What Is a Switchback In Hiking? Famous Switchback Trails

What Is A Switchback?

A switchback is a kind of trail or path that ascends steep terrain, like a mountainside or hillside, in a zigzag pattern. They are one of the safest methods of navigating steep terrain, so they are frequently found in mountain passes.

Switchbacks function by substituting a single path with a steep grade with several paths with a lower grade. Switchbacks wind from one side of the slope’s face to the other, then back again, as opposed to climbing straight up a slope. As a result, the path becomes longer, though it may not actually require much more effort to climb given that the switchback path has a gentler slope and doesn’t demand as much energy as a steep climb.

Map of a Switchback Trail

Why Hike Switchbacks?

Hiking Switchbacks Are Beneficial To The Environment

Switchbacks are built to prevent the hill and trail from undergoing too much erosion. Compared to switchbacks, straight trails erode more rapidly and effectively. The vegetation and dirt found along a path are washed away by water as it erodes. This process will eventually destroy the trail and erode the hill or mountain.

On the other hand, switchbacks are made specifically to lessen the effects of erosion. Water must move more slowly downward when deep curves are strategically placed along a trail. Switchback trails help maintain the integrity of the terrain because they are more durable than their straight counterparts. Switchbacks are carved out by trail designers to make the trails as environmentally friendly as possible.

What Is A Switchback?

Hiking Switchbacks Are Beneficial For You

Switchbacks are a crucial safety feature of mountainous trails, as well as something that makes things simpler and more convenient for a hiker. The gradual incline of a switchback can prevent you from suffering serious injuries if you’re hiking in an area with extremely steep terrain.

Switchbacks provide an easier way to adjust to elevation than a straight path up a mountain. Elevation changes happen more frequently, which makes it easier to pace your ascent and adjust to the altitude and pressure. Hikers can also avoid hilly dangers like loose rocks, drop-offs, waterways, and dense brush by using switchbacks.

When hiking, it’s crucial to pay attention to more than just the presence or absence of switchbacks; you should also take note of the landing and the trail’s overall backslope. Even though the term “switchback” may seem straightforward, the engineering of such a trail may call for sufficient excavation and structuring the fill dirt to support a trail. Switchbacks aren’t just a trail winding up a mountain’s side; they’re actually scooped out of the mountain and cut into it, which can make them much more stable than other types of trail.


Famous switchback trails

Half Dome

Half Dome (Yosemite National Park, California)

Half Dome is a Yosemite landmark that rises nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level. It presents a significant challenge to many hikers. An interesting fact: a  report from 1865 claimed that Half Dome was “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot”.

Angel's Landing

Angel’s Landing (Zion National Park, Utah)

The Angel’s Landing trail is located in Springdale, Utah, and it typically takes 3 hours to complete. In this area, hiking is very common, so you might encounter other hikers while exploring. The best months to hike the trail are February through October. Dogs are not permitted on this trail and must remain at home.

Deer Mountain

Deer Mountain (Tongass National Forest, Alaska)

A short taxi ride from the city center of Ketchikan will take you to the fantastic hiking trail on Deer Mountain. Get ready for a 3,000-foot steep climb with numerous detours and allow 3-5 hours to hike from the trailhead to the top in one direction. Within the first hour of the hike, there are two viewpoints. However, the best views can be found at the top.

Mount LeConte

Mount LeConte (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee)

In the Smokies, there are hikes that are much longer, climb higher, or have steeper climbs. The Alum Cave Trail, however, is unmatched in its combination of fascinating geological features, history, high adventure, and breathtaking panoramic views. From the Alum Cave Trailhead, hikers must ascend 2763 feet and cover 5.5 miles to reach Mount LeConte’s 6593-foot summit.

Can you cut switchbacks? 

You should never cut switchbacks. Even if you feel fit enough to go straight up and save yourself some time, you should always abide by this rule and practice good manners. The benefit of using established hiking trails is that they prevent damage from your boots from spreading as widely as it would if each hiker chose their own route up the hill. By cutting switchbacks, you damage the ecology below your feet by trampling on vegetation. This also causes soil erosion over time.

You’ve probably seen the trail’s warnings against cutting switchbacks. These notices are frequently found in locations where ecosystem restoration conservation efforts are underway. In order to restore an area, the trail may eventually be rerouted or even closed if hikers frequently cut switchbacks. So please take the lengthy and winding road if you want to continue taking pleasure in nature.

Climbing The Fields

Switchbacks Vs Climbing Turns

On hillsides steeper than a 15% grade, the direction of travel can be changed using switchbacks or climbing turns.

How Are Switchbacks Different From Climbing Turns?

