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What is a switchback in hiking? And why can't you cut them?

A woman hiking in Thailand
What is a switchback in hiking? We explain why the long and winding road is better for you and your environment (Image credit: Boy_Anupong)

What is a switchback in hiking? When looking for a new hiking trail using your favorite route finding app, you’ve probably come across references to switchbacks, usually in the context of a steep or daunting-sounding section and wondered what exactly it means. Are switchbacks something to be feared or eagerly anticipated? We explain what a switchback is here, how they’re better than hiking in a straight line, and why you should never cut switchbacks. 

What is a switchback on a trail? 

The South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon

The North American usage of the term switchback means a 180 degree bend in a road or path (Image credit: photo75)

The North American usage of the term switchback means a 180-degree bend in a road or path, and in hiking it refers to the zigzag-like route a hiking trail often takes. Ancient humans recognized that the best way up a steep slope is to wind up it, as evidenced in trails like the Inca Trail. 

When hiking trails are being constructed today, switchbacks are often planned for areas where the grade of the hill is quite steep. Instead of going straight up the steep section, you turn and cut along the side of the mountain for a while, then turn back in the opposite direction, ascending more gradually and reducing the intensity of the climb. 

If you’re looking at a hiking trail on a map and see lots of switchbacks, it tells you that this particular section is probably quite steep, so you might plan to stop for a break beforehand and drink some water in preparation.

Are switchbacks hard? 

Switchbacks on a trail in Bryce Canyon National Park

Switchbacks are designed to make climbing less intense, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy. (Image credit: Gerald Heinisch)

Good question. As we’ve just explained, switchbacks are designed to make climbing less intense, but that doesn’t necessarily make them easy. In terms of climbing, they’ll be easier than charging straight up the hill, and same goes for the descent, but you’re still hiking a steep piece of slope. Plus, they add more distance to your route, so you’ll be walking for longer. Some hikes, like Colorado’s Notch Mountain, seem like they are unnecessarily long because they have so many switchbacks, whereas one of the toughest sections of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire could probably do with a few more switchbacks. 

Can you cut switchbacks? 

Hiking shoes

If you cut switchbacks, you end up trampling on vegetation and disrupting the ecology beneath your feet (Image credit: Westend61)

You’ve probably seen signs on the trail that request you do not cut switchbacks and even if you feel like you’re fit enough to just go straight up and save yourself some time, you should always obey this rule and follow good etiquette. The beauty of established hiking trails is that they limit the damage caused by your hiking boots to a smaller area than if every hiker just picked their own way up the hill. If you cut switchbacks, you end up trampling on vegetation and disrupting the ecology beneath your feet. Over time, this leads to soil erosion too. 

Oftentimes, these signs have been placed in areas where conservation efforts are actively in place to restore ecosystems. If hikers habitually cut switchbacks, the trail may eventually be rerouted or even closed to restore an area. So, if you want to keep enjoying the outdoors, please take the long and winding road.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.