Have you ever scrolled through AllTrails, a travel blog, or another hiking trail resource, and become confused by some of the trail terms?
For example, have you ever wondered what a point-to-point trail is, what a waypoint is, or what makes a trail easy vs. moderate or strenuous?
In this in-depth guide, you’re going to learn the anatomy of a hiking trail. You’re going to understand what makes a trail easy, moderate, or strenuous. I’ll also reveal what the different types of hiking trails are and dissect the unique parts of a trail.
But first, I’m going to share with you the difference between frontcountry and backcountry, and how day hiking differs from backpacking, so that you understand all of the basics of hiking trails.
Without further ado, here is Trail Anatomy 101!
Trail Anamtoy 101: Different Types of Hiking Trails
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Frontcountry Vs. Backcountry
The terms “frontcountry” and “backcountry” are used to determine the location and accessibility of hiking trails and campsites.
For hiking trails, the term “frontcountry” usually refers to a well-traveled, well-marked trail that can be accessed fairly easily.
For hiking trails, the term “backcountry” usually refers to a wilderness (or primitive) trail that is more difficult to access and contains limited, if any, amenities.
SOME SIGNS YOU’RE HIKING IN THE FRONTCOUNTRY:
SOME SIGNS YOU’RE HIKING IN THE BACKCOUNTRY:
Whenever you’re hiking in the backcountry, it’s always a good idea to carry a satellite phone so that you can communicate with loved ones and reach out to emergency services off the grid. My favorite satellite phone is the Garmin inReach Mini.
Day Hiking Vs. Backpacking
Day hiking is hiking a trail from start to finish in one day.
Day hikes are most common among casual hikers, day-trippers, and tourists.
Day hikes aren’t limited to a certain mileage cap; a day hike is simply whatever you can hike in a given day without spending the night on the trail.
→ READ NEXT: Beginner’s Guide to Hiking 🥾
Backpacking is spending at least one night on the trail because the hike will take longer than a day to complete.
Backpacking is common among avid hikers who wish to hike longer trails, spend the night away from civilization, create an intimate connection with nature, and/or watch the sunrise/sunset on the trail.
Backpacking can vary from short and easy hikes to long and strenuous trails. But if you camp overnight along a trail, you are backpacking, no matter how many miles you venture from the trailhead.
→ READ NEXT: Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking 🥾
Trail Difficulty Explained: Easy Vs. Moderate Vs. Strenuous
AllTrails, travel blogs, National Park websites, and other hiking trail resources will often rate their trails using this “level of difficulty” system:
While each recreation area will have its own formula on how exactly they rate their trails, I will list some general guidelines for each difficulty level.
Trails are usually rated easy, moderate, and strenuous based on these factors:
- Elevation Change. How many feet in elevation does the trail gain or lose?
- Terrain. What’s the terrain like on the trail? Are there rock scrambles, tight squeezes through canyons, rivers to cross, etc.?
- Length. How many miles long is the trail from start to finish?
- Altitude. What elevation does this trail sit at?
- Markers. How well is the trail marked? Are there cairns, posts, signs, etc.?
- Weather/Location. Where is this trail located? How hot or cold does it normally get on the trail? Does the trail get a significant amount of rain or snow?
Easy hikes are typically trails with little elevation change.
The terrain is usually simple to traverse and is well-marked.
Easy trails can be short or long, but even if they’re long, they’re not going to require a significant amount of obstacle crossing or climbing.
Most ages and abilities can typically hike easy trails.
Moderate hikes typically have a decent amount of elevation change.
The terrain can often be tricky or contain difficult obstacles.
Moderate trails can be short or long; the difficulty level will mostly be determined by terrain type, elevation change, and location.
Some ages and abilities can hike moderate trails.
Strenuous hikes typically have a significant amount of elevation change, contain terrain that is difficult to navigate, and may not be very well marked.
If a short trail is rated as strenuous, there’s typically a significant amount of elevation change in its cropped length.
Oftentimes, you need to be skilled or heavily prepared to navigate strenuous hikes.
PRO TIP: Strenuous hikes can also be coined “hard,” “difficult,” or “rugged.”
Types of Hiking Trails
There are four main types of hiking trails:
A loop trail is a route that starts and ends at the same point, traveling in a roughly circular path without backtracking.
Out & Back Trail
An out & back trail starts and ends at the same point. It is a route that hikers must follow to the end, turn around, and retrace their steps back to the beginning on the same path.
A point-to-point trail is a route that begins and ends at different trailheads. Instead of retracing their steps to turn this trail into an out & back, hikers will park a car at each trailhead or arrange some sort of shuttle or transportation to take them back to their vehicle.
A lollipop trail is an out & back trail that leads to a loop trail. Hikers will travel the out & back trail to the mouth of the loop, hike the loop, and take the out & back trail back to the trailhead. If you look at the trail type on a map, you’ll see that it resembles a lollipop!
Confused about some other hiking terms? Look them up in my Ultimate Hiker Dictionary!
Parts of a Hiking Trail
These are the basic parts of a hiking trail:
A trailhead is a point at which a trail begins.
At a trailhead, you sometimes find things like a parking lot, signage, maps, visitor logs, pay stations, etc.
A trail is the path that you hike.
Trails can be well-marked with signs, cairns, posts, etc. or poorly marked due to terrain difficulty or lack of maintenance.
Along a trail, you can encounter varied landscapes, obstacles, or simply an even path with unvaried terrain. Each trail is different!
A waypoint is a point of interest along a trail.
Not every trail has one, I suppose, but I guess the definition of a waypoint can be used loosely.
EXAMPLES OF WAYPOINTS:
Sometimes a waypoint can also be the destination.
The destination marks the end of a trail.
If you are hiking a loop trail, the destination can either be the middle point, the significant point of interest, or the trailhead (where you will end the trail).
If you are hiking an out & back trail, the destination is where the trail dead-ends before you turn around and head back to the trailhead.
If you are hiking a point-to-point trail, the destination is the point at which you end.
If you are hiking a lollipop trail, the destination can either be the middle of the loop, the significant point of interest, or the trailhead (where you will end the trail).
Discover Your Next Adventure
Looking for some epic trails to hike? Here are some of my favorites!
Whether you’re rock scrambling, river crossing, mountain climbing, or forest trekking, hiking is one of the most fun things a person can do.
Hiking opens up a world of possibilities by allowing you to see things that you can’t otherwise see. Since vehicles can’t access these beautiful trails, foot trails allow you to traipse through remote deserts, rainforests, mountains, tundras, glaciers, and coastlines to see wild things like natural arches, waterfalls, and caves.
See what you can discover! Happy trails!
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