Should we strive for a global or regional consensus for things like trail visibility & difficulty (sac etc), and possible pathless paths?

Ok, so by “isn’t really a thing” you just mean it’s a rare, niche activity that most people don’t do. This is very true, but it is true everywhere in the world. Most of the world isn’t made up of high mountains, and most of Europe isn’t either. However, mountaineering destinations exist all over the world, including the western contiguous United States. The claim that mountaineering is euro-centric don’t hold water.


Just to chuck in an example, there’s a fair bit of sac_scale usage between Kyburz and South Lake Tahoe. For comparison the PCT route is here. It’s not the Himalayas around here, but there absolutely are places where a bit of guidance about “what sort of path this is” would be useful.

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Essentially. I have no problem with saying mountaineering occurs in the United States. I use to have a couple of friends who hiked the area of South Lake Tahoe that @SomeoneElse brought up and southern Oregon who I’d probably consider mountaineers because they did a lot of their hiking in the higher elevations during the winter, which I’ve done a lot of in the same myself to.

The question isn’t really are there mountaineers in any given place. The question is are they enough of a demographic to justify creating a whole tagging scheme around and in a way that puts out “normal” hikers. I’d say no. If you want an example of that look at the options for sac scale. 3 out of six of them are only usable alpine hikers and are mainly used in Europe and the west coast of the United States. Most conversations on here related to hiking essentially revolve around them to. Yet at the end of the day they make up what, like 2% of hikers in the world?

You can say the claim that mountaineering is euro-centric doesn’t hold water all you want, but every time these conversations come up it’s mainly Europeans trying to dictate the conversation, posting the most messages, talking about European mountains, and most of the usage of sac_scale is in Europe. I could literally care less if there happens to be a small contingency of Saudi Arabians who like to take summer hikes in the Andes. They aren’t part of the discussions, they don’t do the tagging, they had nothing to do with defining how sac_scale or trail_visiblity are used, no one asks what their opinions are about it, add nauseum. It’s always Europeans doing those things. With a small contingency of people from the United States, who mostly just tow the line or get edge out of the discussion if they don’t like I mostly have been, but that doesn’t change the nature of the thing. The whole discourse around the scramble proposal was a good example of that BTW. 99% of it was discussion between Europeans about high altitude alpine hiking that no one outside of that little niche cares about and when anyone tried to discuss more ground level, “normal” examples they were mostly ignored and edged out of the conversation.

Agreed. There are far more trails for hiking, walking, strolling, rambling etc in the world than there are for mountaineering. An ideal difficulty or visibility scale would cover the lower end of trails that most people typically use much better than current tagging options do.

Yes, most OSM tagging conversations are dominated by Europeans. Evidence that OSM is euro-centric. Doesn’t mean mountaineering is though.


I’m totally in agreement with the first part of what you said. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one though :wink:

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Much as I do like consistency, and I do think we should strive for it, perfect global consistency is likely not possible and we should accept some level of regional and cultural variance. Personally, I find the trail_visibility and sac_scale tags too subjective and detailed to be very useful. I rarely end up using them. I’d rather use a coarser classification system. Something like how the US Forest Service classifies trails from 1 through 5 based on how developed or not they are.

  • Class 1: Minimally developed
  • Class 2: Moderately developed
  • Class 3: Developed
  • Class 4: Highly developed
  • Class 5: Fully developed

That would make sense to me. While there’s somewhat limited utility in a vaguely defined easy/moderate/difficult, they generally come from the agencies that manage the trails/land. At the very least they show relative differences in difficulty from local experts, aimed at being useful for the general public of varying levels of skill.

Many local agencies will also have a few sentences to a paragraph describing a trail, this could go into description=*

I don’t think that solves the issue, but it’s useful information to have included at the very least.

I’m not sure how many meaningful low end values there would be in a city setting, and extreme mountaineering is getting into technical climbing which is its own thing. I think focusing on something between “walking on an easy gravel path with railings alongside it” to “scrambling up some poorly marked terrain with some simple climbing” is a more manageable range.

