Grading Hikes With the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

Grade Your Hikes

I love hiking in the Fall because of the beautiful scenery and perfect weather — the crisp air never leaves me too hot or too cold. On the weekends I often go on all-day or multi-day hikes in Yosemite valley or the Lake Tahoe region. Some of my friends equate hiking with a leisurely stroll through the woods, but anyone who hikes regularly knows this isn't always the case. Whether it's steep, rocky, or exposed terrain, a hiking trail can be quite difficult.

One way I prepare for an all-day hike is by researching the difficulty of the trail I'm walking. I'll use guidebooks and the Internet as resources, as well as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The YDS is a three-part classification system that rates the difficulty of walks, hikes, and rock climbs based on categories of terrain, length, and level of danger. Not all routes are graded in each category — generally speaking, rock climbs are the only routes that use all three grading systems of the YDS.

To learn how hikes are classified, read more.

Classifying a route's terrain is what's most applicable to hiking trails, especially longer, more intense hikes such as the John Muir trail or Half Dome hike. Here's a general breakdown of the different terrain class types found in the YDS:

  • Class 1: Walking on a relatively flat trail with little chance of injury. Many backpackers compare a class 1 route to walking on a sidewalk.
  • Class 2: A simple trail that might have a slight incline. You may have to use your hands to balance while scrambling up rocks.
  • Class 3: You'll definitely need to use your hands and feet to find balance along parts of the trail while scrambling up rocks. There may be exposed terrain during the hike, though a fall should not prove fatal.
  • Class 4: This hike will involve climbing up steep terrain, and even though the route will have some natural protection, a fall could prove fatal.
  • Class 5+: Reserved for rock and aid climbing. Protection and gear recommended for these climbs as a fall will prove fatal.

Keep in mind that the YDS is a somewhat subjective grading system and there can definitely be some overlap and debate over a class assignment. I continue to use it as a guide because I can search for harder or easier trails depending on my mood that day. I'm also finding that more and more backpackers are using the YDS lingo when describing a trail to one another.

You can also keep a journal with details of your favorite trails and try rating them for yourself. If you do assign a class rating to a trail, the class assignment should reflect the hardest part of the hike. (For example, if you went on a hike that was mainly class 1 but had a few elements of a class 3 route, classify the hike as a class 3 route.)

Tell me, what class of hikes do you usually stick to?

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