Hiking is the only way to see much of the world. A considerable amount of it, believe it or not, does not have paved roads. You can explore areas without another soul being within 100s of miles from you. This can make you feel very remote and desolate despite the world sometimes feeling crowded. You can see the sunset amidst the top of mountains that act as islands amidst a sprawling cloud ocean. There is much of the world to explore, but to do that, you might have to get off the trail and embrace more advanced skills you may have used when you first started hiking. Let’s break some of those down and help build a decent understanding of how the world of hiking opens up. Let’s explore how to prepare for the world of intermediate hiking.
Note that some of the material may assume you’ve been through our beginner’s guide to hiking! Be sure to check it out!
What is considered intermediate hiking?
I consider intermediate hiking to be anything that goes off the trail. In addition, any multi-day hiking is usually not for beginners. Also, where the trail or route has any level of hazard on it that presents a probable risk of injury or death without skills or tools to mitigate the danger.
The hiking world has started diversifying quite a bit because different forms of hiking require different strengths, skills, experience, and optimizations. Hence, naming some of these intermediate subcategories: scrambling, backpacking, trail running, and glacial traversal/climbing. Advanced categories include ultra backpacking, ultra trail running, rock & ice climbing, and high alpine mountaineering.
Understanding Difficulty Of Paths & Routes
Note, I use the wording “paths,” meaning there is a clear boot path on the ground, and the word “route,” meaning there may not be a clear boot path but a general guideline of where to go. A route may require self-navigation, planning, and skill to keep from getting off route or lost. A route could use a path, or it can be off path. With this established, different parts of the world may classify the risks differently. I will use the USA version called “Yosemite Decimal System,” which I am used to and think summarizes the danger classes well.
Now let’s talk about “difficulty.” People often talk about challenging hikes as being strenuous ones. We need to clarify two ways two classify paths and routes. First, strenuousness tells you how physically in shape you should be to overcome the challenges on the trail. Then there is technical, which we will get into next. There is no clear and decisive way to break down the physical requirement of a trail, but apps such as AllTrails and other similar user ratings try to rate a trail’s difficulty by strenuousness.
It is a six-class system in total. A path our route should use the class that describes its hardest section. So if a hike is mostly easy with one tiny section that is quite dangerous, the whole trail will assume the rating of the dangerous section if it cannot be avoided. What is important is the class system does not describe how strenuous a route might be but the level of danger you will encounter on it.
Class 1 – A route is not steep enough to use your hands. Minimal risk overall is other than trip hazards.
Class 2 – A route that is a bit steeper. You may need to use your hands here and there. Low chance of injury if you fall.
Class 3 – A route with scrambling (unroped climbing). Includes steep terrain that could be snow or rock. If you fall, there is a low risk of death and a high risk of injury.
Class 4 – A steeper scramble route may require small stretches of fully exposed climbs and unstable terrain. If you fall here, there is a high chance of death. A rope is advised for descending, and helmets should be taken to protect against falling rock and ice.
Class 5 – A full vertical face that runs over a long stretch in which a fall is guaranteed death. The only way to mitigate class 5 risk is to bring a rope team, proper tooling to establish a route with the rope, and skills to maintain the route as a team. You can accept the risk and choose not to mitigate it as a solo climber. Class 5 requires a lot of preparation and skill to surmount, and this is further broken down into subcategories from 5.4 to 5.14.
Class 6 – You don’t see this pop up anywhere usually, but it means the route is naturally unclimbable.
SummitPost.org is an excellent source for finding the technical classification for known routes in many mountains.
Understanding Your Physical Capabilities
Hiking quickly becomes a massive world for fitness junkies. Whether you dream of going for the fastest known time “FKT” on a trail, hiking the PCT, catching the sunset on a local mountain ridge, or climbing Denali. These challenges will push you to your maximum potential and show the world new limits of what people can do. However, you must be prepared and know your limits. You don’t just jump into these things. Training and preparing yourself with a core mindset will help you continue progressing and enjoy your time outdoors.
People are often desperate and tired when they get hurt and make mistakes. They’ve surpassed their physical bar and failed to assess their limits properly. As a result, they get wobbly and sometimes risk their own lives and others around them. Creating a high fitness bar for yourself is vital before you embark on challenges. Acknowledging this is a critical step. Then you can make a workout regime and a plan to improve your health.
As with all things, the only way to know if you improve is with data and metrics. A simple stopwatch will do. Time yourself doing a very strenuous hike. Then do it repeatedly with the intent to improve your time continuously. Finding ways to break the time might be harder when you start to plateau, but that’s a good problem. Going this far, you are good enough for most intermediate hiking.
Understanding The Safety Tools And Your Comfort To Mitigate Safety Risks
Uncomfort tends to be a sign of a situation you have not prepared or practiced enough for. With that in mind, you should love the hiking journey and the places you can see, smell, and fully immerse in. You will naturally decide when and where your comfort zone is. Intermediate hiking introduces risks that could cost your life or the people you care for. Acknowledging the risks and drawing the line between how far you go down and the subcategory I mentioned is significant. Some are more hazardous than others.
That said, tools and your capability to use those tools effectively will help keep you alive in real emergent situations in the wild. I won’t get into details on all the tools and tricks of the trade in this article as that can justify a book of information. However, some standard tools encountered and are highly situational are ice ax, crampons, helmets, snowshoes, rope, climb harness, belay device, snow shovels, and avalanche beacon. The list gets much longer getting into the advanced zone.
My point is to understand these are tools for more than just comfort and are meant to mitigate real risks. You should practice using them and feel comfortable with them before the day you need them to save your life. A lot of these skills can be learned through taking courses or learning from others who have already experienced them.
Taking Care Around Wildlife
Lastly, just one note about wildlife to help prepare you for intermediate hiking. Once you get off the trails that feel like highways for hikers, you will start seeing more animals. Animals keep a distance from popular trails generally. With this in mind, most animals will be shy and keep a distance, some will be curious and take an interest, and some won’t care as long as you keep your distance. Some animals are territorial, and if you come into their territory trying to capture a selfie, they could take notice and mark you as a threat.
There may be a select few animal predators out there that you must do your research on that may be local to where you hike. These tend to be a more significant concern, but all predators are opportunistic. Keep aware of your surroundings and appear capable. Predators will stay away. If you have children or are shorter, surround them with adults or taller folk. If you stayed grouped in general, animals would see this as a more significant threat and much less opportunity for them. Continue to appear capable and intimidating, and most predators will leave you alone. Many of the more dangerous stealth hunting predators also hunt at night, so in general, be cautious hiking at night time in the forest.
When in a forest or the lowlands, never sleep with anything with a strong scent near you. Bring a bag and a small rope to sling the bag into a tree. Alternatively, bury the foot in the bag away from you. The scent will attract many small animals to even big animals.
We’ve been hiking all over the world from Patagonia, the USA, Canada, Mexico, Iceland, etc., and I’ve never needed a whistle, gun, or weapon to protect myself from animals. I am curious and will stop and watch. I’ve always respected nature, and so far *knocks on wood* I have never been attacked. So keep that respect for nature in mind and keep that love of nature at heart. You are no longer in the human-optimized habitat.