A Guide to Hiking Skill Levels

What Level of Hiker Are You?

When determining what hike to undertake, it is common to see people focus on the grade of the hike rather than their skill level of that of their group. Most people start out on grade 1-2 hikes which are suited to people with limited experience in the bush. They then advance through to higher grade hikes (3-4-5) after they have a few hikes under their belt and confidence has grown. The problem can often be that people base their experience on ‘the number of hikes they have completed’ rather than the level of skills they have developed.

It is not uncommon to bump into groups of hikers, struggling with navigation or difficult terrain on a hike, graded at a level, they have not necessarily developed the skills for. There is nothing macho or impressive about overestimating your abilities. It’s a recipe for disaster and is the cause of too many ill-fated hiking trips.

Determining what level of hiker you are is an important tool when planning future hikes.  This hiking level guide will help you plan hikes according to different hike grades and your level of skills. What type of hiker are you – Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, or Expert?

Five Stages of Skill Acquisition

1. Novice

Definition: A novice is someone who has been doing an activity for only a short time and so is not experienced at it. 

The Novice stage, often called newbies, is where most of us start. It is the first level of hiking skill acquisition. You have just started hiking, usually with your mates, and have little familiarity with the skills or planning required. All you want to do is go for a walk in the bush with your buddies or a hiking group. A novice will often feel more comfortably following other more experienced hikers. A pace for a beginning hiker would be slow or easy paced. Elevation gains and distances are minimal. Surfaces are generally flat with minimal difficult terrain.

Skills:

  • Not many other skills than the ability to walk
  • Generally no knowledge of gear selection, packing and fitting
  • Basic first aid skills
  • Suited to grade 1-2 hikes

2. Advanced Beginner

Definition: Developed beyond an initial stage

You become an Advanced Beginner when you can start to think about basic planning, are able to troubleshoot minor problems and are more aware of your surroundings. You may only have very basic navigation skills, if any, and don’t have a lot of experience with different types of terrain or elevation gains. The defining characteristic of the Advanced Beginner is being aware of where you are going and where you have been, and recognising when your hike may not have gone to plan. As an advanced novice hiker you may generally walk at an easy pace and may have to take breaks more frequently as the distance or elevation of the hike increases.

Skills:

  • Basic hike planning skills
  • Basic knowledge of gear selection, packing and fitting
  • Basic first aid skills
  • Problem solving skills for minor issues
  • Awareness of your surroundings
  • Basic map and compass navigation skills (should be able to find north and determine direction of travel)
  • Some experience with varied terrain
  • Suited to grade 1-3 hikes

3. Competent

Definition: Having the required skills for an acceptable level of performance.

If you are a Competent hiker, you have the skills, abilities, or experience necessary to do it well. Your planning will be thorough and you will spend time planning before every hike. You will have more advanced map and compass skills which will allow you to comfortably navigate short sections of bush off-trail. Your decision making and problem solving skills will have improved and you will feel confident in the bush. As a Competent hiker, you will often accept the responsibility to lead hikes and will start taking responsibility for the hike plan. As a competent hiker you will have experience with varied weather conditions and be able to hike at a faster pace over longer inclines without feeling exhausted. You will feel comfortable planning overnight hikes.

Skills:

  • Competent hike preparation and planning skills
  • Advanced knowledge of gear selection, packing and fitting
  • Competent first aid skills
  • Competent map and compass navigation skills (ability to navigate short sections off-trail)
  • Ability to navigate by reading the terrain
  • Experience with varied terrain
  • More experience in the bush
  • Competent leadership skills
  • Experience with varied weather conditions
  • Accepts responsibility for decision making and problem solving
  • Competent bush survival skills
  • Suited to grade 1-4 hikes

4. Proficient

Definition: Having or showing exceptional knowledge, experience, or skill in a field of endeavor.

The defining characteristic of a Proficient hiker is an intuitive sense of what the plan should be given any situation. As a proficient hiker you will recognise intuitively but respond by more calculative unemotional decisions based on enough past experience. You will plan and prepare thoroughly, will understand all risks associated with a hike, and will have an emergency exit plan. Your map and compass navigation skills will have improved to the point where you can confidently navigate off-trail for long distances, although you may still enjoy returning to the trail for a point of reference. As a proficient hikers, you will have experience on varied terrain and will feel comfortable with challenging rock scrambles, boulder hopping, river crossing and hiking in snow. You will feel comfortable planning overnight and multi-day hikes.

Skills:

  • Thorough hike preparation and planning skills
  • Proficient knowledge of gear selection, packing and fitting
  • Proficient first aid skills
  • Proficient map and compass navigation skills (ability to navigate long sections off-trail)
  • Ability to navigate by reading the terrain
  • Experience with most terrain
  • Proficient leadership skills
  • Experience in the bush on day and multi-day hikes
  • Experience in all weather conditions
  • Able to take full responsibility for decision making and problem solving
  • Proficient bush survival skills
  • Suited to grade 1-5 hikes

5. Expert

Definition: A person with a high level of knowledge or skill in a field

As an Expert hiker, you will operate entirely by intuition. Your actions in the bush will be unconscious and you will function or respond as a result of a ‘mature and practiced understanding’ of all hiking skills. You are a proficient hike leader and are known as an expert in this field. You can provide guidance, troubleshoot and answer questions related to all related areas of expertise. Your focus will be strategic and your planning and preparation thorough. You will be extremely confident hiking for multiple days, and navigating completely off-trail for the duration of the hike. You will posses experience on all types of terrain, in all weather conditions and will have advanced knowledge that can be applied to any survival situation.

Skills:

  • Mature and practiced understanding of all hiking skills
  • Expert hike preparation and planning skills
  • Proficient first aid skills
  • Expert knowledge of gear selection, packing and fitting
  • Expert map and compass navigation skills (ability to navigate long sections off-trail)
  • Ability to navigate by reading the terrain
  • Experience with all terrain
  • Expert leadership skills
  • Experience in the bush on day and multi-day hikes
  • Experience in all weather conditions
  • Able to take full responsibility for decision making and problem solving
  • Operate entirely by intuition
  • Advanced bush survival skills
  • Some knowledge of search and rescue techniques
  • Suited to grade 1-5 hikes

What Level of Hiker Are You?

So what level of hiker are you? Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, or Expert?

I’ve have years of experience in the bush but certainly don’t rate myself an expert as there always seems to be something to learn and improve upon. I am pretty confident I would fit into the Proficient Hiker level and hopefully with a few more years of experience I will have the knowledge and confidence to call myself an expert.

Knowing what hiking level you are at is important for planning your hikes. First check out the hike grade, read descriptions from this site or other sites, then use your own experience as a guide for determining the true level of hike difficulty you or your group should tackle. As I’ve said to a few people, I don’t care what level you think you are at as it has no impact on me. You are only cheating yourself and potentially putting own your life at risk by overestimating your abilities. Be honest with your self-assessment and be safe on the trail.

Hope this info helps

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