Fitness Levels and Technical Difficulty

We offer three trip types, each designed for a specific experience level: Fundamentals, Adventure, and Expedition, for beginner, intermediate, and advanced backpackers, respectively. But experience is not necessarily correlated with (1) physical fitness or (2) comfort on technical terrain, so we sub-divide trips based on these two additional metrics.

Pairing like-abled clients together has significant benefits:

  • Our groups hike and operate more cohesively. 
  • Nobody at the front gets frustrated by the slow pace, and nobody in the back gets frustrated by being left behind
  • Groups agree on what is (or is not) within their comfort zone, and select routes accordingly; and,
  • We rarely must split up groups to accommodate divergent abilities.

Whereas most guiding organizations accept the first eight or ten paying customers who want to join a specific trip, we thoroughly review each applicant and try to match them with other applicants who have similar experience, fitness, and technical ability. If we do our job well, which we often do, you may make new hiking partners.

Effect on your application

In your application, you should submit honest information about your backpacking experience, physical fitness, and comfort on technical terrain. There’s no need to overstate or understate your abilities — we offer trips for all levels, and our goal is to simply place you on an appropriate one so that you have a positive and safe experience with us.

On the Application Form, you will self-rate your abilities. We do our own assessment, and look at your self-ratings to confirm ours; when there’s a notable discrepancy, we double-check and sometimes will contact you directly for more insight.

If you are uncertain about what Fitness Level or Technical Difficulty is most appropriate for you, contact me, or proceed with your application and trust that the process works.

Fitness level

Each trip is assigned a fitness level:

  • 1 – Basic
  • 2 – Moderate
  • 3 – Median
  • 4 – High
  • 5 – Ultra

We tailor each group’s itinerary to their fitness, so that most days feel “just right” in their physical difficulty.

Groups of different fitness levels will vary in their:

  • Daily and total mileage,
  • Daily and total vertical change,
  • Walking speed,
  • Frequency and length of breaks,
  • Length and difficulty of off-trail travel.
A tight-knit group atop the Noatak-Alatna divide in the Brooks Range, Alaska

What fitness level is best for you?

On your trip application, you will select the fitness level that you believe is most appropriate. You will also provide information that paints a picture of your fitness so that we can make our own evaluation. If both sides do not mostly agree on the level, we may reach out for additional information or clarity.

By far, the most helpful information is data from past trips. Specifically, At a pace that was comfortable and sustainable, how much distance did you cover and how many vertical feet did you climb each day? (If you’re uncertain, measure some of your routes with CalTopo or similar.)

For applicants with limited backpacking experience or data, instead we will consider a host of other factors, listed below. These factors are less reliably correlated with actual abilities, and sometimes not correlated at all, but taken together they usually have value.

  • Age,
  • Gender,
  • Height and weight (to calculate BMI, which we know can be very unfair to some body types),
  • City and state (to understand the type of terrain and altitude you typically hike or exercise in),
  • Perceived fitness relative to peers,
  • Weekly fitness regimen, and
  • Past athletic results (e.g. your time for a local 5K or a marathon).

Using this information, we’ve become adept at grouping like-abled applicants, even if we haven’t met or hiked with you before.

Fitness level daily limits

Refer to the table below to better understand the expected “daily limits” of each fitness level, defined as either (1) a distance or (2) vertical gain, whichever limit is reached first. For example:

  • In a mountainous location like the High Sierra, groups usually hit their vertical limit first, whereas
  • In a flatter location like West Virginia, groups usually reach their mileage limit first.

Due to slow and difficult terrain (e.g. in Utah, sand and slickrock scrambling; in Alaska, tussocks and hazardous creek crossings; in Washington, rainforest-like brush; in West Virginia, overgrown and rock-covered trails) groups may not reach their “limit” each day, or for even a single day. But the perceived effort will feel on par with these limits.

Fitness level normals

Daily vertical gain or daily distance limits are the most accurate measures of fitness. But we see other differences among groups, too: their walking speed, frequency and duration of breaks, difficulty of off-trail travel, and typical ages. Refer to the table below for these “normals.”

Technical difficulty

For the 2023 season we’ve added a “technical difficulty” rating to all trips. This rating will help in:

  • Forming groups that are even more similarly matched;
  • Setting client expectations; and,
  • Creating itineraries that need less adjustment in the field based on the group’s actual abilities or comfort.


This system may change with time, but for now I’m keeping it simple. We have three grades, meant to describe the sustained technical difficulty of a route.

  1. Easy
  2. Medium
  3. Hard

Trip itineraries will be designed with these ratings in mind.

Due to geographic limitations and route selection, groups may not experience the full extent of a rating. For example, our Alaska trips have extensive off-trail travel, warranting a “Medium” rating, but Class 4 terrain is difficult to find and webbing is never needed on these trips.

It works the other way sometimes, too. If there’s group buy-in and if it can be done safely, guides may propose a route that momentarily exceeds the trip’s technical rating. This decision is rare and generally discouraged, but an option that we leave with the guides.

Location-specific expectations

Hiking off-trail is sometimes no more difficult than hiking on-trail. But usually it is, because there are no man-made improvements to negate uneven surfaces, thick vegetation, river fords, soggy ground, steep slopes, and soft sand.

In southern Utah, the most difficult travel is across soft beach-like sand, which saps power and fills porous shoes. Less often, your group may encounter steeply angled slickrock slabs or vertical ledge systems that require scrambling, handlines, pack hauls, or body assists. Trips rated as having “High” technical difficulty require technical equipment.

Descending a massive sand dune to Utah’s Escalante River, near Scorpion Gulch

In the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest, the off-trail feature that clients struggle with most is talus and scree. Imagine entire slopes littered in boulders ranging from the size of basketballs to refrigerators, or smaller rocks that slide when weighted. This type of terrain is especially tough for individuals with less athletic ability, raw power, balance, and agility. We do our best to steer clear of such areas, but sometimes they’re unavoidable

Extreme car-sized talus in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. We try to avoid any extended sections like this, even on our most challenging trips.

Our Alaska trips are entirely off-trail and present a unique set of challenges. Compared to terrain in the lower 48, Alaska is extremely hard on feet and lower legs, and many miles are hard-won even if they’re flat. Your group may encounter miles of lumpy and soft ground that is covered in ankle- to knee-high brush. And water crossings are constant; your feet will get wet and stay wet for the duration of the trip. For an excellent description of Alaska, refer to Nathan McNeil’s review of his Gates of the Arctic trip in 2019.

Alan bushwhacks through Alaskan alder