I know a lot of American mountaineers that would disagree with that statement lol. There’s the Sierra Nevada, North Cascades, Trinity Alps, multiple ranges adjacent to the Rockies, etc. If you consider mountaineering to only be ice climbing then it’s more limited, but it still occurs in the US. It definitely shouldn’t be the major/sole focus of the system, but non aid terrain should be included in it IMO.

The Austrian system is literally just 4 values (blue, red, black, other), and there’s been numerous alternatives put forth that have 3-4 values. A lot of US localized places just have easy/moderate/difficult for trails as mentioned further down, and YDS is used to describe scrambles in the US although that’s sort of in the “mountaineering-lite” community.

My example in the opening post had “path” “demanding-path” and “scramble” - not that I think those are fully baked or the way to go, but they’re wide buckets that could be understandable and mapped to existing localized rating systems.

Keep in mind that paths aren’t just formalized trails (though even those will hit some T4 sometimes - Canyonlands has short stretches of T4 on their trails, Acadia NP & Zion have Via Ferrata, etc). Social or informal terrain is much more likely to include stretches of YDS 3 / T4. I can say for a fact that T4+ terrain exists outside of Europe & the US having backpacked in Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand, and done some dayhikes in Asia.

This system has to cover social trails, informal trails, etc as well as maintained ones.

Well, yeah, sac_scale was created for trails in the Swiss Alps. Something doesn’t need to be rated with the sac_scale to be mountaineering. In general OSM is euro-centric, that’s just where most of the power users are, mountaineers or not.

I don’t think anyone here thinks that sac_scale is the solution. :slight_smile:

I came in late to that scramble topic, but included “actual trail” examples in the US and I got a positive response. IMO it’s not surprising that a discussion about, well, scrambling, was mostly engaged with people that scramble and scrambling.

Europeans don’t always agree with me, that’s fine (and part of what prompted this topic), but I’ve been able to interact with them without having to either toe the line or be edged aside.

I remember some people talking about incorporating those NFS trail maintenance ratings in slack, and that seems useful (if difficult for edge cases where a trail criss crosses state lines with different levels - maybe have an operator:trail_maintenance=* or something?).

I think 3-4 buckets of visibility make more sense than 6, and there’s been some good suggestions to start that ball rolling (including an American). I do think some kind of explicit visibility is useful, as formal maintenance doesn’t always equate to visibility - higher trafficked trails can be more visible than other ones of the same class, some abandoned or informal trails with no class can be good or even excellent, etc.

I would go for a similar compression of buckets for difficulty, I personally don’t care about the distinction between T1 and T2, but a decent amount of people on AllTrails etc will complain about T2 trails. Many are older and have some mobility issues. T3 is straightforward and maps to YDS 2 for me (which occurs on a decent amount of less developed or abandoned trails in the Sierra Nevada), I get a bit lost in the fine distinctions between T4 to T6 and I think that can easily get collapsed into a “scramble” type tag. YDS 4 is beginning to hit “climbing” vs “scrambling” which seems like a good hard cut off point to me.

Needles for example has a lot of trails that range from T1-T4 terrain that would get lost from just a pure development classification. Acadia is a weird place in that it seems like 80%+ of their trails are either NFS Class 1 (scrambles with blue dots and cairns) or NFS Class 5 (wide gravel carriage roads).

If Alaska doesn’t count, then how about California, Washington, Utah, or Colorado? Sure, there’s nowhere in the United States that has the same reputation as the Swiss Alps, but that’s not the same as “mountaineering isn’t really a thing”.

I know of some myself as I said in another message and have hiked a lot of those areas with them. A few would probably call them mountaineers, but more in a romantic rustic individualist outdoorsy way then as anything to indicate they are connected to the sport of mountaineering. Anyway there’s some individuals who do mountaineering in the United States. But it’s not a developed sport by any means.

