The Explain of Elevation Gain

In hiking, the amount of elevation gain, or to quote Wikipedia, cumulative elevation gain, or simply gain, is what makes a trail steep, really steep or not so steep.

In hiking nomenclature, there is the oft-incomprehensive term that is ‘elevation gain’. I’ve read a few blogs on this, and also Wikipedia’s entry, but some of these write-ups read like an episode out of physics 101. Elevation gain shouldn’t be that hard to figure out, and I think it’s very important to understand. Your hike could possibly become unexpectedly unpleasant because you misunderstood the amount of elevation gain on a given trail. So, in this ‘I Hike Far’ installment, I would like to see if I can come up with my own layman’s version of ‘elevation gain explained’.

In hiking, the amount of elevation gain, or to quote Wikipedia, cumulative elevation gain, or simply gain, is what makes a trail steep, really steep or not so steep. The amount of gain allows you to determine how difficult, or challenging, this hike is going to be for you. In hike reviews, and trailheads at national parks for instance, elevation gain is also accompanied with words such as Strenuous, Moderate, Easy, or a combination of these. Still, you should be able to get an idea in your head just by looking at the amount of gain. For the hiker, understanding elevation gain really comes down to simple math. Also note that What may be strenuous, moderate, or easy for the assessor, may not always be the same for you. There’s quite a few factors that play into that, such as age, physical condition, etc. Ultimately, everyone’s different.

Van Tassel Mountainway in Duarte, California. 2,880 feet of gain in 4.3 miles.

The Example

Let’s say you’re going to hike a peak this weekend. The base elevation, the elevation at which you begin your hike, is 2,000 feet. The elevation at the peak, your destination, is 5,000 feet. All you need to do in order to determine the amount of gain is subtract 2,000 from 5,000. In this scenario it’s 3,000 feet. That’s a lot of gain. But not so fast. There’s also the following factors that you also need to take into consideration.

1. Puttin’ In The Miles

The number of miles in a hike goes hand in hand with the amount of elevation gain. In our example, the hike is 10 miles round trip. Take your 3,000 feet of gain and divide that by 5. You should come up with 600 feet of elevation gain per mile. Why didn’t we divvy that up by 10 miles? The most straightforward answer is that, elevation gain has everything to do with going up i.e ascent. So, in our 10-mile hike, the ascent is half of that, or 5 miles. You may have also experienced that you don’t always go up (and up, and up) on the ascent. Sometimes you actually descend in parts on the way to your destination. This is called (drum roll) elevation loss. How do you factor that in? We’ll get to that in just a little bit.

2. Not All Miles Are Created Equal

Hiking trails do not have an equal amount of elevation gain per mile, at least in my experience. You may have experienced that the first half mile, mile, or even more, has a relatively casual ascent to it. This should serve as an alert for what’s to come because somewhere along the line on this 10 mile hike you have to start racking up that 3,000 feet of gain. This is one of the things that can make a hike more challenging. You may check the amount of elevation gain on a hike and compare that against the number of miles and think Hey, this hike shouldn’t be too steep. This is not always the case.

So how can you know beforehand if you’ve never hiked a certain trail? There are several ways. Go online and Google the name of the hike you want to do. Chances are that there’s someone out there who has already done it, and did a blog or article on it afterward. You may also know someone (or someone who knows someone) who’s done the hike. This is a good way to find out, especially if you’ve hike with that person. He or she may already have a good idea of the kind of hiker you are, and can provide you with more specific information about the hike as it pertains to you. The bottom line is, if you haven’t done the hike, do your best to research it before you go out there.

3. I’m Losing Elevation Here

Elevation loss is that strange little thing that you experience on the ascent portion of your hike. If you ever happen to descend on a part of the trail that you are ascending, you are losing elevation gain i.e. elevation loss. And when you descend on your hike (your return trip), that section of trail you descended initially now becomes (drum roll) elevation gain because you now have to ascend that part of the trail. Any elevation gain you experience on the descent will count towards the total amount of gain for the hike. That said, not all elevation gain on a hike is taken in on your ascent if you descend any part of it.
The firebreak ‘shortcut’ near the summit of Potato Mountain in Claremont, California.

On a last note, if you want to track your elevation gain while you’re hiking, there are a lot of nice smart watches out there that come with a built in altimeter. The one I use is the Garmin Fenix HR. For me, it is a true hiking device. I have often compared the elevation gain that my Garmin recorded, and compared that with the hiking information on a blog that I used in my research for that hike. The end result was that the numbers were very close, and even spot on in some instances. Happy trails!

Featured image: Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park, Utah. 1,500 feet of gain in 2.4 miles.


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