How to Choose the Right Hike | Visit Rainier

Choosing a Hike

The Recipe for a Happy Hike

My first hike was in 1980 after joining the Seattle branch of The Mountaineers. Having never hiked before I made virtually every mistake a novice can make. I signed up for a 12-mile hike to Dungeness Spit (no elevation gain) and didn’t sleep a wink the night before. I was nervous about that first hike, especially with an organization like The Mountaineers (I was afraid they’d all be mountain climbers).

My first mistake was over-dressing for the hike – that became obvious when I saw how other Mountaineers were dressed when we met for the hike. I not only carried an ancient Kelty frame backpack (borrowed) but also wore tights underneath wool pants, several layers on my upper body including a heavy wool shirt and a down vest, a wool balaclava and gloves. I looked like I had just stepped out of an outdoor clothing catalog for an adventure in Siberia.

As we hiked toward the lighthouse at Dungeness Spit I was shedding layers as quickly as a tree sheds leaves in a windstorm. It’s a good thing I had that big pack!

If you aren’t an experienced hiker you might wonder how difficult it is to hike at Mount Rainier. So just what is the difference between an easy hike and a strenuous hike? The Mountaineers came up with a useful tool for figuring out how difficult a hike might be. In their hike descriptions, the Mountaineers included a letter at the beginning of the description – E stood for Easy, M for moderate and S for strenuous – even a VS for Very Strenuous! The Mountaineers used to joke that VS also stood for Very Stupid!

Whether you hike alone or with companions you’ll need to go on a few hikes to figure out your pace (another element of the hikers’ recipe for a happy hike). Some hikers are faster than others; what is important is to find and hike a pace you can maintain. There will always be hikers faster than you and some who hike slower. And save energy for that return trip. Remember if you’re not on a loop trail, you’re only halfway there once you reach the trail’s destination.

Generally, it’s best to start off at a slower pace and increase pace slowly. Once on a backpack we had to bail out because the weather had deteriorated – I raced down the trail, pausing often to catch my breath and was surprised when I heard a gentle cough behind me. It was the slowest hiker in the group – a gal with asthma who knew how to pace herself! Remember the fable about the Tortoise and the Hare?

There are other factors to consider when it comes to gauging a hike – what kind of terrain is involved? If it’s a “nature trail” such as the Paradise Flower Trails most of those hikes fall into the Easy category (Easy by Mountaineer standards would be a hike up to 8 miles round trip with 1,200 feet of elevation gain, max). Some of the Paradise Flower Trails at Mount Rainier National Park are even easier.

Moderate hikes ran up to 12 miles round trip with 2,500 feet of gain, max. Strenuous hikes – up to 14 miles round trip with 2,500-3,500 feet of gain (akin to Mount Si in North Bend). A very strenuous hike would be over 14 miles round trip with more than 3,500 feet of elevation gain.

Take a look at the hike descriptions on and you will see that Emerald Ridge via the Tahoma Creek trail and Indian Bar are both “S” hikes. You will also notice that Grove of the Patriarchs is easy.

Another factor that may turn an easy hike into a moderate hike (or a moderate hike to a strenuous hike) is the kind of terrain you’ll be hiking. If the trail is relentlessly steep with short switchbacks that hike is more strenuous than having that same amount of elevation spread out over longer mileage (fewer switchbacks).

Weather and time of year is also a factor. In spring through early fall some hikers can get by with trail runners as opposed to leather boots with lug soles. However, if you have weak ankles you may need to wear heavier boots no matter what time of year you hike (that’s me, by the way).

It’s been said more than once the best exercise for hiking is to hike. Spend a little time reading up on a few different trail choices, dress appropriately, pack the ten essentials, check the weather reports and pace yourself on the trail. In not much time you will find your comfort level. Mt. Rainier offers a plethora of trails for all fitness levels and abilities, and hiking these trails might just be the best option for getting to know this magnificent mountain up close.

Written by Karen Sykes