Hiking Guides

What is a Switchback? Your Guide to Hiking Switchbacks

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If you’ve been planning a hiking trip, you’ve likely come across the term “switchback”.

But what are switchbacks in hiking, and how do you prepare for them?

In this guide we will cover:

  • The meaning and history of switchbacks
  • What to expect 
  • Tips for using switchbacks

Let’s get to it!

what is a switchback? Your guide to hiking switchbacks

What is a Switchback?

A switchback is a trail that cuts sharply back on itself in a zigzag pattern. This allows your hike to be less steep and enables you to summit heights that would not be possible otherwise. 

Switchbacks have been in use since ancient times, as they allow safer and easier travel up mountain ranges especially when transporting goods. They can be found all over the world, including on Machu Picchu!

The term switchback was popularised by the railroad companies in industrial revolution era America, as this type of rail formation was a necessity for getting large loads of freight up inclines.

It was equally important for getting the empty carts back down without them picking up too much speed. 

Using switchbacks in hiking helps you to conserve energy, allowing you to keep going for longer periods of time. 

Switchbacks are also beneficial to the natural environment, as they slow down soil erosion by preventing water from flowing straight down a slope.

Switchback vs Direct Hike

While switchbacks could be considered the more leisurely route, when compared to ‘direct hikes’, switchbacks will increase the distance you need to cover over the hike, albeit as a lesser incline.

A direct hike refers to a trail that goes straight up the slope or hillside, without any zigzags or switchbacks. 

Direct hikes are generally steeper and more challenging than switchback trails, as hikers must climb directly up the incline rather than gradually zigzagging their way up the slope. 

Direct hikes are often used by experienced hikers or mountaineers seeking a more challenging and adventurous ascent.

Basics of Switchbacks in Hiking

The basics of switchbacks in hiking

Remember to Pace Yourself

It might be tempting to speed up upon reaching a switchback, as the slope is not as steep as a direct hike. However, it’s best to stay steady. 

You don’t want your energy level to drop too fast and leave you running on empty for the rest of your trek.

One Turn at a Time

Make sure you stick to the trail. While it might be tempting to cut directly upwards and cut the corner, this will be harder on your body in the long run. 

Plus, it’s dangerous, as the off-trail terrain won’t be as packed down and will be steeper. As a result, there is a much greater risk of losing your footing. 

Switchbacks are also often planned to protect native flora and fauna, as you don’t know what you might be trampling when you leave the path.

Additionally, hikers forging their own way up or down through the switchbacks can damage the trails themselves– making them more susceptible to washing out after a heavy rain. 

Bottom line — take it one turn at a time, both for you and those around you! 

Be Mindful of the Trail

Be sure to stay alert and keep an eye out for potential hazards. Depending on your area, these could range from unfriendly plants and animals to rock fall hazards. 

However, it’s more likely that these would just be the odd stream crossing or tree branch in your way. Remain focused on your surroundings as you walk through them!

Keep an Eye Out for Trail Markers 

So you’re trying to stick to the trail, but sometimes that’s easier said than done.

Occasionally, it may be difficult to tell which way to go due to plant growth, trail washout, or confusing maps. Luckily, your trail will likely be marked to keep you on the right track. 

Trail markers vary from place to place, but common iterations include signs with arrows, reflective triangles on trees, bright spray paint marks, and posts. 

Make sure to do your research on the hike you plan to take before you start your journey so you know what to look out for. 

Prepare for Uneven Terrain

Even the best-maintained switchbacks may have uneven terrain at some points. This includes everything from slope changes to non-uniform ground. 

Stay on top of it by preparing in advance with good footwear, equipment, and plenty of water and fuel. 

Tips for Switchbacks in Hiking

Tips for switchbacks in hiking

Improve Your Fitness

Physically preparing yourself will enable you to go further with less effort when it comes time for your hike. 

How much preparation you do of course depends on your current fitness level, and how challenging the trail you plan to do is. 

Focus on your legs, core, and lower back when training for your adventure. 

Some exercises you could do include:

  • Weighted lunges
  • Weighted step-ups
  • Supermans

Wearing the pack you intend to use on your journey will also help your body acclimate to it while getting stronger. You’ve got this!

Use the Right Equipment

Getting the right gear is key to making sure your trip is safe and comfortable. 

Precisely what you’ll need varies depending on the location, the duration, and the difficulty of your hike, as well as the expected weather. 

For the essentials, it’s often worth spending a little more to ensure quality and durability. 

Check product reviews and hiking forums to find the best equipment for your specific tramp. 

Make sure to double-check you have everything and test your equipment before you depart. 

Practice Switchback Trail Etiquette 

As we’ve already covered, never cut the corner of a switchback. Additionally, make sure to clean up after yourself and leave things as you found them. 

In protected areas, taking anything other than photographs can be illegal. 

As a general rule, stick to the same side of the path as a car would to a road when passing others coming from the opposite direction. 

If a passing occurs at a particularly narrow or treacherous portion of the path, it’s polite (and safe) to wait to the side and let the oncomers pass you. 

Stay Fueled and Hydrated

Make sure you’ve given your body everything it needs to be running at peak performance for your trip. 

Eat before you start your hike, and bring familiar, easy-to-eat, and healthy food with you.

Drink at least two litres of water per day, preferably with added electrolytes. Water should be brought with you in a bottle or water bladder, as clean drinking water may not always be available.

Use Hiking Poles

Hiking poles can be an excellent tool to use on more rigorous switchback trails. 

Using poles can help to lessen the strain on your leg muscles on steep inclines, and protect your knees on descents.

Hiking poles also can better your balance on narrow or uneven trails.

Famous Switchback Trails

Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park, Utah, USA.

Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park, Utah, USA:

This 2.5-mile (4 km) trail is known for its steep switchbacks and incredible views of Zion Canyon. The trail gains 1,488 feet (454 m) in elevation, and the final section of the hike includes a narrow spine with chains to hold onto for safety.

Grinnell Glacier Trail, Glacier National Park, Montana, USA:

This 11-mile (17.7 km) trail is a popular hike that takes hikers up to Grinnell Glacier. The trail includes a series of switchbacks that climb over 1,600 feet (487 m) in elevation, and hikers can enjoy stunning views of the glacier and surrounding peaks.

Half Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, California, USA:

This 14.2-mile (22.8 km) trail is known for its final section, which includes a set of steep switchbacks leading up to the top of Half Dome. The switchbacks, known as the “cables route,” require hikers to use a cable system to pull themselves up the final 400 feet (122 m) to the summit.

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA:

This popular trail descends 4,380 feet (1,335 m) into the Grand Canyon, with a series of switchbacks leading hikers down to the Colorado River. The trail is 9.3 miles (15 km) long and offers incredible views of the canyon’s geology and ecosystems.

Rattlesnake Ledge Trail, Washington, USA:

This 4-mile (6.4 km) trail is located near Seattle and features a series of switchbacks that climb up to a scenic overlook of the Snoqualmie Valley. The trail gains 1,160 feet (353 m) in elevation, and the overlook offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and forests.

Conclusion

There you have it. Make sure to plan ahead for your switchback adventure, get the right tools and equipment, and be in good shape to thrive on the trails. 

Enjoy reaching new heights with greater ease through using switchbacks, and remember to take them one turn at a time!

Author
Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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