Trail Difficulty Rating System

The IMBA Trail Difficulty Rating System is a basic method used to categorize the relative technical difficulty of recreation trails. The IMBA Trail Difficulty Rating System can:

  • Help trail users make informed decisions
  • Encourage visitors to use trails that match their skill level
  • Manage risk and minimize injuries
  • Improve the outdoor experience for a wide variety of visitors
  • Aid in the planning of trails and trail systems

This system was adapted from the International Trail Marking System used at ski areas throughout the world. Many trail networks use this type of system, most notably resort-based mountain biking trail networks. The system best applies to mountain bikers, but is also applicable to other visitors such as hikers and equestrians. These criteria should be combined with personal judgment and trail-user input to reach the final rating.

Trail Rating Guidelines

1. Rate Technical Challenge Only.
The system focuses on rating the technical challenge of trails, not the physical exertion. It is not practical to rate both types of difficulty with one system. Consider, for example, a smooth, wide trail that is 20 miles long. The technical challenge of this trail is easy, yet the distance would make the physical exertion difficult. The solution is to independently rate technical challenge, and indicate physical exertion by posting trail length, and possibly even elevation change.

2. Collect Trail Measurements.
Use the accompanying table and collect trail measurements for each criteria. There is no prescribed method for tallying a “score” for each trail. Evaluate the trail against the table and combine with judgment to reach the final rating. It is unlikely that any particular trail will measure at the same difficulty level for every criteria. For example, a certain trail may rate as a green circle in three criteria, but a blue square in two different criteria.

3. Include Difficulty and Trail Length on Signs and Maps.
Trail length is not a criterion of the system. Instead, trail length should be posted on signs in addition to the difficulty symbol. A sign displaying both length and difficulty provides lots of information, yet it is simple to create and easy to understand.

Likewise, elevation change is not a criterion. The amount of climbing on a trail is more an indicator of physical exertion than technical difficulty. Mountainous regions may consider including the amount of climbing on trail signs.

4. Evaluate Difficulty Relative to Local Trails.
Trails should be rated relative to other trails in the region. Don’t evaluate each trail in isolation. Consider all the trails in a region and how they compare to one another. This will help you rank the relative difficulty of each trail and will help trail users select an appropriate route. Trails will rate differently from region to region. A black diamond trail in one region may rate as a blue square in another region, but the ratings should be consistent locally.

5. Use Good Judgment.
Rating a trail is not 100 percent objective. Its best to combine tangible data with subjective judgment to reach the final rating. For example, a trail may have a wide range of tread surfaces – most of the trail is easy, but some sections are more difficult. How would you rate it? Use your personal experience to consider all elements and select a rating that best matches the style of trail.

6. Consider Other Trail Qualities.

Don’t forget to consider trail qualities beyond the objective criteria. A wide variety of features could contribute to a trail’s difficulty. For example, exposure – the feeling of empty space next to and below the trail tread – provides an added psychological challenge beyond the steepness or roughness of the trail. A 3-inch rock seems like a boulder when a 50-foot drop looms on your side! Other qualities to think about are corridor clearance and turn radius.

7. Use Common Sense and Seek Input.
No rating system can be totally objective or valid for every situation. This system is a tool to be combined with common sense. Look at trails with a discerning eye, and seek input from trail users before selecting the rating. Remember, a diverse trail network with a variety of trail styles is a great way to ensure happy visitors. Provide both easy and difficult trails to spread visitors and meet a range of needs. By indicating the length and difficulty of trails with a clear signage system, visitors will be able to locate their preferred type of trail easily.

Criteria to Consider

Tread Width
The average width of the active tread or beaten path of the trail.

Tread Surface
The material and stability of the tread surface is a determining factor in the difficulty of travel on the trail. Some descriptive terms include: hardened (paved or surfaced), firm, stable, variable, widely variable, loose and unpredictable.

Trail Grade (maximum and average)
Maximum grade is defined as the steepest section of trail that is more than approximately 10 feet in length and is measured in percent with a clinometer. Average grade is the steepness of the trail over its entire length. Average grade can be calculated by taking the total elevation gain of the trail, divided by the total distance, multiplied by 100 to equal a percent grade.

Natural Obstacles and Technical Trail Features
Objects that add challenge by impeding travel. Examples include: rocks, roots, logs, holes, ledges, drop-offs, etc. The height of each obstacle is measured from the tread surface to the top of the obstacle. If the obstacle is uneven in height, measure to the point over which it is most easily ridden.

Technical Trail Features are objects that have been introduced to the trail to add technical challenge. Examples include: rocks, logs, elevated bridges, teeter-totters, jumps, drop-offs, etc. Both the height and the width of the technical trail feature are measured.

The suggestions offered in this and other IMBA trailbuilding articles do not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Trailbuilders and landowners are responsible for the safety of their own trails and facilities. Freeriding and dirt jumping are high-risk activities that can result in serious injuries. IMBA’s goal is to help land managers and volunteers manage these risks by sharing information.