What is a Switchback in Hiking? And How to Master Them

If you’re new to outdoor adventuring, you might come across a lot of new vocabulary, and you may be wondering, what is a switchback in hiking?

In short, a switchback in hiking is a zigzag trail pattern that ascends or descends a hill or mountain slope, helping to reduce the steepness of the climb and prevent soil erosion.

In this article, we’ll talk all about switchbacks: what they are, why we use them, and how to train for climbing them!

So, What is a Switchback in Hiking?

Well, in hiking terms, a switchback refers to a trail that sharply zigzags from one direction to the other while ascending a steep hill or mountainside. Instead of tackling a direct ascent from the base to the top, this type of trail allows hikers to walk on more gradual slopes, making the ascent more manageable.

Switchbacks aren’t only used on hiking trails; they’re also used on biking trails and roads.  With roads in particular, you might also hear the term ‘hairpin turn’. 

Switchbacks make the road or trail more accessible to cars, horses, and bikers – for example, bikers can ride up the switchbacks on the mountain biking trail in areas where they would never be able to ride directly up the steep incline of the mountain side.

what is a switchback in hiking?  Overhead photo of a zigzagging switchback section of trail
A switchback is a series of sharp turns or ‘zigzags’ to reduce the incline of the hiking trail

What Is The Purpose Of Switchback Trails?

The main purpose of switchbacks is to reduce the incline of trails, prevent hikers from sliding, and help reduce erosion. 

Because the incline of a switchback is less steep than ascending straight up the mountain, switchbacks help prevent hikers from slipping and sliding.  For bikers or horses, switchbacks often allow people to ascend a trail they wouldn’t otherwise be able to without the more gradual incline. 

Donkey train in the Grand Canyon
Donkey train in the Grand Canyon. Switchbacks make navigating these trails easier for hikers, bikers, and pack animals.

Switchbacks also help reduce erosion and the destruction of plant life,which is why it’s important to stay on the trail!  When hikers are scrambling up a steep dirt surface, there will be lots of sliding happening.  This slipping creates loose dirt and causes a loss of topsoil.  Switchbacks play an important role in preserving the mountainside. 

And finally, switchbacks make for easier descents.  For hikers, this means less pressure on joints like knees and hips. 

Are There Downsides To Switchbacks In Hiking?

The biggest downside to switchbacks is that they increase the total mileage of your hike and can make your hike feel longer and more tedious.

Although this isn’t usually a problem for hikers, the sharp turns of switchbacks can be difficult to navigate for bikers or those on horseback. 

Why Can’t You Cut Switchbacks?

First of all, what does it mean to ‘cut a switchback?’ To “cut a switchback” means to take a shortcut by bypassing the designated zigzag trail.  Basically, instead of following the longer zigzag, you cut straight upwards through the mountainside to reach where the zigzag trail comes back around.  

While switchbacks can be a lifesaver on your joints and make ascending a steep trail easier, many people find them tedious as they increase the total mileage of your hike.

Cutting switchbacks damages the mountainside because you are usually ‘bushwhacking’ through the plants and are not on the designated trail.  This kills plants and flowers and pulls up the fragile topsoil.  

overhead view of a zigzagging trail in the grand canyon
Cutting these switchbacks would mean ‘shortcutting’ through the plants to reach the next zigzag section

Also, cutting switchbacks can also be unsafe, especially if the mountainside is steep and rocky.  Hikers are always more likely to have accidents and get into trouble when they veer off the trail. 

Many national and state parks actually charge hefty fines for hikers caught cutting switchbacks or straying from the trail for other reasons.  

I remember one instance on a long day hike in Utah with a group of family members, and some younger cousins decided to cut up the mountainside instead of following the longer and less steep switchback trail.  

An off-duty park ranger saw them doing this, and our entire group got a very stern talking-to.  He said that if he would have been on-duty, the entire group would have received a large fine.  

So just stay on the trail!  

7 Tips For Hiking Switchbacks 

Switchbacks can feel long, hard, and tedious.  Our top tips for conquering a switchback-heavy trail are to follow a consistent training routine, eat consistently, and use trekking poles.

Train Consistently and Build Your Cardio Endurance

Hiking, especially on steeper inclines, is a fantastic cardiovascular exercise and works almost all major muscle groups.  Because of this, it’s important to build up your cardio endurance as well as strengthen your hiking muscles.  

For cardio training, running, biking, rowing, and doing the stairmaster are some of our favorite options.  These more difficult activities will get your heart pounding and really prepare you for those switchback-filled trails.

For strength training, we’ve listed our favorite exercises that really target the muscles used in ascending steep trails. 

