Hiking trail grading system

The walking track grading system in Australia

In March 2011 the Council of Bushwalking Australia endorsed the Australian Walking Track Grading System (AWTGS), a voluntary walking track standard. The Australian Walking Track Grading System is a nationally consistent system to grade the level of difficulty of the track walking experience and then to clearly communicate that information to walkers.

Under the system, the walking experience is graded on a difficulty scale from one to five.

trail grading system

Grade 1

Suitable for people with a disability or wheelchair with assistance. No hiking experience required as trails have a flat even surface with no steps or steep sections. Hikes generally less than 5km.

trail grading system

Grade 2

Suitable for families with young children. No hiking experience required as trails have a harder compacted surface. Expect gentle hills and occasional steps. Hikes generally less than 10km.

trail grading system

Grade 3

Suitable for most ages and fitness levels. Hiking experience is recommended as trails may have short steep hill sections, rough surfaces and natural steps. Hikes generally less than 20km.

trail grading system

Grade 4

Suitable for experienced hikers as navigation and technical skills will be required. Trails will be long, rough and very steep with limited signage or navigation aids. Rock scrambling and river crossings may be required. Hikes generally less than 25km.

trail grading system

Grade 5

Suitable for highly experienced self-reliant hikers with specialised skills, including map and compass navigation and emergency first aid. Trails will be unmarked, long, very rough and very steep. Rock scrambling and river crossings may be required. Hikes generally greater than 25km.

Is the AWTGS adequate?

Through many years hiking and exploring in the Australian bush, I believe the AWTGS does not adequately prepare hikers and may often mislead people into undertaking a hike they are not prepared for. In some cases the public description misrepresents the experience and expertise required.

For example, the AWTGS description indicates that ‘bushwalking experience is recommended’ for a ‘Grade Four Walk’. I would argue that bushwalking experience is essential for a hike of this grade. There is no mention of the navigation or technical skills required in this description, even though the system mentions ‘directional signage may be limited’. This is confusing and ambiguous as the technical information for land managers, when grading the hike, is a lot more specific in terms of the hikes requirements and the skill level of the intended hiker. To understate the challenges and expertise to the public, potentially puts people in danger as it allows many to believe they can undertake hikes they may not be ready for.

It is my view that the grading system is somewhat speculative as it can be based on a number of conditions and factors such as terrain, topography, altitude. There are no hard and fast rules as to why a trail receives any given grade and some conditions may vary. For example, a hike that is 25km in length and quite easy to complete might be personally rated by walkers as Grade Three. The AWTGS however would classify this as Grade Four trail, primarily due to the hike length. I have heard stories of many adventure seekers taking on Grade 4 trails in easy environments then thinking they now had the necessary skills to take on a Grade 4 alpine adventure. You will find the grading, like the suggested time to complete a hike, will also vary based on your personal fitness and experience. It is important to note that in some regions, such as the Alps, season and climate can also have an impact on the trail grade. What may be a Grade Four hike in Spring will easily be a Grade Five hike in winter when the trails are covered with snow and conditions and navigation are a lot more challenging.

So take the number for what is is worth, and weight up all the contributing factors before heading out onto the trail. Use the number as a starting point, then seek advice from others, online resources and books to allow yourself to make an informed decision. 

How have I graded trails on this website?

I’ve considered the AWTGS for all hikes on this site after manually assessing each track using the AWTGS Users Guide, official technical grading spreadsheets, my own logic, and experience. This way I am confident I can better assist people who are not regular or confident bushwalkers to experience walking by providing helpful information about walking trails. This allows you to gauge your suitability for a particular hike. If you are just starting out, start with grade 1-2 hikes and slowly build up from there.

Disclaimer: As mentioned above, all hikes on this site have been graded using a series of technical questions and observations before applying what I believe to be suitable grades. These may not necessarily match the official grade applied by land managers. I have used my own skills and experience in order to determine the most suitable grading. As with all hikes, read the description, assess your own ability and research the most suitable trail for you and your party. It is important to note that in some regions, such as the Alps, weather can have an impact on the trail grade. What may be a Grade Four hike in Spring will easily be a Grade Five hike in winter when the trails are covered with snow.

If you disagree with a grade on my site, please get in touch to discuss this rather than call me out on socials: ‘This isn’t a grade 4! I can do it easily so its more like a grade 2‘. Please take the time to apply some form of logic before reaching out to dispute what is really only a guideline.

Using the Australian Walking Track Grading System

The application of the Australian Walking Track Grading System is a two step process.

  1. The first step is a technical grading of the walk. The land manager determines a walk’s grade of difficulty using descriptors taken from the Australian Standard 2156.1 – 2001 Walking Tracks – Classification and Signage.
  2. The second step is to communicate to the public why a walk has received its grading – in essence translating the technical grading into ‘plain English language’.
  3. Check out the the AWTGS Users Guide if you want to learn more.

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