I see it as the difference between someone who chops wood in their backyard versus a lumber jack. They are obviously different. Even though the former might jokingly refer to themselves as the later when a cute girl is walking by or whatever. I’ve never seen anyone in the United States seriously refer to themselves as a mountaineer though. Not to say no one does, but again, if you say there’s “mountaineering” in the United States it insinuates certain things that just don’t here because the sport isn’t developed enough and we don’t really have the mountains or climate for it to be anyway.

Like I almost hesitate to even use the North Cascades in the same sentence as the word mountaineering because the only time it’s even close is maybe two months out of the year during the winter. Otherwise your just taking a nice stroll through a field of flowers that happens to be on the side of a mountain range. That’s not really mountaineering though. A couple of 5 year old twins summited Mount Shasta a few years ago and a 7 year old girl did it a year before that. So is that really mountaineering? I’d say no. I probably have a more narrowed definition of the term then some other people though since I mainly confine to the sport of alpinism and not just a literal preschooler walking up a semi steep hill that happens to be on the side of a mountain. Otherwise what’s the point in even discussing it or factoring it into anything in the first place?

Anyway, I’m going to leave it there for now. I don’t neccesarily disagree with most of the rest of what you said. I just think it would benefit from some fleshing out and smoothing of the corners, but that will happen eventually either way :+1:

The Cascade volcanoes are not a good point of comparison – they might be tall, but I don’t think any of them is harder than a YDS 2. If you want something Alp-like, you need to look at the erosional peaks such as Little Tahoma.

I don’t disagree but Eurtan brought up the North Cascades and that’s what came to mind. Although admittedly it’s more on the southern end of the Cascades. But a 4-year-old boy did summit Mount Rainier in 1999. So :man_shrugging:

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It does bring up a good point about global difficulty ratings, though: the Yosemite Decimal System and the SAC scale have very different handling of glaciers and snowfields. The Disappointment Cleaver route up Mount Rainier is only a YDS 2, which would normally translate to a SAC T3, but it’s got extended glacier travel, which bumps it up to a SAC T5 at a minimum.

I guess the people who live in Washington and wrote this book don’t really understand what mountaineering is :smile: /s

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I mean, there’s lots of ways to get easy dunks on other people’s comments if that’s what your into and don’t have an actual point to make. Just ask @SomeoneElse :man_shrugging: Way to own me though. Your so right that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about because someone from Washington wrote a book with the word “mountaineering” in it :roll_eyes:

I remember you in the opposing camp praising sac_scale to be such a highly developed tag - quite the opposite of what your posts sound here. There were others from the US too. Somebody actually told me to hire a guide, if the terrain was to steep for me. That is why your posts here, that in my view make some sense, will not get any likes from me, e.g. because:

The SAC scale (mind the caps) is a hiking scale, the SAC also has a mountaineering scale. They overlap, if a route is mountaineering for one person in the party, the hiking scale must not be applied. It is only on OSM, that sac_scale is used for what is a mountaineering routes for most, not matter the abilities of participants.

When did I ever do that? I’m pretty sure the only discussion I was ever involved in about anything even slightly related to this was when you and me got in a minor spat about your scramble proposal. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything to do with sac_scale though. I don’t know why I would have. If you have a link to where I praised it though I’d be interested to read my comments. Not like someone opinion can’t change, but I don’t think that was ever my opinion.

I don’t disagree with that. Of course they aren’t orthogonal, but they do complement and compete with each other to some degree and it’s mostly the same crowd involved in both. As a side to that, I’ve found your comments in the various discussions to be interesting and I think you make some good points. Same goes for Erutan. There could probably be a really good tagging scheme for trails based on both your ideas if you put the time and effort into it.

Great resource! Covers all of SAC hiking and mountain hiking, very likely even touching a bit into demanding mountain hiking (The class 1 intermittent trail picture or the class 1 “bridge”.)


Yes, I brought up North Cascades specifically, not the Cascade range as a whole. Mount Rainier is not in North Cascades, and Shasta (obviously) isn’t even in Washington state.

