Fitness Levels

We offer three trip types: Fundamentals, Adventure, and Expedition. But since experience and skills are not necessarily correlated to fitness, we also assign a fitness level to each trip:

  • 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.

By pairing like-abled clients together, our groups hike and operate more cohesively. Nobody at the front gets frustrated by the slow pace; nobody in the back gets frustrated by being left behind; 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 physical abilities, outdoor experiences, and even biographies. If we do our job well, which we often do, you may make new hiking partners.

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, instead we will consider your:

  • Age,
  • Gender,
  • Height and weight (to calculate BMI),
  • City and state,
  • 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.”

Some words about off-trail

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 a steep slickrock slab or ledge system that requires some scrambling (using both hands and feet, but no need for technical rock climbing 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. 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