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 our 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 levels

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.

Generally speaking, fitter groups are expected to cover more miles, climb more vertical, walk faster, take fewer and shorter breaks, and undertake more challenging off-trail travel.

A tight-knit group atop the Noatak-Alatna divide in the Brooks Range, Alaska

What fitness level is best for you?

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 a similar platform or app.)

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 the limits listed below.

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

In addition to a Fitness Level, we also assign each trip a Technical Difficulty rating to reflect the nature of off-trail travel like slickrock, granite slabs, talus, and scree, plus Class 3, 4, and 5 terrain. This rating helps 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.


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 we leave this at the discretion of guides.

Location-specific challenges

Each location has a unique set of challenges. For example, Utah has sand, Alaska has tussocks, California has talus, Washington has steep dirt, and West Virginia has rocks and roots. For more information about these challenges, refer to the Locations page.