How to Choose the Right Hike

Have you ever been in over your head on a hike that was too difficult for your fitness level? Or have you ever been bored on a trek that turned out to be too flat or too short? Striking the right balance of hiking difficulty can be a challenge.

After all, distance and elevation alone can be deceiving: a short hike might be steep, which could raise the hiking difficulty level substantially.

Whether you're strolling along a nature trail or scrambling up a summit, your hike should provide the right challenge. There are several things to consider when choosing a hike, including rating, difficulty, elevation and more. Here's how to navigate the rating scale to figure out which trail is right for you.

Hiking Difficulty

This is the most general classification system for hikes, and takes the distance, elevation and terrain of the hike into account. A shorter trail with little elevation gain is considered easy. The longer, steeper or more technical the trail is, the more difficult it's going to be.

  • Easy: Well-maintained trail; little to no elevation gain
  • Moderate: Steady ascent with some roots and other obstacles
  • Strenuous: Longer, steeper ascents that likely include roots, rocks and debris

More: The Many Benefits of Hiking


In addition to the hiking difficulty rating, the Yosemite Decimal System is another way to classify hikes and climbs. Originally developed as the Sierra Club grading system, it's now commonly used among rock climbers and mountaineers.

Most hikes fall under class 1 or class 2. Class 3 and above involves more scrambling or climbing, where you need to use your hands for balance.

When choosing your hike, keep in mind that Class 2 is a pretty broad category so it's best to read route descriptions thoroughly to determine if the Class 2 portions of your hike are doable.

Here's the breakdown:

  • Class 1: Easy hiking with minimal elevation gain and few obstacles
  • Class 2: More difficult hiking, some of which may be off-trail, and may require putting your hands down for balance at times.
  • Class 3: Scrambling or un-roped climbing
  • Class 4: Climbing with a rope
  • Class 5: Technical climbing

More: How to Use Trekking Poles