What Is A Switchback In Hiking: A Comprehensive Guide

If you have ever hiked on mountainous trails, you probably have encountered a switchback. A switchback can be described as a simple trail engineering principle that architects would also be proud of. Switchback mechanisms can be seen in trails built centuries ago and found in different parts of the world. 

But what exactly is a switchback? Why do they exist, and how do you navigate through them easily whenever you encounter them?

This article will answer these questions as we take a closer look at this topographical hiking trail feature known as switchbacks.

Definition: What Is a Switchback in Hiking?

In hiking, a switchback is a trail that cuts rapidly from one direction to the next while ascending a steep slope or mountain. Rather than climbing straight up from the bottom of a hill to the top, this trail style helps you lighten your hiking effort by passing through multiple lower-grade hills.

Why Do Switchbacks Exist?

Switchbacks are frequently planned for regions where the grade of the hill is pretty steep when hiking trails are being built today. Instead of climbing straight up the steep stretch, you turn around and cut along the mountain’s side for a time, then reverse course, ascending more gently and lowering the climb’s severity. If you see a lot of switchbacks on a hiking trail map, it means that this portion is likely to be fairly steep, so you should plan to stop for a break and drink some water ahead of time.

While the most typical reason for building switchbacks on hiking routes is to make the gradient more bearable and safe, there are a few additional reasons as well.

1. Safer Routes for Pack Animals

Many switchback trails were initially created for pack animals carrying heavy loads worldwide. Climbing steep inclines was difficult for pack animals, especially when they had a hefty load on their backs. As a result, trail designers devised a less steep route that would be simpler for a pack animal to follow, particularly over uneven terrain.

These paths are still used today, and hikers can follow them for recreational purposes.

2. Provides Safety on Icy Trails

Switchbacks are helpful in hilly areas when routes are covered in snow and ice. Hikers may attempt to climb steep hills directly during the summer. On the other hand, the snow-covered mountains make for a slick and challenging trail during the winter season. Even with hiking poles and boots, crossing the slope’s face to-and-fro along a switchback trail is a safer way to climb ice terrain to the top of a mountain pass.

3. Erosion Control

Erosion control is another benefit of a switchback trail. In a way, switchbacks aid nature. Water can produce gullies when it rushes down a hillside slope, washing out the path and rendering it unusable.

Hikers may contribute to excessive erosion by shifting loose boulders and dirt if they attempt to climb mountainside trails directly. There’s also the possibility of kicking stones at other hikers below.

Switchbacking across a hill functions as an erosion control mechanism, distributing the water over a broader area and avoiding additional erosion.

4. Accessible Trails

Some mountainous trails are so steep that even the most fearless hikers develop cold feet.

Trail builders now use switchbacks to make a route more accessible. It’s a way of creating a well-kept trail with milder gradients that appeals to novice hikers and hikers of all ages.

8 Tips to Easily Navigate Switchbacks

Although switchbacks are safer, they can lengthen the course considerably. As a result, hiking on switchback routes can be exhausting.

Here are some pointers on how to easily navigate such a trail:

  • On a hot day, start early to prevent being benighted or taken off guard by afternoon thunderstorms.
  • Climb at a comfortable pace for you. Always take a break when you feel the need. It is not a contest.
  • Hiking poles can help relieve stress on your legs and back. Short hiking poles may be preferable in some situations. Hold it closer to the ground if you have a long hiking pole. This adds to improved stability as you navigate switchback trails.
  • Maintain an optimistic attitude. Hiking on switchbacks can be demotivating since you never seem to go forward, even though your goal/endpoint is only a short distance away. The longer zigzag track necessitates physical fitness; a switchback is not a hiking trail for the faint of heart.
  • Keep your energy levels up by drinking plenty of water and snacking.
  • Even if it’s foggy, wear sunscreen and a hat because the sun’s UV rays can be very strong in the highlands.
  • Remember to take the following items: navigational aids, sunscreen, and a first-aid kit.
  • To avoid slipping, choose appropriate hiking footwear with good traction. Injuries, low morale, and tiredness can all result following slippage.

Why You Should Not Cut Switchbacks

Trail builders frequently post signs warning hikers not to cut switchbacks, and even if you believe you are fit enough to climb straight up the mountainside and save time, you should always adhere to this rule and practice proper trail etiquette.

Established hiking trails confine the harm inflicted by your hiking boots to a smaller area than if each hiker climbs the hill independently. Additionally, stranded hikers can be easily located if they stay on the trails. By cutting switchbacks, you trample on vegetation and disturb the ecology beneath your feet. This, in turn, results in soil erosion over time.

Popular Examples of Switchback Trails

Deer Mountain (Tongass National Forest, Alaska): The trail that runs through Deer Mountain National Recreation Area is 10.7 miles long. This hike begins at Deer Mountain and runs up to Upper Silvis Lake. The trail is steep, with numerous switchbacks, and gains almost 2000 feet in the first two kilometers.

Gregory Bald (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee): Gregory Bald is often regarded as one of the park’s most stunning surroundings. Due to the strenuous nature of this trip, novice hikers may find this trail challenging. The 5.5-mile trek is tough because of the significant elevation changes. Hikers should budget at least seven hours for the out-and-back hike.

Half Dome (Yosemite National Park, California): If you’re out of shape, the 14- to 16-mile round-trip hike to Half Dome is not for you. For most of the route to the summit of Half Dome, hikers will have to climb to an elevation of 4,800 feet.

Mount LeConte (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee): LeConte is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s third tallest peak and a popular hiking spot. Mt. LeConte hikers can choose from six distinct trails, each with its own set of challenges, rewards, and exciting sights to see along the way.

Mount Whitney (Sierra Nevada, California): The Mount Whitney Trail begins at Whitney Portal and runs for 11 miles (18 kilometers). This terrain offers a challenging hike that calls for high physical conditioning. The round-trip hike takes roughly 12 to 14 hours to complete. About 2.5 miles (4.0 km) south of the top, the trail continues up 97 switchbacks to the Sierra crest.

Pololu Valley (Kohala Mountain, Hawaii): At the end of Highway 270, about 20 minutes from Hawi, is the Pololu Valley overlook and trailhead. Pololu Beach can be reached via a steep trail that descends from the overlook. It’s a bit rocky and steep, but it usually only takes about 20 minutes to descend. This trail can get slick when it rains, so keep an eye out for overcast skies.

Conclusion: What Is A Switchback In Hiking?

Even if you’ve been hiking in the mountains for a while, switchbacks are a feature you may take for granted. Knowing what switchbacks are, what they look like, and how crucial to a trail’s ecosystem they may be makes it easier for people to appreciate and utilize switchbacks for their intended purpose.

Last Update: 03. May 2022
About the Author

My name is Thomas, and I love the outdoors. I'm currently living in Germany and I would like to encourage my readers to go outside with this blog. Here you can read more about me.