Switchbacks are typically sharper turns that are used on steeper slopes. At each corner, known as the landing, the grade is less steep and ranges from 0 to 5 percent. A climbing turn is much larger than a switchback because it lacks landing areas (sharp corners) and has a turn radius of 15-20 feet.

Construction of switchbacks is typically more difficult, and landings demand more planning and thought. Because of this, building switchbacks costs more than building climbing turns. As a result, switchbacks are frequently reserved for applications where they are absolutely necessary. This happens when a slope is too steep for climbing turns. Without properly designed switchbacks and landing areas that drain properly and prevent erosion, maintaining a trail at this grade is extremely difficult or impossible. On slopes that are too steep, climbing turns frequently erode and may need to be replaced with switchbacks.

Switchback in Mountains

Tips For Switchbacks In Hiking

There are a few strategies for dealing with switchbacks while hiking, some of which involve getting ready for their challenges beforehand, while others concern ways to make them safer and easier to navigate while you’re actually navigating them.

Build Your Fitness

Switchback trails are not simple, but they are less difficult than taking a straight line up the hill. Additionally, the much greater distance you end up having to hike on a switchback trail can be extremely challenging on your heart and muscles.

To be a good switchback hiker or, in some cases, even to simply reach the summit unharmed, you need exceptional muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance! Spend time getting in shape by increasing your muscular strength and aerobic fitness in the weeks before your hike.

Cardio exercises like running, swimming, and rowing can help you increase your aerobic capacity. As your fitness level rises, you can extend the length of your workouts. Stair climbing is one of the best cardio workouts to get ready for switchback hikes. Climbing stairs is one of the best ways to strengthen your glutes, calves, quads, and hamstrings—the muscles you’ll need for hiking switchbacks—as well as your heart and lungs.

Step-ups, squats, deadlifts, and calf raises are good lower-body strengthening exercises to help you get stronger for hiking switchback trails.

Use the Right Gear

When you have the proper hiking equipment, it is much simpler and more comfortable to conquer switchbacks. As you climb and descend the switchback, hiking boots will provide your feet with the stability and traction they need. To avoid blisters, your hiking socks should be breathable and moisture-wicking.

In order to prevent slipping on steep sections of the trail and to help you maintain your balance on downhill switchback trails, hiking poles can provide you with extra stability and a “foothold”.

Fuel and Hydrate Well

Switchback trails are challenging to hike, so be sure to stay hydrated and carry energy-dense snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and natural protein bars.

Canyon Climbing

Respect Switchback Etiquette

Even if you are a beginner hiker, adhering to proper switchback etiquette will make you appear more experienced. It will also help keep the trail’s latency intact. Take the switchback route exactly as it is. Never take a direct path to the next zigzag that is immediately uphill or downhill from where you are on the trail. This damages the local vegetation and soil, upsets the ecosystem, and can exacerbate erosion.

Map of a Switchback Trail

Take It One Turn At a Time

When you’re at the bottom, it can be mind-boggling and exhausting to see the seemingly endless switchbacks ascending the hillside. In hiking trails, switchbacks are undoubtedly time-consuming and exhausting, especially if the mountainside is steep because you’ll be zigzagging through them repeatedly.

It may seem as though you’ll never succeed, but you will. One step at a time, please. Just remain mindful of the path you are traveling. Forget about the following one. Relish the surroundings. You’ll reach the top, and it will be worthwhile, I assure you.

Climbing the Mountain


Now that we both have a better understanding of what a switchback is and how to prepare for and navigate one, we can put these suggestions to use the next time we come across one. While hiking a switchback, there are no short cuts. Switchbacks will always lead you down a more time-consuming, secure, and manageable path. 

After all, one of the reasons these switchbacks were constructed was to allow people to experience nature at its best. Last but not least, always keep in mind to enjoy yourself when hiking, even if it necessitates taking the long, winding switchback route.


Have more questions? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about switchbacks, their functions, and how to hike them successfully and safely.

What is the purpose of switchbacks?

Switchbacks reduce the grade, or incline, of the trail, making steep terrain less challenging to hike. Since you’re not being compelled to sprint up a hill or mountainside, you can take your time getting to the top and save enough energy to truly enjoy it when you do. Switchbacks are another tool used by trail designers to prevent soil erosion on vulnerable slopes and maintain the sanctity of significant natural areas.

What is cutting a switchback?

The term “cutting” a switchback describes the act of walking straight up a steep slope to shorten a long switchback trail. This is definitely not acceptable, as I’ve already said. Even if there is evidence that others have done it, resist the urge to get around a switchback.