What Is A Switchback In Hiking? + 5 Tips To Master Your Next Big Climb

A hiker's guide to navigating switchback trails

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If you’re new to hiking, there can be a lot of new terms to become acquainted with. There’s a cairn, thru-hiking, crampons, an access trail, and rocky scrambling, to name a few. 

Another term you’ll likely encounter in a hiking guidebook as you scope out the description for your next trek or day hike is “switchback.” 

A switchback is a trail feature designed to ease the ascent or descent on steep terrain, creating a zig-zag pattern up a hillside or mountainside.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the concept of switchbacks in hiking, explaining their purpose, structure, and the advantages they offer hikers navigating challenging slopes. We’ll also offer some tips on how best to tackle them!

People walking up steep switchbacks while hiking.

What Is A Switchback In Hiking?

Rather than forming a trail that would ascend straight up the hill or mountainside from the base to the peak, a switchback on hiking trails meanders up the hillside in a long zig-zag pattern.

A switchback trail makes for a more gradual climb or descent than would be tackled if the trail went straight up the hill or mountainside using the shortest path available.

You’ll cover much more distance on a switchback trail than if the trail was direct from the base to the summit, but the grade will be easier to hike up and gentler on your joints on the way down.

The defining features of switchback trails in hiking are the hairpin turns and the fact that switchback trails are always carved into hillsides.

Although switchback trails will still be sloped uphill as they snake their way up the mountainside, the degree of incline is less severe than a straight trail would be. 

Switchbacks are different from climbing turns in that they have sharper turns and a relatively flat landing area at each turn and are generally found on steeper slopes.

A switchback on a hiking trail.

Climbing turns usually have a turning radius of 15-20 feet, which is much larger than that of a switchback. Switchbacks usually occur on mountainsides where the slope exceeds a 20% grade

Famous Switchback Trails

St. Gotthard Pass, also known as Passo San Gottardo or Passo del San Gottardo, is an alpine peak that reaches 2,091 meters above sea level. 

Oberfelben in Austria is 2,243 meters high and has 20 switchbacks with dead ends. 

The Alps are home to some of the best hiking and biking. Although for those in North America, the Colorado Rocky Mountains or Zion National Park are some of my favorites.

Switchback trails have been used for centuries. Even the Inca road system used switchbacks, some of which still exist at preserved historical sites such as Machu Picchu.

Now that we have answered what a switchback in hiking is, let’s see why they are placed on the trails:

Two people hiking on what looks to be a switchback trail.

What Is The Purpose Of Switchback Trails?

Switchbacks in hiking make it easier and more manageable to ascend or descend a steep slope. 

Switchbacks prevent hikers from sliding up, down, or off the trail due to loose soil as they try to gain traction at such a steep pitch. 

In this way, switchback trails also reduce soil erosion, trail damage, and vegetation loss1Navigating Switchbacks to Prevent Trail Damage. (n.d.). Www.backcountryattitude.com. Retrieved February 4, 2024, from and keep hikers safer.

Are There Downsides To Switchbacks In Hiking?

So, we know the answer to “what is a switchback in hiking? But what are the negatives?

The only real “downside” to switchback trails is that they can be tedious and require a lot more time to hike than a direct route.

Switchback trails require a lot of mental and physical endurance. It sometimes feels like you’re not making appreciable progress up the hillside when the switchbacks are long and numerous.

A close-up of a person's hiking boots.

5 Tips For Switchbacks In Hiking

There are a few tips for tackling switchbacks in hiking, some of which involve preparing for the rigors of switchbacks ahead of time, while others deal with making switchbacks safer and more manageable while you’re traversing them.

You don’t necessarily need tons of hiking experience, but you do need to be prepared for loose rocks, uneven terrain, and steep switchbacks.

So, How should hikers prepare for a switchback hike? Here are some tips for conquering switchback trails:

#1: Build Your Fitness

Even though switchback trails are less steep than a direct route up the hill would be, they still aren’t easy.

Plus, the vastly longer distance you end up needing to hike—and all uphill—with a switchback trail can be very exhausting from both a cardiovascular and muscular standpoint.

You need excellent muscular strength, muscular endurance, and cardiovascular endurance to be a good switchback hiker or even to just get to the top in one piece, in some cases!

In the weeks leading up to your hike, or to prepare for hiking season in general, spend time getting in shape by building your aerobic fitness and muscular strength.

You can build your aerobic capacity with cardio exercises such as cycling, running, jumping rope, swimming, and rowing, increasing the duration of your workouts as your fitness improves.

One of the best cardio exercises to prepare for hiking switchbacks is stair climbing. 

Whether you tackle the stadium stairs, hop on the StairMaster, or just walk up and down the stairs in your homes, climbing stairs is one of the best ways to strengthen your glutes, calves, quads, and hamstrings—the muscles you’ll need for hiking switchbacks—as well as your heart and lungs.

In terms of lower-body strengthening exercises, step-ups, squats, lunges, deadlifts, bridges, and calf raises are effective exercises to build muscular strength for hiking switchback trails.

Step-downs and downhill lunges can prepare you for downhill switchbacks.

A person hiking up a steep trail with hiking poles.

#2: Use The Right Gear

Switchbacks in hiking are much easier and more comfortable to tackle when you have the right hiking gear.

Hiking boots and hiking shoes will give your feet the support and traction you need to ascend and descend the switchback.

Your hiking socks should be breathable and moisture-wicking to prevent blisters. Remember to always carry a first-aid-kit.

Trekking poles or hiking poles can help give you additional support and a “foothold” (er, pole hold) in the trail so that you don’t slip on steep parts, and they can offset some of your body weight from bothering your knees and ankles on downhill switchback trails.

#3: Fuel And Hydrate Well

Hiking switchback trails is tough, so make sure you’re drinking plenty of water and have nutritious, energy-dense snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and natural protein bars.

Remember to keep on top of your hydration, even if you’re not thirsty. Maintain a steady pace, and if the path is up a particularly steep mountain, take plenty of breaks.

People hiking up a mountain.

#4: Respect Trail Etiquette

Following proper switchback etiquette won’t just make you look like a trail enthusiast, it is also to preserve the latency of the trail.

Follow the switchback path as it is. Do not cut straight up to the next zig-zag that is steep inclines and steep terrain or downhill from wherever you are on the trail. 

Doing so hinders erosion control, harms the soil and local vegetation, and disturbs the ecosystem.

Leave no trace! Avoid contributing to the loss of habitats.

#5: Take It One Turn At A Time

When you’re at the base, it can be bewildering and debilitating to see the seemingly millions of switchbacks up the hillside.

Switchbacks in hiking trails are definitely time-consuming and tiring, especially if the mountainside is steep because then you’ll be zig-zagging many times over.

It can feel like you’ll never get to the top, but you will.

Take one turn at a time. Stay present on the path you are on, and don’t worry about the next one.

Enjoy your surroundings. Feel proud of the hard work you’re doing.

You’ll get to the top, and yes, it will be worth it.

To help get you there stronger than ever, we have a 4-day training plan to build strength for your next big hike.


  • 1
    Navigating Switchbacks to Prevent Trail Damage. (n.d.). Www.backcountryattitude.com. Retrieved February 4, 2024, from
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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