Best Lower Body Exercises for Switchback Training

  • Lunges: Step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • Deadlifts: Stand with feet hip-width apart, then bend at the hips and knees to lower the weights.
  • Step-ups: Step onto a raised platform with one foot, then step back down.
  • Glute bridges: Lie on your back, bend your knees, and lift your hips off the ground.
  • Calf raises: Stand with feet hip-width apart, then rise onto the balls of your feet and lower back down
  • Bulgarian split squats: Stand a few feet in front of a bench, place one foot behind you on the bench, then lower your body down.
side view of a woman doing lunges
Lunges are a great way to strengthen your quads and glutes for steep switchback trails.
side view of a woman doing calf raises
Calf raises are another way to strengthen the lower leg muscles you’ll use when climbing switchbacks.

Best Upper Body Exercises for Switchback Training

  1. Tricep Dips: Sit on the edge of a bench or chair, place your hands next to your hips, and lift your body off the seat, then lower your body by bending your elbows.
  2. Tricep Kickbacks: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, lean forward, and extend your arms behind you, then bend your elbows to bring the weights back towards your body.

Hiking, just like any other sport, requires consistent training in order to improve how many miles you can hike in a day and the intensity of the inclines you can tackle. 

Use Appropriate Gear

While one of the biggest reasons I love hiking is that it doesn’t require a lot of expensive gear to get started, there are a few essentials you’ll want to have, especially if you’re planning on tackling a long, steep trail.

Good hiking shoes are a must.  Especially if you’ve ever had issues with Achilles tendinopathy or plantar fasciitis, as I have, a great pair of boots can break your experience on the trail.  Good boots will support your arch and ankle and will help prevent you from slipping on loose dirt. 

For me, the other must-have for steep slopes is a good pair of trekking poles.  I have a pair of Glymnis collapsible poles that I absolutely love.  On flat sections of trail or any rock scrambling sections where I want to have my hands free, I can simply fold them up and put them in my backpack.  

close-up view of a set of collapsible trekking poles
This is my favorite set of collapsible trekking poles; great for powering up steep switchback trails.

Trekking poles not only help prevent slipping, but they also take pressure off your knees and hips.  If you really have problems with knee pain, I also recommend using a good hiking knee brace.  

Correct Foot Placement

Because switchbacks often wind up steep mountainsides, it’s important to watch your step and use good foot placement, especially at the turn points. The hairpin turns are one place where it’s easy to lose your footing, so be careful! 

We always recommend watching where you step and pushing squarely off the ball of your foot, especially on these sharp turns. 

Drive Through Your Arms

The best way to power through a tough section of switchbacks is to really focus on pushing through your arms (this is why training your triceps is important for hikers!).  

Using your trekking poles to drive through your arms will take pressure off of your (often fatigued) lower body muscles, so you can keep clocking the miles. 

Proper Nutrition

Eating well before, during, and after a hard hike is a must. In addition to my favorite healthy hiking snacks, I always carry electrolyte packets to mix with my water. For hard or hot hikes, this will help prevent salt loss. 

close-up view of an apple and two cheese sticks on a napkin
It’s important to bring healthy hiking snacks with a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and salts

Take Frequent Breaks

While taking frequent breaks feels intuitive on easy social hikes, many hikers are tempted to keep pushing hard on a tough trail.  A long stretch of switchbacks can feel completely overwhelming if you’re bent on pushing yourself for hours with no rest stops.

So take plenty of breaks!  This is a great excuse to snap some pictures and just enjoy being in nature. 

Famous Switchback Trails

Some of the most famous trails with switchbacks in the US include the Walter’s Wiggles portion of the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park and the Mist Trail up to Half Dome in Yosemite.

The Grand Canyon is a hub for switchback-heavy trails, including the South Kaibab Trail, Bright Angel Trail, and North Kaibab Trail. 

view of the North Kaibab canyon; switchbacks can be seen in the distance
The ascent up the North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon is full of switchbacks.

I’ve completed all of these trails, as well as countless others.  For me, there’s something thrilling about scaling a huge section of switchbacks. 

FAQ

Why Are Switchbacks Hard?

Switchbacks can be challenging due to the increased distance traveled compared to a direct route, requiring hikers to cover more ground to reach the same elevation. Also, the sharp turns can be difficult to navigate for some hikers and bikers.  

Why Are They Called Switchbacks?

Switchbacks are called so because the trail “switches back” on itself as it ascends a steep slope, creating a zigzag pattern. This trail design helps to reduce the slope’s steepness, making the ascent more manageable for hikers, bikers, and pack animals.

What are the Benefits of Switchbacks?

The biggest benefit of switchbacks is that they reduce the steepness of a trail, making it more manageable for hikers and bikers.  Switchbacks also help reduce trail erosion and preserve plant life.