennessee, one section stood out - north of U.S. Hwy 19e, the trail profile was remarkably flat. I couldn't wait to get there. And finally I did. Awakening early in the morning at Mountaineer Shelter, I was ready to experience my first real level hiking on the AT. Only it wasn't. It was an endless series of small ups and downs - too small to appear in the elevation profile but cumulatively very tiring. Add to that, most of the downhills were in humid laurel thickets. The 9.6 miles to Moreland Gap Shelter was very tiring...and the dadgum map showed it a flat-line lark, a real pleasant walk in the woods. After that, I concluded that there will never be any easy hikes on the AT. That nice pasture walk? Open sun will make it a blazing meadow of death. Downhill? Killer on the knees. Backpacking is always arduous, at least at my age.

  3. #23
    Registered User rmitchell's Avatar
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    As several have commented elevation profile can be deceiving. "Micro puds" don't show on the profiles, nor does erosion, loose rocks or exposed roots.

    I was talking to a fellow hiker who had just finished the 900. He said that in his opinion that Cold Spring Gap was the most difficult trail in the Smokies. Yet on profile it looks very similar to Low Gap coming out of Cosby or Ramsey Cascades.

  4. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by rmitchell View Post
    As several have commented elevation profile can be deceiving. "Micro puds" don't show on the profiles, nor does erosion, loose rocks or exposed roots.

    I was talking to a fellow hiker who had just finished the 900. He said that in his opinion that Cold Spring Gap was the most difficult trail in the Smokies. Yet on profile it looks very similar to Low Gap coming out of Cosby or Ramsey Cascades.
    I've found the "most difficult" can change based on conditions (such as how muddy it is during a wet spell).
    But right now, I consider Gunter Fork to be the most difficult, because not only does it have the change in elevation, several creek crossings that can be difficult rock hoppers, but the worst of all is the trail erosion... places where the trail is literally falling off the side of the mountain and land slides taking out sections of the trail.

  5. #25

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    The Appalachian Mountain Club had dealt with this problem for years because each chapter had its own difficulty rating systems (pl.) -- each committee within the chapters (backpacking, paddling, cycling...) might have its own unique difficulty rating system. I won't bore you with the details, but they finally settled on a unified rating system last year -- at least, unified for the AMC.

  6. #26

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    Quote Originally Posted by PennyPincher View Post
    When I used to rock climb, it was pretty easy. If I was fairly consistent at flashing 5.8s and could work out the 5.9s I could also usually safely challenge myself on 5.10.
    I used to climb some, and while the ratings were fairly consistent, even that is relative.
    I've easily knocked out 5.10s whose ratings were based on big power moves, and struggled on 5.9s with slopers at the crux.

    Elevation profiles don't tell me that much. Sure a 4k' climb to a pass in the Rockies is 8x more elevation gain than a 500' one out of a gorge, and may even be similarly steep, but it's what the trail looks like at ground level that matters most.
    You know what these 3 trail sections have in common?

    20200809_002436.jpg

    20200623_140523.jpg

    VideoCapture_20200313-034357.jpg

    They all look exactly the same on a topo.
    Last edited by OwenM; 08-09-2020 at 01:41.

  7. #27

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    Another great post and learning opportunity here! Crafting a good rating system for trail difficulty is challenging, but would be welcome by me, at least. No, it won’t cover all the ground (bad pun intended) and there are too many variables, but why let perfect be the enemy of good? Sure beats having to listen to someone go on and on about there own experiences while doubt about the speaker’s credibility and sanity creeps in. Still, as a contrarian, I’ll do just that and say that I just reached Waynesboro, VA, going NOBO and the climb up Three Ridges was by far the hardest yet. A rating system might need an index for difficultly when not maintained during pandemic. That said, I say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ to the trail maintainers I have seen out here, who this year hv bn far more numerous than thru-hikers.

  8. #28

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dan Roper View Post
    Way too subjective and variable for a rating system.

    I can say this: any climb of 700 feet per mile or more is very arduous.

    Usually, a climb of 300 or 400 or 500 feet per mile is fine. But if it comes at the end of a long day, or under the summer sun, it's something entirely different from something done early in the morning on a crisp October afternoon. IE, the same trail would earn very different ratings based upon the fitness and weariness of the hiker, weather, season, etc.
    I equate a tough Nut hump with significant pack weight to coincide with a thousand foot gain in one mile. I know of many such nut humps.

    Then there are Nut Hauls from 2,000 feet on a creek to 5,000 feet on a mountaintop in 4.5 miles---or the notorious Upper Slickrock hump which gains 2,000 feet in about 3 miles---and some of it vertical on rock and tree roots.

