What does a trail rating of “moderate” mean to you? Does it sound doable? Too difficult? Just right?

Without knowing the other trail stats, such as length and elevation gain, ratings are subjective and haphazard. It can be very difficult to gauge what a trail is really like based on a basic description like easy, moderate or difficult.

Why do we bother with these ratings?

hiking exploring outdoor adventure fun outsideSylvia Dekker

It’s a question I ask myself every time I research hikes, whether I’m going solo, with my kiddo, with fitter and faster hiking buddies, or with friends and family that don’t hike often.

“Once distance, elevation gain and trail conditions are figured in, I think [trail ratings] are all over the map,” says Leigh McAdam, creator of the popular HikeBikeTravel blog, adding she thinks “most of the problem lies in the easy to moderate category.”

The moderate category often leaves me scratching my head, too. It’s a massive lump of trails, including those with one or two slightly steep sections which bumps them out of “easy” to lung-burners not long or steep enough to be classified as “difficult.”

Grassi Lakes, a popular destination in Canmore, is rated moderate on AllTrails, as is Ptarmigan Cirque in Kananaskis. If I was rating them, I’d probably put them both in the “easy” category.

But my perception of difficulty level is subject to comparisons with the many other hikes I’ve done. Plus, it’s subject to my personal feelings, fitness level, trail conditions, weather forecast and more.

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Even McAdam, a self-described “keen, fit, prepared hiker with a lot of experience in the mountains under a host of trail and weather conditions,” has been “put off by trails that sound too difficult, only to find that they’ve been fine.”

One-word ratings don’t describe the writer’s fitness level and experience, nor other factors such as trail conditions, mood or whether the hiker had an energizing breakfast. The single rating is not a full report and, often assigned post-hike, depends on the hiker’s memory. Do they remember panting and struggling or have they been struck with view-amnesia, where an incredible vista erases any kill-me-now memories? Easy, moderate and difficult don’t describe the complexity of an adventure.

For example, I’ve hiked the Foran Grade Trail numerous times, in all seasons, both in perfect health and post-partum, and with people of varying fitness levels. It is rated moderate on AllTrails, but I would’ve rated it easy one time and a bit harder the next.

steep exciting trekSylvia Dekker

Next to actual trail stats such as elevation gain or length, I’d argue the easy-moderate-difficult ratings are arbitrary. There are too many variables for a trail to be reduced to a word without measurable parameters.

What’s handier to know is whether 600 metres of elevation gain is all in one calf-quivering section at the end of a flat trail or if it’s spread out over 12 kilometres.

Brighton Peachy, a keen hiker experienced in wilderness safety and first aid, says trail ratings are not only subjective, but they are not reliable, especially on user-maintained apps which, while great as a “resource to find new trails,” should be taken with “a grain of salt.”

I’ve learned to read the rating on certain apps and think, we’ll see about that.

Instead of hiking a new trail with only a one-word description, find a friend, book or website where the who and the how behind the rating and description is revealed in detail.

This way, you avoid what Sonja Bloom, an avid hiker and scrambler based in the Rockies, says the problem with trail ratings on certain apps and sites is: “you read someone’s rating without knowing their history or experience.”

beautiful mountains to exploreSylvia Dekker

Therefore, I often turn to sites like explore, HikeBikeTravel or Explor8ion for information. It helps to be familiar with the same hikes your go-to resource does, to compare what they consider easy to what your experience with a trail was. As McAdam says, “if you have been coming to my blog for a while, I think you can see what I consider easy, moderate and hard.”

Vern Dewit, creator of the trip report site Explor8ion agrees, saying, “on my site, I have hundreds of peaks and scrambles rated, and people learn what easy or difficult means for me compared to themselves.”

Bloom has a selection of people, each with extensive experience hiking and scrambling in the Rockies, whom she trusts for trail ratings, supplementing with both books and online blogs to gather beta. Plus, she appreciates when there is a system or formula involved “show[ing] how they get their ratings.”

Dewit says besides an entire page dedicated to explaining the ratings he uses, he also adds a “consequence sentence” such as, you fall, you break something or you fall, you sprain your thumb “for the harder sections of each hike/scramble” report.

“This makes it slightly less subjective—you fall, you die is pretty clear!” Dewit says.

climbing up a hillSylvia Dekker

Though McAdam has seen “articles over the years that try and put a numerical rating on a trail,” they are still “too imperfect,” she says.

It comes down to doing good, multi-source research, and “knowing who [you] are, what [you] are comfortable with and turning back when [your] gut says this is too much,” McAdam says. “A good dose of common sense [will] go a long way.”


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