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How to grade a trek?

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What are the criteria used for grading a trek? One article that I came across provided the following set criteria for grading:

  • Duration.
  • Terrain (includes altitude).
  • Exit routes.
  • Weather/Climate.

Is there is an official way of grading, or an agreed set of attributes within the trekking community regarding the same?

EDIT: I have removed the reference to Annapurna trek aiming to keep the discussion generic to trekking and not specific to treks from the himalayan range.

Second Edit: Removed the part where I referred to a trek being classified as easy/difficult. Now the question is more focused on the criteria of grading a trek and nothing more.

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4 answers

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Well established treks like the Annapurna circuit are rated by multiple trekking agencies. I would use those agencies rating as a reference point to differentiate between multiple well-established treks.

For example you can compare the difficulty of different treks in Nepal according to Himalayan Glacier.

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Hiking assocations in Spain use a system called Método de Información De Excursiones (MIDE), or Method of Information on Excursions. Most information is in Spanish, but an English language manual is available here. Each hike receives four grades on a scale 1–5 according to four categories:

  • Environment. Is there a high risk of landslides? Are there many places where falling off the trail may be lethal? Does it reach areas that are far away from rescue? MIDE lists 17 risk factors. A trek with at most one risk factor is rated 1/5, and a trek with 11 or more is rated 5/5.

  • Orientation. Is the trail easy to find, large and sign-posted, or does the hiker need to be proficient with map, compass, GPS in order to find the route? A route that needs no map, such as a major trail following a lakeshore, is 1/5. Dead reckoning full of impassable obstacles is 5/5.

  • Terrain. Is it a large track where one could walk with city shoes, or are there many rocks on the trail, perhaps some minor scrambling is required? City path or road would be 1/5. Seriously difficult scrambling bordering on climbing would be 5/5.

  • Exertion. Basically the length of the trail. Is it steep? Is it long? Less than an hour would be 1/5. Ten hours or more would be 5/5.

The linked guide contains detailed instructions in how to specifically grade a route for each of those. There is also an online application (in Spanish) to calculate MIDE scores.

Although the system is Spanish, it would appear that, perhaps with some adaptations, it should be possible to adapt the system world-wide.

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In my experience, you need to calibrate each guidebook or website to your own experience.

As a case study, I can speak from experience with two guidebooks describing hikes and treks in the same region:

  • På Fjälltur: Abisko Kebnekaise, describes lots of trails in the area around Nikkaluokta and Abisko. They grade trails at a scale of 1–10. I've found routes graded as "7/10 difficult" to be quite easy, routes graded as "4/10 normal" to be very easy, and no route is graded below 3/10. Trails described as steep, I found no problem at all.
  • På tur i Narvik og omegn, parts I and II, describe many trails and hike in the area around Narvik, just across the Swedish-Norwegian border from Abisko. Hikes are graded on a scale from 1 to 4. I've seen hikes described as "child-friendly" that I considered quite scary myself, with lots of boulders, steep slopes where losing balance is fatal, and wild rivers. I've made the mistake of trying a descent described as "steep", it was the most vertiginous descent I've ever done and would not recommend it to anyone loving their life.

I have some experience with these two guidebooks, so I know what I can do. There's no trail mentioned in the Swedish guidebook (På Fjälltur) that I would avoid on a backpacking trip, but for many of the trails from the Norwegian book, I would. Subjectively, on a 1-to-1 mapping, I would map any trails from the Swedish book rated 1–7 to be rated 1 in the Norwegian book, Swedish trails 8–10 rated 2 or 3 in the Norwegian book, with the Swedish book not containing anything rated 4 in the Norwegian one. Some routes are even described in both books.

This is just an example, but for me, it clearly illustrates that there is no universal set of guidelines. It depends very much on the standard and who one keeps in mind. It seems Norwegian kids are born on a a slope and they go mountain hiking in kindergarten on trails where 20-year old men from other countries would be scared. A Dutch hiking book may consider a route "difficult" because it's 20 km (even if all is paved and of course flat). So, no. There is no official grading or agreed upon set of attributes.

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Most of the trekking routes are grading on the basis of:

  1. Altitude from Sea Level
  2. Distance of Campsite or Lodges
  3. Walking speed
  4. Geographical conditions e.g Up and Down
  5. Trekking Trail e.g Dirty, Sandy, Snowy, Rocky
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