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Hiking and Trekking: measurement scales and trail difficulty ratings

Cultivate the hiking passion, but with caution

In recent decades, hiking has become one of the most popular hobbies among nature lovers, thanks to the rise of individualistic and sometimes ‘unusual’ sports and disciplines, such as trekking, triathlon, orienteering and so on. .
Whether it is at a competitive level or not, however, it is necessary to know one’s physical characteristics and relative limits in order to carry out this activity safely and without endangering one’s physical safety.
If you are a hiking enthusiast and want to understand which paths or trails you can tackle, you are in the right place: this article has been designed to provide you with the various measurement scales to evaluate the difficulties of the various paths available on Italian soil, so as to help you understand which ones are suitable for your level of preparation once they are proposed to you or you will evaluate them in choosing your next destination.

What are the measurement and evaluation criteria

Obviously, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to establish an objective evaluation of an experience that can vary from person to person: personal experiences and limits, the level of form of the hiker and, even, can contribute to the excursion. his feelings or psychological reactions.
The Italian Alpine Club has however established, in the most impartial and uniform way possible, a national scale to distinguish the paths and itineraries based on their hiking difficulty.
The parameters used are basically four, namely those that do not accept margin of subjectivity:

  • the difference in height, or the sum of the uphill and downhill slope;
  • the planimetric distance, that is the distance from one point to another on the map ‘as the crow flies’, therefore not taking into account the altimetry (which instead the GPS does, which therefore indicates the distance in actual kilometers);
  • the quality of the signs along the path, i.e. the presence of signs indicating the location, the travel time and the recorded number of the path (also called trail sign), as well as the white-red brushstrokes left on rocks and trees along the path;
  • the type of fund.

We advise you, then, to make personal considerations, strictly related to your physical state and your perception of fatigue and the path.
Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Measuring the average travel time (without stops therefore), how many and how long will the stops that I need will be?
  • What type of fund will I have to deal with?
  • Will the signs present be able to guide me and, above all, will I be able to interpret them?
  • What maximum altitude can I reach?
  • Are there facilities such as shelters, bivouacs and equipped passages along the route? And what about natural resources, are there springs, supplies, snowfields, fords or tunnels on the trail? If present, where are they located?
  • What is the morphology of the environment in which the path takes place?
  • Are there shortcuts or escape routes that guarantee faster or easier returns or accesses to inhabited centers or viable roads?
  • If in the company of others, are we all able to tackle the path ahead of us?

Let us now list which are the degrees of difficulty of hiking outlined by the CAI.

How many and what are the degrees of difficulty for a hiker.

Five degrees of difficulty have been identified for hiking, among which the last two are the most demanding and those that require more specialized equipment: Tourists, Hikers, Expert Hikers, Expert Hikers with Equipment and Ice-Equipped Expert Hikers. The classification can also be done starting from the hiking and mountaineering difficulties, but the latter are really not very relevant in the world of excursions, so we will proceed to focus more on the first type.

First level: Tourist (T)

Level T includes all those itineraries organized on small roads, mule tracks or comfortable paths, and which are also short to travel, clearly visible and which have signs that solve any orientation problem. Even the differences in height are affordable: they do not exceed 500 meters; for this reason, excursions of this type do not require who knows what experience or physical preparation, constituting with good reason an experience suitable for all those who like to try.

Second and third level: Hikers (E) and Expert Hikers (EE)

Level E is divided into paths or even traces of passage on mixed terrain (old pastures, debris or stony ground), usually marked. For this motivation you will need to have a slightly more refined sense of direction, as well as a good knowledge of mountain areas, a good walking training, without counting adequate footwear and equipment.
The difference in height is at this level of difficulty between 500 and 1000 meters.

As far as the EE level is concerned, itineraries of this type are not always marked and therefore require a good ability to move around the various mountainous areas. These are therefore paths or fleeting traces of them that develop on impervious or steep terrain, along steep and slippery slopes, or even passing through scree or snowfields (the latter can be overcome without the use of mountaineering equipment).
To tackle this type of route, you will need a good experience in the mountains, a fairly firm foot and, above all, a good physical strength (since the difference in altitude on average exceeds 1000 meters). Plus, you’ll need good gear and the right gear, not forgetting a good sense of direction.

Since there are also ‘intermediate’ levels, they are indicated by the symbols ‘+’ and ‘-‘ between level E and EE and between level E and T.

Fourth and fifth level: Expert Hikers with Mountaineering Equipment (EEA) and Ice Equipped Expert Hikers (EEAG)

EEA level hikers will need via ferrata equipment (i.e. lanyards, harnesses, heat sinks, helmets and so on) to complete their itineraries, since these paths can be either equipped similar to via ferrata or be real and own via ferratas.
For this reason, you will need to be able to safely use the necessary equipment and be used to the air and terrain typical of mountaineering.

For the EEAG level the characteristics are similar, but these routes require the use of ice equipment, such as crampons, ice ax and rope; in addition, you will need to know the relative safety measures.

A little parenthesis on routes in a snowy environment: Hiking in a snowy environment (EAI)

Another parenthesis can be opened if you think about the weather conditions that make the landscape snow: in this case it is EAI, or hiking in a snowy environment. In this case, the paths are evident and recognizable and have easy access routes, from the valley floor or in non-inaccessible wooded areas, or even on open and unexposed ridges. The differences in height and difficulties are usually contained, thus guaranteeing safety in practicability. You will need to use snowshoes to tackle these routes.
Why have we opened a parenthesis? Because unlike the other levels, this type of path does not constitute a level of difficulty in and of itself, but in it the easy, medium and difficult levels are determined by the increasing level of physical commitment used depending on the length of the path, the type of terrain and height differences.

General conclusions

Now that you know what the difficulty levels are and you know the premises you need to do before embarking on a certain path, you are ready to equip yourself and set out on the road. If you are a novice hiker, we recommend starting from the first level, while if you already have a few other exits behind you, you can try your hand at E or even EE. We do not recommend that you undertake EEA and EEAG unless you are 100% sure.

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