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What Does ‘Out And Back Trail’ Mean For Hikers?

Planning a safe hike always requires planning.

Before you lace up your hiking boots or strap on your backpack, you’ll need do some research into what type of trail you will be hiking, as well as the length and terrain.

The hiking world is full of language that can bring up questions for new and experienced hikers.

One of the most common questions hikers have when planning their routes, is, “What is an out and back trail?”

Let us answer that before you head out into the wilderness.

What is an out and back trail?

people on hiking trail

An out and back trail is a hiking trail that takes you on a roundtrip away from the starting point and back again, along the same path.

These are different from loop trails, which start and end at the same location but don’t take you along the same path to travel the trail distance.

Generally, you start at the trailhead and hike to the farthest end point on an out and back trail. Then, you will simply reverse course and follow the same trail back to the trailhead.

This straight-forward, easy to follow trail style, which may also be referred to as an in-and-out trail, is one of the most common and popular types of hiking trails.

This is the type of trail you see when visiting National Parks, though not all National Park hiking trails are out and back trails.

Why choose an out and back trail?

With their simple point-to-point design, out and back trails are easy to navigate, which makes the experience even more calm and peaceful for you. 

Not needing to constantly consult GPS maps or watch for trail markers makes out and back trails excellent options for novice hikers.

Plus, it’s a great way to get outside and get in some exercise in those hiking boots.

Of course, this type of trail isn’t just for beginners – it’s also good for people who don’t want something too challenging.

Since you won’t be distracted by navigation, out and back trails allow you to focus on the experience, scenery, and the nature around you.

One of the draws to hiking is the ability to disconnect from the world, get outdoors, breathe in fresh air and soak in the sights and sounds of nature while walking through the scenery.

Out and back trails help you make the most of the moment, without weighting you down with navigation concerns while in the wilderness.

Out and back trails also offer a sense of comfort and security when outdoors. Occasionally, even experienced hikers need to cut a hike short.

If you find that a hike is taking too long, a piece of gear isn’t working out well or a member of the hiking party becomes injured, you can simply turn around and retrace your steps to the starting point.

This saves the confusion and hassle of trying to find and navigate the shortest path back.

Experienced hikers, who often complete multi-day point-to-point hikes, swear by out and back trails for testing new gear.

Whether its breaking in a new pair of boots or testing the weight of a loaded backpack, an out and back trail can be the perfect spot for a shake down hike.

Since you never want to be on the trail for too long with untested gear, an out and back day hike is essential for dialing in the essentials before a longer trip.

Best of all, out and back trails are often designed to take you directly to an impressive sight. The midpoint, at which you will turn around, may be a waterfall, scenic overlook or tree grove.

This type of out and back may also be referred to as a “destination trail.” Destination-based out and back trails can feel rewarding and motivating.

Use the midpoint as a spot to take a brief break and snap some photos before starting your homeward journey.

How are out and back trails measured?

Like all trail types, out and back trails range in distance from very short to several miles. In general, out and back trails are appropriate for day hikes.

Since they are not geared towards multi-day or overnight hiking trips, you can almost always assume that out and back trails can be completed in less than one day.

However, a day hike is not the same for every hiker. The distance a hiker can cover in a single day depends on speed, stamina, terrain and the gear they are using.

There are other factors to consider as well. While some hikers want to make an entire day of the experience, others only want to hike for a handful of hours in the morning.

While some want to push their speed, others prefer to stroll along the trail, stop for photos and sit down for breaks.

While out and back trails are usually thought of as day hikes, it is important to understand the actual distance and compare that to your hiking style.

A tricky bit for many hikers is understanding how trails and hikes are measured. Often, your research will start online.

Websites devoted to hiking will provide a trail description, along with the distance. For out and back hikes, this distance will be for the entire round trip.

So, you will not need to calculate the final distance, since the number shown encompasses both the first leg and the return.

The other distance to pay attention to is information on the trail markers. This will likely be different than when your online research showed.

Trail markers focus on the length of the trail, rather than the total hike.

For an out and back trail, you will need to double the distance noted on a trail marker to find the total distance for your hike.

A word of caution

The beauty of out and back trails is in their simplicity. Since they are a round trip along the same trail, they can be easy to navigate.

However, do not confuse straightforward navigation with an easy hike. Out and back trails come in a wide variety of difficulty levels, from breezy strolls to rough terrain.

It is important to plan out your route, do your research and understand the trail conditions before heading out.

Out and back trails can be ideal for new hikers, as long as the trail condition is also a good match.

Out and back hikes can be fun and rewarding ways to get out in nature and stretch your legs.

With a new understanding of this popular trail type, which trail will you tackle first?

credit: Pexels

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