If you’re the type of person who enjoys instant gratification, reverse hikes – trails that descend then ascend – are for you. There are several advantages to this type of hiking trip. If you are starting at high altitude, it’s easier to acclimate when you are heading downhill than uphill. Mountaineering accidents often happen on the descent because hikers’ legs are more likely to be tired; on a reverse hike, the descent is done with fresh legs. You are also likely to have less weight from water and other consumables on the ascent compared to hikes in which you start climbing with a full pack. That said, reverse hikes present challenges that might not be obvious from the outset. Arguably the world’s most famous reverse hike – and one of the most dangerous, with 250 annual rescues – is the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, which descends nearly a vertical mile. Signs throughout the area warn, “Down is optional; up is mandatory.” San Diego’s popular (and infamous) Cedar Creek Falls requires hikers who visit the waterfall to pay up with a 1,200 foot ascent over exposed terrain that regularly sees three-digit temperatures. Dozens of hikers need to be airlifted from the trail annually according to this article.
Like conventional hikes, if one prepares and respects the risks involved, reverse hikes can be enjoyable and rewarding. Here are some suggestions on how to get the most from your reverse hike.
Do a comparable regular hike first
What does 1,000 feet, 2,000 feet or a mile of vertical elevation gain feel like? If you don’t know, you don’t want to get more than you bargained for. If you plan on climbing a mountain that requires 2,000 feet of elevation gain but are exhausted half way up you can turn around but not on a reverse hike. Therefore, if you’re new to reverse hiking, try a “dry run” on a conventional hike that has a comparable elevation gain. How do you know how many feet of elevation gain a hike has? Information about most well-known hikes is available online and in guide books, including elevation gain, distance, best season and more.
Allow an extra 50% of time for the ascent
This will vary from hike to hike and hiker to hiker, but adding half the time of the descent for the ascent is a good rule of thumb; an hour and a half for every hour you spend going down.
Leash your dogs
If you hike with dogs, odds are pretty good you will be required to keep them on a leash anyways, but on reverse hikes where leashes aren’t mandatory, be careful that Killer doesn’t exert too much energy running ahead on the descent; he’ll need it for the climb back up without knowing it.
Know the geography and conditions
Sometimes, the ascent on a reverse hike can work to your advantage. For example, if you are hiking east when heading downhill and west on the ascent, if you are starting later, the sun may already be setting by the time you have to climb up. As with information about elevation gain and distance, maps of hikes are usually available online or in print.
Know if you will have cell phone service
The trail to Cedar Creek Falls begins in a residential area where most cell phones will have reception, but at the bottom, deep in the Cleveland National Forest, it’s a different story. Canyon walls typically cut down on cellular reception. There’s no way to know for sure if you will have service but based on information you should have before embarking, such as remoteness of the hike, you can make an educated guess.
Whether you plan on hiking Cedar Creek Falls, Bright Angel or any of the other great reverse hikes out there, going the extra mile to prep can make the miles on the trail all that much safer and more enjoyable.