If you’ve just started hiking and thought the only new thing you’d have to learn was how to lace your boot, you’d be very wrong. Entry to the world of hiking also requires you to learn a whole new range of words and phrases.
For instance, if a walking buddy asks for you to pass the Gorp – they aren’t having a stroke. They’re talking about Trail Mix, or Granola, Oats, Raisins and Peanuts – Gorp for short.
See, it’s a whole new world! Fortunately, some words are easier to understand than others and “switchback” is one of them. So what are switchbacks when hiking, we hear you cry! Read on and we’ll tell you everything you will ever need to know about them.
What is a Switchback Trail?
Unlike some hiking lingo, a switchback is one of those words that describe exactly what it is. Simply put, a switchback trail is a route that will repeatedly switch back on itself to prevent you from walking straight up the side of a mountain.
The concept is easy. Mountains are steep. If you attack one head-on you won’t be walking for long. You’ll either be climbing or crawling – or just sitting there, weeping. So, to turn a strenuous climb back into a doable hike, the magical path pixies who make the trails (also known as Trail Planners) build them as a series of tight zig-zagging turns. Each switchback – or hairpin if you’re of the British persuasion – corkscrews you further toward the top.
By reducing the angle of ascent, switchback trails make the impossible possible. They also make for great photo opportunities.
The same system is used in road planning and railway engineering. Anywhere there’s a mountain that needs to be crossed and it’s not possible to blow a tunnel through it, switchbacks will be used.
Why it’s Smart to Understand Mountain Switchbacks
One thing that will catch many a novice hiker out is underestimating how much energy mountain switchbacks require. If your buddy tells you a hike is only five miles long you might not think anything of it. But if that same hike is five miles of intense switchbacks, it’s a whole different kettle of leg pain.
In any case, if you’re intent on getting out there into the wilds it’s good to know how to wrap your head around a topo map. (Topo being another bit of hiker lingo, short for topographical.) A quick rule of thumb, the closer together the little lines are on a map, the steeper something will be.
Avoid Shortcuts and Leave No Trace
Hiking switchbacks are great as they open up mountains to individuals who otherwise would never be able to climb them. They democratise the tops of hills for all. If you’ve got legs even the slowest can make it up a switchback. Keep going, one foot in front of the other. That’s all it takes.
For those among you who are a little bit fitter – have a bit more thunder in your thighs – there may be a tendency to make your own shortcuts by cutting the corners of the hairpins. Please don’t.
In a lot of situations, taking shortcuts is poor trail etiquette (more on that below). Over time, if enough people make the same shortcut then so-called “Desire Lines” will develop. These will encourage even more to take the same shortcut.
Why is this bad?! Well, for many reasons. They put at risk any delicate bits of flora, or heaven forbid, fauna that happen to be underfoot. They damage the integrity of the trail and can lead to increased erosion. When it rains, water will follow the path of least resistance; if it’s following a zig-zag trail it will flow slowly. If there are shortcuts present, the water will run at speed. This will create gullies, causing all manner of future issues.
So, please, follow the principle of leaving no trace and stay on the designated trail. Trust in the wisdom of the path pixies.
Other Bits of Switchback Etiquette
When followed, these nuggets will make life on the switchback, or any trail, nicer for all.
1. Yield to uphill hikers – those going upward have the harder job so if the trail is tight be nice and wait as they go past.
2. Let single hikers past – if you’re in a group always make you’re not creating a human roadblock, let smaller groups and single hikers past.
3. Don’t rest on the trail – you might be tired but don’t be a nuisance. Never sit in the middle of the path, pull your tired carcass to the side and find a spot out of the way.
4. Smile and say hello – hiking in nature is a joy and privilege. Don’t be a General Grumpface, smile and say hello. It’s not that hard.
Some Notable Switchbacks
It’s one of the most photographed trails in the world: Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas, famous – or infamous – for its 99 switchbacks.
For drivers, many Europeans might recognize photos of the Transfăgărășean Pass in Romanian. It’s often described as “the most beautiful road in the world.” Built in the 1970s on the orders of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, this road through the Carpathian Mountains cost the lives of 40 soldiers to complete. So it had better be beautiful.
Do a quick search online for switchbacks roads. Go on, we’ll wait. We guarantee you will lose a few hours of your life staring at these wonders of human engineering.
Final Thoughts: Ode to the Switchback
So, what are switchbacks while hiking? In brief, a simple and elegant solution to the problem of getting up something steep.
The world is full of these gems of engineering. Even if you didn’t know their name before you’ve likely encountered them on foot, in a car on a train. Now you know what they’re called, you can better appreciate them.
What’s more, now you’re properly acquainted, you’ve got even more reason to head out and climb some switchbacks. We love them, even if they do mean burning thighs and achy knees for days after.