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Have you ever wondered what hiking switchbacks are? Well, these are actually pretty important segments of a hiking trail. While it may seem that they just allow you to cover rough terrain, they are serving a much more important purpose.
With that said, let’s find out why switchbacks are important and why you should care about them.
What Is Switchbacks Hiking?
The term switchback is used in fields other than hiking, but it has the same meaning – a switchback is a zigzag trail that goes up a steep hill or mountain. Switchbacks are commonly used when building roads and railroad tracks.
The rationale behind using switchbacks in road or railroad building is to minimize the need for tunnels and heavy earthworks. In other words, switchbacks are used to cut the costs of construction.
You could argue that hiking switchbacks follow the same rationale as road or railroad switchbacks. However, there is one more important reason for the wide application of switchbacks on hiking trails.
Why Are Switchbacks Important?
The purpose of switchbacks is to protect the earth from excessive erosion. Trails that go straight up a slope allow water to move down faster than through zigzag trails. This sooner or later hollows out the trail, as well as washes vegetation and soil down the hill
A straight trail would eventually become unusable and even dangerous due to erosion. Switchbacks are used to address this issue. Not only that, but switchbacks are often complemented by rolling dips that allow conveying water off the trail.
Can You Cut Through Switchbacks?
Now, switchbacks sure do help preserve the environment, but they also make the way up the hill much longer. So can you cut through switchbacks to reach the top of the hill faster?
Well, you can, but you really shouldn’t. And the reason was outlined above – erosion. Cutting through a switchback, you will kill the vegetation and promote the loosening of the soil. And while you may think that only a few people do cut through switchbacks and that the damage can’t be too severe, things aren’t as simple.
At the very beginning, this will be true. But in the long term, as more and more people cut straight through a switchback, the damage will become more pronounced. Eventually, the entire trail may become unusable due to the erosion of the soil.
So please do follow trail etiquette and do not cut straight through a switchback.
Next, you should realize that you are actually making the ascent more difficult by attempting to cut through a switchback. Switchbacks allow you to go uphill easier – you just won’t have to deal with the dramatic slope straight up the hill.
And while the distance will surely be longer, it will be easier for you to cover the entire switchback than to try and challenge the incline. Not only that, but the risk of falling off the trail is much lower due to the lower incline of switchback trails.
A switchback is a shortcut by itself, and by cutting through a switchback, you are defeating its purpose and making things more difficult for yourself. And if this wasn’t enough, you are also harming the environment, as described above.
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How to Prepare for a Switchback
Even though switchbacks allow you to cut down the effort while ascending a hill, they still remain quite challenging. Switchbacks can be quite long, and they still have some slope. And as you probably know, it’s one thing to cover relatively level terrain and completely another to go up even not too inclined hills.
Compare going up the stairs and walking on a flat surface like a level street. Needless to say, going up the stairs is much more strenuous.
And speaking of stairs, it’s one of the best exercises you could do to prepare yourself for conquering your first switchback. Training on stairs maybe is a little over-the-top, but once you are able to jump two steps at a time without significant fatigue, you can be sure that switchbacks won’t be able to defeat you.
Another tip is that you could try to build endurance on other, simpler trails. It’s undeniable that your first switchback ascent will be challenging for you, but if you build your way up to 15-20 miles a day on a more level trail, you will make things much easier for yourself.
Tips on Conquering Switchbacks
Now, we want to give you a few tips on conquering switchbacks with ease.
The tips below apply to hiking in general, to be fair. However, when it comes to such challenging trail segments as switchbacks, you will need to be a little more careful and conscious about your resource management.
And no matter where you are, you will need to adapt your pace to the segment you are currently going through.
With that said, let’s move on to our 5 tips on conquering switchbacks.
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Keep a Steady Pace
First of all, you should keep a steady pace. This tip applies to hiking no matter where you are, and switchbacks are no exception.
Furthermore, as you step your foot on a switchback, you will need to be a little more careful about your speed.
We suggest that you slow down your pace from the moment you step on a switchback. Just like it is with hiking in general, if you put all your effort into the early stages, you will get exhausted and won’t be able to continue the journey at the same pace later.
You need to conserve your energy so that you can cover the entire switchback without struggling and pushing yourself to the limit. Besides, you should avoid giving it all to the switchback if there still is plenty of the trail left. You want to conserve your energy not only for the switchback but also for whatever awaits you next.
And by the way, if you know at the beginning of the journey that there is a switchback at some point along the trail, be a little more careful with your energy expenditure since you’ll need it sooner or later when going uphill.