    And let's never discount these factors--

    ** Doing these climbs with significant pack weight like 80 lbs up to 100 lbs---nothing quite like it.

    ** Doing these climbs in a debilitated state---like with influenza or walking pneumonia etc. I remember once I was going up the BMT on Sycamore Creek in a sick state and it took me 7 hours to go two miles.

    ** Dealing with hellish blowdowns on any kind of trail---but most esp on one of these Nut Steep hauls. Reminds me of encountering this beast on my way up the Nutbuster Slickrock trail---


  9. #29

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    So anyway, a trail rating system would have to include
    Pack Weight
    Physical Condition of your body
    Blowdowns.

    Imagine using a cleared trail with a 75 lb pack and then do an off-trail bushwhack with the same weight---there's no comparison. (I'm talking about a bushwhack here in the Southeast mts and not out West).

  10. #30
    Registered User JNI64's Avatar
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    So this trail is rated a 4 with a 20 lb pack or this trail is rated a 9 with a 75lb pack? This trail is rated a 4 if you're in great shape or a 9 if you're fat and out of shape? And blow downs are constantly changing they wouldn't be able to include them. I agree there should be some sort of rating system to let hikers know what's coming because it can be deceptive.

  11. #31
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    I don't think it makes sense to have one number to rate a trail. It would better rate it on a variety of factors with an objective rubric and let hikers decide for themselves what's hard vs easy

  12. #32
    Registered User JNI64's Avatar
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    Yup, an objective rubric ways is the best . And let us hikers decide for ourselves what's hard vs easy

  13. #33

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    I'd say a 1,000 foot gain in one mile is all you need to determine the "difficulty" of a trail.

    A perfect example is on the BMT leaving Double Spring Gap to the top of Big Frog Mt.

  14. #34

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    Of course there's an endless list of things which can influence a trail's difficulty. The 2 MPH + 30min/1000 feet average is a good starting point.

    If you have a guide book with actual trail descriptions, that can be helpful. If the description says "1000 foot climb up steep, open ledges with poor footing and loose rock, you know it's going to take some extra time.

    Are ATC section guide books with detailed, blow by blow trail descriptions still available? I still have the guides for Maine, MA/CT, NY/NJ and PA, vintage 1982. It seems we no longer care that at mile 6.4 "Pass old open cut strip mine on left, with Rausch creek on right shortly after trail turns towards the left now following an old stage road for the next 6.2 miles".
    Follow slogoen on Instagram.

  15. #35

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    Quote Originally Posted by OwenM View Post
    I used to climb some, and while the ratings were fairly consistent, even that is relative.
    I've easily knocked out 5.10s whose ratings were based on big power moves, and struggled on 5.9s with slopers at the crux.

    Elevation profiles don't tell me that much. Sure a 4k' climb to a pass in the Rockies is 8x more elevation gain than a 500' one out of a gorge, and may even be similarly steep, but it's what the trail looks like at ground level that matters most.
    You know what these 3 trail sections have in common?

    20200809_002436.jpg

    20200623_140523.jpg

    VideoCapture_20200313-034357.jpg

    They all look exactly the same on a topo.
    they look the same on a topo or on an elevation profile? I used to always use topo maps. They give a much better idea than a "profile" if you are good at reading a topo IMO.
    https://tinyurl.com/MyFDresults

    A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world. ~Paul Dudley White

  16. #36

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    Quote Originally Posted by Tipi Walter View Post
    So anyway, a trail rating system would have to include
    Pack Weight
    Physical Condition of your body
    Blowdowns.

    Imagine using a cleared trail with a 75 lb pack and then do an off-trail bushwhack with the same weight---there's no comparison. (I'm talking about a bushwhack here in the Southeast mts and not out West).
    Quote Originally Posted by JNI64 View Post
    So this trail is rated a 4 with a 20 lb pack or this trail is rated a 9 with a 75lb pack? This trail is rated a 4 if you're in great shape or a 9 if you're fat and out of shape? And blow downs are constantly changing they wouldn't be able to include them. I agree there should be some sort of rating system to let hikers know what's coming because it can be deceptive.
    I don't think a system would have to consider pack weight, other than to say something like "assumes a pack weight between 30-35 lbs" or something similar. Then if I have a lesser or greater pack weight I could adjust my expectations. The idea of a rating system isn't that it's perfect but that it is fairly consistent so regardless of what a trail is rated, once I know my abilities, I can adjust. Trail rated on 1-10 scale for difficulty gets a 7 but I just started hiking and I know it will probably feel like a 9 or 10 for me. Likewise, a seasoned hiker might see a rating of 7 and be able to say "that's a 4 for me."
    https://tinyurl.com/MyFDresults

