Almost everyone wants to know how long a trail is before they hike it, or how
far it was that they actually hiked. Calculating the actual distance covered by
a trail is far from an exact science, though, unless surveying tools are used.
To determine the trail distances I indicate in my trail descriptions, I've used any of six different methods, and borrowed measurements from others who've used surveying equipment. Which of my own methods is most accurate? It's hard to say--they all have their faults, though GPS is probably the leader over difficult terrain. Here's a brief description of each, with what I see as the good and bad points that they have.
Dead Reckoning. This is simply counting the number of
steps you have taken as you've traveled from one point to another. If you know the length of
your stride, you divide the number of steps by your stride to get the actual
Pros: You are actually in the field doing the measurement, taking every step. The US military (including such elite units as the Special Forces, or Green Berets) have used this method quite successfully to place themselves at desired locations. When properly done on fairly even terrain, this should be one of the most accurate methods.
Cons: You have to accurately keep count of the number of steps; you have to measure your stride carefully; it is very difficult on rough terrain to maintain a consistent stride.
Pedometers. Actually, a pedometer is the same as dead
reckoning, except you've got a mechanical device that keeps count of the steps
and does the calculations for you.
Pros: Same as dead reckoning with the added benefit that it can keep a more accurate count of the steps.
Cons: Same as dead reckoning, with the added problem that incorrect placement of the pedometer on the body may make it miscount.
Trail signs and experienced hikers. This is pretty
Pros: Enough people with enough experience and using any or all of the other techniques I mention here, as well as others, have pretty much worked out the distance.
Cons: Don't believe everything you see or hear! I've seen trail signs within a few hundred yards that differed by miles. Someone very familiar with a trail may have mislearned the distance and doesn't even think about it anymore.
Map measurements. There are several different
techniques and devices used for measuring distances on a map.
Pros: You've got everything you need right there to do the measurement; it's faster and easier than getting onto the trail so you're less likely to make an error in any step or calculation. On rougher terrain and over longer distances, this should be quite accurate.
Cons: No matter how careful you are, you may miss a turn, shift a little as you measure, or otherwise blow it; errors tend to be cumulative --though they may cancel each other out, too; the trail may be mismarked on the map; it doesn't take into consideration the contours of the land, only pure horizontal distance; measuring devices may not be able to handle the fine turns of a trail, especially where there are switchbacks.
Computerized maps. A number of companies have maps on
CDROM or online. TOPO!(R) is one company that
has USGS topographic maps of various areas of the country. They include many
useful features, including trail measuring tools.
Pros: Extremely easy, reducing the tediousness of manual map measurement with its myriad errors; extremely fast; includes vertical as well as horizontal travel for a (theoretically) more accurate result than plain map measurements.
Cons: May not measure in small enough increments to accurately track a trail with frequent turns, as through switchbacks; the accuracy of some products may be questionable. I have used the TOPO!(R) product for certain trails in Yosemite National Park and found that it always calculates a distance less than any of the other methods, in some cases by 25% or more. I have not done a scientific comparison with ground measurements of confirmed distances, so it's conceivable that TOPO!(R) is correct.
GPS (Global Position Satellite) systems. Perhaps
the best of the simple ground-based methods. Using satellites to pinpoint
your location as frequently as several times a second, your exact position can
be plotted, measured and saved. With appropriate software, you can overlay your
traveled trail onto maps and mark key points. Garmin
(R) and Magellan (R) are two
companies that make and sell GPS units. Even with their faults, I usually would
consider a GPS the best way to measure distances in rough terrain.
Pros: Extremely easy to use once you understand the basics, though you need to actually travel the route to get the benefits of true distance traveled. You can also download predetermined routes to a GPS unit which, when you are actually on the ground, will then point out the proper direction to you.
Cons: Needs batteries, which can die at inopportune times; can get confused by broad expanses of rock, ice or other flat surfaces, or even by mountainous terrain; has to have a good view of enough satellites before an accurate reading can be made, under some conditions they can be inaccurate by more than 75 yards per reading; sometimes they will not read accurately when in a pocket or pack.
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How difficult is that hike? How does it compare to other hikes? Two questions we'd like to know the answers to! In my pages, I use both these scales. These are purely subjective, and typically are used relative to other trails on the particular web site only. Thus, if you are on the Mt. Monadnock web site and see a trail rating of 4, that means that trail is pretty difficult for Mt. Monadnock, but not as difficult as those rated a 5.
So what do the ratings mean, objectively. Roughly speaking, they go like this, at least for Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Wachusett:
|Rating||Description as applied to much of the trail|
|1||The proverbial "walk in the park." Fairly level, smooth surface, no stress. The easiest possible hike for an area, though some areas may not have anything easy enough to be given this rating.|
|2||The trail has its ups and downs, footing may be a little less certain. You'll breath heavier on the uphills, but generally you'll be able to go without any breaks.|
|3||Noticeably steeper than the lower ratings. Breathing is deeper, faster. You'll probably need to step up onto or over rocks, tree roots, etc. You're definitely burning calories!|
|4||Quite steep, labored breathing on the uphills and probably on the downhills, too. High steps to get onto or over rocks, and you may need to use tree trunks or other handholds to pull yourself up. Many people will want to take a break after every fifteen minutes or so of hiking. Very tiring.|
|5||What many people would consider "mountain climbing." Very heavy breathing. Using handholds is almost mandatory. Frequent rests are almost mandatory, and some may find the trail exhausting. The trail can be very rough and someone might consider it dangerous--especially if descending. In fact, falling is likely to result in injury. The most difficult and dangerous trail in an area, though some areas may not have anything difficult enough to be given this rating.|
A shorter trail might rate lower than a longer trail, just because it would use less energy and be less tiring overall. Given that, Mt. Monadnock's Spellman Trail is relatively short, not even half a mile, horizontally, but its rating of 5 suggests just how difficult it can be. Even so, it pales in comparison to some sections of the Appalachian Trail in Grafton Notch State Park in Maine, or on Mt. Washington, or. . .. So don't try to compare a rating of 5 on Mt. Monadnock with a rating of 5 for some trail in the White Mountains--or Iowa.
Ok, so what's the rank? This is another subjective judgment. Generally, it's a comparison between one trail and another, with lower numbers being the more difficult trails. So the Spellman Trail on Mt. Monadnock is rated #1, while the Pumpelly Trail is perhaps rated #2, mostly because of it's length. (Some people might argue this rating for the Pumpelly.) I only rank the top four trails. There are too many subjective factors at work beyond that level. For the trails that aren't ranked, a simple "-" is used as a placeholder for the rank.
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