What is a Switchback in Hiking? (Is It Easier & How To Do It)

Hiking terminology can be as difficult to navigate as the trails themselves. Some of the words that describe trails, hiking gear, and scenery are hard to understand whether you’re a novice or have years of experience. So, what is a switchback in hiking?

A switchback is a trail that features extreme angles that even measure 180 degrees in some cases. Switchback trails help protect local vegetation and make it so that you don’t need to walk up a straight incline. You can face penalties for veering off track and cutting through switchback trails while hiking in many places.

It’s also harmful to the local plants and animals when you cut through a switchback while hiking. This can erode the soil and kill native plants. Follow along as we explore what switchbacks are in hiking and highlight how to navigate them.

What Does Switchback Mean in Hiking?

A switchback in hiking is when a trail quickly cuts at extreme angles up to 180 degrees. You typically only find switchbacks while hiking on mountainous or hilly trails. Hiking trails with multiple switchbacks often look like zig-zags when you look at them on maps.

What is the Purpose of Switchbacks?

The main purpose of switchbacks is to make hiking much easier in certain areas. That may seem absurd because switchback trails are often quite challenging, but they are often easier than going straight up a steep incline in many cases. Switchback hiking trails also allow park maintenance professionals to carve out trails without altering the terrain too much.

For example, it is considered unethical to cut through too much forestry on hiking trails, especially in a straight line. Switchback trails give people the chance to mitigate damage to native species while also creating a fun trail.

Are Switchbacks Easier for Hiking?

A switchback can be hard while hiking, but they are typically easier than walking straight up a steep incline. Switchback trails stretch the path in a cutting, angular formation that reduces the time you’d spend walking up a straight incline. You must still prepare for an enduring experience, but switchbacks in hiking are much easier than straight trails in many cases.

What is a Switchback in Mountain Biking?

Much like in hiking, you can also find sharp, cutting switchbacks in mountain biking trails. It’s typically harder to go mountain biking on a switchback than it is to go hiking on one. That’s because it requires much more control and precision.

The main danger of switchbacks in mountain biking compared to hiking is that there is little room for failure. For example, you are less likely to trip and fall on a switchback while hiking than when riding a bike. Switchbacks sometimes have drop-offs on one side, so you must try to land on the side with vegetation to cushion the blow if you fall while mountain biking.

Image by Brent Olson from Pixabay

What Does Cutting Switchbacks Mean?

Cutting switchbacks is when you venture off the defined trail. The defined switchback trail is typically surrounded by vegetation. When you cut a switchback, you will walk through the vegetation, and this can even carry penalties if you get caught by park rangers depending on where you go hiking.

Can You Cut Through a Switchback Trail?

While you can cut through a switchback trail, you shouldn’t do it. Switchback trails reduce erosion and vegetation damage. When you cut through a switchback while hiking, you can easily damage the native plants. You are also more likely to encounter local animals and disrupt their habitat.

Hikers typically don’t frequently encounter animals on clearly defined hiking trails. Once you go off the trail, you may encounter animals like snakes and deer which can be frightening for both of you. Depending on where you are hiking, you may also be vulnerable to plants that cause negative side effects, such as poison ivy and poison oak.

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How to Hike a Switchback Trail

Wear Hiking Shoes

Hiking shoes and boots offer the traction that you need while hiking a switchback trail. The sharp cuts and turns on switchback trails make it easy to lose your footing. Because of that, you need shoes that can easily grip the soil and rocks beneath your feet.

Hiking shoes are often softer and more comfortable than boots, but boots offer the most stability. Research the trail you plan to hike before you go hiking to find out what type of terrain you can expect. This will help you pick out the right shoes or boots for the hike.

Respect the Environment

Not only is cutting switchbacks rude to the other people on the trail, but it can harm the local environment. Plants that don’t typically get trampled will struggle to bounce back when you walk on them. You will also be left vulnerable to harmful bugs and animals, such as snakes and ticks, which can transmit diseases.

Cutting switchbacks contributes to soil erosion as well. Hiking on soil that is typically left untouched can leave indentations that may take months or years to bounce back. It can also prevent new and existing plants from growing in that area.

Hike Slowly

Switchbacks may only make up part of the trail depending on where you go hiking, but they can be intense. Because of that, it’s important to take your time and hike slowly. The last thing you want to do is run out of breath and over-exert yourself when there are others ahead or behind you.

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

Protect Your Skin

You must protect your skin from the sun while hiking a switchback trail. Use at least SPF 30 sunscreen to avoid sunburn and skin damage. Make sure to apply more sunscreen after two hours, or sooner if you feel burnt.

It’s also important to wear bug spray as switchback hiking trails are typically surrounded by plants on each side. Otherwise, you can simply wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat to protect yourself from bug bites.

Get Used to Difficult Hikes

The steep inclines that switchback trails typically entail can be difficult for novice hikers. Because of that, you should avoid them if you have limited hiking experience. Slowly build up to switchback trails by hiking routes that feature inclines that slowly ramp up.

This will give you the endurance to manage steep trails without straining your calves, ankles, and feet.

Bring a Trekking Pole

Trekking poles, commonly known as walking sticks, make it much easier to navigate switchback trails while hiking. You can use a trekking pole to help gain a strong footing on the trail. They also help take some of the burden off your feet, ankles, and legs as you make your way up harsh inclines.

Trekking poles are also great when you encounter holes and puddles on the ground to see how deep you go and check for drop-offs.

Pack Essentials

It’s better to bring extra resources while hiking than go in underprepared. Switchback trails require you to exert more energy than you would on flat hiking trails. Because of that, you should bring at least 1 liter for every 2 hours that you expect to hike.

However, it’s much better to bring more than that. Switchback trails can get more congested than standard hiking trails because they are more challenging, so hikers often slow down.

Because of that, you may spend more time hiking than usual, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Make sure to bring snacks and electrolyte packets as well if you plan to hike for several hours.

So, What are Switchbacks in Hiking?

Switchbacks in hiking are trails that cut at extreme angles. This type of trail exists to protect the surrounding vegetation on either side of the trail. Cutting through switchbacks can damage the plants, cause soil erosion, and leave you vulnerable to local animals and bugs like snakes and ticks.

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