Hiking difficulty ratings. Got class? Now you do!

In many of the hiking and climbing articles here on UtahOutside.com, you may read about “Class.” Class is used to describe the level of difficulty encountered on any given trail or mountain. But what does “Class 2, 3, 4 or even 5” hiking really mean? I thought it was time for a breakdown, as many novice hikers and scramblers may not be 100% sure of the rating system. Read on, and find out just how easy or hard these Classes really are.

Neffs Canyon near Salt Lake City, an easy Class 1 hike. Photo: Ryan Malavolta.

Class 1:┬áThis is the easiest hike you can take. Class 1 means you are on a well established trail the entire time. No route finding skills are needed, and the trail is usually well signed so it’s damn near impossible to get lost. The only real danger on this level of hike is tripping over your own feet, and well, you’re on your own there. Most of the time you will find Class 1 hikes in the front-country, where there are less rocks and the hills are not as steep. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity: Class 1 hikes can be just as beautiful and rewarding as making it to the top of a major summit (well, maybe).

The trail to the top of Deseret Peak, an example of a Class 2 hike. Photo: Ryan Malavola.

Class 2: Stepping up in the world. Class 2 is defined as hiking that could require some route finding skills and may take you over boulder fields or loose rock slopes (loose rocks are also referred to as “scree”). There is a chance you will need to use your hands for balance. Also, the hiker could face some minimal exposure. Exposure means you are on a steep slope with little or no protection from a fall. But not to worry, Class 2 exposure is minimal, and a fall here might result in only severe injuries, rather than buying the farm. Many summit hikes in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains are Class 2, and access an amazing variety of terrain along the way.

The summit of Mount Nebo, where Class 3 scrambling is required. Photo: Ryan Malavolta.

Class 3: You’ve polished your skills and are seeking thrills. Class 3 hiking can get you to some great places here in Utah. The trail will be steep and almost certainly require route finding skills. At this point, you better have a map and compass in your pack, and know how to use them. Expect to cross any number of scree or boulder fields along the way. The big step up for Class 3 hiking is the use of your hands. Yes, you will actually have to scramble up the mountains using hand and foot holds. However, Class 3 hiking and scrambling does not require ropes. It does mean there will be heavy exposure in places. Falling on a Class 3 hike means potentially serious injury or possibly going to see the Spirit in the Sky. Fear not; the summits and secret places you can discover on Class 3 hikes will make the increased risk worth it. A majority of the classic hikes in the Wasatch Mountains rate as Class 3.

All routes on the Grand Teton are Class 5, however some pitches are only Class 4. Photo: Jared Hargrave

Class 4: Time to mix some risk into the equation. Class 4 hikes are on steep terrain and generally require roped belays for safety. A belay is a system used by mountaineers to protect one another from serious falls. Yes, a Class 4 fall would be serious; you’ve got a very good chance of becoming a “recovery” operation for Search and Rescue teams if you take a tumble on one of these treks. This level of hiking is actually closer to mountaineering/rock climbing. Obviously you need a partner for Class 4 hiking, and you should both possess a significant level of skill.

Lone Peak in the Wasatch Mountains. Several Class 5 rock climbs access the top. Photo: Adam Symonds.

Class 5: Okay, let’s be honest here; Class 5 hiking IS mountaineering/rock climbing. The closest most hikers get to Class 5 action is staring at the rock wall in the local retail outfitter. Once you get to this level of skill, there is a new system of ratings: The Yosemite Decimal System. The YDS is broken down into numbers ranging from 5.0 to 5.13 which denote the difficulty of each climb. An unroped fall on any Class 5 climb will result in serious injuries or death. Other contributors on Utah Outside (the founder, as well) are far more qualified to describe this class, so I’ll end it here before I get out of my depth.

So now that you know what it all means, how do you apply it? Are you ready for a Class 3 scramble on an exposed ridge? Only you can be the judge. Remember that any trail rating refers to the most difficult part of the hike. I rated Storm Mountain as a Class 3 scramble, but well over half the hike was on easy Class 2 trails. There are numerous outstanding hikes in Utah that fall into Class 3, so as long as your fear of heights isn’t overwhelming you can get yourself to some pretty amazing places. Stay within your limits and keep building up to the next challenge.

5 comments for “Hiking difficulty ratings. Got class? Now you do!

  1. November 3, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Looks like you took some awesome hiking trails to get these pics. Am I going crazy or is class 2 harder than class 3 in this list??

  2. brettmaz
    August 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

    If a trail ascends 700 feet over the course of 1 mile, what degree angle would this be and what is the difficulty rating?

  3. October 22, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Not sure about the math on that one, in simple terms I would call that a “steep hike.” Any time you are gaining close to 1,000′ per mile it’s certainly a tough hike, but I am not sure how to calculate the exact angles. As for the Class rating, a hike or climb is rated according to it’s toughest part. Even if 3 miles are through gentle trails with the last mile going over tough rock that requires scrambling, the hike would rate as a Class 3. Hope that helps!

  4. February 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Sin(theda) = opp/hyp
    if you gained 700 ft in a mile. you would be looking at a Sin^-1(700/5820)=6.9 degrees.
    Its simple geometry.and that would be close to a class 1 hiking trail. not very tough Ryan M.

  5. Ryan M.
    February 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    I think you may have missed the point of my response, and possibly the article. Thanks for the math, though, much appreciated!

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