North Cascades National Park is renowned for its varied and rugged climbing terrain. Here you will find climbing routes of high quality and aesthetic appeal, guarded by remote, rugged access and weather volatility, resulting in mountaineering experiences of mental and physical challenge, solitude, and fulfillment.

The numerous peaks and over 300 glaciers present a variety of challenges and rewards: classic mixed mountaineering routes, intricate glacier travel, technical rock climbing and scrambling, all within a premier wilderness setting. Approach routes are often arduous, requiring strenuous crosscountry travel, sometimes for days or through thick slide alder, rocky avalanche shoots and scree slopes, icy creeks or rivers, steep snow, or traversing slopes in steep, slippery terrain.

Pot, meet kettle. :man_shrugging:

Getting back on topic.

If I remember my conversation with the former trails manager of SEKI properly, Class 1-3 are allowed in designated wilderness areas and Class 4/5 are reserved for frontcountry trails. The new Soda Springs trail in Tuolumne Meadows is in violation of that general rule, but it’s so overused I assume they got some waiver for that due to overuse impacts. I don’t recall these ratings aren’t generally conveyed to the public - SEKI has an interactive web map that lists these details, but I don’t think they’re listed on park guides etc, which seems like a bit of waste as they could be described in terms of “experience/challenge” in a way that would be digestible.

That document does a great job of showing multiple examples of terrain and explaining things in detail, and I’d say that it’s more useful than the current solutions of trail_visibility and sac_scale. I do feel like we’ll need more than 1-2 photo examples of different levels no matter what system is decided upon, as there are just a lot of different ways that terrain within a value can exist. It’s probably a little verbose/long, but is a good case where having more text makes things clearer vs trying to fit everything into a short sentence.

That said, I am wary of combining visibility and obstacles / difficulty into a single rating - for formal trails it makes sense because an agency can control all aspects of a trail to create a certain experience (given sufficient funding).

There’s a significant amount of trails on OSM that aren’t formal. operator=none would clearly indicate that the system is being used for non managed trails, but then you can’t guarantee that something with the visibility of Class 3 won’t have occasional Class 1 obstacles.

Also having written up guides for a number of off-trail alpine passes that generally range from YDS 2-3 / SAC T2-4 terrain and answered questions on them, I can say there are a lot of people that are comfortable with obstacles that require use of hands for balance, but not simple climbing (even if it is unexposed). I don’t think it’s appropriate to get into 3+ levels of “climbing” on base difficulty but I think something like the following levels should exist (wording is placeholder), maybe not as highway types but as path:difficulty=* or something.

Four basic levels of difficulty that’d make sense to me if we go for an overall rating that then maps to regional ones (I had started on this idea in the link above). Very rough draft here, but it seems like these would cover major break points in terms of experience, comfort, and technique.

  • 1 - path / simple-path NFS 4-5, SAC T1, YDS 1. some lower (there are plenty of low to moderate visibility trails over easy smooth terrain). anyone in moderately good health that is able should be able to traverse the terrain.
  • 1.5 - uneven path NFS 3?, SAC T2, YDS 2 the above, with obstacles below knee height (some rocks in the trail, roots, etc) that can cause issues for people with mobility or balance issues. this could be a subset of the above, and that would make sense to me - these trails often exist alongside them and aren’t really marked any differently. if we want to get fancy, having a smoothness key that isn’t solely for vehicles would allow for the distinction between T1-T2 / rough YDS 1 while still keeping it to the same parent category.
  • 2 - demading-path NFS 1-2, SAC T3, YDS 2. where hands have to be used for balance, maybe an occasional mantle or drop but no real “climbing” required. trails with ladders or other simple aids would fall into this category. requires more body strength and while trivial for most people, can be impassible to certain groups of people and inexperienced hikers may find it uncomfortable. many trails in Needles & Acada fall into this category for formal NPS stuff.
  • 3 - scrambling NFS 1 / informal, SAC T4+, YDS 3. you have to use your hands to climb up / go over obstacles, but the terrain isn’t difficult/technical enough for the majority of people to want to be roped or use any aid gear. while the majority of people are probably capable of this, many unexperienced people will be uncomfortable doing it and some previous experience is highly recommended.

