• Halle Brown

Public Land Basics: Switchbacks

Trail Knowledge

Let’s learn about switchbacks! Gaining a better understanding of different types of trails and trail construction allows for a greater appreciation of public lands and those that create the opportunity to use them. If you are an avid adventurer you may have heard of switchbacks, or even hiked ‘em! If you have encountered this type of trail, you know they are no easy feat, but they are not natural to the mountain. They are meticulously constructed with a specific purpose. Read below to learn a little bit more about switchbacks and why they are used in certain trail scenarios.

What is a Switchback?

A switchback is a term used for a type of trail where the direction of the trail changes from one side to the other, usually up a steep hillside or mountain. Picture a vertical zig-zag.

While gaining elevation quickly on a hike, switchbacks allow the hiker to traverse at an easier rate, rather than at an intense incline. This creates greater stability for hikers while also maintaining the health of the trails and the area surrounding. Switchbacks prevent erosion, allowing for slower water movement down the tread, typically on a steeper, straight trail.

Construction Process

This type of construction is necessary for sections of the trail holding a minimum incline of 15% and a maximum incline of 55%. When building new trails, maintenance crews will search for areas that already have components of switchbacks, such as platforms, reducing the amount of excavation.

During construction crews will create longer legs of the trail when applicable, meaning fewer switchbacks or turns between sections of trail. Not only do longer legs or ‘trail sections’ allow for less construction but they are more tempting for hikers to take shortcuts. If shorter legs are necessary for the project, crews will place barriers between them to prevent hikers from going off trail. Maintenance crews have to think strategically to find the best possible path while protecting the surrounding area by keeping hikers on the trail.


Keeping the trails and ecosystem in great condition and minimizing the long-lasting effects of degradation that happen when hikers explore off-trails is a top priority for trail crews. Switchbacks provide a fun challenge for hikers and maintenance crews alike, and it is important to take care of them. Next time you tackle a switchback, be mindful of the mountain!

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