The United States and Canada widely use the Yosemite Decimal System to rate the difficulty of hikes, trail runs and climbs. This system has five levels, ranging from your typical dirt path to rock climbing that requires technical gear. It's most important to seek out the class of a route when gearing up for hikes that could get technical, like 14ers (hikes with a peak elevation over 14,000 feet above sea level).
If you're new to hiking classes or still aren't sure what each class really means, we've got you covered. Here are the five hiking classes explained.
A Class 1 hike is a low-risk hike on a well-marked trail. A majority of frequently accessed hiking trails are considered Class 1. A Class 1 rating doesn't mean you won't gain elevation or have your mind blown by the views; it simply means that there's very little chance of you falling off a ledge and biting the big one. No technical gear is required, although hiking shoes, hiking poles and a day pack are nice to have on any hike.
Ready your map-reading skills, because Class 2 trails might have sections that aren't clearly marked. There is a chance you'll need to use your hands to steady yourself, depending on how cautious you are, but for the most part the terrain is considered easy or moderate. The unsteadiness of a Class 2 trail often comes from the need to traverse over scree (small, loose rock) or talus (larger, semi-loose rock) fields. Slick snow pack on steep terrain can also be thrown into the mix. A good pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots is highly recommended here, but no technical gear is required.
If you feel confident on rock and want to mix things up, Class 3 is where things start to get fun. Often Class 3 hikes include sections with rugged terrain where the use of your hands is necessary. That's right, you get to scramble through Class 3 sections of hikes. Using your hands could be due to extreme terrain, such as large rocks, steep slopes, or a combination of both. You don't need technical climbing gear, but some people use ropes for added safety. The exposure (being exposed to a steep slope with little to no protection from a fall) of a Class 3 hike is kicked up a notch, meaning a fall could result in serious injury... or worse. Don't be deterred by this, just be prepared. Some of Colorado's most beloved 14ers, including Longs Peak, are rated as Class 3 trails.
Here's where climbing ropes start coming into play. Class 4 is considered to be more of a climbing or mountaineering route than a hiking trail. While the climbing or traversing is considered easy, unstable terrain and a high level of exposure warrant the use of a rope for most Class 4 routes. Ropes, along with harnesses, belay devices and the knowledge of how to use this gear is best practice, here. Let's just say falling without rope protection on Class 4 routes is a good way to summon a helicopter.
Now we've made the full transition from hiking to rock climbing. A Class 5 route is considered technical free-climbing and requires the whole rock climbing getup: a rope, a harness, a belay device, climbing shoes, a helmet and other hardware, such as quickdraws, depending on the type of climbing you're doing. You certainly don't want to fall without a rope in this scenario, so be sure to grab your belay buddy before scoping out a route. From here, you actually get thrown into another dimension of ratings. Free-climbing routes have an added decimal system and letters (5.0-5.15d) to gauge the difficulty of specific class 5 routes. But we'll save that for another day.
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