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.