What Are Switchbacks in Hiking?

Do You Know About Switchbacks?

Have you read a description of a hike and come across the term switchbacks? Did you decide to stop reading right there and choose another hike? If you are new to hiking, some of the terms can be confusing. Switchback is one of those words.

When I was new to hiking in the mountains, I kept coming across this term. I did not know what it meant, but I decided to go on the hikes anyway. However, I never came across a sign marked switchbacks.

One day, I was hiking with a friend and as we were headed up the steep mountain she said, “these switchbacks are killing me”! I asked her what that meant, and from that moment on I had a new word in my hiking vocabulary.

Now that I know what switchbacks in hiking are, I want to share this information with you! In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know about switchbacks!

What Are Switchbacks?

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, a switchback is “ a zigzag road, trail, or section of railroad tracks for climbing a steep hill”.

As you can see, the word switchback can be used to refer to a road and railroad tracks as well as hiking. However, switchbacks in hiking refer to the steep parts of the trail where charging directly up the incline would be too difficult.

For a visual, check out the above video!

Why Should You Care?

So, why should you care what switchbacks are? The primary reason is that hiking this portion of the trail can be quite difficult. I have seen switchbacks last anywhere from .01 miles to 3 miles. There are differences in incline percentage as well.

I always read a description of the trail beforehand to get an idea of how difficult the trail may be. The trail may only be 3 miles to the top, but 2 out of the 3 may be switchbacks. This leads me to the next topic.

Getting in Shape

To tackle the most difficult inclines, you will want to get in shape beforehand. I once had to turn back on a short backpacking trip, because I could not make it up the switchbacks.

Learn from my embarrassing mistake, and plan to get in shape accordingly.

Cutting Switchbacks

Have you ever been on a set of switchbacks, and seen a sign that says “keep off: restoration area”? That sign is up to stop people from cutting switchbacks. You may also have seen a worn trail up the middle of switchbacks.

Yes, it is true the fastest way from one place to another is a straight line. However, you must respect the environment and stay on the pre-made trail. Also, make sure your children do not cut them either!

5 Steps to Conquer Even the Most Difficult Switchbacks:


No matter what kind of climate you are in, to keep up your energy you must properly hydrate! This goes double in the desert.

If you are going be backpacking where there are switchbacks, you will want to plan for more water than usual. Especially in the summertime.

Keep a Steady, Comfortable Pace

I know I am guilty of trying to get to the end of the trail in a record pace. If you are like me and favor the destination more than the journey, you should stop!

I know it is easier said than done. However, I know from experience that enjoying the adventure will help you keep a steady, comfortable pace.

Do Not Sit on Your Breaks

If you want to make it up switchbacks, you are going to want to take frequent breaks. However, the last thing you want to do on your break is sit down.

I know it seems counterintuitive, but you do not want to rest too much.

When you sit down in the middle of a hike it increases the chance your heart rate will go back to normal. When you rest, you should only do so long enough to catch your breath.

Shorten Your Hiking Poles

If you hike with poles, be sure to shorten them enough to account for the incline. If you are hiking with sticks or non-adjustable poles, you can hold them further down for an easier experience.

Positive Attitude

Having and keeping a positive mindset may be the most important of these 5 steps. Whenever you have or feel a negative thought, replace it with a positive thought.

Check out these basics on How to hike switchbacks.


Now you know what switchbacks are, and what it takes to hike them! I have also given you all of the guidance you need in order to talk about switchbacks confidently.

What do you think? I want to hear from you! Have you ever been on a hike with a ton of switchbacks? How did you conquer them? Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comment section below.

If you found my article helpful, please like and share!

Jason Miller

Jason Miller

Hi there, my name is Jason and I am the creator and editor of this site. My activities include hiking, skiing, mountain biking, camping, and backpacking. I'm also a keen nature photographer. I like to get outdoors and then write about it. I created this site to help people find the right gear so they enjoy their outdoor pursuits that much more.