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What is a Switchback in Hiking? A Complete Guide

what is a switchback in hiking

In hiking, switchbacks refer to a trail that runs in a zig-zag pattern up a mountainside or hill that is steep.

This pattern allows for a gradual climb to the top instead of a straight upward climb, which would be much more complex and dangerous. 

You may have encountered a switchback when hiking before, and not even realized it.

However, if you climbed to the top of a mountain and did not ascend directly to the top, it was switchbacks that took you up there.

Although the trail will be longer than if you did a direct climb to the summit, the elevation change will be more subtle, making it safer and easier. For a tall mountain, you may encounter several switchbacks along the way. 

Switchbacks also protect the trail from erosion, which, if excessive, would cause falling rocks and dangerous conditions. Instead of water running straight down the hill, it goes down rolling grade dips instead. 

Keep reading to learn more about mountain switchbacks and how to prepare for a hike.

Where Does the Term “Switchback” Come From?

The term switchback comes from the way the path switches back and forth along the trail rather than directly up the mountain.

This term does not only apply to hiking but can also apply to railroads that have similar bends to it or a switchback road that has the same zig-zag pattern. 

What is the Purpose of Mountain Switchbacks? 

hiking mountain
Courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr @ Flickr

The primary purpose of a switchback trail is to make what would otherwise be a very steep climb to the top of a mountain more manageable and safer.

It also helps prevent erosion and protects the vegetation in the area, which water would damage if it were to run straight down the hillside. 

If you were to do a direct hike to the top of a mountain instead of a switchback, you would have to endure a very difficult and close to 90-degree hike to the top. It is also more treacherous.

A switchback will make your hike longer, though, so although the ascent is more manageable, you still need to prepare for the endurance that it will take to finish.

You will also feel the hike in your legs, and although your calf muscles will burn by the end of the hike, it’s still easier than the direct climb.

Most switchbacks will only have a 2-3 percent grade, much less than the 30 percent or more that you would experience by directly climbing to the top.  

You should never attempt to cut a switchback. They are made for the sole purpose of keeping the hikers safe.

Michael Brown, Ranger at Washington Trails Association

How Do You Cut a Hillside Path? 

cutting a hillside path on the mountain
Cutting a Hillside Path on the Mountain – Courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington @ Flickr

Switchbacks require careful planning to be properly cut into the hillside. We always advise people not to cut a hillside path and to follow the switchback trail.

They require adequate draining and proper landings (corners) along with retaining walls that protect against erosion and keep the vegetation from getting damaged.

They are a must for when a slope exceeds a grade of 20%. 

At each sharp corner (landing) of the switchback, the grade is between 0 and 5%. You will find water dips (grade reversals) every 100 feet or so to properly route off the water.

Often switchbacks are constructed in the denser areas of the location or around other obstacles to avoid the temptation for hikers to take a shortcut and avoid the switchback.

This feature helps ensure safety because hikers who avoid the switchbacks and attempt to create their own path risk falling and seriously injuring themselves.  

Related Article: What Is Scrambling in Hiking?

How to Prepare for Hiking a Switchback Trail?

preparing for switchback hiking trail
Courtesy of neepster @ Flickr

Make Sure You Are in Proper Shape

If you are going to complete a strenuous switchback hike, make sure that your legs and knees are in good shape to handle the required distance and climb.

Doing some cardio exercises can help with this process. It’s also a good idea to look for some knee support for hiking on steep terrain.

Frequently climbing up and down sets of stairs will help with this conditioning. You also want to make sure that your body has the stamina required to complete the length of the hike.

Wear Weather-Appropriate Clothing 

Make sure that the clothing you wear for the hike will not leave you too hot or too cold, and do not wear heavy clothing.

Dress in lightweight layers. In the spring, you’ll want to make sure you have a water-resistant jacket or windbreaker, and in the winter, you will need an insulating layer and a windproof jacket. 

Pack Snacks and Proper Hydration 

best outdoor hiking water bottles

Make sure that you have enough water for the duration of your hike, as getting dehydrated could compromise your safety.

You usually will not find water stations on the switchbacks, so plan accordingly.

While you’re hiking, take frequent small sips of the water. Is it better to bring a water container for hiking to avoid one-time plastic use.

Bring some energy-retaining snacks like dried or fresh fruit, nuts, or energy bars.

Use Hiking Poles to Reduce Strain  

If you want to reduce the amount of strain on your knees and legs, you may want to use hiking poles as you trek along the switchbacks.

When you use these poles, your upper body supports the lower body by resting the weight on the poles. They also help to keep you more stable and balanced.