Route Grading

The purpose of route grading system is to provide walkers with a clear and easy to understand assessment of the effort and skill required to undertake a particular route.

Walking Pace aims to get more people outdoors – experiencing the emotional and physical benefits of walking. For many this will be new and if begun without an understanding of route severity, the impact of underfoot and weather conditions or the equipment required then the experience may not be enjoyable – or worse may be dangerous. Providing good information about a route will help people to make informed decisions about the route they choose. The grade is part of this, it also allows walkers to easily compare one route with another.

There are existing walking grade systems, but often they are broad categories of easy, moderate and difficult. These often refer to the technical abilities required, not necessarily the effort. They are also generally judged by experienced and able walkers – what is ‘easy’ for one person may not be easy for another. Other grading systems equate a walk to, say ‘a Lake District single peak’ or ‘a Cairngorm’. To an experienced walker this makes sense but not so much to an inexperienced walker, and how does that translate to a lowland forest or an urban walk. The walking grade system aims to provide a less subjective approach to grading based on numerical factors and observations against set conditions.

Walking grade

The route grade is part of an approach to provide good information about the quality and facilities of a route. It must be suitable for both beginners and experienced walkers to understand and be applicable to all routes – a high-level ridge scramble, a bimbles around a country park and a sightseeing tours of a city centre. We want people to enjoy their walking experience, safely, and therefore the grade calculation is based on things that can make walking difficult, miserable or dangerous. An overall numerical value is calculated and each route is equated to the broad categories of Easy (0 to 20), Moderate (above 20, under 50), Challenging (50 to 70), or Severe (over 70) to help provide a reference point for the grade.

Using the grade, backed up with good information about the routes, walkers can make a quick assessment about the difficulty of a route and once they have done one route they will be able to use the grades to choose similar, easier or more challenging routes – depending on what they want to do next.

It was great to work with the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) to develop this approach and apply the grade to 200 diverse routes. These include routes less than a mile to routes over 20 miles, flat, paved routes and high level mountains and remote moorland.

You can see all the YHA routes and search them by their grades by clicking the button below

See reflections on the grading system after testing it with 200+ routes by clicking the button below

Click to see how the grade is calculated

Many factors can make walking more difficult, including: distance, ascent, terrain, weather (too hot, too cold, wet, mist, windy), getting lost, being uncomfortable, poor footwear and clothing, not having the right equipment for the route, going beyond fitness level, getting injured (underfoot conditions, hazards), blisters, being hungry or thirsty. Some of these factors are used to calculate the numerical grading system. All will be addressed before walkers head out – relative to their experience – through information when they book, as leaflets or other assets and good information about the route.

One of the factors affecting the difficulty of a walk is the weather. However, we do not want walkers to perform a complex dynamic assessment of route grading based on the forecast. The grading therefore takes into account features likely to increase the impact of poor weather.

The numerical grade used here is based on weighted assessment of:

  • Distance – taken from OS Map route plans (as a ratio of 15 miles, 35% of the overall grade)
  • Gradient (overall climb per mile) – taken from OS Map route plans (as a ratio of Snowden up and down the Pyg, 15% of the overall grade)
  • Terrain – an assessment based on criteria (10% of the overall grade)
  • Navigation requirement – an assessment based on criteria (10% of the overall grade)
  • Hazards – an assessment based on criteria (5% of the overall grade)
  • Preparation and equipment – an assessment based on criteria (5% of the overall grade)

The potential impact of poor weather is incorporated through:

  • Highest point – taken from OS Map route plans (as a ratio of Snowdon’s height, 10% of the overall grade)
  • Exposure to elements – an assessment based on criteria (5% of the overall grade)
  • Availability of escape routes – an assessment based on criteria (5% of the overall grade)

For example, higher altitude routes which are more exposed and have fewer escape options or shortcuts are graded higher as the potential for bad weather to make the route more difficult is higher. Drizzle will not make a town walk more difficult (more unpleasant maybe, but not more difficult), but drizzle on a high peak is likely to be cold, wet and give reduced visibility – and therefore much more challenging.

The grading system may mean that some routes will be more physically challenging than others that are graded higher than them due to incorporating a wider view of what makes walking more difficult.

Use the grading system it is possible to compare routes, for example:

  • Snowdon from Pen-y-Pass hostel up and down the Pyg Track has a rating of 70 largely due to the distance, the height, the gradient, the terrain and the need to navigate using mountain paths.
  • Whereas Snowdon from Pen-y-Pass hostel up Crib Goch and down the Pyg Track has a rating of 82 as the gradient is greater, the terrain is more extreme, there is an increased hazard rating and escape routes are less available.

Use the grading calculator below to try out some of your own routes.

Click to calculate a walk grade

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