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Progressive access for the beginning hiker

From a baseline of short, easy hikes, progressive access helps planners to slowly and systematically increase the length and difficulty of hikes

March 20, 2020


Whenever we are considering increasing the effort required for a hike, we aim for a comfortable challenge.  In other words, we want to increase the effort meaningfully, but not so much as to make our hiker uncomfortable.  Each hiker (like each one of us) is different...when faced with a challenge, some rise enthusiastically, and others unwillingly.  In this step, we discuss how to account for the factors that beginner hikers are likely to encounter.  In a later step, we discuss how to account for factors that more adventurous hikers are likely to encounter.

Build capacity a half mile segment at a time

Calculate the Effort required

Steps for the Beginner Hiker

1. Increasing the baseline effort

Consider the length of flat, hardened trail completed in the previous step as your baseline.We calculate initial effort from the baseline described earlier: was our hiker able to comfortably complete  a half mile (one point)? A mile (two points)?  A mile and a half (two points)? Plan to increase the expected effort  from an established baseline one point at a time.  For hikers who struggle to reach a half-mile, you might consider consider aiming to increase length 1/4 mile at a time until you get up to completing one mile in less than 60 minutes.

When have you set a new baseline effort?

When have reached a new milestone, replicate that hike at least 3-5 times over 2 trails, before you consider that your new baseline effortSo you successfully increased your hike from a half mile to a mile... does that mean you can move quickly to one and one-half miles?  No!!  It is always possible that your hiker had alot of energy that particular day, or was in a great mood that particular day. Or maybe there is something about that particular trail that they really like and that is not otherwise captured in the variables outlined below.  So to be sure that you have established a new baseline to build from, you have to repeat that experience at least 3 to 5 times in succession, over at least two different trails.

2. Increase the running slope

Average Running Slope

Maximum Running Slope for a Section

Finally, we recognize that some sections many not fall cleanly within these categories, and so we allow for the possibility of a half point. Consider 2 different half-mile segments with an overall slope of less than 1:20: one with 2 100' sections with a slope greater than 1:10 would be rated as 1, while one with 3 100' sections with a slope greater than 1:10 would be rated as a 1.5.

Effort Adjustment for each change in running slope, calculated for each 1/2 mile segment

Adjust the estimated effort by the running slope factor for each half-mile section of hikeAn advantage of this system is that GPX data available for sites like Alltrails (or collected easily from hikers), can quickly be used to identify half-mile segments that require a significant increase in effort because of the average and/or maximum slope.  Hikers might consider establishing a baseline on an easy paved  hike of at least a mile in length before moving on to a trail segment with an increased slope.  For example, a hiker who has can comfortably complete a easy easy segment a mile in length may next move on to a more difficult (i.e., 1:12 slope) hike a half mile in length,.

3. Try hiking on a trail with an even natural surface

4. Experiment with hiking in less than ideal weather

A sample program

Here is an example of how a hiker with a baseline of 1 (i.e., who can comfortably complete an easy, hardened trail segment a half-mile long) might progress through increasingly effortful hikes until they are ready for the next phase: more adventurous hikes that rate 6 or higher. Unless otherwise indicated, the hike is presumed to occur on a hardened trail

Effort     Options


1                  Easy 0.5 mile segment

2                  Easy 1 mile segment

3                   Easy 1.5 mile segment


Easy to more difficult 0.5 mile segment combined with an easy 0.5 mile segment

4                   Easy 2 mile segment


                      Easy to more difficult 1 mile segment


                     Easy 1 mile natural trail through a meadow


                     Easy 1.5 mile segment when the weather is not great

5                   Easy 2.5 mile segment


                      Easy to more difficult 1 mile combined with an easy 0.5 mile segment

                     And on and on and on!!!