Backcountry Sights

Photos and stories from the outdoors

Difficulty Ratings

One of the metrics I include in the trip planning information is the “difficulty”, ranging from class 1 to class 5. What do these numbers mean? The short answer is that they’re part of the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). These ratings don’t describe the amount of effort required; class 1 can be long and strenuous and class 5 can be quick and easy. Rather, the YDS describes the technical difficulty of the terrain. Detailed explanations are included below

Class 1 – Walk in the Park

Some gorgeous class 1 hiking

Class 1 terrain is low-risk and doesn’t require much gear beyond footwear. That doesn’t mean the trail can’t be steep and difficult (from a cardiovascular perspective)! Most trails fall into this category. Counterintuitively, technical glacier travel is often categorized as class 1 or class 2 terrain despite the need for protective gear like ropes and harnesses due to the low to moderate slopes encountered.

Class 2 – Hands for Balance

humphreys basin cross country backpacking
Navigating off trail often leads to sections of class 2 terrain, like this talus field

Moving up into class 2 terrain usually means talus, scree, or steep snow. You’ll likely need to use your hands to maintain balance every once in a while, and the path may be faint or missing altogether. Trekking poles are a boon in this environment, and microspikes (or other traction devices) can be a lifesaver when this more complex terrain is icy.

Class 3 – Hands for Scrambling

strawberry peak
Some solid class 3 moves are required to reach the summit

Class 3 hiking and climbing introduces significant exposure (i.e., a high risk of injury during a fall due to steepness of the terrain) into the mix. Colloquially called “scrambling,” this kind of climbing requires both handholds and footholds but there are plenty of physical features for both; technical climbing gear is not required.

Class 4 – Highly Exposed Scrambling

Once you reach class 4 features, you should really be taking advantage of a rope, harness, and belay device. While there are plenty of natural features (i.e., handholds, footholds), the exposure is high and a fall could easily be fatal.

Class 5 – Legit Rock Climbing

beckey route liberty bell
A climber on a 5.5 pitch on Liberty Bell

Class 5 terrain is what most of us just call “rock climbing.” The obstacles are cliffs, and an unprotected fall will seriously injure or kill you. Ropes, harnesses, and all manner of other climbing gadgets are required for this kind of travel. This category is further subdivided, ranging from 5.0 at the easiest to 5.15d at the hardest.

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