3 Pivotal Areas Of Focus When Researching Hiking Trails

Doesn’t going on an adventure sounds like a great time? They make it seem like it’s a piece of cake in the movies. Just go out and set forth! That’s all well and good but to have a successful and rewarding trip, especially overseas, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into.

For example, I went on my very first backpacking expedition to Iceland without really checking it out and ran into a few unexpected situations as you can imagine. You can still have a great time don’t get me wrong, but what you don’t want to do is forget a valuable piece of equipment, or haul around too much, creating a less-than-ideal trip.

Researching Hiking Trails

The success of a journey often hinges on what’s learned before ever setting forth. When it comes to researching hiking trails, a little bit of forethought goes a long way. Each adventure, from serene nature walks to challenging mountain ascents, offers a unique and sometimes unexpected, experience, so why not brush up on a few valued skills?

So let’s get to it. In this guide, I’ll explain the differences between the various types of hiking trails, decipher trail terminology, and outline a comprehensive approach to planning your hiking or backpacking trip. I’ll even share the basics of trail etiquette for those who are unaware.

Whether you’re a beginner going for a straightforward day hike or a seasoned backpacker preparing for the Everest Base Camp trail, always expand your knowledge by picking the perfect pathway! Happy hiking!

1. Understanding Trail Types

First, you need to know what to expect. What are the features you’re likely to come across? How difficult is it going to be? Which gear is going to suit you best?

You don’t want to wear hiking shoes in a hiking boots situation. Some routes are incredibly technical with handholds and rope bridges while others are extremely narrow with loose rock and the occasional mudslide. Know before you go!

No two paths are alike. Let’s go over a quick breakdown of the most common trail types so you’ll know exactly what to look for when you’re picking your next walkabout.

Nature Trails:

These are the bunny slopes in the hiking world. They usually are short and easy paths that are typically found in parks or nature reserves. Great for families and those with limited time on their hands. Think more of a stroll than anything else. You’ll find these everywhere in the world, and some of them are quite nice!

Day Hikes:

As you would imagine, these are routes that are completed within a single day. The term covers all levels of difficulty and usually describes more so the length of the trip, so don’t be fooled.

For instance one of the hardest day hikes in the world is the Skyline Trail – Cactus to Clouds. Over 20 miles and 10,000 of elevation gain. I’m tired just thinking about this one. It’s important to be aware of the trail difficulty for any day hike.

Loop Trails:

A loop trail starts and ends at the same point, forming a complete circuit. It allows hikers to experience different scenery without retracing their steps and can range in difficulty.

One of the most famous in the world is the O circuit of Torres del Paine in Patagonia. An absolute must for any hiking or backpacking enthusiast!

Out and Back:

An out-and-back trail involves hiking to a destination and then returning the same way. It’s a straightforward route, often chosen for its simplicity. They are extremely common when it comes to day hikes.

A lot of these walkways have additional paths that shoot off here and there or even contain a loop at the end. The point is the start and the finish are at the same spot.

Point-to-Point:

A point-to-point trail starts in one location and ends in another with the idea of not returning the way you came. They are usually very long day hikes that almost always require arranging transportation ahead of time for the finish line.

Make sure you have somebody lined up to give you a lift back before setting off or you might be spending a night under the stars!

Overnight Trails:

As the name implies these are much longer trails than a typical day hike and normally require camping overnight so don’t forget your camping gear, food and anything else you might need.

Thru-Hikes:

Have you ever heard of the Pacific Crest Trail? If you have then you know it’s thousands of miles long, check it out below. Thru-hikes are extremely long in design and cover vast distances, often spanning multiple states or countries.

You of course don’t have to do the entire leg of the trip, as most people only do small sections at a time. If you have the opportunity though, it can be one of the greatest achievements of your life.

Technical Trails:

These are the “scary” trails that might come to mind if you see pics of people holding onto dear life as they walk on a few pieces of wood overhanging the side of a mountain. They are full of challenging terrain and sometimes even require specific skills like rock climbing or rope work.

Research Hiking Trails

Many more types are fairly self-explanatory like mountain trail, coastal, desert, waterfall, alpine, historical, family friendly, and so on. I won’t bore you with listing the definitions of all of these as I’m sure you can put 2 and 2 together.

2. Deciphering Trail Terminology

When you’re evaluating your next trail, you need to know what the more common terms are. Beginners especially need to know the basics so they bring the proper hiking shoes, trekking poles, and other pieces of valuable gear. Below is a quick breakdown of the most common descriptions you’ll come across –

Trail Difficulty

Every hiker needs to know what they’ll be getting into. You need to know the basics before picking where to go. Different locations have their custom rating systems since there isn’t a worldwide standard but generally, it goes as follows:

Trail Features

These are obstacles, points of interest and other general geographical/artificial things you’ll be coming across along your journey.

