Recently I came across the term – switchback. Since knowing what is a switchback might be handy for assessing the hike, I want to share with you what I found out and how does this term applies in relation to hiking.

Meaning of switchbacks in hiking

Term “switchback” can be applied to describe roads and parts of railroads, as well as hiking. If you have ever hiked a mountain trail it is likely that you have already seen or even walked upon a switchback.

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

When we are speaking about hiking trails, the word “switchback” simply refers to a part of the trail that cuts sharply from one direction to the other. So instead of climbing a very steep hill, you would be taking a longer but much easier route.

switchback road

What is the purpose of switchbacks?

Like mentioned before, a switchback makes your ascent much easier. By reducing the elevation grade, it makes the climb more manageable. However, a trail with switchbacks will be longer so, in fact, you would face a more time-consuming hike.

Now, you might be thinking that you prefer a more challenging hike over a lengthy one. However, there are other reasons for using switchbacks that you might want to know. Assuming that you are a responsible hiker, let’s see all the reasons for using switchbacks on trails.

We already established one of the reasons why switchback trails are built. In short, they are meant to make a hike much more manageable by reducing the elevation grade you would have to otherwise encounter. But there is another important reason behind the frequent use of switchbacks.

Switchbacks serve as natural protection against excessive erosion of the hills or the trail itself. It is not uncommon for the running water from the hills to damage the trail and vegetation around it. Therefore, it is a common practice to build rolling grade dips to get the water off an existing trail. By keeping the trail at a consistent gradient with the use of switchbacks, erosion control with this technique becomes much easier.

Knowing this, you should now understand why short-cutting switchbacks is a bad trail etiquette. Short-cutting will kill vegetation and loosen the soil around the trail. This, in time, could create a new trail that would expand and get hollowed out from erosion.

trail warning

Why you shouldn’t underestimate switchbacks?

Now that you know what is a switchback and what is the purpose of switchbacks in hiking, you should also know that the switchback part of the trail can be extremely challenging. Steep and long switchbacks should never be underestimated. The last thing you would want is to turn back before reaching the end destination of the hike simply because you ran out of the necessary endurance.

To avoid such failure, it is a great idea to prepare before your hike. Remember – the smart thing to do is to read a proper description of the trail you are about to take. This will allow you to prepare according to the challenges the trail might present.

Some of the switchbacks can be several miles long with an incline steep enough for you to work your socks off. So be careful and always assess your physical abilities before heading out to conquer your next trail.

How to prepare for a difficult hike with switchbacks?

If you are about to take a long and challenging hike such as switchback hiking, it is always a good idea to prepare your body for the challenge. This is just as important for first-timers as it is for experienced adventurers.

Getting in a good shape before your hike can reap you many great rewards. First of all, being physically unfit for the challenge ahead will make your hiking experience less enjoyable. Therefore, you should train your lower body for long and steep slopes.

By getting used to such a physical challenge, your body will be able to endure difficult climbs with more ease. From experience, I can say that you should start your physical preparations at least a month before the hike.

Here is a quick overview of how to train for hiking:

  • Strengthen major muscles that help when hiking. Building muscles such as leg and core muscles will help by supporting the load of your backpack and help you to hike longer and with more ease.
  • Increase endurance. Increasing endurance in those same muscle groups, as well as upper and lower back, will help you to handle longer hikes.
  • Work on your balance. A more stable base will allow you to reduce the risk of injuring yourself on the trail.
  • Improve your cardio. Trail running, climbing, and other aerobic exercises will make your hiking more tolerable and improve your overall health.

Exercises to prepare for hiking

The easiest and most accessible way to start is to simply use the stairs every day. This way, you will train your knees and legs to endure more. Once your body gets accustomed to this challenge, you can step up your game by climbing the stairs two steps at a time.

When choosing your exercises, remember to aim for the ones that target your leg muscles. Some of the best exercises to prepare for hiking are squats and lunges. 

By building your leg muscles you will also protect your knees and ankles from injuries. This is especially important for those who haven’t been active for a while. Having such injury on the trail is the worst nightmare for most hikers.

Moreover, you should think about improving your endurance and stamina. Long hikes with switchbacks usually wear people out rather quickly. So doing a cardio exercise is a must for more serious preparations.

It is also a good idea to build the range of motion of your muscles. By exercising with a resistance band, you can strengthen your muscles through their full extension. Lastly, to further reduce the risk of an injury, you shouldn’t forget to stretch your muscles.

Apart from the physical preparations, you will need to gear up. Choosing the right gear such as hiking shoes, trekking pole, a durable backpack, and comfortable clothing will be beneficial. Having the right hiking gear has often saved me and my fellow travelers from unforeseen accidents.


It is often said that the best view comes after the hardest climb. Now that you know what is a switchback, the purpose behind this trail enhancement, and how to prepare for hard trails with switchbacks, you will be able to apply this knowledge to get to those best views with less effort.

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Veronika Prilucka

Hi there, my name is Veronika and I am the creator and editor of this site. My hobbies include hiking, skiing, camping, backpacking, and challenging myself. With this blog, I'm sharing my knowledge to encourage other people to get outdoors more often.