Again, you want to stay hydrated throughout the entire hiking trip. But while ascending a switchback, you may need to consume more water than on easier trail segments.
No one can tell how much you should increase your water intake when dealing with switchbacks. You may not even need to do so if you feel well. And overall, we suggest that you drink water when you feel the need for it.
By the way, you may want to take a little bit more water with you if you will be hiking on a trail with one or more switchbacks. The same applies to snacks as well. The more difficult the terrain is, the more food and water you should take with you.
Make Use of Trekking Poles
If you haven’t been using trekking poles, then it’s the right time to give them a shot at a switchback. Trekking poles can be insanely helpful in hiking, and even more so when covering rough terrain.
Do make sure to pick adjustable poles – you will want to shorten your poles’ length to account for the incline. You can go up the hill with fixed-length trekking poles as well, but the ascent will be less comfortable for you.
Avoid Sitting On Your Breaks
When taking breaks on your way up the switchback, make sure to avoid sitting. It will take less time for your heart rate to go back to normal if you sit.
Rest only just enough to catch your breath. You don’t want to get cold during your break since it will be more difficult for you to then pick your pace back up.
Minimize Your Backpack Weight
This is another universal tip that applies no matter where you hike. With that said, being efficient about your backpack weight is a bit more important when the trail has difficult sections.
Well, the best bet is to just have less stuff in your backpack, right? It’s easier said than done.
On one hand, you will want to have a little more food and water on you when dealing with switchbacks. On the other, you want your backpack to be lighter.
The situation is a bit weird, right? Well, you will have to make some compromises if you want to minimize your backpack weight.
If you can remove unnecessary items to make your backpack lighter, then go ahead. Make sure to keep all your essentials in your backpack though because lowering the weight of your backpack at the cost of necessary items isn’t worth it.
If you can’t lower the weight of your backpack, then at least try to keep it around the same mark. You can again remove unnecessary items to do so.
But what if there’s nothing to get rid of in your backpack?
Well, in this case, you have no other option than to take a heavier backpack. You shouldn’t leave out necessary items, nor should you cut your food short to meet some weight milestones.
If you have a heavy backpack, then you will need to be a little more conscious about resource management. For example, you may need to slow down your pace not to get exhausted quickly. Keep in mind that by doing so, you will be reducing the distance you’ll be able to cover.
If slowing down isn’t an option for you, then you will need to work on our endurance before the trip to the challenging trail. And as mentioned above, you can build up your endurance on easier trails.
The Seven Leave No Trace Principles
Since switchbacks’ purpose is to preserve the environment, we think that it’s worth talking about hiking etiquette. In particular, we want to talk about the seven Leave No Trace principles.
These principles promote minimizing our impact on the environment when we hike. The seven principles aren’t important merely because they promote environmental friendliness – they are also important since you don’t want to encourage others to violate the etiquette.
If people see you cutting straight through the trail, then they are very likely to follow you. Besides, the sight of an obvious shortcut through the trail will be very inviting to hikers. By sticking to the seven Leave No Trace rules, you will be able to keep the environment as it is and discourage others from breaking hiking etiquette.
The seven Leave No Trace rules are as follows.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
The first rule states that you need to be conscious as to when to plan your trip. This rule promotes smaller parties and hiking on less busy days to help preserve the environment. And finally, the first Leave No Traces rule advises you to pack properly so that you can then manage waste.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
The second tip is closely tied to the issue of switchbacks. All in all, this rule promotes traveling on durable surfaces that are safe and not damaging to the environment. Staying on trails is the best bet since they have been adapted for hiking specifically.
This rule also suggests that you wear as light footwear for the conditions as possible to avoid leaving deep treads in the soil and tearing up the trail.
Dispose of Waste Properly
This one is pretty self-explanatory. In the context of switchbacks, disposing of waste in proper areas is important since if you pollute the area outside switchbacks, you will be encouraging others to do the same.
Leave What You Find
This rule doesn’t really apply to switchbacks, but it’s important to follow nonetheless. You shouldn’t take home souvenirs and should leave everything in its place – you will thus reduce your footprint and allow others to enjoy nature as well.
Minimize the Impact of Fires
The sixth tip again doesn’t really apply to switchbacks, but you should do everything possible to reduce your footprint and keep things natural when building campfires.
And finally, respect wildlife. In the context of switchbacks, remember that your laziness to cover a switchback may (and probably will) end badly in the long term. Don’t cut through switchbacks and encourage others to follow your example.