Why You Should Understand Elevation for Trails

So the trail you want to adventure on says it’s easy. But… is it really? What exactly does “easy” mean? Here is where understanding elevation gain becomes very, very important.

Elevation gain and trail length are how the difficulty of a trail is determined. What most people don’t take in to account is… yourself! Just because a hike says “EASY”, does not mean it will always be easy for YOU. I have lived this false sense of security too many times.

Let’s break down elevation. Elevation is the RISE of a trail. Think of this as a flight of stairs. On average, one flight of stairs has an elevation of 10ft. As you climb the 10 feet of stairs, you are also moving forward 10 feet. This is the total “run” of the stairs.

If we use the concept of climbing a flight of stairs as 10 feet in elevation gain, then imagine a trail describes itself as 3 miles round trip (1.5 miles each way). It also has an elevation gain of 800 feet. That means that you will approximately climb 80 flights of stairs in 1.5 miles. So how does that sound?

When I am deciding on a trail for my family (who vary in physical abilities), I try to reference things I can relate to. For example, it’s about a 1-mile walk to my kid’s elementary school. With that in mind, it’s much easier for me to imagine my kids walking the trail. Can they do 5 laps to/from school? Yeah, pretty easy. Can they do it while also climbing 100 flights of stairs? That may be a bit trickier (and we would have a few more meltdowns).

Let’s take a look at a real trail. Heybrook Lookout is rated as “Moderate” on alltrails.com. It is rated as moderate due to its length of 2.6 miles roundtrip, and elevation gain of 850 feet. Heybrook is an “out and back” trail. This means that you go one direction to the end and then come back the exact same way. Because of this, you know that all the elevation gain is happening in one of those directions. So I would take the total length and divide in half so I knew how long each direction would be. In just over 1 mile, I will be climbing 85 flights of stairs. That’s 85 flights of stairs in just over the length of walking my kids to school. So yeeeaah…moderate… or hard depending on how much exercise I’ve had lately.

If you are new to hiking or starting to get your kids involved, you should look at the hike rating system first. For beginners, always start with a trail rated “easy”. This will give you a good starting point. Next, pay attention to the elevation and distance to get an idea if it will be doable for you considering your physical health. Your health doesn’t just mean heart health and stamina. Another reason elevation is important to understand is for those that may have joint issues. A continuous or high elevation gain means steps and uphills. This must be considered if you have knee, hip, or joint issues.

Actual view of Heybrook Lookout and trail.

A big gain in elevation may be doable, even if you have issues to consider. You may need to take it much slower, take more breaks, and bring a hiking stick (These are a great option!). If this is the case, any trail that gives you an approximation of time– ignore. Someone in peak health could do it in their listed “2 hours”, but if I have 4 kids and a lot of stairs, you better believe we will be adding an hour or more to that.

Don’t let elevation scare you. Just be prepared! If you have to stop a lot and let others pass, don’t let it bother you!! Go at your own pace and know your limits. You may even need to turn around before you reach the end and try again another day. That’s okay too!

This is one of the many reasons I began reviewing trails and outdoor adventures. I would find so many websites or have friend referrals that say “easy” or “kid-friendly”, but as it related to me… that was NOT the case. I try to take an overabundance of pictures so you can see the exact characteristics of the trail including roots, edges, rocks, steps and more. Hopefully, by including all those images and information, you can make better decisions for you and your loved ones.

Happy Hiking!!

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