What is a Switchback Trail?

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What you need to know about switchbacks while hiking

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 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.

A switchback is like a zig-zag pattern moving up a mountain.


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 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. Especially 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 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 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
  • Trails have to be fixed when soil 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

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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