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 rock 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.”
But, what is a switchback in hiking? What is the purpose of switchbacks in hiking?
Keep reading to find out!
We will cover:
- What Is A Switchback In Hiking?
- What Is the Purpose Of Switchback Trails?
- Are There Downsides to Switchbacks In Hiking?
- 5 Tips for Switchbacks In Hiking
Let’s get started!
What Is A Switchback In Hiking?
A switchback in hiking refers to a trail that makes nearly 180-degree turns, cutting sharply from one direction to the opposite one as it goes up a steep hill or mountainside.
Essentially, 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 are still going to 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 generally are found on steeper slopes.
Climbing turns usually have a turn 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.
There are many famous switchback trails.
For example, 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.
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 is a switchback in hiking, let’s see why they are placed on the trails:
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 erosion, trail damage, and vegetation loss and keep hikers safer.
Are There Downsides to Switchbacks In Hiking?
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.
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.
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.
#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 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.
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.
#4: Respect Switchback Etiquette
Following proper switchback etiquette won’t just make you look like a veteran hiker even if you’re a beginner, but 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 or zag that’s uphill or downhill from wherever you are on the trail.
Doing so is detrimental to the soil and local vegetation, disturbs the ecosystem, and can escalate erosion.
#5: Take It One Turn At a Time
It can be bewildering and debilitating to look at all the seemingly millions of switchbacks up the hillside when you’re at the base.
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. Just stay present on the path you are on. 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.