Anything above scrambling can be put into climbing. If we do go the highway route (which will have a lot of pushback) it’d be simple to then break down scrambling into more granular detail (ala SAC, British scrambling system, etc) without cluttering the overall 4 tiers of rated terrain.

Some AllTrails comments for what I’d consider NFS 3 / T2 terrain on a 2.5 mile loop with less than 300 feet of low grade elevation gain change:

Little Cranberry Lake Inner Loop, Washington - 288 Reviews, Map | AllTrails “This trail is NOT easy. There are many tree roots and sharp rocks on the trail with barely any sections that are even and easy. Wear good boots and if you’re a beginner (like me)… do NOT go alone. The scenery IS beautiful…”

Little Cranberry Lake and Trail 100 Loop, Washington - 394 Reviews, Map | AllTrails “Not an easy hike, probably moderate. Trails nearest lake are rocky. Trail through forest easier. Beautiful hike.” and “Rated as an easy hike. I would say it’s near moderate due to roots and rocky terrain. Experienced hikers will breeze through it, but novice hikers beware of your footing. You may take an involuntary bath in Cranberry Lake.”

This shows a clear “casual hiker” appetite for some way of showing that while a hike is “easy” from say a physical fitness / endurance standpoint (ala the much earlier Sierra Club system) that isn’t how people solely view difficulty.

The NFS trail development classification for C3 “Obstacles may be common, but not substantial or intended to provide challenge” would probably map to 1.5 / uneven ground, but there are also plenty of Class 1-3 trails that happen to pass through terrain without natural obstacles, regardless of development. Class 1-2 obstacle wording would probably put it into 2 demanding / 3 scrambling territory, but there’s no way of knowing which, and many examples show obstacle less terrain that is just undeveloped or infrequently maintained.

I honestly had never thought too much about the the T1/T2 level distinction until recently, but it has some significant merit.

It isn’t that unusual for NFS/NPS trails sometimes enter T3 terrain, and while they tend not to have “full” T4 terrain there can be mantles & drops that are more than just “using your hands for balance” T3, or fatal exposure on simpler terrain. Regionally in the US there are a number of trails that are legitimate T4+ from government land managers - someone on the east coast (hardly alpine terrain lol) was sharing some examples of them in the slack trails working group a while back.

I find “mountain hiking” terrain in the desert pretty regularly, and while I (typo edit) don’t agree that the word alpine can’t be used because it only exists in the alps I don’t think that values should have a specific biome associated with them.

I think the tread & traffic flow from the NFS Trail Matrix is very useful, and the trail construction could be cribbed as well. If we do end up deprecating the current trail_visibility having something where NFS 4-5 is excellent (which is along the lines of what @Hungerburg has been advocating for elsewhere) would make sense. Good would be NFS 3, then from there have 2 more levels, loosely based around NFS 1 & 2. I do like how @Adam_Franco included the obviousness of gaps or crossings in the trail in relation to tread & traffic flow.

I think having only NFS 1 trails be non-continuous isn’t quite intuitive, I assume that makes allowances for minor gaps that are marked/signed, ala “some portion of the trail or marker is always visible” for 2 and probably 3.

The signage breakdown is interesting to me, and it’s interesting to see the breakdown between trails that have informational signage and which don’t which maps to what I’ve observed and thought about (someone was complaining on a trail that there weren’t signs pointing out peaks, I replied that they wouldn’t feel appropriate for that trail but didn’t have a formal system to think about). That would be extremely US specific, and of that federally maintained trails.

The current system is something like excellent = NFS 3-5, good = NFS 2, intermediate, bad, horrible, and no are all NFS 1. That feels really lopsided.

I feel like a universal “difficulty” that maps to localized systems might be a better goal than trying to do so for trails. People move over terrain in the way people move over terrain - what types of constructed paths exist and how people perceive them seems much more of a subjective experience, so perhaps I’d just be talking about a us_trail_vis here.