What is a Switchback in Hiking? Best Tips for Steep Terrain
What is a “switchback” in hiking? If you are new to hiking and researching outdoor adventures you may find yourself asking this question! If so, you are in the right place to learn all about this topic. I may even give you more information than you expected!
I have been an avid hiker for over 25 years now and if I look back over all those years I realize I have hiked MANY switchback trails in the southwest of the USA, Alaska, the Northeast, and more!
In this blog post, I will be discussing what exactly a switchback is in hiking and how it can help make hiking more enjoyable in challenging terrain. I will also explain why hiking with switchbacks is beneficial for hikers of all levels and provide tips on how to navigate them safely.
So whether you are new to hiking or an experienced hiker looking to brush up your skills, this blog post has something for everyone!
What is a Switchback in Hiking?
The quick answer is that a switchback is a hiking trail containing a series of zig-zag turns or switchbacks on its path. This type of hiking trail is designed to make hiking steep inclines or declines easier and more efficient.
Switchbacks allow for gradual ascents and descents, which can be beneficial for hiking long distances in a shorter amount of time. Furthermore, switchbacks provide hikers with great views from all different angles as they change direction multiple times, an unexpected bonus!
Hikers should keep in mind that some trails featuring switchbacks are steeper than other hiking paths they are used to simply due to the location and the difficulty of the terrain. These types of switchback trails allow access to areas you would not be able to hike, otherwise.
Therefore, it is important to be prepared and properly equipped for hiking very steep switchback trails with trekking poles and proper hiking boots or shoes.
Tips for Hiking on a Switchback Trail
The most memorable switchbacks I have hiked were in the Southwest of the USA where it was hot and dry, and the trails were lacking shade from trees. In other words, they were in the glaring sunshine! Some are more challenging and treacherous than others – some are more gradual and mellow.
These include the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona (where you share the trail with mules), the Mormon Ridge Trail in the Chiricahuas, and the Angels Landing Trail at Zion National Park. And so, I am basing my gear list and other advice below on my experience with those hikes specifically.
✔️ Pace yourself
Switchback trails can be steep and require a lot of energy to climb. It’s important to pace yourself so that you don’t burn out too quickly, especially if you are hiking in hot temperatures without any shade. Take breaks as needed, and don’t push yourself too hard. Also, stay hydrated!
✔️ Wear appropriate hiking gear
Definitely wear comfortable, moisture-wicking clothing that allows for freedom of movement. Dress in layers, if it is cooler, so you can add or remove clothing as needed to regulate your body temperature. Avoid cotton clothing as it retains moisture, which can make you cold and uncomfortable.
- Choose sturdy, comfortable hiking boots with good traction to help you navigate the switchbacks safely. Make sure your boots are broken in and fit well to avoid blisters or other foot injuries. I speak from experience here! It is really tough to press on during a hike with blisters.
- Use a backpack to carry your essentials, such as water, day hike snacks, sunscreen, a map, and a first-aid kit. Choose a backpack that fits well and has padded straps for added comfort.
- Hat and Sunglasses: Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a hat and sunglasses. A hat will shade your face and keep you cool, while sunglasses will protect your eyes from the glare of the sun.
- Sunscreen: Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed skin, especially on your face, neck, and hands. Choose a sunscreen with a high SPF and reapply it every few hours.
✔️ Use trekking poles for stability
Trekking poles can also increase the stability of your hike. They are great for helping you maintain good posture on uneven terrain and taking some of the weight off your back when you’re carrying a heavy pack, especially over long distances.
Trekking poles can also be used to help you cross streams or traverse slippery surfaces with greater security. When using trekking poles, adjust them to the right length so that they don’t impede your movements.
✔️ Be mindful of switchback trail etiquette
When hiking switchback trails, it is important to remember that hiking etiquette exists to make the experience enjoyable for everyone. Whether you are hiking alone or with a group, here are some important tips for hiking switchbacks:
- Keep your group together and stay on designated trails. It is important to be aware of other hikers and avoid disrupting their experience.
- Step off the trail when a faster hiker is approaching from behind. This allows them to pass without having to navigate around you, while also helping to reduce soil erosion.
- Yield to uphill hikers: Uphill hikers have the right of way as they are using more energy, so it is polite to yield to them. It is also important to give them enough space and not crowd the trail when passing.
- When stopping for a break, always move off of the trail so that hikers can still pass by if needed.
Famous Switchback Trails
There are many well-known hiking trails in the USA that feature switchbacks. I encourage you to check them out and try a steep hike if you haven’t before! Each trail offers a unique and challenging hiking experience with breathtaking views. Here are some popular ones I recommend:
- Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park, Utah: The Angels Landing Trail is a 5-mile round trip trail that features a steep ascent with numerous switchbacks. The trail is known for its stunning views of Zion Canyon and the Virgin River.
- Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, California: The Half Dome Trail is a strenuous 14-16 mile round trip hike that features switchbacks, steep inclines, and a climb up the famous Half Dome via a cable system. The trail offers stunning views of Yosemite Valley and surrounding peaks.
- Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: The Bright Angel Trail is a challenging 12-mile round trip hike that descends into the Grand Canyon via switchbacks. The trail offers incredible views of the canyon’s rock formations and the Colorado River.
- Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park, California: The Mist Trail is a 6.5-mile round trip hike that features switchbacks and steep inclines on the way to Vernal and Nevada Falls. The trail is known for its stunning waterfalls and misty views of the surrounding landscape.
- Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park, Maine: The Precipice Trail is a challenging 1.8-mile round trip hike that features steep switchbacks and iron rungs on the ascent to the top of Champlain Mountain. The trail offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding mountains.
⛰ The most famous hike with necessary switchbacks that I can think of worldwide is Huayna Picchu Mountain, the most spectacular hike at Machu Picchu. To reach the top you have to climb the ‘Machu Picchu Stairs of Death.’
FAQS: Switchback Trails in Hiking
Are you interested in hiking switchback trails after reading about them? Whether you are a seasoned hiker or just starting out, this FAQ section has all the information you need to know about hiking switchbacks.
Are switchbacks hard?
The difficulty of hiking switchbacks depends on the terrain and the type of trail. Generally, hiking switchback trails are made for “easier” hiking but can be more challenging than hiking without them because they require navigating steep inclines and declines.
These are often more difficult than hiking a straight path. However, hiking switchbacks can definitely be easier and more efficient than hiking a straight path if the switchbacks are designed correctly.
What should I wear when hiking on switchback trails?
It is important to wear appropriate clothing and footwear when hiking switchbacks. Hiking boots, waterproof hiking shoes, or trail running shoes with good traction and support are recommended for hiking switchbacks. Additionally, hiking poles can provide additional stability when hiking on switchbacks and help with balance and fatigue.
Can you cut a switchback?
No, cutting a switchback on hiking trails is not recommended due to the potential risks to yourself as well as the preserved environment beyond the trail. Switchbacks are designed for a reason — to make hiking up or downhill more manageable and efficient by creating a gradual incline or decline. Cutting a switchback means hiking straight up or down, which can be difficult and dangerous. It can also damage the pristine environment off the trail.
Why are switchback trails built?
Switchbacks create a gradual incline or decline, which can be safer than hiking straight up or down terrain that is more difficult and dangerous. This type of hiking trail also helps conserve the environment by directing hikers onto designated trails instead of cutting through fragile vegetation.
Switchbacks also make hiking more efficient, which can help hikers cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. Most importantly, in a steep environment, they help reduce erosion and damage to the trail.
What does a switchback look like?
A switchback hiking trail resembles a set of switchbacks on a road or highway, with the hiking trail winding in a zig zag pattern up or down a sharp incline or decline. They are typically kept narrow with room to pass for hikers heading in the opposite direction.
Why do trails have switchbacks?
Switchbacks are commonly used in hiking trails to provide hikers with a more gradual and manageable ascent or descent. This allows hikers to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time, as opposed to hiking straight up or down a steep incline or decline. Furthermore, switchbacks help conserve the environment by directing hikers onto designated trails instead of cutting through fragile vegetation. This makes hiking safer and more enjoyable for all involved.
Why do uphill hikers have the right of way?
When hiking switchbacks, uphill hikers typically have the right of way due to the greater physical strain and effort required when hiking uphill. This is because hiking uphill requires more energy and can be more difficult than hiking downhill.
Furthermore, hiking uphill can lead to fatigue or exhaustion quicker than hiking on a flat or downhill surface. Therefore, allowing uphill hikers the right of way can help protect their safety as well as provide them with a more enjoyable hiking experience.
What is the starting point of a hike called?
The starting point of a hike is often referred to as the trailhead. This is where hikers begin their journey, usually marked by a signpost or other marker indicating the beginning of the hiking trail. Depending on the size and nature of the hiking trail, there may be parking available for vehicles, restroom facilities, and other amenities such as maps and special instructions or warnings for the area.
The Bottom Line on Switchbacks in Hiking
Have I answered your question: What is a Switchback in Hiking? I hope so and I hope you also feel inspired. So, this is where I remind you that if you train properly and have the proper gear, you should definitely try hiking on a switchback trail near you!
Hiking switchbacks can be a great way to experience hiking at a new level of intensity and challenge. Switchbacks make hiking steep inclines or descents more manageable and efficient, while also providing beautiful views along the way!
Please remember that they can also be steeper than other hiking paths, so it is important to be prepared and properly equipped. Follow signs and the route indicated by the land owners or preserve or park you are hiking at.
Note: This content was written as a general overview of switchbacks in hiking and should not be taken as direct instruction for a specific hike you are planning on doing. Please consult an experienced guide if you are new to hiking before embarking on any hiking trails that contain dangerous switchbacks!
Enjoy and happy hiking!
🥾 For more hiking inspiration, check out these posts:
• 13 Southern Maine Hikes Worth Doing in 2023
• The Ulitmate 5 Day Backpacking Gear List
• Hiking at Great Wass Island Preserve in DownEast Maine
• The Ultimate Day Hike Food List for 2023