Deciphering Trail Ratings

When you’re headed out to the trails how do you decide how easy or difficult a trail is? Do you get out there + hope for the best? If so, good for you…but there is an easier way! Most trails have difficulty ratings. This information is often found at the trailhead maps or on trail signs. But is that information useful to you if you don’t know what it means? Probably not.

There isn’t an officially standardized way to describe trail difficulty, but there is a basic theme that most trail ratings follow. Here in the United States trails are usually rated as green, blue, black or double black. If you’re a skier or snowboarder you’ll recognize this immediately.

Green Trails: Easy
Blue Trails: Moderate
Black Trails: Hard
Double Black Trails: Extreme

This theme is used as a general guideline for rating trails throughout the US. You’ll find double black mountain biking trails, blue ski runs + green hiking trails. Sometimes they are accompanied by various symbols on the trails signs, but this is always shown on a legend at the beginning of the trail.

So, we’ve talked about the colors…what do the ratings mean?

hiking up Sniktau Mountain with Erica + Logan on a route with a “hard” trail rating due to elevation gain + high altitude hiking

Terms like ‘easy’ + ‘extreme’ are very subjective. Something an experienced mountain biker may consider to be ‘easy’ is actually a ‘moderate’ route for a beginner. This is true for all sports + activities…as you get better, trails get easier!

This is where you’ll need to do a bit of location/route specific research. A moderate mountain biking trail may be equivalent to an easy hiking trail. Some ratings take into consideration the overall mileage covered, while other trails are rated on just the technical difficulty. This makes it sound very confusing. However, it doesn’t need to be.

Here are a few steps you can take to ensure you’re heading out onto a trail at a difficulty level you’ll enjoy…

…before you hit the trail either check the online rating description or take a look at the trailhead’s map legend. This will often describe the rating, if not the route, in great detail.

…check multiple sources to see how they compare to each other.

…use an app like Hiking Project [can be used in conjunction with Trail Running Project + Mountain Biking Project] to see how this new trail’s rating compares to your go-to trails.

…be willing to take an easier trail to get a feel for the rating system.

…ask friends who have been on the trail for a comparison to trails you both know.

…search for photos online [Google Images + Instagram are both helpful] to see what the route looks like.

…don’t be afraid to turn around or adjust your expectations for the day’s adventure if the trail seems harder than you expected.

…contribute to online resources after you’ve completed your adventure, this will help others make the right decision with the information available to them.

The trail rating system isn’t foolproof, but it is a great way to get an idea of the difficulty of trails before you get miles from the trailhead + are faced with a steep, technical climb. It is worth noting these ratings are specific to the United States + you will find different color/difficulty associations when you venture to Europe + beyond.

@theoutdooradventurist, atop Buffalo Mountain via a trail rating of “hard”.

One thing we didn’t touch on is the mountaineering rating for trails or the climbing ratings for routes. These are more standardized + you’ll delve into those details in the coming weeks.

Until then, get out there to hike, ride + adventure to your heart’s content, knowing you’ll be taking on an attainable adventure.

About the Author

Sunset

Heidi Kumm

Heidi Kumm is a trail runner, world traveler, mountain climber, and all around adventure enthusiast. She is so stoked on adventure that she has made it her career as the owner of Adventure Feet First, a travel company that focuses on getting people outside to explore the world around them. Over the past years Heidi has spent months living abroad, volunteering around the world, living out of a van/car/truck, and finding new ways to explore on foot, by bike, or with a backpack. She has learned the ins and outs of self propelled exploration the hard way, so she's here to help us learn from her mistakes and to help us become more informed on how to make your own mistakes, safely.