What are Switchbacks in Hiking?

switchbacks hiking trail

1 Aug 2022 Chandra Gurung

A switchback in hiking is a path that ascends a steep terrain section of land, like a hillside or mountainside, in a zigzag pattern. Switchbacks hiking meander from one side of the hill’s face to another before “switching back” and going the other way. This is different from ascending straight up the slope.

There’s a good possibility that you’ve heard of the word “switchback”, even if you’re not a die-hard outdoor lover. It’s a term that has been around since at least the late 19th century. Long before paved roads, four-wheel drives, and all-terrain vehicles made climbing mountains easy. 

It conjures up ideas of dusty boots and cliffs with sunset silhouettes and has a sort of sensual technical feel about it. But what is a switchback precisely, and why is it crucial to understand how to use one before starting your next great adventure? In more detail, let’s examine this crucial topographical feature and its connection to leisure hiking.

What is Switchback?

A switchback is a path that ascends a steep terrain section of land, like a hillside or mountainside, in a zigzag pattern. 

Switchbacks travel from one side of the hill’s face to the other before reversing course or “switching back”. Continuing in the other direction, as opposed to climbing directly up the slope. Which would make for an uphill walk and leave plenty of room for potentially disastrous scenarios. 

This relaxed back-and-forth pace breaks up the elevation fluctuations into smaller, more manageable chunks, making it much easier for hikers to deal with them. 

Additionally, it enables them to avoid hazards like dense undergrowth, rock piles, drop-offs, and other natural geological features and waterways. This could obstruct their travel along a straight path. 

Switchbacks in trail engineering are more than just a practical addition. They can save your life if you’re trail running somewhere with a steep terrain incline and unstable ground.

Tips for Switchbacks Hiking

Hiking a straight open land road is similar to hiking trails riddled with serpentine switchbacks. But if you want to avoid problems and make the most of your vacation, you should know a few things about them.

1. Pace Yourself for Switchbacks Hiking

You can avoid the effort of climbing directly to the hills and mountains head-on by using switchbacks in hiking. But the cost of their efficiency significantly increases the trail’s overall length.

Imagine that a hiking trail with numerous switchbacks hiking started at Point A and veered over this way. Then doubled back on itself, then 180 again and continued meandering along in this leisurely manner. Finally reaching its destination after many disorienting about-faces. As a result, it will be substantially lengthier than one with little to no variances.

In other words, the distance will be much greater than it appears. In light of this, it is advised to take your time and refrain from racing through a stretch of the trail that zigzags to reach your objective more quickly. 

This won’t just exhaust you quickly; it will also prevent you from taking in the beauty of your surroundings. After all, getting there is where the real magic of a hike lies.

2. Do Not Undervalue the Hiking Trail

Switchback hiking is designed to lessen a trail’s overall difficulty. They may transform a gruelling trek into a fun outing that allows you to maintain a steady pace. Without completely exhausting your legs or lungs by lowering the grade and spreading it over a longer distance.

That does not imply that they are an easy task. Not by any means. Although they extend considerably further, switchback routes are frequently exceedingly steep. Sometimes almost as steep as the rises they are engraved into. 

In addition, they usually have dangerous, frequently unattended slopes on the downward edge and are narrower than open and backcountry trails.

It can be a mistake to approach a hike casually merely because you notice a few simple switchbacks on the map for these and other reasons. Being disrespectful to your trail could lead to a humiliating or even dangerous situation.

3. Track Down the Trail Markers

Some paths are more challenging to navigate, mainly if there isn’t much frequent foot activity. The same is valid with famous switchback trails.

Switchbacks hiking trail markers
Signpost in a forest

Keep an eye out for signs, reflectors, flags, paint blazes, and other trail markers as you move along the way. These hiking guides will let you know you’re heading in the right direction and prevent you from straying off into unapproved territory.

Getting off track could bring you into trouble, depending on where you are. Of course, there are the usual dangers to be aware of. Such as becoming lost or coming across a particular species of bear, a powerful predator, or an undiscovered trail hazard. But there’s also a chance of upsetting delicate wildlife habitats or harming the environment.

Before you start, spend some time studying a map of the famous switchback hiking trails if you’re concerned about getting lost. An excellent trail guide will provide you with all the information about the terrain you’ll encounter and exciting facts about the local flora and wildlife. A superb one will guide you to undiscovered attractions like swimming holes, caverns, and waterfalls.

4. Prepare Yourself for Uneven Terrain

In the best situation, a switchback trail should be relatively flat to walk on. But more often than not, it will be uneven terrain, rocky, and covered in roots from mile one.

Keep in mind to take short, cautious steps when the going gets hard and constantly check your footing before putting all your weight down. You could occasionally encounter areas where the path is somewhat inclined, typically near the slope’s bottom. 

To maximise your foot contact with the ground in these areas, walk with your feet at a similar angle and use trekking poles. It’s a good idea to put on solid high-top boots that offer ankle support because prolonged marching may be pretty hard on your ankles. You’ll be happy you did. 

No matter where you are travelling, loose rocks and shifting dirt are practically a given, so make sure your footwear has good traction. Although they are not required, hiking poles can add extra stability and greatly assist when planning your next move.

5. Never Try to Bypass a Switchback

Hikers must always stay on their selected trails according to trail etiquette.

Going your way instead of following the marked path is frowned upon. Why do you inquire? Because this kind of conduct has the potential to harm all kinds of plants and animals as well as kill vegetation and cause or exacerbate soil erosion. The last thing we need is this.

A faint hiking trail might occasionally be visible going up the centre of a switchback, but either park authorities or lawbreakers typically create them. It would be best if you didn’t imitate them in either case.

Remember that as admirers of nature, it is our primary duty to leave no trace. That entails packing away food and waste, but it also entails taking proactive measures to reduce our interference with nature’s natural processes. Staying on the trail is one of these steps.

switchbacks hiking of mountain trail


It’s an excellent hiking trail that preserves land and makes the most of your ascents. We sincerely hope that we have aided you in your switchback hiking endeavours!

Likewise, Manaslu Guide presents its itineraries for trekking, peak-climbing, hiking, sight-seeing, jungle safari, rafting, and adventure activities programs in Nepal, if you’re looking for an exciting, delightful trip.