    A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world. ~Paul Dudley White

  17. #37

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    Quote Originally Posted by Odd Man Out View Post
    I don't think it makes sense to have one number to rate a trail. It would better rate it on a variety of factors with an objective rubric and let hikers decide for themselves what's hard vs easy
    good idea actually. one could rate "elevation changes" and "treadway" as a few people have pointed out already.
    https://tinyurl.com/MyFDresults

    A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world. ~Paul Dudley White

  18. #38

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    Quote Originally Posted by PennyPincher View Post
    they look the same on a topo or on an elevation profile? I used to always use topo maps. They give a much better idea than a "profile" if you are good at reading a topo IMO.
    Noone familiar with reading topographic maps would need to ask.

  19. #39

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    Quote Originally Posted by OwenM View Post
    Noone familiar with reading topographic maps would need to ask.
    Developing a trail rating system on a national level is would be extremely difficult. Just in this thread alone there are numerous thoughts on how to set them up, Tipi's idea of pack weight along with physical condition is interesting but would require something like the windchill factor chart to figure out. Typically when I am looking at a new trail I will look at a topographical map to understand terrain difficulty, distances, access trails, etc., then will apply that to a trail rating if available. The things I will judge against a particular trail rating typically are:

    Time of year (do I need cold weather gear, traction/snowshoes, carry more water due to hot weather, etc)
    Weather forecast
    # of days on trail (is this a day hike, 1-3 nighter, a week or more)
    Pack weight
    Miles between campsites (or round trip day hike)
    Elevation gain (per day)
    Average altitude (rarified or sea level atmosphere)
    Average speed estimation

    I believe it's the hiker's responsibility to apply their circumstance to the trail rating given the huge differences between trails, terrain, altitude, weather, hiker age/physical condition, gear load, and experience.

    As Owen points out, using a topographical map along with a trail rating I can usually pin down the difficulty for me with the gear I plan to carry.

  20. #40
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    Quote Originally Posted by Traveler View Post
    There really is not a standard rating system for hiking trail difficulty, given the enormous differences of terrain, altitude, seasonal elements, and differences between the age and physical condition of hikers. Some scales are mathematical in nature, using elevation gain multiplied by two, multiplied by distance in miles and using the square root of the product to provide a numerical rating. Shenandoah National Park uses this process to develop a rating system.

    For example a 2,200-foot elevation gain on a 10-mile hike is calculated: 2,200 feet x 2 = 4,400 x 10 miles = 44,000, Square root = 209.8. This number is then applied to the Easy, Moderate, Strenuous, Very Strenuous. In this example this trail would be rated at the Very Strenuous level.

    Then there is the non-mathematic driven scale of wetting one's finger to the wind and determining how difficult it was for the hiker and make the rating call based on that. And all sorts of things in-between.

    The only real consistency in trail ratings is to find a scale one likes and stick with it as best you can. This requires some topographical map work to estimate elevation gains and distances to either get a feel for the difficulty or to apply some mathematical processes, but is worth the effort and tends to level the difficulty assessment between various aged and conditioned authors in guide books or reviews. This also allows the hiker to apply their own calculus into the mix like average hiking speed(s), water consumption rates, and other elements that can impact the hike.



    I'd like to echo Traveler's comments here, and mention a rating system that is used in my area and that I've found pretty helpful. Rather than a rating that produces a result in hours (as some here do), this system is just points-based. Said to have been developed by the founder of NOLS, Petzoldt, and later empirically tested, it assigns 1 point per mile walked and 1 point for every 500 feet of elevation gain. Thus, Mt. Leconte via Alum Cave Trail is 11 mile roundtrip + 2763' elevation gain = 16.53. According to the info on this page:

    http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/aboutus.htm
    (scroll down)

    empirical testing revealed that on average, energy cost measures would indicate that the points per 500 feet of elevation gain (they give it per 1000') should be closer to 0.8, but there was a range that depended on the hiker's sex, weight, and presumably other variables (pack weight, etc). As others have stated here, it does not capture things like shade, roughness of terrain, or hiker fitness.

    Anyway, I agree with Traveler that if you find a formula for trail difficulty that seems to reflect your subjective experience, stick with it. For me, this formula feels about right, the data to put in it are easy to find, so I've found it helpful. YMMV.

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