Trip Intensities

We offer three trip types: Fundamentals, Adventure, and Expedition. But since experience is not necessarily correlated to fitness, we also assign a physical intensity rating to each trip:

  • Low,
  • Moderate,
  • High, and
  • Extreme

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 finish your trip with new friends and hiking partners.

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

What intensity level is best for you?

The best indication of your physical capabilities is your performance on 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? (If you’re not sure, measure some of your routes with CalTopo.)

You can adjust your stated abilities slightly due to changes in fitness, pack weight, or altitude. But data from past trips is the best starting point.

If you don’t have enough hiking or backpacking experience to know your physical capabilities, we can work with you before or after you submit an application. Contact me. The most telling indicators will be your:

  • Age,
  • Gender,
  • Height and weight (or BMI),
  • Weekly fitness regimen, and
  • Past athletic results (e.g. your time for a local 5K or a marathon).

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

Trip intensity levels

Based on a trip’s intensity level, we adjust the:

  • Anticipated mileage,
  • Anticipated vertical change, and the
  • Length and difficulty of off-trail travel.

To understand “normals” for each level and to determine the most appropriate level for you, use the table below.

If you’re uncertain how much mileage or vertical you can comfortably sustain, we have also included the fitness levels we typically see, broken out by age range. Fitness relative to peers is more subjective and thus less reliable, but it’s a place to start.

Mileage & vertical

In mountainous environments such as the Rockies and High Sierra, the limiting factor to each day is usually vertical gain and loss, not horizontal mileage. Groups tend to climb and descend the same amount each day, whether that is concentrated over 10 miles or stretched out over 20.


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 footing, 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 locations (California and Colorado), 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