top of page
  • Writer's pictureElderberry 1

Trail Difficulty Ratings

Updated: May 11

Many apps for finding and mapping hiking trails have difficulty ratings attached to each of the posted trails-- like this one (in Alltrails), which is rated moderate:

This can be super helpful when you're trying to find a trail that matches your ability and your mood for the day. The difficulty ratings seem pretty straightforward-- for example, in Alltrails the options are easy, moderate, hard, and challenging. Got it. But what do each of these mean and why have I found myself on a "hard" flat walk and doing a Class 3 scramble on a "moderate" hike?

The first thing to know is that the difficulty rating is usually set by the person who created and submitted the route and reflects how they think about the difficulty ratings. While there is fairly broad agreement generally about the categories, there is also some subjectivity, and one person's hard may be another person's moderate. Most of the category level mismatches get caught and updated (the "moderate" Class 3 scramble is now listed as hard), but that doesn't mean you'll never find yourself wondering if the hike you're on should really be rated what it's rated. Think of the difficulty rating as just one of the parameters, along with trail length, elevation gain, trail conditions, and considerations like weather and road conditions to the trailhead.

If you travel around you may also find that there are regional differences in the what the difficulty ratings mean experientially. Trails rated hard in one region might tend to point towards something like scrambling being involved; elsewhere "hard" may be more about distance, steepness, or starting elevation. One thing that usually isn't explicitly stated is why the trail has the rating it has. In Alltrails, for example, when you suggest a new trail the app will ask a series of multiple choice questions (difficulty, are dogs allowed, etc.) and generates the description from the answers, so you'll see that they all read very similarly. There is a second field where authors can add information and you'll sometimes see additional notes there (whether it's area, whether the road to trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle), but it isn't always populated. The best way to try to assess what you might be signing up for is reading what reviewers have to say-- they often note if there is scrambling, or if the trail isn't well marked, or if it's a recent review, if you should wear your waterproof boots or watch out for free range cattle. The more time you spend on trails the better you'll get to know what each of these ratings means to you and what you want to look out for in the trail description.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page