Trail Conditions

When you’re out and about in mother nature, you’ll come across basically anything you can imagine under the sun. Here’s a list of the 20 most common terms and conditions you’ll face in Mother Nature –

Trail Etiquette

Just like most things in life, there’s a right way and wrong way of doing things and this is no different out on the trails, especially if there are a bunch of people in a very popular spot. There might be some very specific local adhere to rules and regulations but for the most part, you’ll be safe if you follow these guidelines –

3. Optimizing Hiking Trail Resources

When I look into a potential trail there are a few things I usually do. First I look for any websites dedicated to that trail specifically. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t but you’d be surprised how many niche websites are out there! If there isn’t I go to my old reliables!

Websites

There are many websites out there that you can use to check out potential excursions. They come in all shapes and sizes. Here are my top 2 –

AllTrails

If you are a hiker and don’t know about AllTrails, then you are missing out. It’s the very first hiking app I ever downloaded and if there’s even a remote chance a pathway has been bushwhacked, it’ll be on this site.

I highly recommend checking it out, especially the paid version that opens up a ton more features.

HikingProject

Another great resource, especially if you are in the U.S. It’s completely free and has a great user interface. It doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as AllTrails, but it’s very handy and fun to use.

You can use it offline but there’s no function to track distance. Think of it more of the ”meat and potatoes” of apps while AllTrails is a 3-course meal.

Guidebooks and Maps

If you really want to get specific and learn about everything in a region or location then definitely look into grabbing a small guidebook or map. Relying on technology is fine but it’s nice to have an analog backup, just in case you run out of battery or have some other type of issue that arises.

Falcon Guide Books

These guys are great for most of all the famous and popular treks throughout the U.S.A. They have everything from the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the Adirondacks in New York.

They cover a lot of different categories from biking to pets. Make sure to give them a look when you can.

Lonely Planet

When it comes to all of the big international locales, I don’t feel anybody beats Lonely Planet. They cover everything, everywhere!

As you delve deeper into the wonderful world of wandering, their resources will pop up more and more. Check out their “Epic Hike” series for all of the great recommendations!

Topographic Maps:

If details are your thing or you want to get good at map reading, grab a local topographical map and have a look. It might take a few minutes to get the hang of it, but once you do, they’re a breeze for reference.

I recommend buying one from a local outdoor shop, with a compass, and teaching yourself the basics of navigation. You never know, it might save your life one day!

Trail Organizations

It might be beneficial to look into any organizations that promote their local trails. The big ones are –

National Parks Services

This is the official website for all of the national parks in the U.S.A. They provide current and detailed information ranging from permits needed, campsites, hours of operation, and so on. If you’re going to a national park, this place site should be your first stop.

Global Alliance of National Parks

A great resource for the rest of the world’s national parks. They were formed to help you discover, explore, and learn more about the National Parks around the world with the hope that you will help protect their beauty and natural resources. Give them a click!

Local Hiking Clubs

Always give a thought to looking into any local hiking clubs if you are able. They usually know the little nuances that no big website could ever cover. They’ll have the inside scoop on local guides to walk you around or even secret trails that nobody has ever heard of. Well worth exploring.

Social Media and Forums

Last but not least, check out social media or online forums that cover the trails you’re seeking out. You might be surprised by what you find. It’s a great way to find a hiking partner as well!

Online Communities:

There are a ton of Facebook groups out there that are super friendly and open to anyone curious. They will provide tons of info that you’ll probably get nowhere else. Join one of these hiking forums or social media groups for some great real-time advice!

Trip Reports:

If you want to know how others did on a possibly dangerous hike, check out and read detailed trip reports! They are a fabulous way to understand and digest others’ experiences, often swaying you to either partake or skip. Plus, they’re fun to read!

Time Allocation For Researching Hiking Trails

Here’s a rough schedule to shoot for when you’re arranging your next adventure –

  1. Pre-Planning (2-4 Weeks Before):
    • Identify potential trails based on your preferences.
    • Determine trail difficulty, length, and accessibility.
  2. Detailed Research (1-2 Weeks Before):
    • Read reviews and watch videos for a deeper understanding.
    • Check weather forecasts and trail conditions closer to your hiking date.
  3. Final Check (Days Before):
    • Confirm trailhead locations, parking availability (if applicable), and any recent trail updates.
    • Pack accordingly based on the latest weather and trail conditions.

Final Thoughts

There can be a lot to it when you’re researching hiking trails. Besides the other things you need to worry about; training for a hike, gear and equipment, travel, and so on, simply understanding what feels right takes time.

If you want to have a successful journey, begin with thorough research and planning. Read that extra article and look at that interesting map. Those little additions will pay dividends in the long run.

If you do it right, you’ll find yourself well-prepared and ready to embrace the beauty of nature. Remember, every quest begins with the thirst for knowledge!

As always, happy hiking and happy trails!!

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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