Hiking Trail Difficulty Ratings Explained

Hiker climbing one of the most difficult hiking trails, the Cactus to Clouds day hike in Southern California.

Understanding the difficulty of a particular hike is crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience. We have based our difficulty ratings on the Shenandoah National Park’s difficulty rating system.

The Hiking Trail Difficulty Formula

The difficulty of a hiking trail is assigned a numerical rating using a straightforward formula:

Square Root of (Elevation Gain x 2 x Distance in Miles )

Example Calculation

Let’s use El Cajon Mountain for our example, which has a hiking distance of 11 miles and 4,077 feet of elevation gain.

4,077 x 2 = 8,154
8,154  x 11 =89,694
Square root of 89,694 = 299.5

Using our formula, we can see that El Cajon Mountain’s difficulty rating is 299.5, or “Hard.”

Note that these results provide an approximate, although imperfect, level of difficulty for any given trail. In addition to distance and elevation gain, other factors such as the grade or roughness of a trail can also affect the level of difficulty.

The Hiking Trail Difficulty Rating System

The numerical rating is linked to five distinct descriptors you’ll find associated with every hike on this website.

  • Easy (< 50): Suitable for all levels.
  • Moderate (50-100): Offers a bit of a challenge.
  • Challenging (100-150): Presents a challenge for unconditioned hikers.
  • Difficult (150-200): Challenges most hikers.
  • Hard (> 200): Only for well-conditioned and prepared hikers.