If you’re new to hiking, you may encounter a few terms that you’re not familiar with. A “switchback” is one such term, and it’s one you’ll often hear in reference to hiking trails.
But what are hiking switchbacks, why are they used, and where can you find them?
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What are Hiking Switchbacks?
A switchback is a gradually ascending path that snakes up a hill or mountain. It’s like the twisting, turning, stanchioned queues that you see outside museums and concert venues. The difference is that a switchback is designed to reduce the incline and not to control crowds (although on very busy trails it could help with that as well).
Rather than following a straight trail up a steep hill, a switchback lets you ascend the incline gradually, making for a more manageable and leisurely hike.
Of course, it also means that you have to cover more ground.
Trail planners build switchbacks by cutting into the mountains. They are not simply loosely-defined trails that snake up a slope and tell hikers where to go. They are sturdy, stable, and usually well-maintained.
Why Do Trails Have Switchbacks?
Switchbacks are built for safety and accessibility. Hikers don’t have to exert themselves as much and there is minimal risk of them slipping and falling.
Switchback trails are often groomed and fitted with netting, protecting hikers from loose rocks, waterways, dense brush, drop-offs, and other such hazards.
Switchbacks are also more accessible to beginner hikers, thus opening the hiking trail to a wider range of skill levels.
Switchback trails also function as erosion control devices by creating more ground cover. The areas between switchbacks serve as habitats for wildlife and plants.
Switchback Trail Etiquette
Switchback trails have their own set of rules, so keep these in mind when hiking a switchback:
Don’t Squeeze Past
Switchbacks are often quite narrow and if you’re hiking in a group, you may need to stick to a single file. If there are other individuals or groups ahead of you, don’t squeeze past.
If you can do it without stepping off the trail or getting too close to the other hiker, go for it. But as soon as you start invading someone else’s space or stepping off the trail, you’re breaking this unwritten rule.
Don’t Hike Straight Up
Switchbacks create a zig zag pattern across steep hills but often leave room for adventurous hikers to hike straight up the middle, saving themselves a lot of time in the process.
This is not recommended.
It doesn’t matter if you’re fit/skilled enough to make it. It’s not about you. What matters is that you could be eroding the natural environment and sending loose rocks and soil tumbling below.
Be patient, follow the trail, and don’t look for a shortcut.
Plan and Prepare
If you’re hiking a hill or mountain with multiple switchbacks, make sure you’re prepared. They could prolong the hike and mean you need to depart earlier or take more food and water with you.
Depending on the specific hiking trail, you may not need hiking poles, but these can still be very helpful. What’s more, while switchbacks make a trail safer and more manageable, you’re still hiking in the great outdoors and so there are inherent risks.
Pack the right gear (first aid kit, good boots, weather-suitable clothing, food, water), charge your phone or GPS device, and plan your route and timing before you depart.
Examples of Switchback Trails
We don’t know which ancient civilization created switchback paths first, but we do know that they have been around for thousands of years. In fact, the first inventors may not have even been human.
Sheep and goats have been observed following zig-zag patterns to reduce steep slopes and as herds follow these patterns again and again, they create natural paths in the landscape.
There is evidence of switchback paths in the Inca road system in South America and as the ancient Greeks and Romans were masters of their mountainous environments, it’s likely that they created similar paths.
Switchback trails are commonplace in the United States and can be found in many popular hiking trails. Here are some of the biggest switchback trails in the US today:
Angels Landing, Zion National Park
There are 21 tough switchbacks on this popular trail. These grueling paths are known as Walter’s Wiggles and they provide epic views of the Virgin River Valley and the surrounding red rock canyons.
Angels Landing is the ultimate outdoor adventure and is a must-do the next time you find yourself in Utah.
Barr Trail to Pikes Peak
Located in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado, this is an intense and very challenging trail that’s used by top hikers and climbers to prepare for Kilimanjaro.
It has uneven terrain, unpredictable weather, loose rocks, and nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a switchback hike that’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Mount Healy Overlook Trail, Denali National Park
Denali National Park spans over 6 acres of land, all of which is protected. There are switchbacks above the timberline and these will take you to the summit of Mount Healy, 5,700 feet up.
What Is A Scramble In Hiking?
Scrambling is when you use your hands to help you along a trail. It means that the slope is steep enough to warrant extra effort and balance but not steep enough to require climbing equipment.
A good switchback trail can prevent the need for scrambling, ensuring you stay upright at all times.
Summary: What is a Switchback?
To summarize, a switchback is a path that forms a zig-zag pattern up a steep hill or mountain. It provides a number of benefits:
- Helps to prevent erosion
- Provides a steady and consistent gradient
- Makes the trail more accessible
- Makes the route safer
If you’re hiking switchbacks, remember to follow basic trail etiquette and think about the safety of others as well as your own.