What is a Switchback Trail?

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If you are new to hiking, sooner or later, you may come across a switchback while hiking on a trail. You may curse the switchback and wish it was never there. Switchbacks usually mean one thing; you are either hiking a steep incline or decline on a mountain or hill.

What is a switchback?

A switchback or switchback trail is a term used to describe a path that zig-zags back and forth up a hill, mountain, or steep incline. A switchback is pretty much like how it sounds. It’s a trail that starts in one direction, then all of a sudden switches back to head the other direction. It can be described as a trail that looks like a snake climbing up a path.

You may be annoyed when you encounter a trail switchback because you might feel capable of hiking straight up the mountain without using the switchback. However, the switchbacks are designed for a reason.

Why do switchbacks exist?

Switchbacks help conserve your energy

They are designed to help everyone. Yes, some of you may be able to climb straight up the mountain without any problem. However, not everyone can. Switchbacks are designed trail planners to help you conserve your energy while you are hiking. Yes, you are adding extra footsteps to your hike, but switchback hiking will help you save energy and help minimize the impact on your knees by reducing the grade dips. The trail might be longer with the switchbacks but the elevation grade will be less allowing you to maintain a solid cardio exercise.

This will help if you are hiking with a heavy backpack. This is important when you are hiking long distances or if you are not in great hiking condition.

Switchbacks help prevent excessive erosion

One reason many of us like hiking is because it brings us closer to nature. And for us to enjoy and share nature with each other, we need to make sure that we do our part in protecting the outdoors for others to enjoy. Soil erosion occurs when surface runoff is not controlled. The zig-zag pattern is one strategy for erosion control devices that acts to protect the hill and trail from excessive erosion.

Erosion is bad because it would ruin the trail by turning it into a ravine. Water moves faster down steep trails and carries away the topsoil and vegetation with it. The vegetation is significant because the roots hold the topsoil together. Plants also disperse water runoff and protect the environment from strong winds. Without the topsoil, plants will not be able to live there, thus holding the soil together. Without the topsoil, plants cannot grow there. It becomes a snowball affect when erosion starts taking place.

Other consequences of soil erosion:

  • Soil erosion reduces the longevity of the trail
  • Without erosion control, hiking trails have to be fixed when excessive erosion occurs. This adds maintenance cost that could have been avoided
  • Decreases the quality of the animal and plant habitat
  • Possibly affect the safety of hikers by creating additional unnecessary risks like newly exposed tree roots or rocks

How to identify switchbacks on a map

It’s always fun to hike a new trail and gain a new hiking experience. Before you go, it’s always good to be prepared or know what to expect. If you don’t know much about a trail or you don’t know someone that does, or you can’t find much information about the trail, then it will be hard to know if there are switchbacks or not.

If you are curious if the trail has a steep hill or multiple switchbacks, then you will need to find a topographic map.

What is a topographic map

Topographic maps are essential for any hiking expedition. A topographic map is like any other map, but it can help you determine how difficult a hike may be. They can tell you if there are steep hills, where the switchback trails are, and if there are any mountain road or road trail, extreme or small grade dips, straight aways, and so on.

How to use a topographic map

On the map, you will find lines through the map; the closer the lines are together, the steeper the elevation grade is. If you want to do an easy hike, then avoid trails that have a bunch of steep lines close together. If you follow a trail and it doesn’t cross any lines, then that most likely means that the trail is flat.

How to find a switchback on a map

switchback on topographic map

You can only identify a switchback on a topographic map. When examining a trail on a map, look for a zig-zag pattern. This zig-zag pattern surely indicates switchbacks. Another way to look for switchbacks is to look for a steep hill or mountain that has a bunch of lines close together. There will most likely be some switchbacks on the trail if the map does not show them. Remember, the switchbacks are designed by trail planners for erosion control.

5 Tips for hiking switchbacks


Water is extremely important, and it is easy to forget. If you are going to be hiking switchbacks, make sure to start drinking adequate amounts of water two days before the hike. Avoid drinking excess amounts of alcohol the night before.

Make sure to understand how difficult the trial will be and brink plenty of water.

Maintain a Steady Pace

Hiking is not a race for most of us. When you hit the switchbacks, make sure not to overdo it. Maintain a steady pace throughout the hike. If you are having a hard time, then take quick breaks but not too long.

Set Small Goals During the Hike

If the hike becomes difficult at the switchback trails, set small goals to help keep you moving and motivated. If you are hiking a switchback and it becomes difficult, then set a goal of making it to one end of the switchback. Once you get there, take 20 deep breaths then hike to the next end of the switchback. Adjust your break times based on how you are feeling.

Bring a Trekking Pole

Trekking poles are great because they will help you power up the switchback. They are also great for reducing the stress on your knees.

Final Thoughts

Don’t cut the trail, especially do not cut the switchbacks. Switchbacks are designed for a purpose, and that purpose is to help protect the path and the environment. Stay safe and keep switchbacking.

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